An Open Letter to America’s Christian Zionists
A Response by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem
On September 19, 2011 Dr. David P. Gushee and Dr. Glen H. Stassen released An Open Letter to America’s Christian Zionists. In this letter the authors laid out a largely flawed case claiming that Christian Zionists are not only sinful but produce sin and will be the cause of any upcoming war against Israel including a nuclear attack by Iran.
May this Response by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem begin to provide some of the needed correction. The ICEJ writes from the vantage point of being located “on the ground” in Jerusalem from where we have been engaged in the issues raised in the Letter, as well as with the various people groups involved in those issues, Jewish and Arab, for 31 years.
The Underlying Attitude of the Document
The underlying attitude of the document is shocking and should be of a great concern to the respected Fuller Theological Seminary. To suggest that Israel deserves a devastating war and nuclear annihilation and that Christian Zionists are “aiding and abetting” Israel’s sin thereby causing any future war and possible nuclear wipe-out is a position that Fuller Seminary urgently needs to distance itself from.
This attitude directly justifies the nuclear build up in Iran and an Islamic agenda to annihilate Israel as God’s way to “sort out the Jewish people of the modern state of Israel.” It is with this attitude that the authors begin laying out a questionable theology and a narrow political position that ignores much of the historical context of the current Arab Israeli conflict.
The Analysis of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
The first thing that becomes evident in the authors’ opening recap of the present day situation is their over simplification of complex issues that have long histories. The authors do not seem to take this history into consideration which makes the reader wonder if they even know it.
Their claim that the Palestinian leadership had to declare statehood at the UN now “before the territory for such a state completely disappears” [due to settlement growth] is so inaccurate it is shocking. No new settlements have been built for several years, a number have been dismantled and all settlement growth is natural growth and must be inside current settlement borders. In addition, the current settlement block takes up less than 4% of the West Bank. That is a far cry from eating up all of the Palestinian territory!
Settlements have never been an impediment to peace between Israel and her neighbors. In 1982 she uprooted 18 settlements in the Sinai when it was returned to Egypt. In 2005, even though the Palestinians would not negotiate a deal, Israel uprooted all 21 settlements in Gaza and unilaterally withdrew. But since the bulk of the West Bank settlements are near Jerusalem and have become urban areas with over 200,000 Israeli citizens living there Israel wants to keep that bloc when they negotiate an agreement with the Palestinians. In return, they have offered a land swap from inside the green line to compensate for the 4% they want to keep.
The authors refer to the Settlements as “creating facts on the ground” but failed to mention the Palestinian request to the UN to declare statehood based on the “1967 borders” (1949 armistice lines) as a ploy to create facts on the ground.
They also said that the Palestinian leaders “support negotiations” but the “current” Israeli government is said to be renouncing the path of negotiations. This completely ignores the facts. Netanyahu has consistently invited the Palestinians to the negotiating table without preconditions and they refuse to go. He did this many times but notably in 2010 at his Bar Ilan speech and in his Knesset speech, as well as in 2011 before the US Congress in May and before the UN in September when he invited Abbas to begin negotiations that very day.
Nevertheless, the authors blame the lack of negotiations on the ideology of the Netanyahu government: Zionism. What is missing is any reference to the refusal of the Palestinians to recognize Israel’s right to exist and their decades long use of violence aimed at her eradication.
A review of the history suggests that the real reason peace negotiations have failed is because the Palestinians don’t want to live side-by-side in peace with Israel. Instead, they want to get rid of Israel altogether. Because of Zionism? No, because of the Islamist ideology that refuses to accept Jewish sovereignty on any land that was at one time under the domain of Islam.
There is no other explanation for the refusal of the Palestinians to negotiate peace with Israel. In fact, Hamas’ Charter is clear that this is the reason they will not negotiate with Israel and Hamas is now a part of the Palestinian government.
This may explain why both Arafat and Abbas turned down previous offers of statehood and why Abbas refuses to begin negotiations now. Abbas does not want to go down in history as the Arab leader who recognized Israel as a Jewish State on what was once Islamic land. So he has cleverly devised a plan to get statehood without recognizing Israel.
Ignoring this history, the authors blame it on Zionism and then segue to their focus on Christian Zionism which they refer to as “American evangelical-fundamentalist Christian Zionism.” This narrow designation negates the millions of Christians from countries other than America who support Israel and it disregards the long history of Christian Zionism which predates and reaches far beyond “evangelical-fundamentalism” of today.
The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem has branches in over 60 nations and organizes the annual Christian solidarity event known as the Feast of Tabernacles in Israel each fall.
Christian pilgrims come from over 80 countries to show their love for Israel and the Jewish people. This event itself demonstrates that wherever the Bible is read, there are Christians who understand the significance of the Jewish people and want to bless them and stand with them.
While all branches of Christianity have been represented, including Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, the vast majority of the participants are from the mainstream evangelical world. Notably, some of the greatest and most well respected evangelicals of history were what we call Christian Zionists today like; the Wesley brothers, Charles Spurgeon, Bishop Ryle of Liverpool, William Wilberforce, Robert Murray McCheyne and many more. Christian Zionism is clearly not an “American evangelical-fundamentalist” phenomenon.
Moreover, a recent poll taken in America revealed that over 50% of Americans support Israel while only 5% support the Palestinians.2 Does that mean that over 50% of Americans are “evangelical- fundamentalist Christian Zionists?” Not likely. Yet, they are the real reason that the US government is committed to Israel and her security. It is a mainstream American value to support democracy and allies who share our fundamental Judeo-Christian ethos.
The authors blame Christian Zionists for “US policy that violates our commitment to universal human rights” and conclude this is the reason “America stands alone in the world in her support of Israel.” We have already established that it is a majority of America’s citizens driving its Middle East policy, and events at the United Nations in September 2011, and the international boycott of the anti-Semitic Durban III conference, have demonstrated that many other nations do in fact stand with Israel.
The authors then conclude that Christian Zionism “underwrites theft of Palestinian land,” “oppression of Palestinian people,” “violates biblical demands for justice” and “creates conditions for violence.” Therefore, it is “sinful and produces sin.”
This type of delegitimization and demonizing of Christian Zionism goes hand in hand with the delegitimization and demonizing of Israel that we see infiltrating many of the universities in the US and around the world. These authors have swallowed the party line that Israel is unjust and evil, therefore her supporters are too. These grave accusations are intended to prepare the reader to examine the theological basis for Christian Zionism and to give place to the inconsistent and questionable theology of the authors.
The Theological Basis
a. The possession and domicile of the land
The authors commend the Christian Zionists’ love of the Bible and appreciate that their foundations are found both in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament but challenge them to look more closely at their theology. They then demonstrate both that their own theology is flawed, and that they do not know Christian Zionist theology. So, while a fuller treatment of our theology is available in booklet form, let us take a minute to summarize it.3
Christian Zionism can be defined as the belief that God bequeathed to the Jewish people the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession for the purposes of world redemption. The call of Abraham in Genesis 12 clearly described a birthing role for the nation in that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed. Truly the Jewish people have been faithful to this call and brought to the world redemptive products such as the covenants, the law, the worship, the glory, the Word of God and the Messiah (Romans 3:1; 9:4-5).
The authors rightly note the “dynamic tension” between the “conditional and unconditional” relationship to the land. However, the bequeathment of the land was unconditional and everlasting – no conditions were placed upon Israel’s possession of the land (Gen. 17:8). But conditions were later placed upon their right of domicile on the land and if they did not live righteously and in obedience to God they would suffer judgment which included war and exile. Twice in history the Jewish people were warned of pending judgment and then suffered exile (Babylonian exile and Roman exile), but they were always promised a final return and that their end would be a glorious one when the knowledge of the Lord will fill the earth (Isaiah 2, 11).
Isaiah 11:11 indicates that there would only be two returns. The first occurred under Cyrus of Persia. We have been privileged in our day to see the second return after the dissolution of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, the League of Nations vote of 1922 in favor of the British Mandate over Palestine which included the establishment of a Jewish homeland and finally, the 1949 UN Partition Plan. These historic events paved the way legally and morally for the establishment of the modern State of Israel.
Biblically, their right of domicile on the land is still conditional and dependent on their righteousness and right relationship with their God. But we believe they will not be exiled again because Isaiah is clear that there are only two returns and there are many promises of a glorious future that their return will usher in to the world. While we understand the authors’ question of a possible third exile, we instead are waiting for the second phase of their final return. The Hebrew Scriptures often describe this return to Zion as a return to the Lord Himself. But that does not mean it all happens in a day. Ezek. 36:24-28 is very clear that their return is just the beginning: first there is a physical return and then there is a spiritual restoration.
b. The seed of Abraham
We recognize that Abraham was the father of many nations and that we as Christians are grafted in and become the spiritual heirs of Abraham. But the bequeathment of the land was clearly reaffirmed to specific successive generations thus defining the line from Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob and to the 12 tribes of Israel (Genesis 50:24; Numbers 34:2). We as spiritual heirs have no inheritance in the land nor do the other descendants of Abraham or Isaac.
The main passage that the authors encourage the reader to study further, clearly disagrees with the very theology they suggest. In Genesis 17:18 Abraham makes the same suggestion as the authors: “May Ishmael live!” – meaning establish the covenant with him. God’s answer is crystal clear; He promises to bless Ishmael but confirms His covenant is with the descendants of Isaac. The same is true in the case of Esau, where the Word of God teaches that the line of the covenantal blessing continued through Jacob and not through Esau (Gen 25, 27). God’s choice of one descendant over the other is affirmed even in the New Testament in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 9:6-15. Paul is aware that such truth is uncomfortable for the liberal human mindset and so he admonishes the church not to question God’s sovereignty: “Who are you Oh man?”
Nowhere in the Bible do we find any covenantal right to the land of Israel except for the Jewish people. The authors do rightly state that at all times non-Jews lived in the land with Israel. It was gentiles who made up the private security guards of King David. The prophets foresaw that Philistines and other gentiles would live with equal rights in a restored Israel (Amos 9:12; Zech 9:7). Their assumed presence is exactly the reason the Lord required that they betreated fairly (Zech. 7:10). But nowhere in the Bible is a covenantal relationship established with these aliens that included possession of the land of Canaan.
This situation even continues today where 15-20% of the population of Israel is not Jewish yet they enjoy the same rights as Jewish citizens. Compare that to President Mahmud Abbas who only recently stated Jews will not be allowed to live in the future State of Palestine. Is it indeed such a “judenrein” Palestine which the authors pursue in their “just peacemaking?”
As to the actual borders of the land, that is something entirely up to God, as the Apostle Paul affirmed in Acts 17:26. Israel’s borders changed many times in history and it is true that during times of judgment there was a loss of land. It is not up to us to determine her borders but to support her right to exist in security and peace.
d. Spiritual opposition
But the scriptures also describe a spiritual reality that the authors never mention. That is; throughout Israel’s history there has been a relentless, evil attempt to destroy her (Psalm 83). The book of Esther is a compelling example of this. Even in modern history there has been a relentless pursuit of the Jewish people and many examples throughout Christian history and culminating in the Holocaust testify to this. Today, President Ahmadinejad has carried on the paranoid and delusional world view of Adolf Hitler and is committed to the same evil plan to destroy the Jewish people.
For the authors to place blame for this on Christian Zionists is not only insulting it is absurd. Instead of standing with the Jewish people in light of this very serious threat, the authors blame Christians who are speaking out on their behalf.
The Concept of Justice
The authors emphasize the biblical requirement that Israel practice justice or else she will be judged for her treatment of the aliens in the land, the poor, widows, and orphans.4 They said that they toured the “tortured Holy Land”… in the shadow of the “Separation Wall” ….under “military occupation” … “which makes one tremble at these biblical words of warning.”
So let’s look at Israel’s treatment of aliens starting with the treatment of the Arabs within Israel itself. They have citizenship, can vote (including women), have freedom of speech, have their own political parties, serve in the Knesset, serve on the Supreme Court and can even be “Miss Israel.” Israel is the only country in the whole Middle East in which the Christian Arab population is growing. Why aren’t the Christian Arabs fleeing Israel like they are the Muslim world? Obviously, they have found more justice in Israel than in any of the Arab countries.
That seems like pretty convincing proof that Israel is not an unjust or repressive country. Their minorities have minority struggles like all minorities but let’s just be honest; they have basic human rights, freedom of speech and many opportunities to achieve and better their situation.
The authors are obviously not concerned about Israeli Arabs – just the Palestinians. So let’s look at the Palestinians. A recent Palestinian poll found that over 40% of the Arabs in East Jerusalem have said that they would prefer to live under Israeli sovereignty than a Palestinian State and would move to a different neighborhood to stay under Israeli jurisdiction if a Palestinian State was formed.5 If Israel is so repressive and unjust would 40% of the Palestinians in Jerusalem want to live under Israeli rather than Palestinian rule?
A brief review of some statistics will also shed light on the issue. When Israel first captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 the conditions were quite dire. In spite of 20 years of Jordanian occupation, life expectancy was low, malnutrition, infectious diseases and child mortality were rife; the level of education was very poor, and fewer than 60% of all male adults were employed. By 1986 over 100,000 Palestinians worked in Israel, and many more worked in the 2000 industrial plants that had been built in the territories.
During the 1970s, under Israeli rule, the West Bank and Gaza constituted the fourth fastest- growing economy in the world. Mortality rates fell by more than two-thirds, life expectancy rose from 48 years in 1967 to 72 in 2000 (average of 68 years for all countries in the Middle East), and childhood diseases like polio, whooping cough, tetanus and measles were eradicated.
By 1986, 92.8% of the population had electricity around the clock as compared to 20.5% in 1967; 85% had running water as compared to 16% in 1967; 83.5% had electric or gas ranges for cooking as compared to 4% in 1967; and so on for refrigerators, televisions, and cars. Most dramatic was the progress in higher education. In 1967, not one single university existed in the territories. By the early 1990s, there were seven such institutions boasting 16,500 students. Illiteracy rates dropped to 14% of adults compared to 61% in Egypt and 44% in Syria.6
Is this the unjust and repressive Israel that is deserving of another exile? She developed the West Bank and Gaza yet never annexed them. Instead, after the breakout of the First Intifada in 1987, Israel began a quest for a peace agreement with the Palestinians to establish a state. Sadat had invited the Palestinians to be a part of the Camp David Accords to negotiate their own arrangements but they refused. Israel made peace with Egypt, hoped to have peace with Jordan soon and wanted to broker peace with the Palestinians. So they developed a peace plan that was then presented to the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 and out of that the Oslo Peace Process was born. They also brought Yasser Arafat back from exile in Tunisia and set him up as the leader of the Palestinian people so they had someone to negotiate with.
Israel did this even though they can claim legal ownership of the West Bank according to the San Remo Conference and the League of Nations Vote in 1922.7 While the 1949 UN Partition Plan later proposed that the West Bank be for an Arab state, the Arabs rejected the proposal so they are at most “disputed territories” that Israel has agreed to give up for a Palestinian State.
So why is the peace process now stagnate and Israel has such a tight grip on the Palestinian people that she is accused of being brutal and unjust? Let’s review the last decade. She unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon, turned it over to the UN and got a terrorist organization on her northern border armed with over 50,000 missiles. She unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, turned it over to the Palestinian Authority and got a terrorist organization on her western border that has fired 10,000 missiles at her. After withdrawing from most of the West Bank, in accordance with the Oslo Peace Accords, and offering a Palestinian State to Arafat she got the 2nd Intifada with a wave of Palestinian suicide bombers wreaking havoc and destruction. And just this year the Abbas government signed a unity pack with the terrorist organization, Hamas.
This is the history that the authors seem oblivious to. The “Separation Wall,” is actually a “Security Fence” built in response to the wave of suicide bombers that killed 1,100 Israelis and 5,000 Palestinians in the 2nd Intifada. It completely stopped suicide bombings and saved untold numbers of Israeli and Palestinian lives. We are sure the authors would agree that saving lives is more important than the inconvenience of the wall with its checkpoints. Moreover, the wall can be dismantled at any moment if the Palestinians will just negotiate peace with Israel.
Ninety-nine% of the Palestinian population has lived under the Palestinian Authority since 1999 when Israel turned over control of the major population areas in accordance with the Oslo Peace Agreement. While Israel does maintain border control and check points within the West Bank, the Palestinians are ruled by their own government. Is this “military occupation?”
Israel has very real security concerns and must control the movement of people with checkpoints until they have a Palestinian State with which they have made certain agreements to take over this level of security. If the Palestinians want the checkpoints removed all they need to do is to negotiate peace with Israel.
Israel’s primary responsibility, as it is for all governments, is to protect her citizens from “evil doers” and the New Testament allows governments to use “the sword” to carry out this responsibility (Romans 13:1-7; I Peter 2:13-14). Israel would not have erected the Security Fence or the checkpoints if they were not necessary to protect her citizens.
Having now established the larger historical and theological context missing in the Open Letter, we recognize that the Palestinian people do live in difficult circumstances and do not have the freedom of movement necessary to develop businesses, find jobs or even get to a hospital sometimes. The checkpoints have a stranglehold on their economy, are demoralizing and humiliating.
Where we disagree with the authors is that they place blame on Israel for having tough security without ever mentioning why it is needed. The real culprits here are the threat of terrorism, and the corrupt Palestinian leaders who have not only filled their own bank accounts instead of bettering the people’s lives, but have refused to sit down at the negotiating table and hammer out a better life for their people. And this is all because of their Islamic ideology – not Zionism.
The situation is far more complex than the Open Letter allows. Our support for Israel does not mean that we think Israel is perfect, or that we blindly support all of her policies. She has many good policies and some bad – like all states do. We tremble not over God’s promise to judge Israel and correct her when necessary (Jer. 30:11), but His ultimate judgment of the nations for their treatment of Israel and the Jewish people (Isa. 60:12; Joel 3:2; Matt. 25:31-40).
We pray for the peace of Jerusalem knowing that the answer to that prayer will mean great blessing for both Arabs and Jews – in fact, all the world. We encourage Christians to love all the peoples of the Middle East and to pray for them and particularly for our Christian Arab brothers and sisters.8 But if we want to help bring justice to the Palestinian people then we need to be honest and admit that their problem is not Israel but their own corrupt and cowardly leaders and we need to call for those leaders to lay down their goal of eradicating Israel, recognize her right to exist as a Jewish state and broker an agreement for the sake of the Palestinian people.
Susan M. Michael – ICEJ US Director
Dr. Jurgen Buhler – ICEJ President
Rev. Malcolm Hedding – ICEJ Executive Director Emeritas
For more than forty years, Susan Michael has pioneered the development of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem in the United States and around the world. She currently serves as the ministry’s USA Director and is a member of the ICEJ’s international Board of Directors.
- http://justpeacemaking.blogspot.com/2011/09/open-letter-to-americas-christian.html(Accessed Sept 30, 2011).
- Bipartisan Poll by Public Opinion Strategies and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research on behalf of The Israel Project, Nov. 2, 2010; see also Poll by McLaughlin & Associates on behalf of the Emergency Committee for Israel, Oct. 3 & 5, 2010; US Voters poll by Public Opinion Strategies on behalf of The Israel Project, April 5-7, 2010.
- For a full treatment of the theology of Christian Zionism see the ICEJ’s Biblical Zionism booklet series by Rev. Malcolm Hedding. Also see “Christian Zionism in Balance” by Rev. Hedding found at http://us.icej.org/christian-zionism-balance.
- For a fuller analysis of biblical justice see “The Question of Justice” by David Parsons, ICEJ Media Director and “Swords into Ploughshares: Christian Zionism and the Battle of Armageddon” also by David Parsons.
- Poll by Palestinian pollster Dr. Nabil Kukali of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion in partnership with Princeton-based Pechter Middle East Polls, Sept. 4-10, 2011.
- What Occupation?” by Professor Efraim Karsh, Commentary, July – August, 2002.
- International Lawyer, Dr. Jaques Gauthier, reviews the legal ownership of the land of Israel at the ICEJ Feast of Tabernacles Celebration in Jerusalem on Sept 28, 2010. Watch his full presentation here.
- For a sample of ICEJ articles voicing concern for the Arab Christian minorities in the Palestinian territories read ‘Our Battered Brethren’ by ICEJ Media Director, David Parsons or ‘Bethlehem on the Rebound’ by Justus Reid Weiner, commission and published by the ICEJ in conjunction with The Jerusalem Post in February 2011.
- The ICEJ has also drawn attention to the plight of Arab Christian minorities throughout the Middle East; See David Parsons: ‘Under Siege: The brutal targeting of Middle East Christians’ also published in conjunction with The Jerusalem Post in February 2011. In addition the ICEJ has regularly included Palestinian Christians on our platform at the annual Feast of Tabernacles celebration in Jerusalem to educate the Christian Zionist community about the unique political, social and religious challenges they face.