Christian Zionism and Restorative Justice
Christian Zionism supports the return of the Jewish people to the Promised Land and Israel's occupation of Palestinian land - an occupation which has inflicted unprecedented injustices on the Palestinian people. The confiscation of farmland and destruction of villages and houses in order to build new Jewish settlements has meant the dislocation of thousands of families. Palestinian human rights are grossly violated as Jewish and Christian Zionist movements work towards reclaiming the land to ensure God's future redemptive work.
What are the theological suppositions by which Christian Zionism supports Jewish entitlement to the land of Israel and by doing so, implicates itself in the injustices perpetuated against the Palestinian people?
The origins of Zionism lie in the biblical word 'Zion', a synonym for Jerusalem and the land of Israel. With the failure of the Haskala movement (a Jewish enlightenment movement which stressed personal emancipation and equality) in the late 18th century, doctrines of national liberty and unity developed. The political movement Hibbath Zion (Love of Zion) emerged in the 19th century and rekindled ideas of returning to Zion as liberal nationalism was sweeping through Europe. Its goal was to integrate liberation with national unity as Professor Benyamin Neuberger explains, "to free the Jews from hostile and oppressive alien rule and to re-establish Jewish unity by gathering Jewish exiles from the Four Corners of the world to the Jewish homeland."1
The ultimate goal of Zionism is aliyah (personal migration to Israel).
The undisputed founder of political Zionism was Theodor Herzl. On October 5th 1894 Herzl set forth his views on the Jewish problem in a pamphlet entitled Der Judenstaat, "The Jewish State".2
The British Government gave up its mandate over Palestine on the 14th May 1948. The Jewish government moved its headquarters to Jerusalem and Herzl's dream was realised with the state of Israel's declaration of independence signed that very same day.
Crucial to Zionist thought is the idea that Israel is the home of the Jewish people and that to live elsewhere is to live a life in exile. Zionism consolidates ancient biblical promises with an active political movement.
Bruce Warshal writes, "what the traditional Jew believes as the gift of God, the modernist Jew has internalised as part of the Jewish psyche, so that both the traditionalist and the modernist believe in the centrality of Israel with the same fervour and devotion, although working within different philosophical systems."3
Christian Zionism supports and promotes the Jewish right of return to the Promised Land. As Halvor Ronning says, "Christian Zionism is the belief that being Christian links us inextricably with the Jewish people and should lead all Christians to be favourably disposed toward Jewish people and toward their return to the land of Israel."4
The theological roots of Christian Zionism are embedded in dispensationalism5 and based on literal interpretations of Scripture. The belief is that following God's physical restoration of Israel there will be a spiritual restoration that will pre-empt a worldwide spiritual revival.
Dispensationalism differentiates between God's work of salvation through Christ and his faithfulness to covenant promises. Craig Blaising defines dispensationalism as "a form of premillennialism which has stressed the relevance of biblical prophecy and apocalyptic discourse to future as well as past human history. It stresses the imminent return of Christ as a purifying hope, which should guide the present work of the church. And it has been the primary proponent in the last two centuries of the belief that the plan of God includes a future for national Israel."6
The politics of modern day Israel, then, are often seen as a continuation of the promises to Old Testament Israel. In reality this sets in place a biblical commission that vindicates any wrongdoing or injustices caused when reclaiming a divinely promised inheritance.
One of the most active and controversial Christian Zionist organisations is the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ), which maintains:
Critics of the ICEJ see this sharing in the destiny of the Jewish people as a disguise for supporting political nationalism. In 1986 the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) criticised what it called "the misuses of the Bible and the abuse of religious sentiments in an attempt to secularise the creation of a state and legitimate the policies of a government."8
The ICEJ and other Christian Zionist groups are quick to label criticism of Israel as anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic rhetoric.
The Fourth International Christian Conference on Biblical Zionism was held in Jerusalem between the 19th and 22nd February 2001. Following is a summary of some of the key beliefs and proclamations of that conference.
Christian Zionism has financially, politically and religiously supported Israel's occupation of Palestinian land - in direct violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which states: "an occupying power shall not transfer its civilian population onto occupied territory or change the status of the land under occupation."10
Israel's confiscation of land and demolition of villages to build settlements is in breach of these regulations. Thousands of acres of land has been seized and used for roads, industrial zones and for the expansion of settlements. In the process Palestinian agricultural land is destroyed, trees are uprooted, hundreds of Palestinian houses are destroyed and families dislocated.
Christian Zionism also encourages military support for Israel by the USA. It reinforces apartheid policies as the occupied territories are absorbed into Israel's state. Right-wing politics resist any negotiation for peace and actively promote and encourage fundamentalist groups committed to destroying the Dome of the Rock and rebuilding the Third Temple.
Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed in the struggle for land. The injustices and human rights violations committed against the Palestinian people have created a humanitarian crisis in the occupied territories.
Criticism of Christian Zionism
Christian Zionism has come under increasing criticism on both theological and ethical grounds. The fundamental error is hermeneutical.11 As Stephen Sizer explains, "[Christian Zionism] fails to appreciate the relationship between the Old and New Covenants and the ways in which the latter completes, fulfils and annuls the former."12
Zionists such as John F Walvoord would disagree and argue that the difference between dispensational and progressive revelation is a matter of literal versus non-literal interpretations rather than a matter of development. Walvoord maintains the issue is "whether progressive revelation ever reverses preceding revelation and denies its validity. It is on the basis of consistency of fulfilment of prophecy historically that premillenarians project a consistent literal fulfilment of prophecy in the future."13
It is because of such interpretation of history and contemporary events, that Christian Zionism has also been described as a "devious heresy and an unwelcome and alien intrusion into this [Middle Eastern] culture, advocating an ethnocentric and nationalistic political agenda running counter to the work of reconciliation."14
The Middle East Council of Churches15 has been highly critical of the activities of Christian Zionists, especially the ICEJ. They assert that Christian Zionism has wrongly interpreted the Bible in a manner that supports the political agenda of the modern state of Israel and regard its teachings as a dangerous heresy.
Land as a gift
The central theological assertion made about the land in question is that it was a gift to Abraham and his offspring. However, contrary to Jewish and Zionist claims, the Promised Land always belongs to God. Leviticus 25:23 reads, "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants."16
Hans Jochen Boecker calls this the "Magna Charta"17 of the Old Testament land-law. The Jews were and currently are tenants in God's land. Gary Burge talks of a "loose ownership"18 as Jubilee celebrations meant that land could not be permanently bought or sold as if Israel had a deed or title to the land.
God's ownership of the land was acknowledged in regulations concerning tithes and offerings. The promise of land must be understood as part of an extended blessing that culminates in the blessing of all nations through Abraham's descendents.
Israel's occupation of the land is qualified by conditions of faithfulness to covenant requirements and the welfare of the poor, widows, orphans and resident aliens who are accorded special privileges.
Norman Habel sees these land rights "grounded not in some ancient or sacred affinity with the land, but in a treaty that prescribes the conditions for holding the land. The Israelites have no natural right to the land, only a promise of tenure if they are a faithful vassal people. Canaan is territory under treaty; the land grant is conditional."19
Gary Burge20 notes three benefits afforded to aliens living in the land at the time of the conquest. These included participation in religious ceremonies and worship, inclusion in social programmes that assisted the needy and access to the same system of justice enjoyed by the Israelites.
Rather than celebrating their current restoration as a nation, the demands of Deuteronomy 27:19 - "Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan and the widow of justice" - and Leviticus 20:22 - "You shall keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and observe them, so that the land to which I bring you to settle in may not vomit you out" - would suggest that Israel's actions in the occupied territories raise the possibility of another exile.
If Old Testament promises and prophecies of land restoration are relevant for the state of Israel today then surely the conditional requirements of land possession are equally relevant. Leviticus 19:33-34 reads: "When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt." Something Israel has consistently failed to realise.21
New Testament Covenant
Unlike the prophets and teachings of the Old Testament, the New Testament is noticeably silent on land promises. Instructions concerning the land are especially absent in the Gospels and sayings of Jesus.
Jesus did not predict the return of the Jewish people to their inheritance; rather he spoke of the Kingdom of God as being both present here and now, and to be fully realised in the eschaton.22 Jesus' reluctance to address land issues may have been to avoid the link between possession of the land and associated ideas of covenant blessing with expectations of political nationhood. He refused to define his ministry as restoring Israel politically in the form of liberation from Roman rule.
Christopher Wright recognises that land theology plays a major role in the faith of Israel. He addresses the issue of Promised Land in light of the New Testament. Fundamental to this understanding is the idea that "the Christian church, as the Messianic community of those in Christ, stood in spiritual organic continuity with Old Testament Israel."23
The physical territory of Israel has no theological significance in the ultimate redemptive plans of God. Whilst 'the land as gift' represented the special relationship between God and his chosen people Israel, that relationship can now be entered into and enjoyed through the 'gift' of the person and work of Christ. "To be in Christ, just as to be in the land, denotes a status and a relationship which have been given by God, a position of inclusion and security, and a commitment to live worthily by fulfilling the practical responsibilities to those who share the relationship with you."24
This citizenship in the Kingdom of God through Christ means that we must now meet the same theological and ethical requirements as those wishing to possess the land in the Old Testament. As Tom Wright indicates, "the land no longer functioned as the key symbol of the geographical identity of the people of god . . . if the new community consisted of Jew, Greek, barbarian alike, there was no sense in which one piece of territory could possess more significance than another."25
In both cases being in a covenant relationship means that justice, concern for the widow, the poor, the orphan and the resident alien are characteristic of what it means to be God's people. With the passing of land as a key symbol in Christian thinking, the mission of spreading the Good News to the whole world has replaced the blessings to the nations previously associated with possession of the land.
Restorative Justice in Palestine/Israel
The politics of Christian Zionism impact the search for peace and justice in the Middle East in at least three areas:
1 They foster a hostile attitude towards Arabs and Palestinians while at the same time promoting Israel and America. America is seen as 'the great redeemer': a politically preordained conqueror of evil. The great evil of Communism has been replaced for the moment by terrorism.
2 There is a fascination with an apocalyptic view of the future in which fulfilled biblical prophecy signals the beginning of the destruction of the world. Hal Lindsey is one of the most popular Christian Zionist authors, having written over twenty books. He insists, "We are the generation the prophets were talking about. We have witnessed biblical prophecies come true. The birth of Israel. The decline in American power and morality. The rise of Russian and Chinese might. The threat of war in the Middle East. The increase in earthquakes, volcanoes, famine, drought. The Bible foretells the signs that precede Armageddon . . . . We are the generation that will see the end times . . . and the return of Jesus."26
3 Because of this intense interest in apocalyptic signs Christian Zionism views any peace deal or compromise that includes handing back the West Bank or jeopardising the status of Jewish settlements as a threat to Israel's role in fulfilling biblical prophecy.
In this climate Palestinian Christians face overwhelming challenges as they try to make sense of their faith in the midst of persecution and oppression from a people group claiming to worship the same God. These difficulties are evident when one group interprets the same Bible used by both groups in a way that justifies and legitimises the occupation of the land.
One of these Christian groups is Sabeel, Arabic for 'the way' or 'a channel' or 'a spring of life giving water'. Sabeel is an ecumenical ad hoc committee formed in 1989 to implement Palestinian Liberation Theology as a pastoral response to the practical concerns of a nation living under Israeli occupation.
Palestinian Liberation Theology seeks to contribute a theological perspective to the daily violence, oppression, and human rights violations encountered by the Palestinian people, encouraging them to reflect theologically on the struggles of daily life and to ascertain what God is saying to them as a nation.
It also recognises the fact that much of the oppression they face is the result of misinterpretation of Scripture both biblically and theologically. Palestinian Liberation Theology is mindful that "Christian Zionism has been successful in providing not only theological justification for Palestinian displacement, forced exile and continued oppression, but also is directly responsible for marshalling material resources to the Israelis."27
Central to Sabeel's vision of peace in Palestine/Israel is the necessity for Israel to admit the injustices against the Palestinian people and accept responsibility for the occupation of Palestinian land, discrimination, violence and human rights abuses. The road to healing and restoration for Sabeel includes repentance, forgiveness and compensation.
A central issue for Sabeel's pursuit of peace and justice is the issue of land. Palestinian Liberation Theology studies the various theological arguments and claims to the land and offers in return a theological understanding based on justice. At Sabeel's Alternative Assembly held 22nd February 2001 Naim Ateek asked the question: "How can we live kingdom life, and be kingdom people today when we live under occupation?"28
The answer, he suggests, is based on what it means to "love your neighbour as yourself". Obedience to this commandment from God is proactive, he says, as it opposes powers that oppress. Jesus stood against the powers of oppression and evil. He shows us what it means to 'live' the power of love, truth and justice, peace and suffering. Following Jesus also means practising forgiveness as an essential step to restoring and repairing relationships that have been shattered through violence and oppression.
The purpose of restorative justice is not only to re-establish broken relationships but also, as far as possible, to compensate for damages or injuries caused. In this respect justice, as defined by Palestinian Liberation Theology, means two sovereign and fully democratic states.
For this to happen Sabeel maintains that Israel must withdraw to the June 4, 1976 borders. The Palestinians must have their own independent, democratic, autonomous state, which includes the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem. All settlements built on Palestinian soil since 1976 must become part of Palestine. The right of return of refugees must be guaranteed according to UN Resolution 194. Monetary compensation should be available where it is not possible to make full restitution.
When a nation-state is the perpetrator of gross human rights violations then an "appeal to standards and mechanisms beyond the state"29 becomes necessary. The problem is how society can force a state to take responsibility for past injustices when that state refuses to admit guilt or responsibility for its actions. Chris Marshall rightly recognises that for a broken relationship to be restored "forgiveness by the victim alone is not enough; there must also be repentance by the offender, since relational repair is, of necessity, a two-sided process."30
In the case of Palestine/Israel and the conflict over land, the State of Israel must be held accountable for its persecutions against the Palestinian people. No easy task when the actions of Israel have been supported both politically and religiously by the USA.
Christian Zionism uncritically endorses Israel's right-wing political policies including racism and apartheid focused on ethnic genocide. To equate Biblical Israel with the modern 'State of Israel' is inconsistent and incompatible with the message of Christ.
It appears that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus make little difference to Christian Zionists' expectations about the land. The focus is on highly selective texts emphasising a restored Jewish kingdom rather than the Body of Christ. Their selective hermeneutics focus on the State of Israel rather than the cross of Christ. Christian Zionism does not recognise the theology of peace, justice and reconciliation, which lies at the very heart of the New Testament.
1 Prof Benyamin Neuberger, Zionism: A Modern Rendition of an Ancient Motif www.israel-mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.php?MFAH00ng0
2 Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State www.geocities.com/Vienna/6640/zion/judenstchpt3b.php Translated from the German by Sylvie D'Avigdor. This edition published in 1946 by the American Zionist Emergency Council.
5 Promoted by the Plymouth Brethren movement, Dispensationalism was later popularised by the Scofield Reference Bible. Dispensationalism interprets Scripture literally, rejecting allegorical, supernatural, interpretations of prophecy. Dispensationalists find evidence in the Bible for a series of successive stages in God's revelation: 'Innocence', 'Conscience', 'Human Government', 'Promise', 'Law' and 'Grace'. The seventh 'Millennium' stage is yet to come.
9 For full details see Proclamation of the Fourth International Christian Congress on Biblical Zionism http://www.cdn-friends-icej.ca/4thcongress3.php The Congress was sponsored by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem and attended by approximately 700 delegates and other participants representing over 25 countries.
10 LAW - The Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights & the Environment /www. Lawsociety.org/Reports/Index.php
11 Hermenueutics is concerned with the way in which the Scriptures are interpreted.
14 Naim Ateek & Michael Prior ed. 3rd International Sabeel Conference Bethlehem University Feb 1998 Christian Zionism : A British Perspective (Holy Land Hollow Jubilee: London, 1999) http://www. meilisende.cwc.net/
15 The Middle East Council of Churches represents "the indigenous churches of the region, a facilitator of their common response to common needs. It encourages and supports relationships between its member churches in an ecclesiastically sensitive manner, adhering to the historical confessions of the united Church, the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, to which all its members subscribe. Its family structure emphasises consensus and participation in community" www.mecchurches.org/
27 The Jerusalem Sabeel Document www.sabeel.org/purpose/index.htm