Christian Zionism, by Dr. Ninan Koshy
Christian Zionism is a modern theological and political movement that embraces the most extreme ideological positions of Zionism, thereby becoming detrimental to a just peace within Palestine and Israel. The Christian Zionist programme provides a worldview where the Gospel is identified with the ideology of empire, colonialism and militarism. In its extreme form it places an emphasis on apocalyptic events leading to the end of history rather than bringing Christ’s love and justice today. (Sabeel) (1)
The origins of Christian Zionism lie in the theology of dispensationalism, an approach to biblical interpretation that emerged in 19th century England, largely through the efforts of Anglican ministers Louis Way and John Nelson Darby. Dispensationalism is a form of pre-millenialism, which asserts that the world will experience a period of worsening tribulations until Christ comes. Darby added several unique features to Way’s teachings including the doctrine of “Rapture” whereby “born-again Christians” would be literally removed from history and transferred to heaven prior to Jesus’ return. Like many other Christians, dispensationalists believe that Christ’s return is foretold in Old and New Testament prophecies and that the return of Jews to Palestine is a key event in the pre-ordained process that will lead to the Second Coming.
Christian Zionism began as an ally of British imperialism, legitimizing colonial expansion. The unique and controversial pre-millennial eschatology had a seminal influence both on the establishment and the ongoing support for the modern state of Israel. Key 19th century British political figures came under its influence leading them to lend support to the Jewish Zionist movement begun by Theodore Herzel. The theology of Darby, Way and their followers influenced a number of prominent English politicians and may have made British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour more receptive to the idea of creating a Jewish national home in Palestine. David Lloyd-George was perhaps even more predisposed to the Zionist ideology than Balfour. British imperial designs were undoubtedly the primary political force in drawing influential British politicians to support the Zionist project because of their Christian Zionist background.
From Great Britain Christian Zionism moved to the USA where dispensationalist teaching became widely disseminated and assimilated. Dispensationalist theology was popularized in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by a number of Protestant theologians including the evangelist Dwight Moody, C.I. Schofiled and William E,Blackstone. At this stage Christian Zionism became less a political movement than a spiritual reference point.
The founding of the state of Israel in 1948 gave new vigour to the dispensationalist movement. Perhaps more important than this was the Six-Day War in 1967 which the leaders of the movement say was a “miracle of God”. These two events are the historical touch-points for the Christian Zionist movement. Dispensationalists interpreted Israel’s seizure of all of Jerusalem and the West Bank (which like Israel’s Likud Party they refer to as Judea and Samaria) as the fulfillment of the Old and New Testament Prophecies. These “signs” encouraged them as fulfillment of part of the prophecy as they understood. Christian Zionists sensed that ‘end times’ were coming.
Christian Zionism is grounded on an interpretation of the Bible that supports the ingathering of all Jews to Israel and their exclusive claim to the whole land of Palestine based on the gift of the Land to Abraham and the Jewish people as the “chosen people”. As Don Wagner points out “Christian Zionists and pre-millennial dispensationalists have a pessimistic view of history and wait in eager anticipation for the unfolding of a series of wars and tragedies pointing to the return of Jesus. The establishment of the state of Israel, the rebuilding of the Third Temple, the rise of the Antichrist and the buildup of armies poised to attack Israel, are among the signs leading to the final battle and Jesus’ return. Leading Christian Zionists in Bible prophecy seek to interpret political developments according to the prophetic schedule of events that should uphold accordingly”. (2)
Dispensationalist Christianity, an interpretative or narrative framework for understanding the overall flow of the Bible, teaches that Christianity did not replace Judaism, but that it restored elements of it. In their view Christianity did not come into existence to replace Judaism, but to restore it. This view has surpassed replacement theology as the dominant form of Christian thought regarding Israel in America. The dispensationalist view of the Bible is that the Old Testament is foreshadowing for what will occur in the New Testament and, at the end, Jesus returns to reign on Earth after an epic battle between good and evil. Israel plays a central role in the dispensationalist view of the end of the world. That is why 1948 and 1967 mark milestones in Christian Zionist history.
Pastor John Hagee, a longtime supporter of Israel, heads “Christians United for Israel” (CUFI), a pro-Israel group established in 2006. Hagee has denounced replacement theology, and says of Israel: “We believe in the promise of Genesis 12:3 regarding the Jewish people and the nation of Israel. We believe that this is an eternal covenant between God and the seed of Abraham to which God is faithful”. (3) Evangelical leader Pat Robertson echoed this statement while on his tour of Israel during the Israel-Lebanon war, saying, “The Jews are God’s chosen people. Israel is a special nation that has a special place in God’s heart. He will defend this nation. So Evangelical Christians stand with Israel. That is one of the reasons I am here.” (4)
Stephen R. Sizer examines in detail and critiques the theology of Christian Zionism. He points out the fundamental hermeneutical flow in their interpretation of the Bible. He says, “Christian Zionism errs most profoundly because it fails to appreciate the relationship between the Old and New Covenants and the ways in which the latter completes, fulfils and annuls the former.” Sizer points out that “Christian Zionists do violence to the flow of Biblical interpretation, where in spite of the way in which scripture interprets, they continue to regard the Jews as God’s covenant people. They are also in error to imply that only they give the Jews an important place in God’s future purposes.” (5)
Zionism (including Christian Zionism) focuses exclusively on certain aspects of the Biblical story while grossly contradicting the rest of the story. “The Bible is not a one-act play; it is a dynamic complex narrative that shows God’s interest to transform the world and its people into a new commitment of shalom/peace.” (6)
The Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism, made by heads of churches in Jerusalem, categorically rejected Christian Zionist doctrines as “false teaching that corrupts the biblical messages of love, justice and reconciliation”. (7)
The Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) representing indigenous and ancient Oriental and Eastern churches as well as Lutheran and Anglican denominations have been highly critical of the activities of Christian Zionists and the International Christian Embassy (ICEJ) in particular. In 1988 the MECC affirmed that Christian Zionism had no place in the Middle East and should be repudiated by the universal church because it was a very dangerous distortion and significant shift away from Orthodox Christocentric expression of the Christian faith.
The choice is between two theologies: One based primarily on the shadow of the Old Covenant and one based on the reality of the New Covenant. 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. Christian Zionism provides a theological endorsement for apartheid and ethnic cleansing which Don Wagner calls “Armageddon Theology” rather than an inclusive theology of justice, peace and reconciliation, which is at the heart of the New Covenant. (8) Christian Zionism tends to promote conflict and militarization rather than Biblical concepts of peace and reconciliation. Many embraced the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 as a welcome sign that Armageddon and the Second Coming might occur very soon.. In this theology, the gospel is identified with the ideology of empire, colonialism and militarism.
The general equating of Biblical Israel with the modern nation-state of Israel must be supported, protected and allowed to expand into all of historic Palestine. Such a perspective drawn entirely from the religious writings of the ancient Israelites – writings of course also shared by Christianity – leads inevitably into the total bypassing of all principles and laws pertaining to land ownership and the invalidation of more contemporary deeds, customs and international law. The assumption that the modern state of Israel today equates to Biblical Israel is highly problematic. The Jews came to the land because they were persecuted by the European nations. The modern state of Israel is a full member of the community of nations, having accepted the major tenets of international law and conventions, though repeatedly flouting them.
Bishop Munib Younan, a Palestinian Christian leader, raises two important problems with Christian Zionism: injustice and racism.
“The prophets -and indeed Decalogue- are filled with demands that we live with justice. Christian Zionism completely ignores the reality of injustice occurring in Israel/Palestine. Christian Zionism completely marginalizes Palestinian Christians and ignores any issues about land ownership of those who were displaced from their land by the creation of the modern state of Israel. It identifies God’s blessings solely through the Jewish people while ignoring and alienating the Palestinian Christians –and Muslims – and the underlying issues of injustice and oppression which are blatantly commonplace for them.” (9)
“There is the issue of hate and racism too”. “Christian Zionism results in rabid Islamaphobia and some of the worst racism as we have seen in years. There is a deliberate attempt to stereotype all Muslims as espousing the extremist and hateful beliefs of radical Islam, which is as misleading as it would to stereotype all Jewish people as using the violent and racist behaviour of the most extreme settlers.” (10)
Christian Zionists oppose a two-state solution or any other form of territorial concession to the Palestinians. They denounce any division of the land. On the eve of Anwar Sadat’s breakthrough visit to Jerusalem in 1977, evangelical groups published advertisements in major newspapers saying that they viewed “with great concern any effort to carve out of the Jewish homeland another nation or political entity”. In 1996, the Third International Christian Zionist Congress resolved that ‘the Land which He promised to His people is not to be partitioned…It would be further error for the nations to recognize a Palestinian state in any part of Eretz Israel”
This would make impossible any resolution for just peace with the Palestinians, including the two-state solution that is the basis of all peace plans of the past decades. Christian Zionists also tend to overlook or even excuse the blatant and well-documented acts of violence of many Jewish settlers against Palestinians. What makes this even more problematic and hurtful from a Palestinian point of view, particularly to Christian Palestinians who expect a more sympathetic response from fellow Christians, is that Christian Zionists for the most part project a ‘maximalist’ stance on the issue of land ownership. They insist that the boundaries of the Jewish state should conform to a biblical map that includes not only the present state of Israel, but the whole of the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip as well, territories they call ‘Judea and Samaria”. In this Christian Zionists have adopted, which is considered even by many Israelis to be the most extreme and problematic al position viz. the occupation – that of the militant settler movement.
Karen Armstrong is not alone in tracing in Western Christian Zionism, evidence of the legacy of the Crusades. Such fundamentalists have, she claims, returned to a classical and extreme religious crusading. (11) The Reuthers also see the danger of this kind of Christian Zionism in its “dualistic Manichean view of global politics”, America and Israel together against an evil world. (12)
Bishop Kenneth Cragg wrote sarcastically, “It is so: God chose the Jews, the land is theirs by divine gift. These dicta cannot be questioned or resisted. They are final. Such verdicts come infallibly from Christian Biblicists who can do no wrong; thus fortified. But can such positivism, this unquestioning finality, be compatible with the integrity of the Prophets themselves? It certainly cannot square with the openness under God which is the crux of the New Testament faith. Nor can it well be reconciled with the ethical demands, central to laws and election alike.” (13)
Equally Christian Zionism fails to recognize the deep-rooted problem that exists between Palestinians and Israelis. It distorts the Bible and marginalizes the universal imperative of the Christian gospel; it has grave political ramifications and ultimately ignored the sentiments of the overwhelming majority of indigenous Christians.
Christian Zionism thus shows an uncritical tolerance of Rabbinic Judaism and endorsement of the Israeli political Right while at the same time demonstrates an inexcusable lack of compassion for the Palestinian tragedy and plight of the indigenous Christian community in Israel and Palestine. In doing so it has legitimized oppression in the name of the interpretation of the gospel.
The Jerusalem Declaration rejected “the contemporary alliance of Christian Zionist leaders and organizations with elements in the governments of Israel and the US that are presently imposing their unilateral pre-emptive borders and domination over Palestine. This inevitably leads to unending cycles of violence that undermine the security of all peoples of the Middle East and rest of the world”. (14)
Jesus defined his ministry and purpose in terms of reconciliation. In him we hear that God’s highest purpose is to bring together what we have in our sinful divisiveness make separate. In the light of this it is inconceivable that a religiously exclusive nation-state which has come to be characterized by the building of a literal “dividing wall of hostility” can be at the centerpiece of God’s redemptive plans.
That Israel is a viable nation-state which like any other nation state can be the source of either bane or blessing to its citizens, to its neighbours and the world, is not a question here. What ‘is’ in question is the place given to Israel by those who wish to put it at the centre of God’s redemptive purposes. For this there is no biblical justification, certainly not in the light of the revelations we have received in and through Jesus Christ.
An important milestone in the history of Christian Zionism occurred in 1979: the founding of the Moral Majority. Founded by Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority was an organization made up of conservative Christian political action committees that succeeded in mobilizing like-minded individuals to register and vote for conservative candidates. With nearly six million members, it became a powerful voting bloc during the 1980s and was credited for giving Ronald Reagan the winning edge in the 1980 elections. One of the Moral Majority’s founding principles was “support for Israel and Jewish people everywhere”. Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority in 1989 but there are a number of organizations in the USA which are oriented to Christian Zionism committed to unwavering and unconditional support for Israel.
During the war in the summer of 2006, Falwell warned, “We are on the verge of a war without borders” which “will serve as a prelude or forerunner to the future Battle of Armageddon and the glorious return of Jesus Christ”. The bestselling millenarian author Hal Lindsey wrote in January 2007 that a preemptive nuclear strike against Iran was “the only logical choice available to us”. John Hagee warned in his 2006 book, Jerusalem Countdown, “The coming nuclear showdown with Iran is a certainty. The war of Ezekiel 38-39 could begin before this book is published.” (15)
The theology of the Christian Zionists has considerable influence on the Evangelicals in America. They are part of the powerful Christian Right. John Hubers with the Institute for the Study of Christian Zionism, says that today Christian Zionism is characterized by a handful of core beliefs including:
i. God’s covenant with Israel is eternal, unchanging and unconditional.
ii. According to the Bible Christians are obligated to support Israel or harm will come to them and the USA. Many Chrstian Zionists cite Genesis 12:3 as proof of this mandate. “I will bless those who bless you and him who curses you, I will curse”.
iii. The prophetic books of the Bible such as Daniel and Revelation refer to current times, not Biblical times.
iv. The modern state is a catalyst for the final prophetic countdown to the end of the world.
Pastor Hubers adds, “It would not be an exaggeration to say that the majority of Americans who give unconditional support to Israel today have been influenced in one way or another by the texts of Christian Zionism whether they buy the package or not”.(16)
As we mentioned earlier, Christian Zionism began as an ally and supporter of British Imperialism. Today it has become a close ally of the American Empire. The response to the horrific events of September 11, 2001 was the implementation of an imperial project already in preparation. Evangelicals who were influenced by Christian Zionism extended unstinted support to President Bush and his military doctrines and strategies with regard to the Middle East.
Evangelical faith gave Bush’s wars for empire-building a special context. At the outset of the war against Iraq, Bush entreated, “God bless our troops”. Some critics wondered whether the influence of Bush’s exceptional faith goes beyond public rhetoric to shape his foreign policy regarding Iraq and the Middle East. With public speculation in full swing, the Christian Centur in February insisted that “the American people have a right to know how the President’s faith is informing his public policies not least his design on Iraq.”
But even among evangelical leaders, there was concern that Bush was relying on Biblical interpretation made by Christian Zionists. Forty evangelical leaders, for instance, wrote to the President in the summer of 2002 seeking an “evenhanded policy” towards Israel and Palestinians rejecting “the way some have distorted Biblical passages as their rationale for uncritical support” for Israel.
For the Christian Zionists the war against Iraq had Biblical resonances: Iraq as Babylon. The two prominent images are the glorious city of Jerusalem and the wicked city of Babylon, one representing light and the other darkness.
The Report of the Church of England Bishops does not name America as an empire, just treats it as one. It says, “What distinguishes it from many other empires in history is its strong sense of righteousness.”. The Report says, “The sense of moral righteousness is fed by the major influence of the Christian Right on present U.S. policy. This has a very worrying political aspect in the way in which Christian millennialism has been taken up by so many evangelical Christians with its apocalyptic overtones and its very clear political agenda in relation to the Middle East. We argue that not only is the political reading of current history in the light of apocalyptic texts illegitimate but these texts need to be read in a different way altogether, as a critique of imperialism, rather than as a justification of a particular form of it”. (17)
Christian Zionist theology has influence even in mainline churches not only in the USA but in many parts of the world. This is true of India too where ‘end times’ interpretation is made by Pentecostals and Evangelicals defending and justifying all actions of the state of Israel, through preaching and writing reflecting Christian Zionist theology, though the term Christian Zionism may not be familiar to them. Such theology finds expression even in mainline churches.
- Sabeel, Ecumenical Liberation Theology, Centre works for justice, peace and reconciliation in Israel-Palestine. Sabeel documents available at www.sabeel/org/old.
- Donald Wagner, Anxious for Armageddon, Herald Press 1995.
- David Krusch, “Christian Zionism” Jewish Virtual Library
- Stephen R. Sizer, “An Alternative Theology of the Holy Land: A Critique of Christian Zionism”, Churchman, February 13, 1999
- Bishop Munib Younan, “An Ethical Critique of Christian Zionism”, Journal of Lutheran Ethics, May 2007.
- “The Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism”, August 22, 2006
- Don Wagner Ibid.
- Bishop Munib Younan, Ibid
- Karen Armstrong, “Holy War, The Crusades and their Impact on Today’s World”, (London, Macmillan 1998) p.377.
- Rosemary Reuther and Herman J.Reuther, “The Wrath of Jonah, The Crisis of Nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” (San Francisco, Harper 1984) p.176.
- Kenneth Cragg, “The Arab Christian” (London, Mowbray 1992) p.238
- The Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism.
- Quoted in David Krusch, Ibid.
- John Hubers, “Christian Zionism: An Historical Analysis” www.christianzionism’org.artcles.asp
- “Countering Terrorism: Power, Violence and Democracy”, A Report by a Working Group of the Church of England’s House of Bishops.