Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Bishop Kenneth Cragg on Christian Zionism

There is admirable depth and careful perspective in Stephen Sizer’s comprehensive survey of the political, exegetical and moral implications of Christian Zionism. If the apocalyptic ones, darkly suggested by the cover design, remain the hidden future, the logic for them is well clarified. Basic terms are clearly defined and the 18th-century origins of ‘premillennial Restorationism’ in Britain, taken as further in the 19th by speculative dispensationlism, caught up as these were in their idiosyncratic perceptions of the nature of mission and the place of Jewry in its sights. This shape of biblical handling coincided with broader evangelical sympathies in the political realm, symbolised by the eminent Lord Shaftsbury. The tangled negotiations behind the issue of the Balfour Declaration, in the form of a letter to Lord Rothschild, a prominent British Jew, late in 1917, are assessed against this background.

The analysis then shifts to the emergence of Christian Zionism in the USA and the confluence of sundry factors as to ‘restoration’, covenantal faith and—Arno Gaebelein—an inverted suspicion of ‘anti-Semitism’ in the strictures he had for ‘secular Jews’ whose reprehensible behaviour queried his predilection for ‘worthy Zionist’ Jews.

If the British factors, all the way from Irving and Darby to Shaftsbury and Spurgeon, facilitated the Balfour Declaration in its Zionist intent, the American narrative paved the way for still more defining consequence in the Partition Vote of thirty years later (1917-1947). The Biblicists are all diligently reviewed with references textual, and graphs, before Sizer moves to examine the organisational activity by which, in and away from Israel, objectives were pursued. Those hundred or so pages are followed by another equally meticulous hundred on the theologies at stake, in respect of futurism, covenant, chosen-ness and its bearing on non-Jewish relation, and the concept of ‘return’. How these concepts were translated on the ground in Eretz Israel leads to the vexed issues of borders, of the status of Jerusalem, the Temple and anticipations of the future as the bias in eschatology might discern of distort it. It remains for the author to assess the current political situation, the elusiveness of peace and the immediate crisis to which the long narrative has led. Readers who can match the author’s capacity for incisive documentation and his rigorous way with complexity are rewarded with a masterly presentation with which to wrestle.

Doing so suggests to any reviewer two responsive reflections which belong together. The one is the tragic misnomer that talks of ‘Christian Zionism’. The other is the triple irony that hangs over it—over its story and its cast of mind. Doubtless the term is now so far current that there is no avoiding it. Yet it remains a contradiction in terms and so obscures how ‘a Christian Zionism’ could be of a very different order. Review might well conclude in pondering what it might be—and why.Meanwhile, anticipating that, there is the triple irony in the conventional sense of ‘Christian Zionism’. It has better be thought ‘the Zionism of some Christians’, or ‘Christians and Zionist—issues between’, or, with that ever elusive conjunction: ‘Christians and Zionism’. The three ironies will show why the phrasing matters. They are inter-related as (1) the primacy of ‘God in Christ’ in Biblical exegesis, (2) the integrity at stake, and (3) neglect of the supreme moralism of the great Hebrew prophets.

The duties of Biblical exegesis are taxing and easy literalism eludes them. It fails to set all under the priority of ‘the Word made flesh’ and the ‘redemptive work of Christ’ in its inclusive meaning in ‘whosoever will may come’, and its ‘authority’ to make all ‘the children of God’ on the sole, sufficient ground of faith. This does not cancel the historical precedence of ‘the chosen people’, or mean ‘supersession’, inasmuch as their inclusion perpetuates their standing inside the New Testament denominator of ‘whosoever will’ and the consequent vocation of all human ethnic and cultural identities to learn themselves ‘chosen’ instruments of the divine employ, of which original Israel had been a ‘pilot scheme’, a world exemplar in its given destiny—a destiny splendidly realised in the universalling of that ‘people-of-God’-calling accessible, by personal faith, to the acceptance of all and sundry. Hence that ringing Ephesians word of ‘… no more Gentiles’, and the insistent tautology of ‘all peoples, tongues, kindred and nations’ in the mind of John of Patmos.

This New Testament event, the mutual emergence of ‘things historical believed’ and the Church ensuing from believing them, deserves to control and discipline all Biblical exegesis lest its priority be forfeit. The ‘two covenant theory’, often adopted by ‘Christian Zionists, does violence to the entire New Testament, ignores the initiatives of a wholly Jewish apostolate in opening ‘a door of faith to Gentiles’, and implies, or insists, that the Christian Church is where Jews are neither expected nor wanted—a most heinous form of anti-Semitism, as if to argue a faith-world without Jews. Inter-testamental relations now plead to be on far more solid theology than this facile one which ‘heals all hurts slightly’ and does justice to neither faith.

There was a healthy reproof in the teaching of Jesus himself for over-much subtlety about ‘times and seasons’. It is well to have them stay in the keeping of the Lord we can trust on the ‘event-told’ trustworthiness of ‘God in Christ’. ‘Why stand ye gazing?’ is a call we need to heed when trapped in over-much ‘intuiting’.

Meanwhile vast moral issues wait for us here and now. One is our own integrity. There has often been a wry humour for the Menahem Begins of the Golda Meirs who have welcomed American ‘Christian Zionists’ to the Holy Land, accepted their ample dollars and taken them to visit the shrine of Yad-va-Shem. The wry-ness belongs with the vision, via help to Zion, of a duly mass entry of Jews into Christian faith. The one ‘ingathering’ will be prelude to the other. Was it well—the mixed motive apart—to read Paul’s yearning for his people in quite those literal terms, terms that override his own constant insistence that the faith ‘saved’ was the faith of the private heart? Was it not truly ‘evangelical’ both to love and give disinterestedly and to have ‘the kingdom of heaven’ increase by gentle persuasion of its invitation, all other motives out? But that integrity issue deepens far in the third irony we noted, namely the way in which ‘Christian Zionism’ ignores the ethicism of an Amos, a Hosea, an Isaiah or a Micah. It has been well said that these are the surest, deepest mentors of Eretz Israel today, its most rigorous monitors of its destiny. What of steady settlement creation, at great Palestinian cost, in the light of Isaiah’s cry: ‘Woe to them that join house to house and field to field, until there is no room, that they may dwell alone in the midst of the earth’ (5.8)? How would Micah’s ‘do justly …’ square with bulldozed dwellings and uprooted olive groves and demolished houses under the exigencies of military sequestration or illegal confiscation?

Or how might Jeremiah’s famous sermon at the Temple gate (7.1-7) rings in the ears of would-be invasive Israeli elements bent on enflaming highly inflammable emotions of religious enmity (here grimly analysed by Stephen Sizer, pp. 234-39)? Or could these bitter ‘lamentations’ attributed to Jeremiah not somehow echo in the souls of Palestinians, grieving at the forfeiture of their patrimony in the slow, sometimes cunning, always sinister, process of Israeli self-creation? To be sure, there was the compassionate reminder (Exodus 23.9) about ‘loving the stranger’ in recollection of the like Jewish experience in the land of Egypt. But what when ‘the stranger’ had been made such, where they believed that they authentically belonged, where they had never been fugitive guests as Israel had been, thanks to the Pharaonic reception of a Jewish Joseph? One nationalism, the Zionist, had contrived to threaten another, the Palestinian, and could even hint that the other had only discovered itself thanks to the Israeli presence, as though it were a pseudo thing. That implied negation of another’s legitimacy came to be symbolised in the construction of ‘the wall’, ironically truncating a single land allegedly loved above all by those who built it. Could it be that Zionism could assert itself and make itself good territorially only at the price if the effective de-legitimising of another people no less married to the same territory and with no less lengthy emotional tenancy and a more continuous practical one?

It is not difficult on moral ground to realise how a Hosea or an Isaiah would now passionately interrogate and accuse the patterns of Israeli story since Balfour. ‘On moral grounds’ we must say. For the contexts do not correspond. Those great accusatory figures addressed the courts of political power but never occupied the thrones. They were within the Judaic power equation (hence their moral relevance now) but that power focus was itself under Assyrian or Chaldean threat—the threat from which some Amos drew his judgement as to guilt. How would he or his kindred spirit address the ruling, power-girt Jewish reality now?

At least Hosea leaves us in doubt. Things ethical are prior to things political, whatever the fashion of the latter. In Hosea 1.9 he is bold to cancel—by direct quotation the first ‘God peopling’ mandate in Exodus 3.14. ‘I am not the “I am” you think I am’ and (in those terms) ‘you are not my people.’ Surely in his anguish of heart he is using the utmost negation only in order to tell the supreme condition of its ever being positive.

‘Chosen’ status is not a perquisite but a vocation, not a prize but a privilege. It is here surely that any ministry of a truly ‘Christian Zionism’ to Zion in Israel should find its ministry of heart and hand. Only so would it be in obedience to the perspective of the New Testament and the divine intent of grace that, thanks to the first mentor in the ‘the Old’, all peoples should have individual access to ‘the people of God’ and then aspire to read their own nationhood as servant as newly and essentially also ‘His people’.

That perception has one final pointer to reflection which readers of Sizer’s excellent study may ponder with his help. It has to do with any Christian relation to the current crisis in the meaning of Judaism itself, as between a ‘secular’ diaspora and a re-asserted Zion. All religion today is caught in something of the same issue—as Islam certainly is. ‘How—and who—is the Jew?’ Initially Zionism was always a minority answer. During its course it has oddly—at times—used anti-Semitic rhetoric, castigating what it saw as supine, anonymous Jews, languishing among incorrigibly hostile ‘Gentiles’. But were not these, or some of them, nobly striving to be ‘enlanded’ anywhere, finding a morally Jewish destiny in working out in moral contribution their happy compatibility with the tensions and the challenge of a shared, if ever bewildering, modernity? Marc Chagall was glad to salute the generous welcome he had found in the USA and to make his abiding in his beloved Saint-Paul-de-Vence (France) while ever cherishing the memory of his Vitebsk (Russia). Such will to be diligently cosmopolitan in today’s exacting world-scene has better Jewish realism than David Ben Gurion’s notion that all Jewry should repair to Israel, or that—by the sixties—we should be talking of ‘post-Zionism’, all things being now de facto done. Both diaspora and Israel have to know that all things are still indeterminate, whether the honest, viable, justly defined size of Israel, or the shape and spirit of a dispersed Jewry among the nations in translation of their ‘chosen-ness’. Stephen Sizer’s thoughts on these ultimate themes are summarised on pp. 261-64. His commendable labours will well equip his readers to address them. Meanwhile, perhaps we have to say that Armageddon also is sub judice.

The Right Revd Kenneth Cragg, retired Assistant Bishop in Jerusalem (author of The Call of the Minaret; The Arab Christian; Mohammed and the Christian; Readings in the Qur'an; The House of Islam; Islam among the Spires; Troubled by Truth; The Dome and the Rock.)

You can purchase copies of Christian Zionism: Roadmap to Armageddon? from IVP or Amazon.