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[ENS] Jerusalem conference calls Christian Zionism a 'heresy'
Worldwide Faith News <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Wed, 28 Apr 2004 15:30:25 -0700
Wednesday, April 28, 2004
Jerusalem conference calls Christian Zionism a 'heresy'
by James Solheim
[ENS] Christian theologians, religious leaders and peace activists meeting
in Jerusalem issued a stinging rebuke of "the heretical teachings of
Christian Zionism" following the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology
Center's conference "Challenging Christian Zionism: Theology, Politics, and
the Palestine-Israel Conflict," held April 14-18.
Released at the conclusion of the five-day meeting, the statement says that
Christian Zionism, in its extreme form, "places an emphasis on apocalyptic
events leading to the end of history rather than living Christ's love and
justice." The statement, adopted by more than 600 participants from 32
countries at the conference's conclusion on April 18, declared that "we
categorically reject Christian Zionist doctrines as a false teaching that
undermines the biblical message of love, mercy and justice."
The conference itself was bracketed by two new developments in the ongoing
Mideast crisis: the memoranda of agreement between US President George W.
Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on April 14 that, according to
the statement, moved the crisis "into a new phase of oppression of the
Palestinian people"; and the targeted assassination of a second Hamas
leader in Gaza, Abdul Aziz Rantisi.
In the letters, Bush endorsed Sharon's plans for a unilateral withdrawal
from Gaza, calling it "a real contribution to peace," as well as "historic
and courageous." While repeating his commitment to a two-state solution,
Bush went further than any previous American president in stating that the
settlements in the West Bank are "new realities on the ground" and it would
be "unrealistic" to expect Israel to abandon them. The official position of
the US in the past has been that the settlements are obstacles to peace.
Bush also said that Palestinian refugees uprooted by previous wars could
not expect to return to what is now Israel, thereby rejecting the argument
for a "right to return" that was a major point of contention in any final
"The Presiding Bishop has already issued a statement to the President on
the Episcopal Church's long commitment to a just peace process. This sea
change in U.S. policy will require a response from the U.S. mainline
churches not seen since the anti-apartheid movement," said the Rev. Brian
J. Grieves, the Episcopal Church's peace officer in the U.S. and a
conference participant. "Otherwise, we are staring at a crushing injustice
against the Palestinian people. The fact that half the participants at the
conference were from the U.S. and Canada was perhaps the most hopeful sign."
Ignoring the Palestinians
Arab leaders were quick to condemn the letters of agreement, charging that
the US had abandoned any claim to a role as an "honest broker" by adopting
the Israeli position and completely ignoring the role of the Palestinians.
They warned that the policy shift would have serious repercussions. "It
undermines hope for a just and comprehensive peace, inflames feelings of
enmity towards America and opens the door towards retaking these rights by
force, through all legitimate means of resistance," said President Emile
Lahoud of Lebanon. Others insisted that it would close the door on the
so-called "Road Map" to peace, dealing a crippling and perhaps final blow
to what remains of current Mideast peace efforts.
The assassination of Rantisi wiped out a scheduled day in Bethlehem for
participants, underscoring the difficulty of movement in the Jerusalem area
during times of increased tension.
The conference's final statement affirmed that a just and lasting peace
must be based on the principles articulated in the Jerusalem Sabeel
www.sabeel.org) that calls for two sovereign states, Palestine and Israel,
living in a confederation, possibly with neighboring countries, with
Jerusalem serving as the federal capital. "The ideal and best solution has
always been to envisage ultimately a bi-national state in Palestine-Israel
where people are free and equal, living under a constitutional democracy
that protects and guarantees all their rights, responsibilities, and duties
without racism or discrimination. One state for two nations and three
religions," the statement said.
Welcoming the participants, the Rev. Naim Ateek, director of the Sabeel
Center in East Jerusalem, urged them to "see how we are suffering daily
humiliation-and carry this picture to the rest of the body of Christ and to
Ateek and others have warned for years that Christians in Israel are under
increasing pressure. The Rev. Elias Chacour, a prominent educator and a
Greek Catholic from Galilee, said that "it is more difficult to speak out
because of threats to the small Christian community in the Holy Land. The
small remnant is disappearing day after day because they don't see any hope
in the future." He decried the violence and said that "we are facing a
progression of funerals on both sides. No more martyrs." Palestinians and
the international community are desperately searching for signs of hope and
trust, he said.
Sabeel, which means "the way" or a channel or spring of life-giving water
in Arabic, celebrated its fifth anniversary at the conference. It is a
grassroots movement among Palestinian Christians who are striving to
develop a spirituality based on justice, peace, non-violence, liberation,
and reconciliation for different national and faith communities.
Canterbury's absence stirs protest
Tensions in the region also seeped into the conference in a dramatic way
when Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams decided not to deliver a
keynote address in person, reportedly at the urging of local religious
leaders. Instead Williams sent his ecumenical secretary to read his
remarks. Making apologies, the Rev. Jonathan Gough said that the
archbishop's priority "is to be able to act as a bridge builder" and that
his attendance "could be misunderstood."
While meeting with participants-who expressed disappointment and
anger-Gough said that the archbishop's first responsibility is holding the
church together and, as a world leader, the stakes are high, requiring him
to carefully weigh the risks of being identified with "the wrong voices" on
the issues. Some participants pointed out that the archbishop's address
talked almost exclusively about Israel, offering no hope for the
Palestinians. They also noted that he didn't mention Sabeel at all-which,
they said, suggested he doesn't understand its role and vision. "If he
can't stand by Sabeel, then he's part of the problem," one participant
said, wondering if the archbishop was rejecting the role of Sabeel as a
Ateek said that Williams was invited not just because he is a prominent
church leader but because he is a good theologian. He expressed
disappointment that the address didn't really deal with the issues of the
In his address, Williams said that "Jew and Christian share a common
conviction in that they have one calling: to be the place where wisdom and
justice make their home in history, on earth. In light of that they have
the freedom to call each other to account, despite their differences." In a
long narrative on the role of Israel, Williams wrote: "It helps to ask what
the covenantal promise is thought to be for in the Hebrew Scriptures. And
the answer, given in various forms in parts of Leviticus, in many strands
of the prophetic tradition, especially the Second Isaiah, in aspects of the
Wisdom literature, might be summarised by saying that Israel is called to
be the paradigm nation, the example held up to all nations of how a people
lives in obedience to God and justice with one another."
Strong voices stir conference
If there was disappointment with the address by Williams, there was none
with a string of other powerful speakers-passionate, perceptive and
critical of the alliances of politics and theology represented by Christian
The Rev. Stephen Sizer, an Anglican priest who chairs the International
Bible Society in the United Kingdom, said that the thesis of Christian
Zionism is that "every act taken by Israel is orchestrated by God and
should be condoned-period." He said that the movement's influence is
immense, with as many as 100 million adherents in the US. Christian
Zionism, he said, dates back to early 19th century England, when a
commitment to restore the Jews to Palestine as an antecedent to Christ's
Second Coming and the end of the world began to take shape. Conservative
British politicians like Lord Balfour were convinced that the purpose of
history is to carry out the divine purpose. But Balfour was "entirely
duplicitous," said Sizer, because he never intended to take into account
the people already living in Palestine. Yet Balfour is responsible for
giving Zionism political legitimacy, especially in the Balfour Declaration
of 1917, which called for the establishment of a Jewish state.
Christian Zionists typically are ultra-literalist in their interpretation
of Scripture, support Jerusalem as the "eternal and exclusive" capital of
Israel, favor rebuilding the Jewish temple on Mount Zion, and express
antipathy for Arabs who stand in the way of such a vision, Sizer said.
But Rosemary Radford Ruether of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley
warned participants not to assume that Christian Zionism "is a problem of
fanatics and fundamentalists." She said that there is also subtle
collaboration with Israel and a "sophisticated and unconscious Zionism" in
mainline Christian churches. She deplored the tendency to think that good
relations with Jews comes only by ignoring the Palestinians, therefore
making them pay for others' sins against the Jews. "Christians in the West
must look at ways to break that silence about Jewish election-promises of
land and restoration as part of a redemptive process."
"What is the appropriate repentance for Western Christians who bear the
burden of guilt?" she asked. "Not collaboration with another injustice. One
evil does not justify another."
Describing what he called the "strange synthesis" between Zionism and
religion, Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg of the Jerusalem Report said
that Christian Zionism represents a classic anti-Jewish theology because,
at the end of its "script," Jews either convert or die. He said that
Christian millennarians who look for the return of Jesus to establish his
kingdom are not Zionists, because they have no concern for the welfare of
Jews. The fulfillment of the prophesied "end times," rather than peace, is
their goal. In such a scenario, Palestinian Arabs-Christian and Muslim
alike-become mere stage props in the drama. "We must get to a better place,
even if it is not a perfect place," he added.
Misuse of scripture
Barbara Rossing of the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago dealt
directly and convincingly with the misuse of the New Testament book of
Revelation in supporting Christian Zionist theology. "It is a highly
political but deeply spiritual book," she said, "that helps us see empire
differently." When Revelation was written, Rome had just reoccupied the
region and the book's writer, John, looked at the situation and "addressed
the issue of justice, giving us eyes to see our world."
But Revelation is not meant to be read literally, Rossing said. "It is one
of the most daring critiques of empire" in the New Testament, one that
"looks the powers in the face and says that 'Rome won't last, God will.'"
Rossing said that Revelation offers "a vision of healing and renewal." But
its prophecy is a wake-up call, a word of warning to the people, not a set
of predictions. Fundamentalists never get to the last chapter that
describes the New Jerusalem and God's renewed vision of community, she
said. "It lays out God's vision for all time, not restricted to someone's
time-line. It is also written from the underside, at a time more hopeless
and violent than our own. The non-violent Lamb conquers by shedding its own
blood," she said.
The Rev. Don Wagner, professor of religion and director of the Center for
Middle Eastern Studies at North Park University in Chicago, noted that
Christian Zionists are opposed to Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip
because they say it would violate the Biblical mandate that the land of
Israel belongs to the Jews. To Christian Zionists, the foundation of the
State of Israel in 1948 was a sign that the "end times" were nearing. The
clock of prophecy began to tick the countdown for the return of Jesus and
the building of a new Temple that would mean destruction of the Dome of the
Rock, a holy site of Islam on what the Jews call the Temple Mount, he said.
According to Wagner, Christian Zionism projects a theology of empire and
anticipates the final battle, "anxious for Armageddon." It views the modern
state of Israel as a continuation of Biblical Israel and therefore
deserving of complete support, he said, though "of course that undermines
the continuing presence of other churches in the Middle East."
Tracing some of the political convergences, Wagner said that in 1977 the
conservative Likud Party began to court the Christian Right in the US. When
President Jimmy Carter said that the Palestinians have a right to a
homeland, he lost his support for re-election, while two-term President
Ronald Reagan talked openly about Armageddon and held pro-Israeli briefings
in the White House, linking US foreign policy with the future of Israel.
Glory, not suffering
Yet Christian Zionists are actually making the safety of Israel untenable,
argued the Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor who is director of the
International Center in Bethlehem. He noted that there were a number of
"recovering Christian Zionists" at the conference, including some speakers.
The Christian presence in Jerusalem is a problem for Zionists. "We are
there as a stumbling block, erected originally by Christ," he said. "The
theology of Christian Zionists is one of glory, not suffering. They are
interested in power, they need victories. They are the true anti-Semites
because they want to bring Jews to Israel to slay two-thirds of them as
part of the end of time," he said. "We are the continuation of the first
disciples. If you identify with that then we have a place to start." Raheb
joined others in acknowledging that it is possible to deal with Israel
politically but not theologically, because "only the kingdom of God can
claim that status."
"Christian Zionism is very dangerous and difficult to confront," said the
Rev. Rafik Khoury, a priest of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, in
tracing its growth and power, especially in the international community. He
said Christian Zionists are causing major problems for Israel's indigenous
Christian community, "embarrassing" Christian churches because it is not
always possible for people to distinguish differences among different
groups. "They are fragmenting a Christian community already fragmented."
The challenge is to expose the ideology with intellectual efforts, he said,
but he also called for an international campaign similar to those waged
against the Vietnam War and apartheid South Africa.
Christian Right in power
Several speakers called for similar action. Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the
Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, and co-chair of the US
Campaign to End Israeli Occupation, said that there is a growing divide
between US policy and international world opinion. She called for a global
peace movement to counter some of the Bush administration's policies,
calling the awesome power of the US "a dangerous reality." The American
people and others around the world are "beginning to see through some of
the lies" and they are turning against the war in Iraq, she said. While
they have not been able to stop the war, public opinion is robbing the war
of its legitimacy, she asserted. "And Palestine is no longer marginal to
the world peace movement," she added.
Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and chair of the peace and justice
studies program at the University of San Francisco, was even more blunt,
arguing that the Christian Right controls the Republican Party and half the
US states-and for the first time a majority of the party is pro-Israel.
"Right-wing Zionist Jews are now forming policy, representing a shift in
the center of gravity," he said. The Bush administration, he warned, feels
called by God to rid the world of evil. "Yet Israel gets by with murder
because it has the unqualified support of the world's only superpower," he
Dr. Mubarak Awad, founder of Nonviolence International in Washington, DC,
wondered why the friends of Israel were so much more effective than the
friends of the Palestinians. "We must work to get rid of fear and hate,
convincing the Israelis that we are both human beings," said Awad, who was
jailed and still faces deportation for his non-violent activities. He said
it is important to avoid a direct conflict between Judaism and Islam.
"Nobody is born violent," he said, but sometimes "people who feel they are
already dead think they have nothing to lose."
"There are progressive Jews who seek solidarity with Palestinians, but the
question now is whether Palestine will survive," said Marc Ellis, director
of the Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University in Waco,
Texas. Ellis did not see the occupation ending or the removal of
settlements in the West Bank. "We are running out of time to effect
change," he warned. "The Jewish prophetic voice will never die but the
situation is increasingly desperate."
Jeff Halper, an American-born Jew who heads a group opposed to the
demolition of Palestinian homes, said he detected a climate of "power,
triumphalism, American Empire" and what he called "democratic imperialism"
with the new Bush-Sharon agreements. "This is a turning point," he said-the
end of the occupation. "There are new political parameters on the ground
and the Palestinians must now adjust. They are facing the concept that this
is no longer a political conflict but a clash of civilizations" with which
it is much more difficult to deal.
Halper said that Israel would eventually create a mini-state to absorb four
million Palestinians, leaving Israel in complete control. The Palestinians
will be "locked forever into Bantustans," similar to apartheid South
Africa. "It's all unilateral-the Palestinians are not part of this, they
A malady called hope
Jonathan Kuttab, a Palestinian human rights lawyer, was equally gloomy
because "the situation just gets worse." He said he was particularly
annoyed by the Archbishop of Canterbury's address because, in his opinion,
it laid out the theological imperatives for recognizing Jewish statehood
without recognizing the people already on the land. "There was no reference
to the people who had to be displaced. Where is the Good News for the
Palestinian people?" he asked.
Kuttab admitted that the conference "brings together so many depressing
facts it leaves us helpless and hopeless," yet he found some encouragement
in the example of South Africa, where the apartheid regime was doomed
because it was built on injustice. "Injustice in this part of the world
can't prevail forever," he said. "The One who is with us is greater than
the forces arrayed against us." He argued that "Christian Zionism needs to
be challenged on the human, moral cost and the consequences of their
Earlier, a more hopeful note was sounded by Zoughbi Zoughbi, director of a
conflict resolution center in Bethlehem, who was blocked from attending the
conference and addressed the participants by telephone. "We have an
incurable malady called hope," he said. arguing that a "non-violent
strategy can help us address Israeli society-and they are the only ones who
can change government policies." Yet he added that "we need a jump-start to
move away from the deadlocked peace process. A strategy for waging peace
should replace the strategy of waging war."
Zoughbi and other speakers said that the West is "still hostage to guilty
feelings" over the Holocaust, and that is complicating the peace efforts.
It is time to shift from blame and guilt to collective responsibility, he
said. "We are seeking to bring Israel to its senses, not to its knees."
Last chance for peace?
During a day-long program in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the group also
met with President Yassir Arafat of the Palestinian Authority. Clearly
buoyed by the size and range of the conference, Arafat said that he was
still confined to "this prison" after two years. He called attention to the
suffering of his people, now increased by the Israeli construction of the
barrier wall, a move that has led to confiscation of Palestinian land and
destruction of olive groves. "In spite of all of our troubles, we are
committed to peace," he said.
Hanan Ashrawi, an Episcopalian who has served as spokesperson for peace
efforts, joined Arafat and blasted the new agreements between Bush and
Sharon. "This destroys and undermines any chance for peace," she said.
"This unholy alliance can't continue. God did not talk to George Bush to
tell him how to redistribute our land." She said that the solution must be
legal, just and peaceful, based on the recognition that many of the
political policies are bankrupt. "It is up to you to present a different
narrative," she said. "We count on you to be the voice of the Palestinians."
Damage to the soul
Preaching at the closing worship service at the Notre Dame Center, former
presiding bishop Edmond Lee Browning seemed to capture many of the emotions
that had been running through the conference. (Both he and his wife Patti
were honored by Sabeel for their long commitment to peace in the
"Clearly the Christian community is divided between two views," Browning
said. "One view would see God's plan being enacted through the return of
the Jewish people to Israel, to be followed by Armageddon and the second
coming of Christ. The other holds up a vision of this land based not on an
interpretation of scripture but on a God of justice as revealed in the
totality of Scriptures... Any vision that says God would bring about
deliverance for one group at the expense of suffering and injustice to
another group of people is just simply not acceptable Christian theology.
Indeed, it is not of God."
He saluted the "incredible humanity" of the suffering Palestinians "which
is assaulted but never defeated. The world community carries the burden of
guilt for their continued oppression-none more so than my country, the
United States of America. The news of President Bush's giveaway to Prime
Minister Sharon underscores the US role as co-oppressor of the Palestinian
people.... The so-called wall of separation is only one more travesty of
justice heaped upon the draconian measures that define the Occupation."
Browning told the story of George Khoury, a Palestinian Christian murdered
Palestinian militants thought he was a Jew. "The death of George Khoury
encapsulates in many ways the foolishness of both the occupiers and those
who think revenge is a solution...We simply cannot let either the Israeli
or Palestinian people be lost in a sea of violence driven by fanaticism
that threatens to engulf the very souls of both people who claim this land.
Damage of the soul is done to both oppressor and the oppressed. Both must
seek the vision of God that sees a future built on justice, repentance,
restoration, forgiveness and reconciliation."
"We know that for many Jewish people there is a sense of darkness, a fear
of enemies all around who wish them harm. And they lose innocent lives in
acts of dreadful violence," Browning said, but the future lies in the words
of Isaiah: "If you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt,
and to every evil word; if you give food to the hungry and satisfy those
who are in need, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness
--James Solheim is the former director of Episcopal News Service.
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