Thursday, 2 October 2008

Phil Groom on Christian Zionism


Israel's crimes against humanity must always be seen against the backdrop of the equally terrible crimes of humanity against Israel. But does this make those crimes — its ongoing abuse of the Palestinians and, as I write this review in August 2006, its war of vengeance against Hezbollah in Lebanon — any less offensive?

Personally, I think not. James warns us (James 3:1) that those who teach will be judged all the more harshly; and similarly, those who represent God to the world will surely be held to even greater account than those who do not know him. No: Hezbollah's crimes not withstanding, the State of Israel's ongoing abuse of the Palestinian people and its neighbours in Lebanon is without a shadow of doubt both a crime against humanity and an offence against God. And the tendency of many Christians to give uncritical support — or even open endorsement — to Israel's apartheid and wholly disproportionate policies is an aberration that compounds that offence.

If you're a Christian Zionist you'll find those opening paragraphs extremely troubling. Are we not, as Christians, required to support the State of Israel? Are not the Jews God's chosen people? Surely those who bless Israel will be blessed and those who curse Israel will be cursed (Genesis 12:3) — and aren't statements like these anti-semitic anyway? Yet as I read this book and observe the current situation it's difficult to draw any other conclusion. I was brought up in a Brethren assembly, taught to read the Bible from within a dispensationalist framework, and although (as far as I remember) the term "Christian Zionist" was never used, its essence informed my thinking.

It took a trip to Israel and time spent with Palestinian Christians, seeing the oppression first-hand, to bring home to me how distorted my thinking was. Sizer's experience, it seems, has been similar, describing himself in his introduction as a young Christian 'devouring Hal Lindsey's best-selling book, The Late Great Planet Earth, and hearing in person his lectures on eschatology', then, after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land — ironically, organised by some 'Christian Zionist friends' — experiencing a 'radical change in perspective.' (p.9-10). Many Christians will never have an opportunity to visit Israel in person, but Sizer has done a magnificent job in this book, presenting us with a comprehensive overview of Christian Zionism's variant streams, historical developments and theologies which allows anyone willing to approach the subject with an open mind to make their own assessment.

This is supported by a number of helpful charts comparing, for example, the historical development of Christian Zionism since 1800 (p.105) and the different types of Christian Zionism (p.256-257). His analysis is careful, detailed and meticulous, a distillation of his doctoral thesis, which takes his readers through the movement's history (chapter 1), examining its theological emphases (chapter 2) and exposing its political implications (chapter 3) to finally emerge (chapter 4) with "Biblical Zionism: a covenantal alternative", an approach that does justice to both the old covenant under Abraham and the new covenant under Christ and offers hope to Jew and Palestinian alike, eschewing violence and leaving no room for anti-semitism. Each chapter is broken down into manageable subsections and ends with a concise summary of the arguments presented therein, allowing even an impatient reader to benefit and a more patient reader time to pause and take stock.

Sizer's final conclusions are — for this reader at least — inescapable: ...the choice is between two theologies: one based primarily on the shadows of the old covenant; the other on the reality of the new covenant. In identifying with the former, Christian Zionism is an exclusive theology that focuses on the Jews in the land rather than an inclusive theology that centres on Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. It consequently provides a theological endorsement for racial segregation, apartheid and war. This is diametrically opposed to the inclusive theology of justice, peace and reconciliation which lie at the heart of the new covenant.' (p.260).

A glossary of terms, appendix ('Challenging Christian Zionism', a statement from Sabeel, the Palestinian Liberation Theology Centre in Jerusalem), eleven pages of bibliography and three indices (people, subjects and biblical references) round the book off, whilst footnotes throughout, rather than endnotes, help to keep the entire volume as reader-friendly as possible.

This is a book that deserves the widest possible readership. No one who has a concern for the Middle East should ignore the issues raised; to do so is — returning to Sizer's introduction — 'nothing less than to perpetuate the evil of the Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan who walked by on the other side.' (p.13). The time for silence is over: those who are Israel's true friends must speak out against Israel's behaviour before this nation pushes itself over the brink and into Armageddon.

Phil Groom, Reviews Editor of Christian Book Reviews and manager of London School of Theology Books & Resources. Published by Evangelical Quarterly.

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