Christian Zionism: Theology that Legitimates Oppression
I recently returned from a speaking engagement at the Bethlehem Bible College; and what I witnessed firsthand sent chills up my back. Listening to the horror stories told to me by oppressed Palestinians elicited feelings ranging from indignation to compassion. What was particularly upsetting were the pained questions of an elderly Christian Palestinian woman, who asked, "Why don't our Christian brothers and sisters in America care about what is happening to us? Do they even know we exist? Do they know that their tax dollars paid for the Israeli tanks that destroyed my house and the houses of my neighbors?"
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Twenty-five years ago, Bethlehem was 70 percent Christian. Today less than 15 percent of its population is Christian. Sometimes heartless and dehumanizing treatment that Bethlehem Christians have had to endure over the years has led most of them to emigrate to other countries. To this exodus, many religious Zionists say, "Good riddance!" Presently, 42 percent of all Israeli citizens believe that all Palestinians should be removed from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The most serious threats to the well-being of the Palestinians in general, and to the Christian Palestinians in particular, come not from the Jews, but from Christian Zionists here in the United States. They are armed with a theology created in the middle of the 19th century by a disaffected Anglican clergyman named John Nelson Darby in Plymouth, England. With this theology, called "Dispensationalism," they argue that according to their interpretation of Genesis 15:18-21, the Holy Land should belong exclusively to the Jews. They contend that all of this land is what was promised to "the seed of Abraham" and, according to their interpretation of biblical prophecies, Jesus cannot return until all of this land is occupied by Jews, and all others are forced to leave.
Of course, the Darbyites completely ignore the fact that the Arab peoples are also the seed of Abraham, having descended to the present day from Hagar, one of Abraham's servants. They fail to notice that Abraham affirmed both Isaac (his son by Sarah) and Ishmael (his son by Hagar) as his seed and called both to be present to bury their common father (Genesis 25:9). Furthermore, they are also prone to ignore that the land that Christian Zionists argue should be occupied only by Jews stretches from the Euphrates River to the Nile (Genesis 15:18-21). This includes the land now occupied by Arabs in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. That would mean that all of the Arabs in those countries would have to be forced to leave their homelands. I need not spell out the ramifications of what that would mean.
It should be noted that no prominent theologians until Darby (i.e., Calvin, Luther, Augustine, Aquinas) ever mentioned anything remotely resembling these claims made by dispensationalists. This Johnny-come-lately theology of John Nelson Darby has permeated American Protestantism via the publication in 1908 of the incredibly popular Scofield Reference Study Bible. Too often Evangelicals have treated the Scofield reference notes at the bottom of each page of scripture with almost as much reverence as they do the holy writ at the top of each page. So prevalent is Darby's dispensationalist theology that most Evangelicals would be surprised to learn that his prophecies of a "rapture" and the historical events that he taught would accompany the rapture are nowhere to be found in Christian theology prior to the mid-19th century. Darby's prophecies make the early church fathers, along with the apostle Paul, seem stupid since Christ could not possibly have returned during their own times, as they were prone to expect.
Darby's influence on American Protestantism has recently received an enormous boost with the publication of the Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Their series of books which are imagined accounts of events leading up to the rapture have sold more than 100 million copies.
You can gain some idea of the huge ideological support Christian Zionists have gained as of late by considering the extremist claims of television evangelist Pat Robertson, who says that Palestinian Christians have no right at all to any part of the Holy Land, even though in many instances it has been land that their ancestors have lived on for generations.
There are those who blame the Jewish lobbies for the 30 percent of all U.S. foreign aid that has gone to the State of Israel and which has enabled the Israelis to create the fourth most powerful army in the world. In reality, however, it is the Christian Zionists, led by such powerful televangelists as John Hagee who have been the primary sources of pressure on the U.S. Congress to financially back the Israeli military that has made the injustices I have described possible.
I personally have witnessed the sadness and disillusionment of Christian Palestinians who feel that their American Christian brothers and sisters could not care less about the sufferings that they must endure. What troubles them most is that their fellow Evangelicals in America have very little understanding of the way the entire Islamic world views what is happening in the Holy Land, and how American Evangelicals who unquestioningly support Israel's policies are hindering evangelism among Muslims. They know that there is little understanding among American Christians that so many of the conflicts that exist between Muslims and Christians around the world are partially due to what is happening in the Holy Land. For instance, the media in the Muslim world has linked the oppression of Palestinians to the justification of attacks on Americans, in particular, and the western world, in general.
Given the historical existential situation, we, as American Christians, should lend support to the efforts to have safe and secure borders for the State of Israel and protection against terrorists; but we should be equally committed to having a well-established Palestinian state that also has safe and secure borders. We should be calling for the demolition of the separation wall that is as offensive as the Berlin Wall was. And we should be demanding that the border between these two states be the "green line" negotiated following the 1967 war.
Furthermore, we should be committed to a Palestine that has fair access to usable water and that its people have the same freedom to travel as Israelis presently enjoy.
We should be calling for justice for both peoples, because ours is a God who is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34) and calls on we Christians to be agents of reconciliation (II Corinthians 5:18).
Tony Campolo is founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (EAPE) and professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University.