Good friends... but are they true friends?

Here's a line you wouldn't have heard during many church sermons in the last, say, 2,000 years: "Father, we thank you for the Jews."

By NATHAN BURSTEIN
January 25, 2010 13:00
3 minute read.
Good friends... but are they true friends?

christians 298.88. (photo credit: ahmad gharabli )

 
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Here's a line you wouldn't have heard during many church sermons in the last, say, 2,000 years: "Father, we thank you for the Jews."



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Or: "We thank you for the fact that they're the Chosen People throughout history."



Yet, as surprising as such sentiments would have been to earlier generations, they've become commonplace in recent decades among tens of millions of American evangelicals - Christians for whom support of Jews and Israel has become not just a question of politics and morality, but a religious obligation.



The lines quoted above, for example, are spoken by the faithful in Waiting for Armageddon, a documentary opening Friday at the Cinema Village in New York's East Village that follows evangelicals both to churches around the country and on a study tour of Israel.



Articulate, informed and above all passionate, the film's Christian subjects offer insight into their 50-million-member community, ranging from its beliefs about divine prophecy and Jewish history, to the role those views could have on peace efforts in the Middle East.



"We felt that this was really an important topic, something that was escaping a large part of the population," says Franco Sacchi, one of the film's directors and producers. "They seemed not to be aware of this phenomenon of Christian passion for the End of Times and Israel."





For at least a subset of Israelis, the phenomenon is already familiar: Waiting for Armageddon notes that American evangelicals donate tens of millions of dollars to the country annually, and shows a clip of then-prime minister Ehud Olmert giving thanks via satellite to a large conference of Christians. Evangelicals, the film notes, have for years been among Israel's most dependable visitors, propping up the country's tourism industry during the second intifada, as well as in other periods of distress.



AT THE same time, as some of the interviewees make clear, that support comes attached to a very specific set of political ideas - ideas that could limit Israel's room for maneuver in foreign affairs, for example, and others that might strike many Jews as theologically problematic.



"With Orthodox Judaism, deep down inside," says Roy Sanders, the director of Christian Friends of Israel, "there's no love, there's no hope. There's no future."



Instead, many evangelicals believe, Jews will convert to Christianity or die - a development they expect to coincide with the beginning of Armageddon.



The need to support Israel, in this view, derives less from a love of Jews on their own terms than from a belief that Jews must control the biblical land of Israel - all of it - for the Second Coming to occur.



Perhaps most significantly, several of the influential evangelicals shown in the documentary - allies of figures like John McCain - would seek to constrain Israel's autonomy in peace talks, believing that a final and cataclysmic war must break out for New Testament prophecies to be fulfilled.



Rather than something to be prayed for, peace, in their view, represents a barrier to God's will.



Although he doesn't deny his own views on the topic, Sacchi says the filmmakers worked conscientiously to provide a fair depiction both of American evangelicals and of their skeptics. Portrayed by some opponents as ignorant and superstitious, evangelicals are represented in Waiting for Armageddon by a different set of faces. Along with believers from Oklahoma and Texas, the film also introduces viewers to James and Laura Bagg, a married pair of engineers from Connecticut, as well as believers from the consistently "blue" state of Oregon.



"The number one thing that we wanted to avoid was to ridicule or make fun of the evangelicals, because that would create a confrontation, not a debate," Sacchi says. "What we are looking for is a conversation. We are really hoping to break this barrier with the film, that people will see it and think and reflect on it."



TO ACHIEVE that end, Sacchi will appear alongside the film's other directors, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, at a pre-release discussion today, billed as an interfaith conversation about the evangelical movement.



Ultimately, Sacchi concedes, moviegoers' conclusions may be less important than those of Israelis, who must weigh the benefits of evangelical support against the various agendas that underlie it.



"That's a very difficult question," he says. "I don't have an answer. One thing that I learned from my time in Israel is that it is an incredibly lively society, where you will find all kinds of positions.... Certainly, we found Israelis who said that they are extremely grateful for this support. Others look at it in a very practical way, and others are much more cautious, [seeing it as] a recipe for disaster."



Not faced with an abundance of outside assistance, Israelis, he acknowledges, are faced with a complicated decision.



Nevertheless, he says, "it would be crazy to accept all kinds of help without looking at the deeper motives. I'm not saying not to accept help, but to pay attention and look at who it is who's giving it."

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