Some Christians get it

I don’t doubt the religious sincerity of libera Protestants; they wish to see the world made better and believe that they possess the prescription to bring this about.

Christians in Jerusalem 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Christians in Jerusalem 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
This Succot I found myself accompanying a busload of Christian pilgrims who had come to Israel from many countries to participate in the annual Festival of Tabernacles organized by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. I was asked to serve as an educator and to coordinate a visit to the community of Itamar and the recently upgraded Tel Shilo archeological site, both deep inside Samaria.
About one-third of this entourage of 45 tourists was visiting Israel for the first time. The rest, I learned, had been to Israel multiple times, mostly to attend this festival that now regularly draws some 5,000 participants.
This Christian group was a change for me. Generally the Christians with whom I meet in Efrat represent Protestant churches that reject the legitimacy of Israel’s post-1967 administration of east Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria.
These delegations typically spend most of their five- to 10-day visits in the Palestinian Authority-administered areas. Following their experiences there, they come to Efrat for approximately one hour to, in their words, “learn about the conflict from both sides.”
Many in these “protest tourism” groups identify with the 2009 Kairos Palestine document that states: “We declare that any theology, seemingly based on the Bible or on faith or on history, that legitimizes the occupation, is far from Christian teachings, because it calls for violence and holy war in the name of God Almighty, subordinating God to temporary human interests, and distorting the divine image in the human beings living under both political and theological injustice.”
But the Christians with whom I spent an inspiring day during Succot maintain significantly different beliefs. I will not speculate here about their supposed ulterior motives. If such motives were harbored by those with whom I met, they did a remarkable job of hiding them.
These were Evangelical Christian Zionists. The next morning’s Jerusalem Post featured an article about the festival, in which two pilgrims were quoted thusly: “Real Christians know that this is the land God gave the Jewish people, and we know they are God’s people,” and, “For me, it’s great to stand together with the Jewish people and to proclaim that Jerusalem belongs to the Jewish people. It’s the capital city of Israel and it belongs to them and no one else. As a Christian, this is really in my heart.”
Comparing my experience over Succot with the many liberal church groups with whom I parley in Efrat, I ask myself: “Who is a Christian?” Unlike the fundamental theological differences among Jewish denominations, most identifying as Christians, both the liberal Protestants who populate the political Left and their more politically conservative counterparts on the Right, affirm the divinity of their Bible. They have faith in the Gospels and believe they directly impart God’s message to humankind.
But the Christian Bible has nothing to say about the stewardship over the Land of Israel bestowed by God upon the People of Israel in an eternal covenant. That covenant is strictly an “Old Testament,” or Hebrew Bible, idea.
There it dominates no less than fully four-fifths of the first five books, Exodus through Deuteronomy, and remains resonant throughout, up to and including all the books of the Prophets.
Furthermore, although it is not generally emphasized in Christian Bible classes, not only Jesus but virtually all the figures in the Christian Bible, except for the Romans, are Jews. And the entire account of Jesus’s activities is told against the background of Jewish life in the Galilee and Judea, which is the Land of Israel. (The name “Palestine” was only grafted onto the Land of Israel by the Roman Emperor Hadrian around 135 CE.) While liberal Protestants tend to overlook this information, their Evangelical co-religionists do not.
The former are uncomfortable with the “dry legalisms” of the Hebrew Bible and its account of Israel’s many bloody battles against the surrounding nations; they warm only to the Prophets’ call for justice and visions of peace.
Many liberal Protestant denominations minimize, if not deny, the connection between the Hebrew Bible and their Testament. They subscribe to a “replacement theology” that posits that the Christian church has replaced national Israel with respect to the plan, purpose and promises of God and that the ritual laws prescribed in the Hebrew Bible, the Halacha, are no longer relevant.
Often when speaking before groups of liberal Christians I have been confronted with the question: “Doesn’t the Hebrew Bible demand that you practice social justice and that you welcome and comfort the stranger?” Or in other words, are not you Jews, you Israelis, in violation of your own religious code through your mistreatment of Palestinians? The tone in which this question is asked is often supercilious and self-righteous.
CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIANS, I believe, are as equally concerned about the practice of social justice.
On the bus last week I was told by a member of the group that she prays for the peace and welfare of both Israel and the Palestinians, and I am sure that this woman was sincere. However, these Christians are far more fluent and interested in the text of the Hebrew Bible than are most liberal Protestants I have encountered.
Many Evangelicals today, irrespective of their vision of the “End of Days,” are theologically committed to the lasting authority of God’s covenant with the seed of Abraham. And this covenant, they are certain, descends through Isaac and his offspring, not through Ishmael as Muslims contend.
From such Christians I am as likely to field a question about the significance of the tzitzit that I wear and their single blue thread, or about some detail regarding the manner in which Jews observe Shabbat, as about the rationale for Israel’s security barrier. They don’t equivocate over the motivation for Palestinian terrorism; they see it for what it is.
I don’t doubt the religious sincerity of liberal Protestants. They wish to see the world made better and believe that they possess the prescription to bring this about. But while their convictions may be earnest, they fail to recognize the irony, in an era of regnant pluralism, of their continuing struggle with Israel’s unique covenantal relationship with God when at the same time their more conservative Christian brethren have succeeded in weaving this relationship into their eschatological system.
In some Protestants, especially those involved with the activities of Jerusalem’s Sabeel Center, the home of “Christian Liberation Theology,” I have detected subdued anger and even hints of doctrinal anti-Semitism when I have cited the Sinaitic Covenant as proof of Israel’s eternal tie to the Land. Other liberal Protestants, I suspect, ignore this covenant altogether as they have come to conflate humanist and universal values with their Christian identity.
This results in a fuzzy theology in which man is at the center and a less obvious God remains in the background. This is a God who is there to make reference to when doing so is useful or necessary, but what matters most to Christians of this stripe is for everyone to treat each other with justice and compassion.
All effort to find instruction in the biblical text beyond that one idea, be it the Hebrew or the Christian Bible, are rendered moot, including Israel’s claim to the land.
Traveling back through Samaria to Jerusalem on the bus as the sun was beginning to set I taught the group a melody for the Hebrew words of the Psalms that are sung in the synagogue during the holiday.
These praise the one God who blesses Israel. And so did these pilgrims.
The author is the director of iTalk- Israel and lives in Efrat.