Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Liberation theology or Christian Zionism? Why not Reformed instead!

My friend Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, and Rabbi Abraham Cooper wrote a piece for the Jerusalem Post that caught my attention, Palestinians to Evangelicals: Zionism is a Sin. They are concerned about a conference “Christ at the Checkpoint (CATC) conference under the aegis of the Bethlehem Bible College, aimed specifically at Evangelicals.” And it is aimed at Evangelicals.

But I think Adlerstein and Cooper take a wrong turn when they write “Evangelical and conservative Christians – Israel’s most important allies – are increasingly targeted for conversion from Christian Zionism to Christian Palestinianism.” They in fact did what the leaders of the conference did they put all of their eggs in the Christian Zionist basket.

The reason, and my good friends, please bear with me—I am both Reformed and Evangelical and, as you know, care about Israel and the Jews but I am not a Christian Zionist. There are many of us. Christian Zionism is just a straw man being used by various pro-Palestinian groups to made evangelicals feel like there is no other ground—to make a pun—worth taking. And not all that they write about Christian Zionism is true. But that is another posting.

So let me proceed to examine the true position of the people who spoke at the conference not from a typically evangelical position but from liberation theology and other theological positions.[1] They were obviously attempting to influence the evangelicals but there is a need to hear what they were actually saying. In most cases the evangelicals have been seduced because of their love for the marginalized not because they understood the theology.

And I think the harshest words should be aimed at Mitri Raheb, who is the pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. Cooper and Adlerstein point out in their article that Mitri makes a horrid anti-Semitic statement in his speech. I will quote it but add a little bit more than they do:
And the second assumption [Raheb’s assumption] is that the Palestinian people and part of the Jewish people are the continuation of the peoples of the land. It’s not Israel, according to what I am going to present to you…. I’m sure if we were to do a DNA test between David, who was a Bethlehemite, and Jesus, born in Bethlehem, and Mitri, born just across the street from where Jesus was born, I’m sure the DNA will show that there is a trace. While, if you put King David, Jesus and Netanyahu, you will get nothing, because Netanyahu comes from an East European tribe who converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages.
For those who don’t understand, Raheb is saying that Prime Minister Netanyahu is not Jewish at all. And in saying this he is saying that none of the Jews who came from Europe are really Jews. And that is a lie birthed in the pit of hell.

Another speaker, Naim Stifan Ateek, states that he is speaking about contextual theology or as he also calls it liberation theology. He writes that most Christians in the Middle East were in times past Orthodox in faith who emphasized the divinity of Jesus, but now with liberation theology “our emphasis is also on the humanity of Christ. So, for us, Jesus was a Palestinian who lived in Palestine.” But the truth of the matter is, it was the Greek Church from which the orthodox emerged that put great emphasis on the two natures of Christ, his divinity and his humanity.

And Ateek's view of Scripture is very problematic. He states that evangelicals place an emphasis in the Bible on land and he sees it as an emphasis “on that part of the Old Testament that,” for him, “really reflects a tribal understanding of God and I [Ateek] see that tribal concept in the development of religious thought within the Old Testament itself. It is overcome; it is transcended by a much more universal concept of God.”

Ateek develops this thought in greater measure in his book A Palestinian Cry for Reconciliation. In his chapter on “The Bible and Land,” he pictures the Old Testament as possessing various points of view about God. He writes:
Beginning with Amos, we find a theology that vacillated between nationalism and universalism, between bigotry and openness, exclusivity and inclusiveness. And although some learned during the exile that there is one God who is concerned about others (as expressed by some of the prophets), many held to a narrow theology of God and a chosen people. (63)
These kinds of thoughts about the Old Testament are scattered all through the chapter. I hope all Evangelicals reading this will understand. Ateek is saying, with out saying, that not all of the Old Testament is the inspired word of God. This downgrading of the Hebrew Bible is not new. It has happened over and over coming to a head in the years of Nazi Germany.

Two of the speakers spoke about the Holocaust and Evangelicals. One of them, Manfred W. Kohl, using a history of pietism, ended his speech by placing the Holocaust squarely on Evangelical teaching. The connection is extremely speculative. Instead, I would recommend the secular historian George L. Mosse and many of his books on Nazism, Arthur C. Cochrane who was a theologian and friend of many Confessing Church members has written on the subject. And I would highly recommend the new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which covers many details of the ideological foundations of Nazism. The book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet Spy was written by Eric Metaxas.

Another speaker at the conference, Stephen Sizer [2], uses a chapter from his book; Zion’s Christian Soldiers and writes:
It may surprise you to discover that the New Testament never uses the term ‘chosen’ to describe the Jewish people. It is only used of those who follow Jesus. Does that mean God has two separate ‘chosen people’? Some like to think so. They are usually called ‘dispensationalists’ and this is a popular viewpoint among evangelicals in the United States.
 Although not a dispensationalist I have to counter that with several verses. One is Jesus speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:22) The Jews were chosen to give a Messiah to the world. Jesus speaks to the Syrophoenician woman, “Let the children [the Jews] be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark7: 27) Jesus is of course testing the woman’s faith nonetheless he has still called the Jew’s his children. And what is it that Paul states?
From the stand point of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11: 28)
I believe that the best way to end this is with the words of David Torrance. He is a brother to James and Thomas Torrance, all Reformed. David Torrance’s views are not different than his brothers and he also believes that the Jews need, like everyone else, Jesus Christ. Yet, he contends that God has chosen the Jews and still, in fact, uses them. This is from a small book with chapters by all three on various subjects that has to do with Christianity: The book is A Passion For Christ: The Vision that Ignites Ministry. The chapter is, “The Mission of Christians and Jews.” I have placed this in a posting before but it should be read again. Torrance writes

In what way does God confront the nations and peoples of the world today through the Jews?

1. Their remarkable preservation through history, scattered as they have been across the world and persecuted time and again in the most horrific ways, points to the miraculous hand of God who has set them apart for himself and promised, ‘Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,’ declares the lord, ‘will the descendents of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me (Jer 31:36). Their preservation points to the hand of God.

2. The very presence of the Jewish people today recalls us to their origins-to the great things which God has said and done in Israel and which are witnessed to in the Old and New Testaments.

3. The continuing presence of the Jewish people today-particularly their presence back in the Promised Land-reminds us that we and the nations have to reckon with a living, personal God. He is a God who acts in space and time, a God of judgment as well as mercy.

4. Their presence in the Promised Land reminds us in this twentieth century [and 21st] that our destiny is not in our hands. The nations do not hold their destiny in their own hands. It is not in the hands of their governments. Our destiny is in the hands of God who personally intervenes in history challenging the nations to humble themselves and to obey him, even as he challenged Pharaoh of old.

5. The modern history of Israel reminds us that God is over-ruling the continued sin of this world, as he fulfils his purposes of love and redemption. All history is leading up to the consummation of God’s purpose for this world, when he himself will come in Christ and the nations must meet with him and render account to him.

Israel’s return to the land of promise, following as it does an attempt under Hitler to obliterate everything Jewish, reminds us not only that God is the Lord of history but also that events seem to be moving on fairly fast toward the ultimate goal of history. Israel continues to be God’s covenant people and God continues to speak through the Jewish people and through them to show his glory to all who have eyes to see.”

[1] All of the speeches but one can be found at http://www.christatthecheckpoint.com/index.php/multimedia/lectures-2010 The speech I highlighted on the Holocaust will not open on that site but it can be found here: http://christatthecheckpoint.com/lectures/THE%20%20HOLOCAUST%20%20AND%20%20THE%20%20EVANGELICAL%20%20CHURCH.pdf

[1] Stephen Sizer uses revisionist writers in some of his blog writings. http://stephensizer.blogspot.com/2011/07/is-zionism-losing-ground-among.html?spref=fb In this particular posting he refers to a man named Charles Carlson. Charles Carlson is a historical revisionist who thinks the holocaust never happened.


Pastor Dennis said...

You have done a very good job clarifying a trend that I have long felt by hunch. I hope that such distorted views that seem aimed at the very identity and existence of Israel will not gain legtimacy.

Viola Larson said...

Thank you Dennis. I am afraid they are gaining legtimacy. It seems this battle has to be waged, aways, at the same time we are waging a battle for the life of the church in the West.

Yitzchok Adlerstein said...

Thank you for a wonderful piece, Viola. You know that you count me among the members of your fan club. Even when we (occasionally) have to lock horns on matters of theology, the conversation with you is always stimulating and exhilarating.

Rabbi Cooper and I were well aware when we wrote our piece that the basis of traditional evangelical support for Israel flows far beyond the borders of dispensationalism and Christian Zionism. We wrote what we did, within the word limits of op-eds, for a number of reasons. First of all, dispensationalists are not a small group in the US, and the Palestinian campaign is starting to win away even some from their ranks. When I raised the issue with friends in those circles five years ago, they smiled, told me not to worry. Anyone who showed less than unflagging support for Israel could not be an authentic evangelical. They wrote off those who joined EMEU as theological lightweights – or heretics. Today, these same friends concede that there is a problem, and that the Rahebs and Ateeks are making inroads.

Secondly, readers of the Jerusalem Post are most familiar with non-Jewish support for Israel coming from “Christian Zionist” circles. We hoped that the article would be a wake-up call in both Jewish and non-Jewish circles to become more familiar with Palestinian strategy – how it seeks to divide and conquer in American church circles by speaking different languages to different faith groups.

Perhaps most importantly, we wrote what we did precisely because we were aware of some of the nuance that you spoke of. (We are no match for your erudition or facility in communicating it, however.) We know of huge support for Israel among Christians who reject the common definition of Christian Zionism, but proudly adhere to a different one. As Christians – because they are Christians – they look for fairness and balance. They refuse to ignore the history and context of the Middle East conflict, and to pillory Israel as the root of all evil. They cherish the historical roots of Christianity in Judaism. And yes, they see something in the establishment of the modern (secular) State of Israel that dovetails with the flow of Scripture. The way we saw it, the organizers of the CATC conference in Bethlehem wish to completely decouple modern Israel (and in the case of Raheb, most Jews) from anything Scriptural. This will impact not only dispensationalists, but many other evangelicals. Alas, it already has.
You, Viola, brought all this into much sharper theological focus. For many Christians, it is a forced choice, as articulated by Sizer and his ilk: either Christian Zionism on the one hand , or supersessionism and Marcionism on the other.

Evangelicals who are not dispensationalists have many reasons to support the right of Israel to exist within safe and secure borders – but they often don’t have a theology in which to place it. I know that this observation has plagued others as well, but I find the end of your post a remarkably good beginning to articulating a theological basis for supporting Israel. (Then again, what should I know, as an Orthodox Jew?) [Reached my space limit. Continued in another comment]

Yitzchok Adlerstein said...

[continued from previous comment] I would add one other element in this problem. The crucial truth about Palestinian strategy in making inroads with evangelicals is, as you put it, “Evangelicals have been seduced because of their love for the marginalized.” Sanitized tours of Israel, films like With G-d On Our Side and The Little Town of Bethlehem, pull on the heartstrings of evangelicals, demonstrating the plight of a population that, arguably, has suffered for too long. This creates great sympathy for Palestinians, and moves them to the next level – are you sure that your theology tells you to be complicit in this? Absent, of course, is context. There is no parallel consideration of Israeli pain and suffering, or of the events that led to a Palestinian population used as pawns of the Arab confrontation states, rather than to rebuild their lives as happened to the equal number of Jewish refugees produced by the war in ’48. Evangelical supporters (especially dispensationalists) often had little interest in history. They knew they had to support Israel, and that was the end of it. They became easy targets for those who could manipulate them through edited film clips, and then ask them to reconsider their theology.
How could it be that people like Sizer and Ateek could make headway even in dispensationalist strongholds? Simple. All it takes is one naïve professor to screen one of the series of awful films for hundreds of students to subliminally change their bearings. (More often than not, the administration of a seminary was not aware of the screening, and there was no rebuttal in a follow-up event.) A few years later, they are pastoring congregations.

So in our humble opinion, besides providing what you’ve tried to do in your post, Viola, we also need to arm people with the facts – with the complex history of events, the competing narratives, etc. Seminary students in particular need to be able to bolster their intuitive support for Israel with real knowledge, as well as firm faith. Given the disproportionate role that PCUSA has played in the run-up to the imbalance of the moment (Don Wagner and Gary Burge are early architects of EMEU; of the 13 directors today, at least 6 are Presbyterian), the Presbyterian universe would not be a bad place to start.

I wish I knew how to reach them.

Viola Larson said...

Thank you Yitzchok for adding a lot to what I wrote. Despite what I wrote, (and it was partly with tongue in cheek) I value immensely what you have to say. I wish I had those answers about how to reach the Presbyterians who have only a one sided view of the issues in the Middle East. I think so many were not paying any attention to the news in years gone by, but now they are interested in propaganda instead. Another factor I have found is Middle Eastern Presbyterians who now live in the U.S. but because of where they were raised only have one side of the story which was certainly shaped in part by an ideology that existed sixty years ago and filtered into the Middle East via the last war. Perhaps education is the only way. And I believe understanding that if the Christian connection to the Hebrew Bible is destroyed in the end the Christian faith is destroyed is a beginning.