Christians and the new state of Israel

8 05 2012


“Centuries of European anti-Semitism came to their awful climax in the Holocaust (or, in Hebrew, the Shoah), when six million European Jews died. . . The Jews, millions felt, must have a homeland. Uganda was proposed. So was part of Argentina. But most Jews knew that only their ancient homeland, promised by God to Abraham, possessed by Joshua, would do. Many thousands had already emigrated there, often in defiance first of Turkish rule and then of the British mandate. In May 1948 the United Nations set up the new state of Israel.

Many of the early Jewish settlers genuinely believed the land was empty. ‘A land without people for a people without a land’ was their slogan. This, however, was far from the truth. The Palestinians were neither numerous nor strong, but they existed, real people living in real houses on real farms, running real businesses. They were ordered out, often with threats, sometimes with actual violence. In typical instances, they were given half an hour to get ready, and then bussed away, either over the border into Jordan (thereby creating huge new problems for that neighbour) or into specified towns such as Nazareth. They were not allowed back. To this day there are Jews living in those Palestinians’ houses, tilling their fields, sleeping in their beds, eating off their china, and quite likely quoting Deuteronomy to back it all up…

I sense a responsibility to do at the end of this book is to outline what all this means for the Christian pilgrim going to the Holy Land today. There are thousands, perhaps millions of Christians in the world – I regularly meet them, read their writings, and get accosted by them after addressing meetings or services – who passionately believe that the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland, climaxing in 1948 and building on from there, is the God-given fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. Many such people cherish particular schemes of what are referred to as the ‘end times’. In such scenarios, texts from Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation are brought together in schematic form and applied to twentieth-century political realities. They are regularly used to indicate that the long exile of the Jewish people, dating back to the destructions of Jerusalem first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans, will finally be undone, and that the new Jewish existence in Palestine, coming into public acceptance in 1948 and growing thereafter, will herald the dawn of the final day when Jesus Christ will return, will fight the great battle at Armageddon, and will set up his kingdom once and for all. The details vary with different interpretations, but the overall scheme is well known. . .

One of the specific things on which the New Testament insists, again and again, is that in the life, death and supremely the resurrection of Jesus the promised new age has dawned. The return from exile has happened. ‘All the promises of God’, says Paul in 2 Corinthians 1.20, ‘find their “yes” in him.’ This is in fact the great Return, even though it doesn’t look like people had thought it would. Instead of Israel as a political entity emerging from political exile, we are invited in the gospel to see Israel-in-person, the true king, emerging from the exile of death itself into God’s new day. That is the underlying rationale for the mission to the Gentiles: God has finally done for Israel what he was going to do for Israel, so now it’s time for the Gentiles to come in. That, too, is the underlying rationale for the abolition of the food laws and the holy status of the land of Israel: a new day has dawned in God’s purposes, and the symbols of the previous day are put aside, not because they were a bad thing, now happily rejected, but because they were the appropriate preparatory stages in God’s plan, and have now done their work. When I became a man, I put away childish things. Lift up your eyes, says Paul in Romans 8, and see how the promises to Abraham are to be fulfilled: not simply by a single race coming eventually to possess a single holy strip of turf, but by the liberation of the whole cosmos, with the beneficiaries, the inheritors of the promise, being a great number from every race and tribe and tongue, baptized and believing in Jesus Christ and indwelt by his Spirit.

To suggest, therefore, that as Christians we should support the state of Israel because it is the fulfilment of prophecy is, in a quite radical way, to cut off the branch on which we are sitting. It is directly analogous to the mistake of the Galatians, who thought that if they were members of Abraham’s family they should go the whole way and get circumcised. It is similar to the mistake of which the Reformers accused the mediaeval Catholics, of supposing that in every Mass they were actually re-crucifying Jesus, when Jesus’ death had been once and for all, never to be repeated, on Calvary. It is a way of saying that in the cross and resurrection God did not actually fulfil his whole saving purpose; that Jesus did not in fact achieve the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy; that his resurrection was not the start of God’s new age; that Acts is wrong, Romans is wrong, Galatians is wrong, the letter to the Hebrews is wrong, Revelation is wrong. Say that if you like, but don’t claim to be Christian in doing so.

In particular, as pilgrims we must take with the utmost seriousness the fact that almost all Christians living in the Holy Land today are Palestinians. Yes, there are some Jewish Christians, some brave souls living their faith openly, and, I have it on good authority, many others who practise their allegiance to Jesus as Messiah behind locked doors, as certain of their forebears did between the first Easter and the first Pentecost. But most of those who worship God in Christ day by day and week by week in the Holy Land today are Palestinian Arabs: people like Elias Chacour, Naim Ateek and Audeh Rantisi, all Anglican priests (which is why I happen to know them), who have had the courage to speak up and speak out for justice and freedom, for justice for Jews and Arabs alike, to speak out against torture, against the building of new settlements, against the systematic brutalization of a whole people which then provokes more of the violence it condemns.

What does it do to Christians like that when they see massive American funding pouring in to the state of Israel, sustaining the regime that is oppressing them? What does it do to them when they hear again and again that many Christians are backing the state that is doing its best to eliminate them? Many Palestinian Christians are now in exile, in America or elsewhere, and do not expect…”

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