Overcoming Christian Zionism in the quest for justice
With reference to Nehemiah 2:20 and Psalm 87
The two weeks from November 15th to 30th 2013, changed my life. Thanks to the support of this congregation, I got to say YES to an experience I never expected to have, and, to quote a song by Carol Etzler, written in the 1970’s, `Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn’t been opened.’ My pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine opened my eyes, and my heart and mind. In fact, I’ve already booked three more opportunities to share my pilgrimage through photos and stories with congregations in the Shuswap between June and November on my `days off’.
A few weeks ago, as part of my continuing education, I attended a follow- up Conference in Vancouver called, “Seeking the Peace of Jerusalem: Overcoming Christian Zionism in the quest for justice”
A couple definitions might be helpful before we go any further. (from Wikipedia)
Zionism is a nationalist and political movement of Jews and Jewish culture that supports the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in the territory defined as the historic Land of Israel (also referred to as Palestine, Canaan or the Holy Land).
Christian Zionism is a belief among some Christians that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land, and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, is in accordance with Biblical prophecy. The term began to be used in the mid-20th century… Some Christian Zionists believe that the gathering of the Jews in Israel is a prerequisite for the Second Coming of Jesus.
So, why bring this up in church? And what’s the problem with it anyway? Our church inherited a legacy of `covenant replacement or supersession’, a particular way of reading the gospels and epistles that said Christians were the new chosen people, the Jews were out. “Besides, they killed Jesus”, so the argument went. This has led to centuries of anti-Semitism, culminating most obviously and horrifically in the last century with the Holocaust.
As a strong counterbalance, my theological training made it very clear that the covenant was NOT taken from the Jews, but now included non-Jews – followers of the way of Jesus, himself a Jew, who lived and taught within the Jewish tradition.
Aware of our historical complicity in anti-Semitism, and our own country’s deplorable attitude toward Jewish immigrants during the war, fueled by collective guilt and a movement known as Christian Zionism, we now find ourselves living in a country with strong sympathetic leanings toward the State of Israel, and a Prime Minister who recently declared that “Israel has no better friend in the world than Canada.”
But we are still seriously out of balance; justice has not been achieved. This past Friday, May 15th marked the Nakba (Arab word for catastrophe) – the great destruction, of 1948 where untold numbers of Palestinians were killed and 750,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes, farms, and family, with the creation of the State of Israel. Many have been living in refugee camps ever since. For the past 67 years, Palestinians whose families have lived in the Holy Land for centuries have been forgotten and forsaken by the wider world. The land they occupied has been reduced to a tiny fraction of its original size, the State of Israel continues to build illegal Jewish-only settlements on Palestinian land, demolish Palestinian homes, farms and entire villages. This is all completely illegal according to the United Nations, but with strong friends like Canada and the US, Israel gets away with it.
What land does remain as Palestinian territory is chopped by a monstrous 30 foot high wall called a `security fence,’ and the area known as the Gaza strip, has been subjected to three major bombing raids since 2009, including last summer’s attacks that killed over 2000 people, nearly 500 of those were children, and most of the adults were civilians. In the attack, hospitals, schools and homes were destroyed and Israel continues to prevent supplies for reconstruction to enter Gaza.
There are many factors that contribute to this, but Christian Zionism plays a large part. With its insistence that the creation of the State of Israel fulfills Biblical prophecy and heralds the return of Jesus, quite frankly it really doesn’t care what happens to the Palestinians. The establishment of a Jewish homeland is at the expense and the expendability of Palestinians.
As Christians we have a right and a responsibility to show a different way – a way of justice and equity for all people living in the Holy Land – Jews and Palestinians alike.
So, what can we do? We need to be more biblically literate. We need to challenge scripture, especially scripture that promotes violence, intolerance, excusive favour. Naim Ateek, who was the leader of Sabeel, the Palestinian Christian Liberation theology movement for 25 years, closed our conference with worship that included Nehemiah 2:20 and Psalm 87. When he read Nehemiah 2:20 where Nehemiah tells his critics, `We are the chosen ones, you have no right in Jerusalem’, Naim, said, “This is NOT the word of the Lord!” He then went on to read Psalm 87, where God says, “Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; behold, Philistia and Tyre, with Ethiopia – This one was born there they say.” And of Zion (the city of God) it shall be said, “This one and that one were born in her; for the Most High God will establish her.” Do you know what is significant about those named here? They are ALL historic enemies of clan of Israel! And here is God saying, this is your home, this is your birthright! WOW. Now that is gospel. That is good news.
By the way, Jesus never quoted Numbers, Joshua, Judges – the most exclusive books in the Hebrew scriptures; Jesus was never punitive or exclusive in his ministry.
We need to work with allies. At the conference two of our guest speakers were Rabbis, working with the Jewish Voice for Peace – a growing group of Jews in the US who are appalled at the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians. We had Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians. The woman who helped me at the registration table was part of Independent Jewish Voices, a Canadian group of Jews who are speaking and acting against the human rights abuses in Israel.
The big surprise for me was we had a group of young evangelical Christians who were speaking out against Christian Zionism – some had been on mission trips to the Holy Land, and came back changed, as I had been. Outside the Conference we were protested by the Jewish Defence League of Canada. The JDL (from Wikipedia) is a Jewish far-right religious-political organization whose stated goal is to “protect Jews from antisemitism by whatever means necessary”. While the group asserts that it “unequivocally condemns terrorism” and states that it has a “strict no-tolerance policy against terrorism and other felonious acts”, it was classified as “a right-wing terrorist group” by the FBI in 2001 and is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
They were joined by some Christian Zionists. Knowing they (JDL) have a history of violence, it was somewhat disturbing to have them present, even though we had the luxury of having four Vancouver police officers on site the whole time. More than that, it just made my heart ache. I’ve spend much of my adult life trying to understand what led to the atrocities in Nazi Germany. I’ve forced myself to watch movies about the Holocaust, and learn what I can, and here I was at a Conference with a militant group of Jews calling us the `terrorists’, while inside, Muslims, Christians and Jews called for peace and justice for Palestinians and Jews together.
We need to challenge Islamophobia and Christian Zionism. When we hear about Muslims in the media, we are told about the most militant and extreme; we are not given balance with the millions of Muslims who want virtually what we all want – to live peacefully, to enjoy their families, to be treated with justice and fairness.
In terms of Christian Zionism, with its focus in the region only on achieving the second coming of Christ, it contradicts the Christian principles of love, mercy, justice and peace.
We can learn about and take part in the BDS campaign. BDS stands for Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions. BDS is credited with helping bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa. It is a non-violent way to say, we are paying attention, and we will not support companies that shore up a government that continuously breaks international law.
In this past week (May 12th), I’ve learned that the Harper government is signalling its intention to use hate crime laws against Canadian advocacy groups that encourage boycotts of Israel.
The government’s intention was made clear in a response to inquiries from CBC News about statements by federal ministers of a “zero tolerance” approach to groups participating in (BDS), which was begun in 2006 at the request of Palestinian non-governmental organizations, and was approved and promoted by the General Council of the United Church of Canada.
Tyler Levitan, a spokesman for Independent Jewish Voices, the principal organizing vehicle for BDS in Canada, said he believes he and his fellow organizers are already under surveillance: “This is about trying to scare people.”
He said BDS is an “entirely passive movement. It is a decision not to take part in something. Not to be implicated, not to be complicit. It’s entirely non-violent.”
Patti Talbot, a senior staff member at the UCC says, “It is the right and duty of citizens in any free state to engage in constructive non-violent peaceful criticism of state actions and behaviours. The church sees itself as anti-racist and progressive, which is why it was horrified by the government’s description of its advocacy as anti-Semitism, and worried by the declaration of zero tolerance.
This past week, Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu addressed the church in Germany, telling them, “BDS is not antisemitism. Do business with Jews, organize with them, love them. But don’t support – militarily, economically or politically – the machinery of an apartheid-state. We can’t do business as normal because conditions in the Holy Land are totally abnormal.”
What else can we do? Help support the Advent Peace boxes with fair trade organic olive oil and products from Palestinian farmers. And pray. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and all the Holy Land. Pray for Christians, Muslims, Jews and others – who are committed to peace, justice and reconciliation through non-violence in Palestine and Israel.
Go, go and see for yourselves – I promise it will change your life. As Psalm 87 says, “the Most High God says, you and you and you…. were born there.”