American visitors to the Holy Land often “run where Jesus walked,” a Palestinian friend from Bethlehem likes to say. One need only watch the crush of tourists pouring out of buses at the Church of the Nativity to observe the pattern: place one tentative foot into the West Bank, check the landmark off the list after superficial engagement and zip back to the sunny places on the other side of the checkpoint with nary a glance at Bethlehem as it is now, in the shadow of the wall, forgotten. Even in Jerusalem, many American evangelicals prefer the sanitized garden tomb over the suffocating chaos of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Why bother with the place at is it now, with its sinuous tangle of narratives, people and problems? Isn’t it a shame that a funny golden dome sits where the temple stood? And those Palestinians should stop being so angry, right?
The question how Christians might respond to the Trump administration’s pledge to move the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is an especially thorny one in the current cultural and political climate. So let me be up front about the vantage point from which I am addressing the topic. I am New Testament scholar with a doctorate from Fuller Theological Seminary. In my role as a professor of biblical studies at a Reformed college, I recently led a group of students to the Holy Land for an immersion course that exposed the students to a wide range of Jewish, Muslim and Christian voices as we considered together the land and contexts of the Bible. While I care deeply about the political issues and have worked to be well informed, I am not an expert on the political conflict nor even on the varied theological approaches Christians have taken in response. What I offer here is no shortcut for thinking and responding well, but rather a personal response informed by my experiences in the Holy Land and by my readings of some biblical texts often discussed in relation to the conflict.
I am categorically opposed to the decision by the Trump administration. So far, violent responses have been limited, and some Arab states (e.g., Egypt) even seem tacitly to have accepted the move. As I see it, there are two central reasons to oppose the decision, and they have nothing to do with the immediate repercussions in the region nor with the reality that U.S. power limits the options of nearby nations that otherwise have every reason to protest (Jordan, for instance).
Relatively few American evangelicals hold their pro-Israel position because they have carefully considered the theological/ political questions.
First, there is the continued suffering of the Palestinians. When I was traveling in the Holy Land this spring, a young Palestinian tour guide showed me a picture of himself as a boy, merrily attending music lessons with a Jewish friend in Jerusalem. Such a thing is unthinkable today, just a couple of decades later: Palestinians’ movements are increasingly restricted by the Israeli government (they can’t easily visit their former neighborhoods or even get to work without waiting sometimes hours), and they are subject to displays of unequal military force, their rocks met with rifles. Then, of course, there’s the massive wall, built to expand Israeli territory, to divide and erase and to provide the perception of protection for Israelis living near the West Bank (10,000–20,000 Palestinians are compelled to cross the border illegally every day, so the wall deserves no credit for the reduction in bombings after the Second Intifada in 2000–2004).
Second, the move imperils whatever slim chance remained for a two-state solution. Without a viable two-state solution, there is only the current state of affairs, or a one-state solution. And that one state can’t be both Jewish and democratic! One need not deny any of the powerful and important justifications for the existence of a Jewish state following the horrors of the 20th century to acknowledge that a nation that prioritizes one group over another bears significant responsibility for the economic and political plight of the disempowered group.
More to the point, though, many American Christians fail to appreciate that the decision by the Trump administration (and, to a lesser degree, the entire 70-year history of U.S. diplomacy in Israel) stems not primarily from a principled stance to favor Israel or from American Jewish lobbyists. Rather, it stems from the outsized influence of American Christians, evangelicals in particular, who wield tremendous political power. While a vocal group is fiercely dedicated to a principled stance (Christian Zionists), relatively few American evangelicals hold their pro-Israel position because they have carefully considered the theological/political questions. Thus, the power of this lobby is due mostly to silence and unexamined assumptions.
REJECTING THE SIMPLISTIC
What exactly are the assumptions many American evangelicals make? Given the close relationship of the Trump administration to the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem – Vice President Mike Pence spoke to the group in July of 2017 – the ICEJ’s position is a helpful starting point. Take this innocuous-sounding description from ICEJ spokesman Malcolm Hedding:
Christian Zionism is confirmed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. The major and minor prophets consistently confirmed this national calling on Israel, promised her future restoration to the land after a period of exile, and spoke of her spiritual renewal and redemption bringing light to the world. Christian Zionism differs with Replacement Theology which teaches that the special relationship that Israel had with her God in terms of her national destiny and her national homeland has been lost because of her rejection of Jesus as Messiah, and therefore the Church has become the new Israel … Instead, Christian Zionism teaches from the scriptures that God’s covenant with Abraham is still valid today. There remains a national destiny over the Jewish people and her national homeland is her everlasting possession in fulfillment of God’s plans and purposes for her. The New Testament scriptures not only affirm the Abrahamic covenant, but they confirm the historical mission of Israel and that Israel’s gifts and calling are irrevocable (https://int.icej.org/media/christian-zionism-101).
There are at least two major difficulties here. First, aside from the obvious falsity and anachronism in the claim “Christian Zionism is confirmed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures,” the statement conflates the historic people (ancient Israel, who came to be called Jews) and the modern state that bears the name “Israel.” Is God’s promise of land to the Israelites an enduring and indispensable feature of the story recounted in the Bible? Absolutely. Does such a fact mean that Christians must side politically with the modern nation-state on every issue? Absolutely not.
Of course, a huge number of complicated issues surface at this point, and there is no substitute for forming personal relationships and listening to those living in the midst of the conflict. It is crucial to sit down with Israeli Jews and hear their perspectives about how their claims to the land might be seen to supersede the claims of Palestinians to the same land. My Israeli friend and educator Jared Goldfarb, for instance, is deeply committed to his Jewish faith: I have eaten Shabbat dinner in his home and have witnessed him studying the sacred texts with great devotion. He beautifully encourages groups to appreciate the overlook at the conclusion of the holocaust museum in Jerusalem (Yad Vashem), which is a view of green hills buzzing with vitality – Jewish life after such devastating loss and homelessness. Yet Jared has genuine relationships with and cares about the flourishing of Palestinians with whom he disagrees. He holds nuanced positions about whose claim to the land has primacy and how those claims get worked out in policy decisions and in light of current realities on the ground. He also states unambiguously that the famous Zionist slogan (“a land without a people for a people without a land”) was always a bogus propaganda move, borne out of a colonial mentality.
It is equally crucial to sit down with Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians. Dr. Munther Isaac, for example, a Palestinian Christian whose family has been living in Bethlehem for at least 500 years, grew up asking a devastating question: “Did God promise my family’s land to those who are oppressing me?” Or to put it another way: Is it legitimate to use the Bible to justify uprooting Palestinians from their homes and villages and relegating non-Jews to second-class status and noncitizenship?
THE EARTH, NOT ISRAEL
Isaac offers one possible way for Christians to respond “no.” By thinking along with the biblical voices, Isaac argues that the promises of land to Israel (beginning already in the proto-Israelite story of the garden of Eden) have always pointed to the restoration of the whole earth, which has now begun in Jesus as the bearer of the universal reign of God. For Isaac, the universalization of the land does not mean spiritualization; rather, it is a paradigm for how communities in a multitude of lands might live out the social and territorial dimensions of their lives. In ways we will explore below, this means legitimate Jewish claims to the biblical lands must be held in balance with the claims of Palestinians to the same land. Isaac balks at the very premise of a 2012 Christianity Today feature titled “Do Jews Have a Divine Right to Israel’s Land?” Christians, he argues, must learn to ask a much better question: “How can we advance peace between Israelis and Palestinians?” In answer to this question, the Bible has much to offer: a persistent emphasis on the ethical responsibility to care for the foreigner/sojourner (Gen. 12:10; 23:4; Exod. 22:21–24; 23:9; Lev. 19:34; Num. 9:14; 15:15–16; Deut. 10:19; 24:17, 19–20); an affirmation that the land is God’s possession alone, bestowed to the people as an instrument of blessing the world (Gen. 2:15; 12:1–3; Josh. 24:13); and a clear summons to the kind of justice that demands sharing the land (Ezek. 47:21–23: “[The sojourners] shall be to you as native-born children of Israel; with you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel”).
A UNIQUE CLAIM?
Still lingering, however, is the matter of the unique claim of the Jews to the land. Muslims, of course, have their own legitimate narrative that binds them to religious sites in Jerusalem. For Christians, however, the Jewish narrative has a certain immediacy, both because Christianity affirms the Hebrew Bible as Scripture and because the validity of the Jewish claim is attested in the New Testament.
This special relationship has to do with Israel’s “election” – a loaded term indeed! Let me say two initial things about it. First, election is a relationship with and a calling upon a particular people, not the eternal salvation of an individual (as some hyper-Reformed Christians read Paul to say). Second, the idea that a loving God would pick favorites (Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, etc.) need not be construed as a deficiency. As Jon Levenson points out in his recent book The Love of God, election should be understood in terms of love, not distributive justice. The exclusivity inherent in love is a higher form of being than mechanistic concepts of fairness (i.e., it is no injustice to all other men if a woman loves her spouse and children).
The question of election points us to the second difficulty with the ICEJ statement: its misuse of a phrase from Rom 11:29 – “for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” Christian Zionists would have us believe that the only options available to Christians are (1) to side politically with the state of Israel (e.g., affirm its right to build and populate settlements, even though they are illegal under international law) because of the “national destiny over the Jewish people,” or (2) to reject the validity of God’s promises to the Jews and end up with some form of “replacement theology,” where Christians have supplanted the Jews as God’s chosen people. My view is that neither of these options is best and that the Bible invites Christians to postulate a thoughtful alternative through which we vigorously pursue peace. In keeping with the Bible’s connection between the gift of land and the pursuit of justice for the marginalized (“Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you”; Deut 16:20), we need a lens that strives for a restoration that transcends the boundaries of one people group without effacing it.
JESUS AND ISRAEL
We find ourselves in a position where two seemingly conflicting things must be affirmed: that God remains faithful to God’s promises to Israel and that something radically new is made possible in the coming of Jesus. While of course Paul, writing to the house churches in Rome in the middle of the first century, is far removed from anything resembling the complex of issues facing us today, he did famously address exactly that paradox in Romans 9-11. It serves us well, then, to do our thinking alongside Paul, keeping in mind that the descriptive task (“what did Paul’s text communicate in its original contexts?”), however helpful, cannot be the last word on how Christians should respond to the circumstances facing us today.
Far from being a detour, Romans 9-11 is central to Paul’s concerns in the whole of the letter, because it addresses the faithfulness of God. Paul’s arresting conclusion to Romans 8 affirms that “nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39). Immediately there is a problem, however, because so many of the Israelites do not recognize Jesus as Lord (Christos kyrios, the earliest Christian confession). Has then “the word of God failed” (Rom. 9:6)? Has God has abandoned the people to whom God made promises (Rom. 11:1)? No, says Paul – for some perplexing reasons! For Paul, the “mystery” is that although a partial hardening has come upon Israel, this is happening as part of God’s plan to save all (notice how often the word “all” pops up as you read Romans). “All Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26), Paul writes. God will ultimately triumph over Jewish unbelief in Jesus, because “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29).
Notice (and here I diverge from the influential construal by N.T. Wright) that there is nothing here about Israel “keeping God for herself,” nothing here about failing in the call to be a conduit of blessing to all nations (Gen. 12:3). It is simply a temporary failure to acknowledge Jesus as messiah and Lord (see also 2 Cor. 3:12-4:6). Notice, too that there is little here to support the idea of two covenants, one for Jews, and one for Gentiles (as argued, e.g., by Lloyd Gaston in Paul and the Torah). Paul envisions one family of Abraham (Gal. 3:28; Rom. 3:30). New life “in Christ” (the heart of salvation in Paul) is much more than a “way in” for Gentiles – it is the inheritance promised to the Jews (Rom. 4:13). The key point is that for Paul such oneness does not mean that ethnic distinctions are erased or that the special significance of the Jews has been dissolved. Wright balks when he is labeled a supersessionist (i.e., one who erases Jewish identity by claiming that Christians are now God’s chosen people), but even if we call it a “reworking” of Israel, the charge still applies. No, the “all Israel” that will be saved (Rom. 11:26) is not the church (as Wright believes) – it is the Jewish people, Israel.
But are we any closer to understanding how Christians ought to respond to what is happening in the Holy Land today? I think we are. For Christians who are tempted to embrace an unexamined Zionism, Paul insists that oneness in Christ means that our respective identities should never prevent us from accepting one another or from addressing injustices (1 Cor. 11:17-22). For others (not just Christians) who might be tempted to dismiss Jewish distinctiveness as a naive remnant of tribal thinking, Paul reminds us that identities matter. We don’t need to be naive about the fluidity of what it means to be “Jewish” (the Bible isn’t, either; e.g., Gen. 41:45; Exod. 2:21; Ruth 4:17) to give real weight to what it means for Jews to identify as Jews, with the formative narrative and particular history that identity includes. Both in Romans and in places such as Gal. 2:11–14, Paul helps us see that modern globalism should be about understanding difference and fostering cooperation, not about collapsing the differences that make all humans the beautiful, unique creatures we are.
Immediately after Romans 9-11, Paul says something that offers us one final resource for our efforts to think and act well: “Have a share in the needs of the saints (in Jerusalem); pursue love of the stranger (philoxenia)” (Rom. 12:13). My Israeli friend Jared devotes time and energy to Kids4Peace, a movement of Jewish, Christian and Muslim youths dedicated to ending conflict and inspiring hope in divided societies. When Jewish volunteers take massive risks such as raising a Palestinian flag as a gesture to welcome a group of youth to camp, is this pursuing stranger love? Absolutely. When Palestinian tour guide Kamal Mukarker sits with my students in the home of a Jewish settler, patiently listening to the settler’s story even as the pain of his own experience weighs on him like an olive press, is this stranger love? Absolutely.
American Christians, let’s do the same. Pursue justice for the oppressed. Insist on obedience to international law. Listen carefully to the stories and immense pain of the Jewish people before passing judgment. Acknowledge our complicity in political decisions that perpetuate injustices. Write your representatives, and don’t vote for someone who condones hurtful political moves. Commit to learning about organizations that foster understanding and peace. Support them with your time or money (encouraging financial support for the poor in Jerusalem was a massive component of Paul’s mission). And if you visit the Holy Land, get off your iPad as you pass through the checkpoint on your air-conditioned bus. Look. Feel. Give. Listen. Act.
Benjamin Lappenga teaches theology at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.
Photo: Author unknown, Wikimedia Commons. http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Flag-Hejaz-Arab-Man-Waving-1081797, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57690705