The most recent issue of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies(Winter, 2009) is devoted to a symposium entitled, “Evangelical-Jewish Relations: Politics, Policy and Theology.” (unfortunately, this journal does not publish its articles on line, but you can purchase a copy from their website.)
As usual, the clearest and most helpful piece, in my view, was by the phenomenally prolific historian of American Christianity, Martin E. Marty.
Marty explains the origins of what we now know as “evangelical Christianity”(a category that describes somewhere between 25% and 45% of American Christians) and its relationship to fundamentalism, in particular to a brand of fundamentalism called premillenial dispensationalism. Marty just spent twenty years directing a huge project involving hundreds of experts studying fundamentalist groups –Christian Jewish and Muslim. He is able to view this topic in the context both of American history and of religious fundamentalism worldwide.
First, Marty identifies the obvious focus of this conversation. “It is likely that there would not be Evangelical-Jewish conferences at all were it not for interests in Israel that are common to both.” As he notes, “Jews who find support of Israel on the part of some other Protestants to be marked by vagueness, criticism, or half-heartedness, tend to regard Protestant fundamentalists as potential allies….Jews would never have had”
He then traces the emergence of Christian Zionism within fundamentalist Christianity to the late 19th century, long before most Jews were committed to creating a Jewish state in Palestine. Marty sees it as a “novel” idea, a case of “selective retrieval.” He argues that the biblical texts cited by Christian Zionists are either extremely rare or “subject to amillenial, postmillenial, and alternative… interpretations.” The dispensational interpretation that linked the establishment of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel to the second coming was, in Marty’s words, “anything but literal.”
The irony, ofcourse, is that evangelical Christian supporters of Israel often are “more insistent than most Jews, including many Zionists, that a certain set of boundaries of the “holy Land” were set by God.”
Marty ends his piece on a note of bemusement, wondering along with many others how Jews can “wholeheartedly accept and honor groups whose vision of the outcome of history inclues either[their} conversion or destruction(even in hell).
Richard L. Rubenstein, a distinguished Jewish theologian and scholar of the Nazi Holocaust, writes a response to Marty that concludes the issue. He makes it clear that he does not believe in a God who acts in history, so he does not share the theological assumptions, either Jewish or Christian, that would see Jewish sovereignty as part of God’s plan.
Nevertheless, he believes that many in the mainline Protestant denominations are “unwilling to confront the true complexity,” that there are those in the Muslim world working toward “a second Shoa.” Facing a battle for our very survival, Jews should welcome allies such as Pastor John Hagee whom he quotes approvingly as saying “let’s walk together in support of Israel and defense of the Jewish people.”
Not one of the articles in this journal issue grapples seriously with what appears to be a basic unexamined assumption of the entire conversation, i.e. that uncritical support for Jewish governance of the historic Land of Israel(usually understood as comprising the expansive post-67 boundaries) is actually in the best interests of the Jewish people.
There exists a lively conversation amongst some Jews–in Israel and the diaspora–debating that very question. What is the best way to insure a future for the Jewish people? This conversation is absent from the current volume. Also missing is a recognition of how closely linked this brand of Christian Zionism often is to a kind of Islamaphobia. (For more on that concern, see Chapter Five of Stephen Spector’s new book, Evangelicals and Israel: The Story of American Christian Zionism from Oxford University Press.)
That said, I commend the issue of JES, in particular the informative and thoughtful article by Martin Marty. (If you want to learn more about this topic, there is also a 2007 anthology edited by Alan Mittleman, Nancy Isserman and Byron Johnson, Uneasy Allies? Evangelical and Jewish Relations.)
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