Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Professor Paul Boyer on Christian Zionism

No one who follows events in the Middle East can fail to be aware of the involvement of so-called Christian Zionists in the politics of the region. These are evangelical Protestants whose reading of Bible prophecy convinces them that God has a distinct end-time plan for the Jews—a plan whose fulfillment is integral to Christ’s second coming and thousand-year Millennial reign. According to this interpretive system, known as premillennial dispensationalism, as the End approaches, Israel will expand to incorporate the lands God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their seed, from the Euphrates to “the river of Egypt.” The Jews will also take over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and rebuild the Temple on the site now occupied by two sacred Islamic shrines.

Stephen Sizer, an evangelical Anglican clergyman, offers a history and critique of this version of Christian Zionism. His book may seem heavy going in places for readers not immersed in this belief system, but it does illuminate prophetic beliefs that shape the attitudes of millions of evangelical Protestants worldwide, and especially in the United States, toward Israel, the Palestinians, and Islam. (These End-Time beliefs also influence believers’ view of the United Nations, the global economy, and U.S. mass culture—but that is another story.)

Sizer begins by tracing the British origins of dispensationalism and its Zionist component. This belief system is usually credited to John Darby, a founder of the Plymouth Brethren, an English dissenting sect. Sizer, however, stresses the role of such now-obscure figures as Edward Irving, a Scottish preacher popular in London in the 1820s, and Henry Drummond, a banker and politician with an interest in Bible prophecy. He traces the influence of these beliefs on later British leaders, including David Lloyd George, the prime minister who oversaw the issuance of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, calling for “a National Home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.

Readers interested in the evolution of American attitudes toward Israel will welcome Sizer’s discussion of dispensationalism’s migration to the United States through John Darby’s evangelistic tours and the preaching and writings of James H. Brookes, Arno C. Gaebelein, Cyrus Scofield, and other late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century figures. Sizer notes the importance of the wealthy Chicago real-estate developer William Blackstone, a committed dispensationalist and early Zionist. Visiting Jewish agricultural colonies in Palestine in 1888–89, Blackstone saw them as exciting portents of Christ’s soon return. In 1891, five years before Theodor Herzl’s Zionist manifesto Der Judenstaat, Blackstone drafted a “Memorial” calling for a Jewish state in Palestine, “according to God’s distribution of nations,” as a response to Czarist pogroms. He secured signatures from J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, the Chief Justice of the United States, and some 400 other government and business leaders. With reason, Louis D. Brandeis later praised Blackstone as “the Father of Zionism.”

Sizer’s chapter on dispensationalism’s political implications is particularly timely. Popular writers and televangelists like Hal Lindsey, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Tim LaHaye, and James Hagee, together with politicians who share their beliefs (or seek the votes of those who do), have been outspoken supporters of Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza, as a step toward the prophesied expansion to the biblical boundaries, and of all Jerusalem and Temple Mount—essential to the rebuilding of the Temple. These Christian Zionists reject Palestinian political or territorial claims; denigrate the Palestinian people in language that Sizer finds disturbingly analogous to Nazi stereotypes of the Jews; and, in their prophecy-fueled worldview, demonize Islam as vile and sinister. Such figures, reinforced by a network of like-minded organizations, writes Sizer, constitute “probably the most powerful lobby in the United States today, influencing not only American foreign policy but also the chances of a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict” (p. 105).

Sizer only passingly mentions the darker side of the dispensationalist version of Zionism: the belief that the long history of antisemitic persecution, including the Holocaust, represents God’s “chastisement” of his chosen but wayward people. Dispensationalists also teach that in the End Times a demonic figure, the Antichrist, will rule the earth for seven years—the socalled Great Tribulation—before Christ returns to defeat him at Armageddon. During this interlude, they believe, Antichrist will persecute and slaughter Jews with unprecedented ferocity. An evangelical Christian himself, Sizer directs his book to evangelical readers. (Inter-Varsity Press is the publishing arm of an Anglo-American evangelical organization that targets college and university students.) While criticizing the dispensationalist version of Zionism, he champions an alternative view, Covenantal Premillennialism. According to this view, God does not have a separate end-time plan involving national Israel, its future expansion, or a rebuilt Temple. “Access to heaven no longer has anything to do with the earthly Jerusalem,” Sizer assures us (p. 168). Rather, all people, Jews and non-Jews alike, will be judged according to whether they accept Jesus Christ as a divine savior whose crucifixion, as an atonement for mankind’s sins, represents the only means of salvation.

However one feels about such matters, Sizer’s well-researched study is of considerable value. Supplemented by other works such as Timothy P. Weber’s On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend (2004); Yaakov Ariel’s On Behalf of the Jews: American Fundamentalist Attitudes toward Jews, Judaism, and Zionism, 1865–1945 (1991); Bernard Wasserstein’s Divided Jerusalem: The Struggle for the Holy City (2001); Grace Halsell’s Prophecy and Politics: Militant Evangelists on the Road to Nuclear War (1986); and my own When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (1992), Christian Zionism unearths the taproot of a belief system that exerts enormous influence in contemporary America. Based on supposedly infallible sacred texts, these beliefs help determine how millions of Americans, and millions more worldwide, view the bloody and seemingly insoluble conflicts that torment the Middle East, bringing such suffering and heartache to its peoples.

Professor Paul Boyer, Merle Curti Professor of History Emeritus, University of Wisconsin-Madison (editor-in-chief of the Oxford Companion to American History, author of Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture, Fallout: A Historian Reflects on America’s Half-Century Encounter With Nuclear Weapons). Published in Shofar, An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Case Western University

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