[Carole Monica Burnett, Catholic University of America, previews her edited collection, Zionism through Christian Lenses: Ecumenical Perspectives on the Promised Land (Wipf & Stock, 2013)].
In the matter of U.S. support for Israel, religion and politics operate as Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, reinforcing each other in a slapstick display of tomfoolery. Although presidents have for decades lodged verbal objections to settlement expansion in the Palestinian territories, the Congress continues to authorize 3.2 billion dollars per year for Israel while Christian Zionist organizations send tax-exempt millions directly to the settlements. Mired in biblical literalism, the Christian component of the intransigent pro-Israel lobby applies to the modern state of Israel the divine promises received by the Old Testament Patriarchs as well as prophetic texts referring to the return from the Babylonian Exile, and many of these believers adhere also to a millennialist eschatology that requires Christians to assist massive numbers of Jews to perform aliyah (migration to Israel or an Israeli settlement) in order to force Christ’s imminent return. Meanwhile, mainstream Christians refrain from raising their voices, paralyzed by guilt for centuries of anti-Semitism and by fear of being labeled “anti-Semitic.” The prospect of a two-state solution has shriveled, and along with it the hopes of restoring human rights to the Palestinian people.
What is a concerned Christian to do? I discerned a call to action in a stirring speech given by the Palestinian Anglican priest Naim Ateek, who urges theologically literate Christians to speak and write vociferously in support of sound theology promoting justice for Palestine. Ateek, the founder and director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, has contributed a foreword to my new edited collection, Zionism through Christian Lenses: Ecumenical Perspectives on the Promised Land, and three of its seven essayists (myself included) are active members of Sabeel DC Metro in Washington, DC.
For this edited collection, I recruited authors with an eye to diversity, hoping to reach a broad audience by offering a variety of perspectives that would serve as alternatives to the currently prevailing ones. The contributors are indeed a heterogeneous bunch – four academics (two in theology, one in sociology, and one paleontologist), a lawyer, a non-profit administrator, and a clergy member in pastoral ministry – representing six Christian denominations: Lutheran, Congregational (United Church of Christ), Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopal, and American Baptist.
In addition to varying personal backgrounds, the contributors approach the topic of Zionism from different angles. The first two essays in the book are pieces of biblical exegesis tackling the questions of whether the divine promise of land to Abraham and his descendants has any application to the distribution of resources in today’s world and whether the modern state of Israel can be regarded as the unique spiritual descendant of the ancient Israelite kingdom. Can modern Israel have some sort of sacred mission to fulfill, or is it doomed to continue behaving as the spoiled child of secular land-grabbers? What is to be made of the Zionists’ use of the Bible? These are complex questions, to which the first essay responds by using Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac as a paradigm, while the second essay surveys the sweep of salvation history as well as subsequent Jewish history with its climax in the Zionist movement.
The third essay examines patristic views of the Promised Land and of the general concept of personal attachment to a particular homeland. For Christians who contemplate the time-tested traditions of the faith, what useful inferences can be drawn from patristic theology while avoiding the harsh anti-Jewish attitudes of many of the church fathers? Patristic exegesis relied heavily on typology and allegory, perceiving the true Christian homeland as the heavenly bliss that awaits the faithful. Moreover, the church fathers bitterly excoriated all forms of avarice, including the extortion of land by the wealthy. Surely it is impossible to remain in continuity with our ancient Christian forebears while encouraging the Israeli settlers’ passionate acquisition of land from its indigenous population.
One problem encountered both by today’s biblical exegetes and by modern patristic scholars is that of “supersessionism,” the doctrine that the Church has replaced Israel as the people of God. This can lead inexorably to anti-Semitism if interpreted to mean that Jews are permanently out of favor with God. And yet one must grapple with biblical texts proclaiming the inauguration of a new covenant and the temporary nature of the law (the “custodian,” in Galatians 3:24–25). Such texts received ample attention from the church fathers, many of whom regarded the characters, narratives, and cultic practices of the Hebrew Scriptures as prefigurations (“types”) of the ultimate reality to be revealed in Christ. Utilizing both Scripture and patristic works, this book attempts to interpret the traditional Christian belief in the superiority of the gospel over the law in such a way as to affirm God’s continuing love for today’s Jews while refusing to accord contemporary relevance to the land grants promised to the ancient Patriarchs.
The four remaining essays examine the consequences of the Zionist enterprise in terms of post-Reformation Christianity. One contributor, who holds dual membership in an African American Baptist congregation and an inner-city Episcopal parish, has drawn a comparison between the forcible removal and enslavement of Africans and the involuntary exile and impoverishment of Palestinians. What keeps the spirit alive in such appalling circumstances? How can religious faith and community cohesion be nurtured? Although the parallels between these two displaced, marginalized groups – African Americans and Palestinians – are not extensive, they are sufficient to stimulate hope for Palestine as well as thought about how the Palestinian community might move forward.
Another essay examines the two-covenant theology and zealous Judaeophilia of the late Lutheran bishop and Harvard Divinity School dean Krister Stendahl (d. 2008), who was struck by profound guilt about the Holocaust despite the fact that his native Sweden had not been occupied by the Nazis. Determined to put an end to anti-Semitism, Stendahl devoted his theological writings and oratorical efforts to uniting Christians and Jews. This essay explains how Stendahl’s magnificent intentions became derailed, inadvertently exacerbating the exercise of favoritism toward Israelis over Palestinians – even over Palestinian Christians – by American Protestants.
Another contributor, a Palestinian Catholic (that is, a member of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem), has demonstrated the application of Catholic social teachings on human dignity and human rights to the Palestinian situation. This essay reviews the relevant papal encyclicals and conciliar statements published during the preceding century and then points out the current concerns of Western prelates who have met in synods and issued documents expressing hopes for a just, peaceful, secure, diverse, and tolerant society to emerge in the Holy Land. Beginning in 1964, there has been a series of papal visits to the region, with the aim not merely of venerating the Holy Places but also of assessing and commenting on the quality of life there. In particular, Pope Benedict XVI has lamented the construction of the Israeli Separation Barrier, which has seriously disrupted Palestinian life.
In the final essay of the book, a Protestant pastor reflects on his many experiences of traveling in Israel and Palestine, Bible in hand, and meeting its inhabitants. Rev. David Good, who has subsequently retired from his position in a church in Old Lyme, Connecticut, is the founder of an organization called Tree of Life, which offers annual conferences as well as annual fact-finding tours to the Holy Land. His essay, which is homiletic rather than academic in tone, provides a personal touch that serves as a coda to the pieces of research preceding it.