” … English Protestant polemics against both Catholicism and Islam…”

“In this presentation, I [Robert O. Smith] discuss how this peculiar form of apocalyptic hope is itself based in an Anglo-American Protestant tradition of Judeo-centric prophecy interpretation, a scriptural hermeneutic developed in the context of English Protestant polemics against both Catholicism and Islam.  These sixteenth- and seventeenth-century interpretations of scripture and history find echoes in contemporary Christian Zionist dismissals of Palestinian Christian concerns…  Forged in the crucible of the Reformation era dominated by what Lebanese scholar Nabil Matar has called the “Turko-Catholic threat,”  the Anglo-American tradition of Judeo-centric prophecy interpretation constructs Muslims and Roman Catholics as enemies…”

Interpreting the Bible, interpreting the World:

Anglo-American Christian Zionism and Palestinian Christian Concerns.

                                                                             Robert O. Smith

Reprinted from The Biblical Text in the Context of Occupation

 Towards a new hermeneutics of liberation. Contextual Theology Series 2. Edited by Mitri Raheb. Diyar Publishers. Bethlehem. 2012) 147-158.

 

     Since 2006, a great deal of popular media and scholarly attention has been focused on politically mobilized support for the State of Israel within the United States.  In February of that year, John Hagee, pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, unveiled Christians United for Israel (CUFI), an organization intended to be a Christian counterpart to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which describes itself as “America’s pro-Israel lobby.” CUFI’s emergence signaled a renewed presence of Christian Zionism on the national stage of American politics and religion.

     The next month, an essay on “The Israel lobby” by foreign policy scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt landed with a thud in the worlds of U.S.-Israel and Jewish-Christian relations.[220]  Observing that “the Lobby also includes prominent Christian evangelicals like Gary Bauer, Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, and Pat Robertson, as well as Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, former majority leaders in the House of Representatives, all whom believe Israel’s rebirth is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and support its expansionist agenda,” Mearsheimer and Walt argued that it has “managed to skew foreign policy … far from what the national interest would suggest,” while presenting Israel’s interests as “essentially identical” to America’s own.   Awareness of CUFI was widespread; reaction and response to Mearsheimer and Walt was serious and sustained.[221]

     But how can we adequately explain the sources of American affinity for the State of Israel?  Palestinians who assigned the task of changing the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy since 1948   understand the necessity of gaining a sense of the foundations and motivations of those policies.  When questions turn to the activity and influence of Christian Zionism on the U.S. political scene,    the concern is heightened among Palestinian Christians. How is it that the supposed coreligionists work so consciously against Christians in Palestine and throughout the Middle East?  Why do they cultivate theological justifications of Israel’s policy and primacy?

       Popular explanations for the popularity of Christian Zionist perspectives in the United States range from anti-Semitic theories of Jewish society manipulations to simplistic analyses of power politics to crude observations about popular American belief in the Rapture.  I have grown convinced, however, that rather than manifesting a manipulation of American interests, popular American affinity for the State of Israel draws from the taproot of puritan apocalyptic hope embedded within Americans identity and national vocation from the pre-revolutionary period to the present. Christian Zionism—which I define as political action, informed by specifically Christian commitments, to promote or preserve Jewish control over the geographic area now containing Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories—is therefore best understood as a political application of Anglo-American apocalyptic hope.

     In this presentation, I discuss how this peculiar form of apocalyptic hope is itself based in an Anglo-American Protestant tradition of Judeo-centric prophecy interpretation, a scriptural hermeneutic developed in the context of English Protestant polemics against both Catholicism and Islam.  These sixteenth- and seventeenth-century interpretations [bf1] of scripture and history find echoes in contemporary Christian Zionist dismissals of Palestinian Christian concerns.

 

A MOMENT OF TRUTH:

The Challenging of Christian Zionism

 

     Although not explicitly named, Christian Zionism is addressed in the ecumenical call of “A Moment of Truth,” the Palestinian Kairos document.  The authors indicate awareness that “certain theologians in the West try to attach a biblical and theological legitimacy to the infringement of our [Palestinians’] rights” (2.3.3).  They call the churches of the world to “revisit fundamentalist theological positions that support certain unjust political options with regard to Palestinian people.”  The churches are asked “not to offer a theological cover-up for the injustice we suffer, for the sin of the occupation imposed upon us.”  These are important challenges to which, in this Kairos moment, western Christian theologians must pay heed.

     As these carefully phrased sentences indicate, Palestinian Christians are generally aware that theological justifications of Palestinian suffering are not produced by western fundamentalists alone.  Although perspectives which can be described as fundamentalist are indeed troubling, other western Christian supporters of Zionism—persons representing what Stephen Haynes helpfully calls “liberal Christian Zionism”[222]—are seeking to delegitimize Palestinian Christian theologians and church leaders.

     One example is particularly notable for the historical comprehension of Anglo-American Christian Zionism.  In his 2001 book, Christian Attitudes towards the State of Israel, Canadian Lutheran historian Paul Merkley drew a sharp distinction between what the terms the “Churches of the East” and the “Churches of the West.” Among Palestinian Christians, he says, this distinction is “now of virtually no significance” since the “local leaders of the Churches of the West are for the most part no longer Europeans but Arabs” who no longer see themselves “as defenders, let alone emissaries, of what used to be called ‘Christendom.’”[223]

     Casting aspersions on Palestinian Christian witness, Merkley accuses these inconveniently non-western Christians of engaging in systematic disinformation campaigns uncritically accepted by gullible liberal Christians in the West. When, for instance, Palestinian pastors observe that the Hebrew Scriptures, because they have been used “largely as a Zionist text,” have “become almost repugnant to Palestinian Christians”—thus tragically alienating his people from the bulk of their scriptural canon—Merkley accuses them of “openly embracing the doctrine of Marcion.”[224] He closes the book with this comment: “It is simply too soon to know whether the work done by forces dedicated to Jewish-Christian reconciliation … will stand against the flanking effort of the neo-Marcionists, whose heart is in the different work of accommodation [sic] the secular liberals, the Churches of the East, and the Muslims.”[225]

     Notice Merkley’s division of human existence: Jews and Christians on one side, the West; “the Churches of the East, and the Muslims” on the other.  Despite his gratuitous addition of “secular liberals,” Merkley, intentionally or not, is echoing a centuries-long, Anglo-American tradition of interpreting human events through the apocalyptic lens of Judeo-centric prophecy interpretation.     

The Historical Foundation of Christian Zionism

     Forged in the crucible of the Reformation era dominated by what Lebanese scholar Nabil Matar has called the “Turko-Catholic threat,”[226] the Anglo-American tradition of Judeo-centric prophecy interpretation constructs Muslims and Roman Catholics as enemies.  The tradition is grounded in protestant historiography, a view of the world that allowed Martin Luther, for instance, to conclude that “The spirit of Antichrist is the pope, the body of Antichrist is the Turk.  Because of this, one devastates the church spiritually, the other bodily.”[227] The flipside of the Turko-Catholic threat was the tradition’s construction of a positive role for Jews within Christian eschatological expectation.

The first full-length, English-language commentary on the book of Revelation, contained in John Bale’s The Image of both Churches, was published in 1545.[228] The book is unique in many respects, including Bale’s teaching that the national conversion of Jews to true Protestant faith was an essential component of God’s cosmic plan in human history. Through Bale and his friend John Foxe, Judeo-centrism quickly took hold within English Protestant apocalyptic hermeneutics, with dramatic consequences.  In 1596, Thomas Morton suggested that, “we cannot doubte but that the glory of God shall be wonderfully enlarged by the conversion of the Iewes, and therefore it may be more desired then our owne salvation.[229]

       The next major step in the development of the Anglo-American tradition of Judeo-centric prophecy interpretation came with Thomas Brightman’s Apocalypsis Apocalypseos, another full-length commentary on Revelation, first published in 1609.  Brightman’s Apocalypsis presented a realized and realizable eschatological vision that called Puritans to be heavily involved in manifesting their millennial hopes; at the same time, he assigned a central role for Jews in defeating the Turko-Catholic threat.  Brightman’s interpretation of Rev. 16:12–“The sixth angel poured his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up in order to prepare the way for the kings from the east”—interprets those kings to be Jews, converted as a nation to Protestant faith: “But what need there a way to be prepared for them? Shal they returne agayn to Ierusalem?  There is nothing more sure: the Prophets plainly confirme it, and beat often upon it.”[230] This national conversion is not for its own purposes alone.  Elsewhere, Brightman taught that, through their conversion, Jews will be conscripted into a Puritan army central to the realization of Protestant eschatological hopes: “after the Conversion … Gog and Magog, that is the Turks and the Tartar with all the wicked Mahumetanes shall utterly perish by the sword of the converted and returned Iewes.”[231]

     These English Protestant constructions of Jewish purpose and Ottoman demise were joined by negative views of Christianity apostacy … of the whole world …in the East.  Thomas Draxe counseled  in 1608 that we observe the “Apostacy … of the whole world … for most are revolted long agoe: the Easterne parts to the Turke and to his Alcoron, and ye Westernn parts to the Romish Antechrist and his superstition.” For Draxe, Islam demarcates the eastern and western worlds.  The Turk and the eastern churches function as object lessons for western protestant morality: “Let us marke and mediatate upon Gods Severity against the Hungarians and the Greeks and other places of Europe, that have beene captivated and inthralled to the Godlesse and barbarous Turks, together with Asia and Affrica.”[232]

In 1611, biblical interpreter Andrew Willet pronounced that “many famous Churches of the Gentiles under the Turke are now quite fallen away and cut off.”

Reflecting on God’s “justice and severitie,” he notes that “these nations … are for their unthankfulnes now deprived of the Gospel of Christ: for where the Gospel was sometime preached and professed, now the Turkish Alcaronis is taught.”[233]

Willet dismisses eastern Christians, whose failure to defend their lands against Muslim civil rule has left them deserving of their minority status.  For Willet and other English Protestants, theopolitical hegemony was a sign of God’s favor; living as a minority, especially in a world that included Muslims, could not be understood as anything but a curse.  Proto-Puritan Jews, the Kings of the East, would glorify God by organizing militarily against Muslims and Catholics to extend Protestant hegemony on a global scale.

These strands of thought came to head in January 1649, when Johanna Cartwright and Ebenezer Cartwright, an English widow and her son residing in Amsterdam, petitioned the Puritan war council that “this Nation of England, with the inhabitants of the nether-lands, shall be the first and readiest to transport Izraells Sons & Daughters in their Ships to the Land promised to their fore-Fathers, Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, for an everlasting Inheritance” so that “the wrath of God,  will be much appeased towards you, for their [Jews’] innocent bloodshed.”[234]

The Cartwright petition presents a precise distillation of apocalyptic Puritan thought developed over the previous century.  That it presses this Judeo-centric tradition into political service makes it the first example of Christian Zionism. 

Driving a Wedge between West and East

Enmity against Islam is a central motivation both for Reformation-era English Protestants like Brightman, Draxe, and Willet and for contemporary Christian Zionists like Merkley.  This civilizational, Anglo-American struggle against Islam has, through the centuries, consistently resulted in western denigrations of Christians in the East.  “Western preoccupations with Islam … contributed to a belligerence eastward, now disencumbered of formal bonds with eastern Christians,” Kenneth Cragg has observed of fifteenth-century developments.  “Eastern Christendom became to western eyes a provocation rather than an education, a subject of pity or scorn, not an index in political terms, capitulated to Islam,” Craig concludes, “the East could not fail to become the victim of the West’s impatient rejection of any modus vivendi with Islam.”[235]

     These established conceptions of the world continue to shape U.S. foreign policy ideology.  Samuel Huntington wrote in 1997 that while “For forty-five years, the Iron Curtain was the central dividing line in Europe.  That line has moved several hundred miles east.  It is now the line separating the peoples of Western Christianity, on the one hand, from Muslim and Orthodox peoples on the other.”[236]

     It is tempting to view these western dismissals of Eastern Christians as mere collateral damage to the overarching goal of denigrating and defeating Islam.  But the process of forming a national identity is quite intentional: collateral damage is expected.  Within this conversation, it is vital to understand that the Anglo-American Protestant tradition of Judeo-centric prophecy interpretation lies at the heart of the United States’ own foundational narrative, what I have called “America’s Conventional Vocation.”

     Likewise, in the current theopolitical context surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, traditional Anglo-American constructions of knowledge about “the East” are employed in ever more strategic ways.  Specifically, Merkley’s effort to delegitimize the “Churches of the East” is accurately seen as an attempt to drive (or, rather, reinforce) a conceptual wedge between Christian communities in Palestine and in North America.  If, in the minds of many Anglo-American Christian Zionists, Palestinian Christians cannot be understood as suffering under the yoke of Islamic oppression, they must be

comprehended as having sided with Islam and therefore as having

forfeited North American Christian accompaniment and solidarity.  Thus, popular western “knowledge” about the role of Christians themselves in Palestine relies far less on the witness of Palestinian Christians themselves than on politically useful constructions of the Islamic enemy.

     Given this long history of Anglo-American perceptions of the essentially Islamic “East,” there is little capacity among western Christians to grasp Mitri Raheb’s assertion that since “Arab Christians and Muslims share the Arabic culture, history, and language; their fate is intertwined and

are an inseparable part of the world of Islam.”[237]  As the late Palestinian intellectual and Anglician Christian, Edward Said, once observed, “Being Arab, even for a non-Muslim, means being a member of … an Islamicate world, or culture.  Any attempts at severing the tie are, I believe, doomed to failure.”[238]  In a world neatly divided along the line of “the West” versus “the rest,” the specter of “radical” Islam provides an enemy beneficial to both present U.S. policy and Christian Zionist ideology.  As a result, many Christian Zionists have tragically allowed the political expediency of denigrating Islam to preclude the possibility of relationship between Christians in North America and their coreligionist preserving the faith in the land where Jesus walked.

 

Summary and Implications

 

     The Anglo-American Protestant tradition of Judeo-centric prophecy interpretation was from its inception a political theology.  The tradition openly constructed friends (Jews) as well as enemies (Muslims and Roman Catholics), while cultivating an occidentocentric discourse that discounted Eastern Christians.  These constructions are manifested in contemporary western discourses surround the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which cast Jews within Christian eschatological dramas while demonizing Muslims and casting aspersions on Christians who are Palestinian or sympathetic to the Palestinian national cause.  The tradition’s most visible and direct impulses are manifested in Anglo-American Christian Zionism, which I define as political action, informed by specifically Christian commitments, to promote or preserve Jewish control over the geographic area now containing Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

        Beyond providing an interesting look into the foundational narratives and [depending on one’s perspective] pathologies of the West, what are the implications of this research for Palestinian Christians?  My sense is that this historical perspective provides a clearer picture of the problems faced by Palestinian Christians—among Palestinians in general—in communicating with persons in western contexts.  This communication is vital if the policies of the western governments toward Israel/Palestine are to be challenged and changed. 

     First, it is important to observe that the perceived disconnect between Palestinian Christians and western Christians is real.  Palestinian Christians have marveled at the capacity of western Christians to ignore their last century of suffering.  They are understandably offended where passive apathy turns into active affront, when, as the Palestinian Kairos document says, “certain theologians in the West try to attach a biblical and theological legitimacy to the infringement of our [Palestinians’] rights.”  The history of apocalyptical informed Anglo-American identify formation helps explain both the apathy and the affront.  This disconnect is not only a matter of perception and it will not be simply overcome.

     Beyond the empirical reality of western Christian hostility toward eastern perspectives, this historical knowledge helps us understand that current attitudes have roots far deeper than nineteenth century premillennial dispensationalism—the progenitor of both rapture theology and Protestant fundamentalism—or twentieth-century theologies of Jewish-Christian relations developed after the Shoah.  While these perspectives are not old in comparison to some other traditions, they are not recent inventions.  Moreover, their connection to colonial and imperial power and the oppositional formation of western identity vis-a`-vis Islam indicates that these ideas will not be simply overcome.

     In relation to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, challenges in the theological sphere remain immense.  My work on these topics has made me less and less optimistic.  Indeed, each of us working in this area has taken on the discipline of suffering.  “But let us boast in our sufferings.”  Paul wrote, “know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hears through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).  In hope, we hear the Holy Spirit reminding us that “Christ Jesus … is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups onto one and has broken down the dividing walk that is, the hostility between us. “Our broken relationship can be restored, even as our differences and distinctions remain; the dividing wall between Palestinian Christians and western Christians will be broken down.  As we accompany one another toward that goal, it is now up to Western Christians to respond to the Kairos call: “Are you able to help us get our freedom back?” (6.1).

 

 

 

 

Robert Smith

Robert O. Smith, is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America serving as the Area Program Director for the Middle East and Coordinator of the ELCA’s Peace Not Walls campaign for peace with justice in Israel /Palestine.  With Charles Lutz, he is the author of Christians and a Land Called Holy: How We Can Foster Justice, Peace and Hope (Fortress, 2006).  He is also co-moderator of the seminar, “Christian Zionism in Comparative perspective,” within the American Academy of Religion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[220] John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, “The Israel Lobby,” London Review of Books (23 March 2006): 3-12.

[221] For a good summary of the early controversy surrounding the essay, see “of Israel, Harvard and David

Duke” The Washington Post, March 26, 2006.

 

 

[222] Stephen R. Haynes, “Christian Holocaust Theology: A Critical Reassessment,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 62:2 (Summer 1994), 562.

 

[223] Paul C. Merkley, Christian Attitudes towards the State of Israel (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University press, 2001), 73.

 

[224] Ibid., 77.

 

[225] Ibid., 220

[226] For this phrase and its meaning, see Nabil Matar, “The Idea of the Restoration of the Jews in English protestant Thought From the Reformation until 1660.” The Durham University Journal 78 (December 1985) esp. p.25.

 

[227] WA TR 3:158, 3055b: “Spiritus Antichristi est papa, caro Antichristi est Turca, quia hic ecclesiam spiritualiter, ille corporaliter devaste.’ The record at 3055a is even more direct: “Corpus Antichrist est simul papa et Turca, quia corpus constittuitur corpore et anima.  Spiritus Antichristi est papa, caro ciius Turca, qui corporaliter infestat ecclesiam, ille s[iritualiter.  Sunt tamen ambo exuno domino.  Diabolo, cum papa sit mendax et homicida Turca.”

 

[228] John Bale, The Image of bothe churches after revlacion of saynt Iohan the evangelist (Antwerp: S. Mierdman, 1545).

 

 

[229] Thomas Morton of Berwick, A Treatise of the Threefolde state of man (London: R. Robinson for Robert Dexter and Ralph Jackson, 1596), 336.

 

[230] Thomas Brightman, Apocalysis (Amstercaqnticles or the dam: Iuddocus Hondius & Hendrick Laurenss, 1611), 440-41.

 

[231] Thomas Brightman, A commentary on the Canticles or the Song of Solomon (London: John Field for Henry Overton, 1664), 1055.

 

[232] Thomas Draxe , The Worldes Resurrection, or The general calling of the Iewes (London: G. Eld and John Wright, 1608), 1055.

 

[233] Andrew Willet, Hexapla: that is, A Six-Fold Commentarie upon the most Divine Epistle of the holy Apostle S.  Paul to the Romanes (Cambridge: Cantrell Legge, printer to the Universitie of Cambridge, 1611), 508, 704.

 

[234] Johanna and Ebenezer Cartwright, The Petition of the Jewes For the Repealing of the Act of Parliament for their banishment out of England, (London: George Roberts, 1649).

 

[235] Kenneth Cragg, The Arab Christian: A History in the Middle East (Louisville, KY: Westminister/John Knox, 1991), 97-98.

 

[236]   Samuel Huntington, Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Touchstone, 1997). 28.

As Ken Parry says in his preface to The Blackwell Companion to Eastern Christianity (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), “The old views of a despotic and corrupt East versus a pragmatic and progressive West die hard.”  The ghost of eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon, who characterized Byzantium as a debased form of classical culture and who saw only decline where there once had been glory, still haunts the western mind.  Unfortunately ignorance of the religious history of Eastern Europe and the Middle East has been only too apparent in western reactions to recent events.  Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations’ perpetuates an outmoded and inaccurate perception of European history that values divisiveness and difference above compatibility and interdependence, and sees black and white where grey predominates” (xv).

 

[237] Mitri Raheb, I Am a Palestinian Christian, 9.

 

[238] Edward W. Said, “The Other Arab Muslims” (1993), in The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969-1994 (New York: Pantheon, 1994), 388-9.

 

 


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