An Open Letter to America’s Christian Zionists From David P. Gushee and Glen H. Stassen

It seems like almost yesterday when, back in 2004, the official Jewish establishment was still debating whether to bed down with the Evangelical Christian Zionists. At this point, it is taken as given that the Christian Zionists and the Jewish establishment work together. Below are selections from a manifesto written by the authors of the mainstream Evangelical textbook on ethics with institutional support (The equivalent of Rabbis Bleich or Dorff, depending on your movement.) We knew that pre-millennial dispensation was out in Evangelical thought but now even the one-sided literal Zionism is out. The authors think the promise to Abraham applies to all his descendents, not just Isaac. They affirm that even with the conquest of Joshua other nations still lived in the country. They think God wants justice and possession of the land is conditional on Jews being just. God can easily cause another nation, like Iran, to punish Israel. Christian Zionism has to be more complex and seek justice for the Palestinians.

The manifesto was under-reported in the news but as leading ethicists in their community expect this statement to be studied by all future clergy. (If you want to discuss the politics, then do that on your own blog.) Any thoughts on the religious shift? On the Biblical shift?
For my Jewish readers who have not read the rebukes of the Torah but want to understand the idea that the Land is conditional should consult Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith. (Fortress Press, 1977, 2002). Brueggemann himself moved in the last year from staunchly Zionist to ambivalent.

An Open Letter to America’s Christian Zionists
From David P. Gushee and Glen H. Stassen
September 19, 2011

This Christian version of Zionism matters deeply, not just because theology intrinsically matters, but because it is overwhelmingly clear that American evangelical-fundamentalist Christian Zionism affects US policy toward Israel and the Palestinians in distressing ways.

Not to put too fine a point on it, we wish to claim here that the prevailing version of American Christian Zionism—that is, your belief system—underwrites theft of Palestinian land and oppression of Palestinian people, helps create the conditions for an explosion of violence, and pushes US policy in a destructive direction that violates our nation’s commitment to universal human rights. In all of these, American Christian Zionism as it currently stands is sinful and produces sin. We write as evangelical Christians committed lifelong to Israel’s security, and we are seriously worried about your support for policies that violate biblical warnings about injustice and may lead to the outcome you most fear—serious harm to or even destruction of Israel.

We write as evangelicals to you, our fellow evangelicals. On the shared basis of biblical authority, we ask you to reconsider your interpretation of Scripture, for the sake of God, humanity, the United States, and, yes, Israel itself, the Land and People we both love.

I A Question of (Whose) Holy Land
We acknowledge that your evangelical-fundamentalist American Christian Zionism (henceforth simply “Christian Zionism”) is a product of a Christian community that loves and reads the Bible.

Both now and in the past, whenever Christian Zionism emerges its essential origin is simply Christian reading of the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament. Our love of the Bible takes Christians into the pages of the Old Testament; there we cannot help but discover the centrality of a Promised Land for the Jewish people.

As devoted Christians, we share this love of the sacred lands of the biblical tradition with all who hold such love. We think that love of the Holy Land is far better than indifference to it. And both of us, as students of the long and terrible history of Christian anti-Semitism, which culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust, far prefer a strong sense of Christian kinship with the Jewish people and their historic homeland than the centuries-long Christian pattern of theological disdain and even hatred that so long predominated. The question then becomes not whether to love “Israel”—understood as the People and the Land—but how best to do so. We think this is a question that you will understand and want to answer properly, as we do.

But the promise looks very different if we take seriously all of the offspring of Abraham. Genesis 15:4-5 has God taking Abram outside and telling him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars of the heavens. Genesis 17:4, probably the pivotal text, has God saying to Abraham: “This is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” Many nations, a multitude of nations; many offspring, many kings—read Genesis 17 again and see the plural nouns here.

Close readers of Scripture will know that in fact Abraham did become the father of many nations. With Sarah he became the father of Isaac and the ancestor of all in his line, via Jacob and Esau. With Hagar he became the father of Ishmael and all in his line. And with the long-forgotten Keturah (Gen. 25:1) he became the father of Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. The Old Testament clearly positions Abraham as the father/ancestor of not only the Jewish people but of a vast number of other peoples, all scattered through the territories promised in Genesis 15.

Christians, even those who know their Bibles well, tend to think of the book of Joshua as containing the (bloody) fulfillment of the promise of the whole Land to Israel—the entire land is conquered by war, and then divided up among the tribes. A close reading shows that the Hebrew tribes shared the land for centuries with other groups, and that even when tribes were assigned certain portions of land, they didn’t necessarily control every square inch of it. The point is obvious later when it comes to the challenge posed by the Philistines. It is not an overstatement to say that the Israelite/Hebrew/Jewish people never had exclusive possession of the Holy Land, regardless of whatever divine promises they or we believe that they received.

II Those Who Do Justice Keep Their Land
Israel’s prophets repeatedly warned that God’s covenant promise of the land was conditional on her moral performance. In particular, the prophets warned that, in keeping with the stipulations of the Law, Israel would be judged by her treatment of the aliens in the land, of the poor, the widows, and the orphans.

The 7th/6th century BC prophet Jeremiah sounded such themes consistently. We see it in Jeremiah 6:6-8: “This city must be punished; it is filled with oppression…Violence and destruction resound in her…Take warning, O Jerusalem, or I will turn away from you and make your land desolate so no one can live in it.” Jeremiah 7 is a hugely important passage, in which the prophet warns the complacent worshippers at the seemingly impregnable Temple that it and they would be ruined if they did not “amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place” (Jer 7:3).

At a theological level, we are claiming that even if one accepts a) a divine promise of land to the Jewish people as recorded in scripture, b) a belief that this promise extends even to this day, and c) the modern state of Israel as, in part, God’s gracious fulfillment of this promise, one must also say d) the Bible, in the prophetic writings, also teaches that persistent injustice on the part of Israel has evoked, and still can bring, God’s judgment, which can extend even to war and exile. Israel’s remaining in the land depends on Israel’s now doing justice to Palestinians and making peace with its Arab neighbors that surround Israel.
Indeed, Jesus, as prophet and Savior, also prophesied that Jerusalem would be destroyed because they did not know the practices that make for peace (Lk 19:41-44). And Jerusalem was destroyed, 40 years later. Do you not fear that it could happen again? Does not your love of Israel make you want to do all you can to prevent that from happening? And yet your actions actually make it more likely to happen!

III The Holy Land on the Precipice
Any visitor to this tortured Holy Land who avoids a sanitized Christian tour and actually visits with Palestinians, actually stands in the shadow of the Separation Wall, actually sees what military occupation looks and feels like, cannot but tremble at these biblical words of warning.
We are not Old Testament prophets, nor do we pretend to see the future. But we have seen enough to claim that the occupation practices of the modern state of Israel are a direct violation of the most basic biblical moral principles.

We genuinely fear that someday someone or some nation inflamed with resentment at the seemingly eternal Israeli subjugation of the Palestinian people will “make your land desolate so no one can live in it” (Jer 6:8). That sounds like a nuclear bomb. Have you heard of Mahmoud Ahmedinijad?

We will leave it to God to sort out with the Jewish people of the modern state of Israel the very complex terms of his covenant with them. But we cannot remain silent about the vast array of American Christians who support the most repressive and unjust Israeli policies in the name of Holy Land and a Holy God.

We plead with you, our brothers and sisters, to find a better way, a more biblical way, to love Israel. Love Israel enough to oppose rather than support actions that violate God’s clearly revealed moral will.

David P. Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics, Mercer University
Glen H. Stassen, Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics, Fuller Theological Seminary
Drs. Gushee and Stassen are co-authors of “Kingdom Ethics” (InterVarsity Press) and are members of the board of directors of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.
Read The Full Manifesto Here.

One response to “An Open Letter to America’s Christian Zionists From David P. Gushee and Glen H. Stassen

  1. It seems to me that mainstream evangelicals have always tended to read the Bible politically, so this looks like a marked retreat from that way of seeing it. The Bible is not so much about God’s relationship with various groups who have political identities (“We will leave it to God to sort out with the Jewish people of the modern state of Israel the very complex terms of his covenant with them”) but is now about “God’s clearly revealed moral will,” which is universal.

    All the talk about Abraham’s many children and the fact that Israel never had full control of the land is an attempt to discredit the political messages that evangelicals have been taking from the bible, but by itself it it puts forward no positive vision of how God wants the world to be organized (which used to include the idea that peace would come after some type of cataclysm). It is now rather vague calls for universal peace and justice which becomes the basis for a new political vision that displaces everything else.

    Along similar lines one sees attempts to try to align American evangelicals with political movements more concerned with promoting social justice and less with those seeking to maintain conservative christian social values. Both, it seems to me, tend to minimize Christianity itself as a political identity and instead advance it as a personal mandate to promote “God’s clearly revealed moral will.” These have succeed mostly with the younger generation of evangelicals – and I suspect the same will be true here.

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