The History and Modern Manifestation of Christian Zionism (by Jon Huckins)
Although we had only met each other a few days before, my Arab Palestinian friend Milad (who lives in the West Bank) looked at me with tears welling up in his eyes and said, “I am a Christian. I believe in Jesus the Messiah. Why do people in your country think I am a terrorist?” I was left speechless, confused and sad.
The next day, while watching a group of American Christians pray for their breakfast before beginning their day of touring the Holy Lands, Milad asked me, “How can Christians pray for their breakfast, while completely ignoring the oppression of their brothers and sisters just minutes away on the other side of the Separation Wall?” Milad’s story is the embodiment of the tragic theological and socio-political consequences of Christian Zionism. Worst of all, I quickly realized my complicity with Christian Zionism enabled the cycle of violence and oppression directed towards my friend and Christian brother to continue.
In today’s religious and political circles, the term “Christian Zionism” is being used on a daily basis. For some, this term represents a normative and biblically accurate theology of the Middle East. Others condemn Christian Zionism as fueling unjust possession of land and violent oppression of innocent people. But what really is Christian Zionism and where did it come from? In order to pave a way forward, we must first examine the road behind.
Christian Zionism has become the normative theology of the Middle East in American and much of the West. Many of us have read the fictional Left Behind series and we are constantly surrounded by “prophetic” announcements that tie the State of Israel with “end time” events (known as the eschaton). It would be easy to assume that not only is this theology unquestionably accurate, but that it has been around for much of church history. American Christians have the responsibility to question both assumptions. If not for the sake of their own theological understanding, then for the massive number of people who are victims of the immoral and unjust actions that daily take place in as a result of Christian Zionism.
Christian Zionism put simply, is the belief that all Jews must return to the biblical land of Israel in order for the end time events – which culminate in Jesus’ return – to unfold. For this group, the modern State of Israel is viewed as synonymous with Israel of the Bible and Christians are to support such a return at any cost.
In light of 2000 years of church history, this theology is extremely new as it found it’s most prominent development in the mid 19th century under the English dispensationalist, John Darby. He ended up spending 40% of his life in the United States and his theology – which argues that God’s plan for humanity is divided into multiple “dispensations” or chapters in which Israel and the Church are separate and fulfill God’s purposes in different dispensations – was adopted by D.L. Moody, Dallas Theological Seminary and was canonized in the writing of the Scofield Reference Bible. Scofield’s commentary was embraced as second only to the Biblical text and by the 1950’s 50% of protestant seminarians in America studied with the Scofield Reference Bible.
From here, Christian Zionist theology entered and fueled much of Western policy in the Middle East, interpreting support of the modern State of Israel as assurance of national blessing come judgment day. In short, a relatively new theology has captured the majority of Western Christians and fueled politics that offer unbending support of a State that has displaced and oppressed millions of innocent people. Such a reality has done extensive harm to historic biblical theology and the redemptive work found in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Further, it has reduced humans made in the image of God to “obstacles” in the way of establishment of the State of Israel and cast a pervasive and inaccurate prejudice over the Arab world.
While there is need for an extensive reorienting of Western theology and eschatology – or simply a return to historic Christianity – around the unifying work of the cross and the reality of God’s kingdom as was inaugurated in Jesus, my goal here is to briefly outline the history and modern manifestations of Christian Zionism. In our reorientation I pray that we will repent from an eschatology that doesn’t allow us to take seriously the two greatest biblical commands to love God and love neighbor. There must be peace and equality for both inhabitants of Israel and of Palestine. The God of the Bible as was revealed in Jesus will not make justice through injustice, nor will he make peace through violence. Dr. Salim Munayer, professor at Bethlehem Bible College, once said, “Any theology that promotes the oppression of neighbor or enemy isn’t Biblical.”
Jon Huckins is a veteran youth pastor and public school teacher who is now on staff with NieuCommunities, a collective of missional church communities who foster leadership and community development. After much international travel and study in the Middle East, Jon focuses much of his writing and graduate studies at Fuller Seminary on ethics and social advocacy. He writes for numerous publications including Red Letter Christians and Burnside Writer’s Collective and his book Teaching Through the Art of Storytelling. He lives in San Diego with his wife Jan, daughter Ruby and three legged dog named Harry. Jon blogs at www.jonhuckins.net. You can also follow Jon on Twitter and Facebook. For a more in depth look at Christian Zionism and its implications in the Israel/Palestine, check out Red Letter Christians where Jon will be posting a three part series on the topic.