"Christian Zionism" and the Myth of America
By Rev. John Hubers
America, in part, owes its national identity to the prevalence of powerful myths which arose out of its early history. Many are attached to founding "fathers", others to the experience of nation building.
Perhaps the most powerful myth is that which developed out of the frontier experience of an emerging nation. Manifest destiny is how historians label it, the belief that the settlement and taming of this vast largely uninhabited land by European colonialists was a divinely destined event. Here's how the story goes: a brave pioneering people, escaping from religious and political oppression in Europe meet great obstacles in realizing their dreams of a free land for free people in an untamed wilderness. Among these obstacles are "savage" natives who use terrorist tactics to attempt to thwart their designs. With God's help the brave settlers defeat the "savages" and force them off the land, at least the best land, thus making way for those who are better able to exploit the God given resources that it yields.
Recent scholarship has debunked this myth, highlighting the brutality and negative consequences of this early form of ethnic cleansing, but the basic mythic elements of story-heroic pioneers escaping persecution to give birth to a free land-continue to shape American self identity as evidenced in the ease with which politicians, most recently President George Bush, are able to rally support for foreign policy ventures drawing on key elements of this myth ("any attack on America is an attack on freedom!").
I put this before you primarily as a way of explaining what is otherwise inexplicable-how the eschatology of an obscure 19th century British Christian sect managed to capture the imagination of appreciable numbers of what is the largest and most politically powerful non-Catholic grouping of Christians in America-those who identify themselves as Evangelicals. The sect in question is the Plymouth Brethren whose inspiration was a man named John Nelson Darby. What he taught is an approach to biblical interpretation known as "dispensationalism." A key aspect of "dispensationalism" is the distinction it makes between Israel and the Church in God's plan of salvation. It was Darby's belief that Old Testament prophesies related to the restoration of Diaspora Jews to the pre exilic land of Israel were to be literally fulfilled. This was in opposition to the more widely held teaching of the western Church of the time which read the ancient Hebrew prophesies through the lens of Augustine's "displacement" eschatology. Augustine identified the Church as the heir of the promises-a "New Israel" looking forward to an eternal "New Jerusalem", thus eliminating the promise of land from the equation.
Darby's teaching became popularized (and, some would say "sanitized") in America at the turn of the century through the preaching of the popular evangelist DL Moody as well as the publication of the widely read "Scofield Study Bible" which used color coded charts to identify which prophesies applied to which particular group of believers. Later Dallas Theological Seminary would pick up the dispensationalist torch, the most notable of its graduates being the author of the widely read dispensationalist book, "The Late Great Planet Earth", Hal Lindsay.
In the eyes of dispensationalists the pivotal event of the 20th century was the founding of the State of Israel in 1947 which was "proof positive" that Darby got it right. This was given more credence by the Zionist state's swift and decisive victory in the 1967 six day war. "Clearly God's hand was in this", trumpeted the dispensationalists. The ancient promises God made to Israel were coming true in front of their eyes - a literal fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy.
This was the position of the dispensationalists. But they were not necessarily the dominant voice of the mainstream evangelical church at this point. That didn't happen until the two myths began to merge-the dispensationalist myth and the American myth.
I use the word "myth" with some hesitancy as there may be those who take this to mean that I believe the biblical message to be on a par with children's fairy tales. Such is not the case. Myth in the sense I am using it here refers more to the power of a story to shape a consciousness which defines truth in a way that transcends the story itself. The myth of manifest destiny functions this way as it draws on historical events to define something larger than the events themselves. The dispensationalist myth does the same with the story of the founding of the state of Israel. Here, too, the historical events are less important than the interpretation given to those events, the way the story is framed giving rise to a larger Truth.
This is the way the story goes, at least in its condensed version: A persecuted people longing for a land where they can practice their faith in freedom overcome great odds and a determined opposition under God's direction and empowerment to create a state of their own. The opposition comes from "savages" who use terrorist tactics to keep these brave settlers from establishing their state, savages whose poor stewardship of the land justifies their removal.
Here, I believe, is at least one explanation for the tenacious hold of the dispensationalist myth on the American consciousness (even beyond evangelical circles)-it echoes themes of the American frontier myth. We hear our own story in Israel's story. We identify with the Zionists because their experience matches ours (or at least appears to match ours as we are dealing less with actual history here than interpretive history).
I don't want to overstate the case here, as clearly those who accept the dispensationalist take on eschatology have done so for the most part because they are convinced that this is the best way to read the Bible. But the hold that it has on the imagination of American evangelicals and even those who would not identify themselves as such, can only be explained, I believe, by the apparent links between the Zionist story and the American story.
The damage that this does to ecumenical relations, particularly relations between the more conservative wing of the American evangelical community and the community of believers in the Middle East is hard to overstate. At issue is the way these Christians identify with Zionist ideology over against those who are oppressed by it, including Middle Eastern Christians. Its "us" versus "them", but in this case the "us" excludes fellow Christians (although truth told many American Christian Zionists are unaware that Palestinian Christians exist. To them it's Christians/Jews against Muslims. Or to put it more crudely, civilized citizens of free societies versus savage terrorists.)
So what is to be done? How, given the tenacious grip of this myth on the collective imagination of conservative (and politically powerful) evangelicals can the tide be turned towards helping these Christians move towards a more balanced view of the situation.
We begin, I believe, by engaging this community in conversation, which is the first mistake that is often made by the ecumenical community-not starting the conversation in the first place. It is easy to demonize those who hold this position, particularly given what is at stake-the suffering of the Palestinian people. But I know no other way to counter the perceptions which give rise to the myth.
I have noted in this regard that Palestinian Christians who visit America to engage the Christian community in conversation about the occupation often limit their visits to churches which represent the mainline ecumenical community, in essence, "preaching to the choir." Granted it is difficult to find ways to open up a dialogue with Christian Zionists on this issue, but the effort must be made as this is a necessary first step towards breaking the iron grip of the imaginative power of the myth. They've only heard one story. It's important that they hear another.
A recent visit of Dr. Jarjour (Rev.Dr.Riad Jarjour is General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches) to my own denominations' General Synod underlines this point. The Reformed Church in America, while not falling into the Christian Zionist camp, is a generally conservative evangelical body whose membership is susceptible to the lure of Christian Zionism (the "Left Behind" series is popular among our people).
Dr. Jarjour addressed our Synod on several different occasions in various formats, including two major addresses at our plenary sessions. In connection with these addresses were two resolutions, one which was openly critical of the Israeli occupation calling for a return to pre '67 borders, the other calling for an end to sanctions against Iraq and warning about the build up to war. The Reformed Church is normally cautious about passing such openly political pronouncements, yet both resolutions passed primarily on the weight of Dr. Jarjour's articulate plea for solidarity with our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters. Long time observers of the RCA were astonished that these resolutions passed as easily as they did. Clearly Dr. Jarjour's presence and the way he was able to provoke empathy for fellow Christians is what turned the tide.
This, I believe, underlies the importance of countering the Zionist myth with the real life story of Palestinians who suffer under the occupation. It is telling that nearly every American Christian who has visited Palestine and had a chance to meet Palestinians in the occupied territory, listening to their stories and enjoying their hospitality, has returned to America with a new found empathy and sometimes militant support for the Palestinian cause. The key is hearing and experiencing the story told in a different way-allowing the voice of those who lost their homes and suffer under the humiliating weight of the occupation to be heard, primarily the story of Christians whose natural bonds to fellow believers makes it difficult to continue to hold onto the demonizing aspects of the Zionist myth.
Christian Zionism is a powerful movement in America primarily on the weight of its compelling story line which echoes our own story line. The key in countering it, I believe, is to tell another story-the true life story of people who have lost their homes and livelihoods, their dignity and in some cases their lives at least partly because of unqualified American support for the Zionist cause. Hard core Christian Zionists will continue to hang onto their perceptions in the face of whatever evidence may be produced to counter the myth. But there are many who are open, I believe, to hearing another story, who could be brought into the camp of those who are working as I trust we are all working to respond to the situation in Palestine with the sense of justice and compassion God calls us to bring into all of our affairs, political or otherwise. Putting a human and humane face on the struggle is what is needed if for no other reason than to prove that Palestinians are not the "savages" which the myth has made them out to be. Whatever can be done to make this happen will be a step in the right direction.
Rev. Hubers is the Reformed Church in America's Mission Coordinator for the Middle East and South Asia