Thursday, January 29, 2009

Understanding Christian Zionists

There has been a longstanding debate in the Jewish community over how suspicious, if at all, we should be of Christian support for Israel (link). A new book has led me to rethink my position on this, and to ultimately confirm me in my view that we should be cautiously accepting of this support. Dr. Stephen Spector conducted extensive research for his book, Evangelicals and Israel: The Story of American Christian Zionism, to the point that the reviewer of the book in Christianity Today wrote: "I have looked carefully at his list of interviewees and I cannot think of a single individual of any importance in Christian Zionist ranks whom he has not spoken to" (link). Additionally, he checked the written record carefully, occasionally pointing out where interviewees were wrong about trends and imprecise about their own views.

Click here to read moreOne of Spector's main points is that the Evangelical world is not monolithic. This seemingly obvious fact was totally lost on me until I read the book. Spector divides the Evangelicals into three camps: traditionalists, centrists and modernists (pp. 41-43). While the traditionalists get a lot of press for politically incorrect statements, centrists and modernists together consist of the majority of Evangelical Christians in the US today. Additionally, even among the traditionalists, there is a spectrum of views on theology and politics.

The issue that most interested me was why Evangelicals support Israel, and this is a main theme throughout the book. The bottom line is that it varies, and that most people have multiple reasons. Included among them is a view of the "End of Days" scenario that involves Jews returning to Israel. This scares some Jews, although I'm not sure why because I don't really care what they believe. However, as Spector discusses at length, this is not a majority theological view. Other reasons include the biblical promise that whoever blesses the Jews will be blessed by God (Gen. 12:3). There is also the political aspect of supporting a democracy, a response to terrorism, a fondness for the Jewish beginnings of Christianity, and other reasons.

What really concerns me is whether these Christian Zionists want to convert Jews -- not whether they believe that Jews will eventually convert but whether they intend to bring it about. Some do but most sophisticated Christian Zionists realize how offputting this is to Jews and do not actively proselytize. Or at least they try not to. Spector seems to say that many Evangelicals simply can't help but proselytize because it is such a core aspect of their personalities and how they relate to other people. It just comes out. He tells the story of a church he visited, along with a representative of the Israeli government. The pastor told the congregation multiple times not to proselytize to the Jewish visitors but then blessed Spector in the name of Jesus and told him to get his messiah quickly (pp. 192-196). Again, a sophisticated and experienced Christian Zionist will know not to speak that way to a Jew. But most are neither sophisticated nor experienced, and end up acting offensively like that. Perhaps we should just grow thicker skin, but two thousand years of oppression in the name of Jesus are hard to simply wave away.

And then there are the Christian Zionists who are actively proselytizing among Jews. They are the ones who worry me and they do exist, even if they are a minority.

This book is essential reading for understanding the dynamics of Christian Zionism. However, it necessarily contains extensive discussion of Christian theology that is inappropriate for most Jews. Ask your rabbi before reading it.

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