Israel, Palestinians & Mid-East

Dialogika Resources

An Open Letter to America's Christian Zionists

[from the NEPCG website]

Dear Christian Brothers and Sisters,

Greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We write to you about an urgent matter of common concern.

In a week or so, unless their plans change dramatically, Palestinian leaders will make a unilateral declaration of a State of Palestine based on the pre-1967 borders and will turn to the United Nations for a vote to recognize their new state.

The present Netanyahu government of Israel is, of course, totally opposed to this course of action on the part of the Palestinians. The United States government (predictably) shares this opposition. Both nations tell the Palestinians that the proper path to a state is through negotiations leading to an agreement that can settle all outstanding territorial and political issues. Palestinian leaders respond that they continue to support negotiations but that they can no longer pin all of their hopes on them.

This is because progress on that elusive peace agreement has been nonexistent for years. Of course, both sides blame each other for that lack of progress. But meanwhile, on a visit to the Occupied Territories this summer along with 50 students from Fuller Seminary who were studying just peacemaking (see, we were shown repeatedly how Israeli settlements (actually, planned cities and towns on occupied Palestinian land) are eating away at the territory that would belong to any viable Palestinian state. The Palestinians are convinced that the Netanyahu government in Israel is pursuing a strategy of delaying negotiations while creating facts on the ground that will make a Palestinian state impossible. A visitor to the increasingly encircled and truncated Palestinian territories can see these facts on the ground with his own eyes if he is willing to look. The Palestinian leadership believes that they had better declare statehood now before the territory for such a state completely disappears. It could be a high stakes showdown at the UN, with uncertain consequences in the aftermath.

Officially, Israel long ago entered into negotiations with Palestinian leaders toward a two-state solution. Unofficially, it appears that the current government in Israel is renouncing this path. Ideological rather than pragmatic factors are clearly contributing to this unofficial but visible renunciation. The most important ideological factor is the belief that Israel deserves the entirety of the land and that Palestinians have no legitimate claim on any part of it.

As you know, this belief is one form of what goes by the name “Zionism.” When it is religiously motivated, it is an especially powerful belief, because Israel’s “title” to every square inch of the land is believed to be granted by God in the Bible. We were told in Israel that the number of religious Jewish Zionists in Israel is today growing appreciably, and that many are to be found in the settlements on Palestinian land (which they do not accept is Palestinian land). It is hard to see how they will ever voluntarily leave their homes, even if Israel signs a peace agreement. In short: Israel has created the conditions for a civil war if they try to dismantle settlements, and for a Palestinian revolt or a wider Middle East war if they never end their occupation.

This letter, though, is not about religious Jewish Zionism and its destructive effects on Israeli policy. It is about the Christian version of the same belief. This Christian version of Zionism matters deeply, not just because theology intrinsically matters, but because it is overwhelmingly clear that American evangelical-fundamentalist Christian Zionism affects US policy toward Israel and the Palestinians in distressing ways. It is one reason why the United States stands almost alone in the world community in supporting Israeli policies which our international friends generally find intolerable if not immoral and illegal.

Not to put too fine a point on it, we wish to claim here that the prevailing version of American Christian Zionism—that is, your belief system—underwrites theft of Palestinian land and oppression of Palestinian people, helps create the conditions for an explosion of violence, and pushes US policy in a destructive direction that violates our nation’s commitment to universal human rights. In all of these, American Christian Zionism as it currently stands is sinful and produces sin. We write as evangelical Christians committed lifelong to Israel's security, and we are seriously worried about your support for policies that violate biblical warnings about injustice and may lead to the outcome you most fear—serious harm to or even destruction of Israel.

We write as evangelicals to you, our fellow evangelicals. On the shared basis of biblical authority, we ask you to reconsider your interpretation of Scripture, for the sake of God, humanity, the United States, and, yes, Israel itself, the Land and People we both love.

I. A Question of (Whose) Holy Land

We acknowledge that your evangelical-fundamentalist American Christian Zionism (henceforth simply “Christian Zionism”) is a product of a Christian community that loves and reads the Bible. This is on its face a good thing--for there appear to be fewer and fewer American Christians whose love of the Bible and whose devotion to reading it can be taken for granted. We commend your love for the scriptures.

Both now and in the past, whenever Christian Zionism emerges its essential origin is simply Christian reading of the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament. Our love of the Bible takes Christians into the pages of the Old Testament; there we cannot help but discover the centrality of a Promised Land for the Jewish people. The trajectory of the canonical Old Testament moves inexorably toward and away from the Promised Land—the patriarchal narratives in which a people and land are promised despite humble origins; enslavement in Egypt; the miraculous Exodus and grim wilderness wanderings under Moses; the conquest of the Promised Land; the establishment, split, and eventual conquest of Israel as a political entity; the Babylonian exile and dispersion of the Jewish people; and a partial return to the land, at which point the OT historical narrative ends.

Our Christian love for and identification with “the Holy Land” can and often does deepen through reading of the New Testament as well. The four Gospels, in particular, detail the journeys of Jesus through (Roman-subjugated) Israel, and many millions of Christians have cut their spiritual teeth on those stories. We have come to know and love Nazareth and Bethlehem, Capernaum and Cana and of course Jerusalem, because those are the places that Jesus walked. Having just visited Israel this summer, we can attest to the continuing power of these places to connect spiritually with Christians in surprisingly profound ways. Both of us found ourselves deeply affected, for example, by standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee where tradition holds that Jesus reinstated Peter after his denials. The intense spiritual impact of “walking where Jesus walked” continues to draw millions of Christians to Holy Land tours. Even in our jaded age, there is still power in spiritual pilgrimage to Holy Land—the Holy Land.

As devoted Christians, we share this love of the sacred lands of the biblical tradition with all who hold such love. We think that love of the Holy Land is far better than indifference to it. And both of us, as students of the long and terrible history of Christian anti-Semitism, which culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust, far prefer a strong sense of Christian kinship with the Jewish people and their historic homeland than the centuries-long Christian pattern of theological disdain and even hatred that so long predominated. The question then becomes not whether to love “Israel”—understood as the People and the Land—but how best to do so. We think this is a question that you will understand and want to answer properly, as we do.

We suggest to you that contemporary Christian Zionism is well-intentioned but needs correction at some very important points. This requires some careful biblical and theological work—from within the basic framework of evangelical Christianity. This means that the relevant scriptural texts need to be studied in detail, and that Christian theology needs to do its proper work with those texts.

For example, we suggest that Christian Zionists who move from a generalized love of Israel to a specific claim that the contemporary state of Israel has divine title to the entire Holy Land, need to take more seriously the complexity of what the Bible actually says about God’s promises to Abraham.

Genesis 15:18 reads: “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” The next verse goes on to name the various peoples to whom the land belonged at the time.

The territory denoted by the space between these two rivers includes modern-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, half of Iraq, half of Egypt, parts of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the modern state of Israel, as well as the occupied Palestinian territories.

A literal reading of the text that assumes that the descendants of Abram are only the Jewish people faces a problem here. Either God is not very good at keeping his promises, or God’s plan is for contemporary Israel ultimately to conquer all of these other countries and occupy their land. That would result in an Israel ruled by its 90% majority Arabs, or an Israel attempting to subjugate that 90% by force.

But the promise looks very different if we take seriously all of the offspring of Abraham. Genesis 15:4-5 has God taking Abram outside and telling him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars of the heavens. Genesis 17:4, probably the pivotal text, has God saying to Abraham: “This is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” Many nations, a multitude of nations; many offspring, many kings—read Genesis 17 again and see the plural nouns here.

Close readers of Scripture will know that in fact Abraham did become the father of many nations. With Sarah he became the father of Isaac and the ancestor of all in his line, via Jacob and Esau. With Hagar he became the father of Ishmael and all in his line. And with the long-forgotten Keturah (Gen. 25:1) he became the father of Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. The Old Testament clearly positions Abraham as the father/ancestor of not only the Jewish people but of a vast number of other peoples, all scattered through the territories promised in Genesis 15. Abraham becomes the father of dozens of peoples, exactly as the Bible says! It is certainly true that the Old Testament primarily tells the story of the line of Isaac and therefore of what became the Jewish people, but that cannot cancel the significance of the promises to Abraham and the many peoples credited to him in Genesis.

The New Testament makes an important move here as well. In Romans 4, Paul says that by faith non-Jews become Abraham’s descendants too: “The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe” (Rom 4:11). Europeans and Asians, Africans and Latin Americans, any who believe in Jesus enter the line of Abraham. This is why it is correct to say that (at least) Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all descendants of Abraham, all part of the Abrahamic family tree, some by birth, some by lineage, some by faith.

Perhaps you will respond by saying that God promises the land of Canaan specifically to the Jewish people. You might cite here Genesis 17:8: “I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding.” This interpretation would require restricting the “offspring” in question to Abraham’s offspring through Sarah via Isaac and then on to Jacob and excluding Esau. But the promise to possess the land includes the offspring of Isaac, and the offspring of Isaac includes Esau, with his five Edomite sons and their offspring, as Genesis 36 states, and that includes multitudes of Canaanites, not only Jews. It would also require the assumption that we know what Gen. 17 means territorially with the term “Canaan” and that it corresponds with the Zionist’s version of the proper boundaries of the modern state of Israel.

One other point from later in the Old Testament seems important to mention here. Even when the narrative moves forward into the book of Joshua, and the twelve tribes of Israel “conquer” the “Promised Land,” it is striking that the scriptures themselves acknowledge the ongoing presence of non-Hebrews in the land. Texts like this recur: “But the people of Judah could not drive out the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem; so the Jebusites live with the people of Judah in Jerusalem to this day” (Josh 15:63; compare Josh 13:13, 16:10, 17:12-13, 19:47).

Christians, even those who know their Bibles well, tend to think of the book of Joshua as containing the (bloody) fulfillment of the promise of the whole Land to Israel—the entire land is conquered by war, and then divided up among the tribes. A close reading shows that the Hebrew tribes shared the land for centuries with other groups, and that even when tribes were assigned certain portions of land, they didn’t necessarily control every square inch of it. The point is obvious later when it comes to the challenge posed by the Philistines. It is not an overstatement to say that the Israelite/Hebrew/Jewish people never had exclusive possession of the Holy Land, regardless of whatever divine promises they or we believe that they received.

II. Those Who Do Justice Keep Their Land

Let us now assume that God indeed promised the offspring of Abraham and Sarah via Isaac and Jacob a portion of the land between the Nile and the Euphrates. Let us even assume that this promise was intended by God to extend even to our own day and beyond. And let us further assume that in the dark shadow of the Holocaust it was an act of divine grace for a substantial portion of the surviving remnant of the Jewish people to have a modern-day homeland in the contemporary state of Israel. These are substantial assumptions that could be challenged for many reasons, but we are prepared to accept them, along with you.

But we do so while keeping in front of us another strand of relevant biblical teaching. The prophets, writing much later in Israel’s history, long after Israel had established substantial political kingdoms, warned repeatedly that God’s covenant with Israel has a dimension of conditionality to it. Whether preaching in the northern kingdom of Israel prior to the Assyrian conquest, or the southern kingdom of Judah prior to the Babylonian conquest and exile, Israel’s prophets repeatedly warned that God’s covenant promise of the land was conditional on her moral performance. In particular, the prophets warned that, in keeping with the stipulations of the Law, Israel would be judged by her treatment of the aliens in the land, of the poor, the widows, and the orphans.

The 7th/6th century BC prophet Jeremiah sounded such themes consistently. We see it in Jeremiah 6:6-8: “This city must be punished; it is filled with oppression…Violence and destruction resound in her…Take warning, O Jerusalem, or I will turn away from you and make your land desolate so no one can live in it.” Jeremiah 7 is a hugely important passage, in which the prophet warns the complacent worshippers at the seemingly impregnable Temple that it and they would be ruined if they did not “amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place” (Jer 7:3). Jeremiah warned: “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely…then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations?” (7:9-10). And the climax: “I will cast you out of my sight, just as I cast out all your kinfolk, all the offspring of Ephraim” (7:15).

Old Testament scholars have long recognized that a powerful, important, and dynamic tension exists in the OT between themes of a conditional and unconditional covenant between God and Israel. God has chosen Israel and made binding promises to her; and yet God has warned Israel that her persistent violation of her part of that covenant could trigger God’s judgment, including in war and in exile. And anyone who reads the Old Testament knows that war and exile came to Israel, that it was prophesied in advance as divine judgment, and described in retrospect in the same way.

At a theological level, we are claiming that even if one accepts a) a divine promise of land to the Jewish people as recorded in scripture, b) a belief that this promise extends even to this day, and c) the modern state of Israel as, in part, God’s gracious fulfillment of this promise, one must also say d) the Bible, in the prophetic writings, also teaches that persistent injustice on the part of Israel has evoked, and still can bring, God’s judgment, which can extend even to war and exile. Israel’s remaining in the land depends on Israel’s now doing justice to Palestinians and making peace with its Arab neighbors that surround Israel. Indeed, Jesus, as prophet and Savior, also prophesied that Jerusalem would be destroyed because they did not know the practices that make for peace (Lk 19:41-44). And Jerusalem was destroyed, 40 years later. Do you not fear that it could happen again? Does not your love of Israel make you want to do all you can to prevent that from happening? And yet your actions actually make it more likely to happen!

III The Holy Land on the Precipice

Any visitor to this tortured Holy Land who avoids a sanitized Christian tour and actually visits with Palestinians, actually stands in the shadow of the Separation Wall, actually sees what military occupation looks and feels like, cannot but tremble at these biblical words of warning.

We are not Old Testament prophets, nor do we pretend to see the future. But we have seen enough to claim that the occupation practices of the modern state of Israel are a direct violation of the most basic biblical moral principles. It is immoral to steal anything, including people’s land, homes, and vineyards. It is immoral to dehumanize people, as occurs daily at Israeli checkpoints. It is immoral to choke people’s freedom and deprive them of their dignity. And it is foolish, a violation of every lesson of history, to think that through sheer intimidation and superior military power a people can be subjugated indefinitely without rising up in resistance or attracting more powerful allies who will do so on their behalf. God gave humanity a recognition of justice and a nearly endless capacity to resist injustice. It is wired into our nature, and the Palestinian people and the neighboring countries have it just like everyone else does.

We genuinely fear that someday someone or some nation inflamed with resentment at the seemingly eternal Israeli subjugation of the Palestinian people will “make your land desolate so no one can live in it” (Jer 6:8). That sounds like a nuclear bomb. Have you heard of Mahmoud Ahmedinijad? While in the Middle East we heard from Palestinian leaders a current commitment to pursue their cause nonviolently. We applaud that commitment. We see it as an extraordinary one under the circumstances. We fear that it cannot last forever, for no people will allow itself to be ground into the dust indefinitely. What are you doing to end their suffering and bring justice to them?

We will leave it to God to sort out with the Jewish people of the modern state of Israel the very complex terms of his covenant with them. But we cannot remain silent about the vast array of American Christians who support the most repressive and unjust Israeli policies in the name of Holy Land and a Holy God. We charge that you bear grave responsibility for aiding and abetting obvious sin, and if Israel once again sees war, we suggest that you will bear part of the responsibility. Christians are called to be peacemakers (Mt 5:9), but by offering uncritical support of current Israeli policies you are actively inflaming the Middle East toward war—in the name of God. This is appalling; it is intolerable; it must stop!

We plead with you, our brothers and sisters, to find a better way, a more biblical way, to love Israel. Love Israel enough to oppose rather than support actions that violate God’s clearly revealed moral will. And while you are at it, it might be good to work on loving the Palestinians, some of whom are also our Christian sisters and brothers. When you visit Israel, we urge you to visit with Palestinian Christians and ask them what they want us, their fellow Christians, to support. For they surely need our love. And we are surely commanded to love them, too.

In the name of Christ,

David P. Gushee, Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics, Mercer University
Glen H. Stassen, Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics, Fuller Theological Seminary

Drs. Gushee and Stassen are co-authors of "Kingdom Ethics" (InterVarsity Press) and are members of the board of directors of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.