Amid Israel’s intensifying offensive against Gaza, a pastor in Delhi exhorted his church members this Sunday to pray for peace in Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6) and for the protection of “God’s chosen people” (Deuteronomy 7:6), referring to the Biblical commandment to Christians. Such calls are all too common whenever skirmishes break out between Israel and Palestine, which occur with chilling regularity.
Evangelical Christians around the globe, including this pastor in India, believe that Jews are “God’s chosen people” who are under attack from their “enemies”, and it is a religious obligation on the part of Christians to extend their unequivocal support to the state of Israel.
As a corollary, such a view holds Palestinians as ‘evil’ (in the binary of good vs evil) and the creation of the state of Israel as the fulfilment of Biblical promises.
Palestinians are Muslims, Christians and Jews
What this perspective does is completely block out from public consciousness – either through design or due to lack of awareness – the fact that there are Palestinian Jews and Christians, and Palestinians are not all Muslim. In fact, Jesus Christ himself was a Palestinian Jew, and most of the Biblical holy sites fall under present-day Palestine.
For the Evangelicals, however, the plight of Palestinian Christians does not cross their mind. Christians who constituted over 10% of Palestine’s population at the time of the establishment of Israel in 1948 are now down to 2%. It is most stark in Bethlehem, Jesus’s birthplace, as their share of the population has reduced from 86% to about 10% today. Like other Palestinians, they left their homeland as Israeli occupation increased. Even with their dipping numbers, Palestine still has a vibrant Christian community and the local church and its affiliate organisations are the biggest employers after the Palestinian Authority.
As a practising Christian, therefore, I see such calls for prayers in support of an apartheid regime in the face of a murderous campaign unleashed against Palestinians as morally reprehensible.
They expose a lack of Biblical understanding and also spiritual bankruptcy. Many such Christians around the world, even in India, cherry-pick Biblical references to justify their support for Israel. Popular in such references is Genesis 12:3 verse, which says, “I will bless those who bless you [Israel], and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
Evangelical support for Zionism
Going beyond their vocal support, some evangelicals also aid Israel through generous contributions for its expansionist policies. The powerful American evangelical lobby in the past two weeks pledged $5 million immediate relief to Israel, following the attack by Hamas. Many such organisations, particularly from the United States, even specifically raise funds to help Israel build settlements in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, which is outlawed by international law.
John Hagee, an influential American evangelist, called on Christians around the world to donate generously, promising that “100% funds raised will go to Israel”. “We must act in word and deed. Statements of support are welcome, but, on their own, they are insufficient. Love is not what you say. Love is what you do. Join us in this fight, for Israel’s deliverance will come. But, if we do nothing, it is we who perish… Join us today in this righteous fight,” Hagee said in a video statement, right after the surprise attack by Hamas.
Hagee, who claims to have 10 million followers, is the founder of the Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the largest pro-Israel American organisation. CUFI, which is part of the powerful American evangelical lobby and whose connections reach the US Congress and White House, vowed to “confront and overcome any elected official in Washington who would try to undermine Israel’s ability to defend herself”.
Although the likes of well-known theologists like Russell Moore say “an Israeli life is of no more value in the eyes of God than a Palestinian life, and vice versa” – in a classic case of feel-good morality – they also marshal ‘evidence’ through their selective reading of the Bible to advance the same ‘God’s chosen people’ trope. “Our Lord Jesus was and is a Jewish man from Galilee. Rage against the Jewish people is rage against him, and, because we are in him, against us,” wrote Russell in the immediate aftermath of the October 7 attack by Hamas.
Mounting pressure on the political class in the US?
It is true that not all Christians subscribe to such a view, but evangelical Christians, whose numbers have been on the rise around the world, avowedly believe and support such thinking. Resourceful and well-organised American evangelicals not only limit their beliefs to the spiritual realm but also exert pressure on the political class to ensure that the US maintains a favourable policy towards Israel.
This problematic line of thinking is actually grounded in the dangerous intermixing of a Christian theological framework called ‘Dispensational Premillennialism’ and theopolitical ideology of ‘Christian Zionism’. Together, they misguide Christians in favour of Israel, away from the fundamental tenet of Jesus Christ’s teaching, which is “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Mark 12:31).
There are other theological frameworks which see the Israel-Palestine conflict for what it is – as an issue of nationhood, dispossession, and occupation – however, they get drowned out in this particular discourse.
Dispensationalism holds the view that the history of the world is divided into various dispensations (periods). In each of these distinctive dispensations, God relates to mankind and the world in a different way. There are seven dispensations according to dispensationalists, and the world is currently in the sixth dispensation. The present dispensation known as the ‘Church age’ is marked by the unlimited Grace of God and is moving towards the final millennium before the end of the world and Judgement Day. The Church age is also an age of downward spiral bringing with it more immorality, apostasy, poverty, war, and natural disaster.
As the world moves closer to the end of this dispensation, Jews are said to return from around the world to their promised land of Israel (Zechariah 12:10, 13:1 and Ezekial 36:24). After a seven-year Great Tribulation for the world under Anti-Christ, this dispensation will culminate with the Battle of Armageddon taking place in the present-day Israel in which Jesus defeats the evil armies who stood against Israel. Only those Jews who accept Jesus as their spiritual and political authority remains after the Great Tribulation and others will perish. A theocratic and just kingdom is then established under Jesus as a military conqueror, who will reign for a millennium.
Eschatology, a branch of Christian religious studies, deals with the End of the World, Judgement Day, and Jesus Christ’s Second Coming. And according to the Christian eschatology of the dispensationalist strand, Jews thus play a seminal role in the fulfillment of prophecies relating to the End Times.
The establishment of Israel in 1948, the capturing of Jerusalem by the Israeli army in the Six-Day War of 1967, the emergence of Israel as a powerful military power, and more recently the establishment of the US embassy in Jerusalem are seen as the fulfilment of ‘End Times’ prophecies foretold by the Bible. The rebuilding of a Jewish holy place on the Temple Mount, where the Al-Aqsa mosque currently stands, and future control of all of Palestine by Israel are prophecies which are yet to be fulfilled. Jews, therefore, are mere pawns without any agency for dispensationalist Christians who play a crucial role in the realisation of End Time prophecies. All this is, of course, nothing but a clear case of anti-Semitism.
The dispensationalist line of thinking is based on a literal reading of the Bible, in particular one passage from the Bible (Revelation 20), which talks about the apocalyptic end of the world, the Great Tribulation, and Jesus Christ’s Second Coming.
This reading of the Bible and the centrality of Jews to God’s plan, as it were, was first systematised by a 19th Century Anglo-Irish Bible teacher, John Nelson Darby, who is regarded as the Father of Dispensationalism. With this theological framework gaining ground across the transatlantic in the 20th century, the emerging Christian Right in the US made it a key part of their political engagement. The establishment of theological centres and Bible institutes and seminaries in the 20th century helped in popularising dispensationalism. Hal Lindsey’s popular book among American Christians, The Late Great Earth, published in the 1970s also added pace to its spread.
With this theological framework as the basis, a rising number of evangelical Christians in the US, from the 1970s, have begun to rally behind the Zionist movement for a Jewish homeland – which is a marked difference from the previous generation of Christians who had actually viewed Jews as “Christ killers” and were known for their antisemitic views. In the following decades since, Christian Zionism has thus emerged as a strong movement, with a larger number of supporters and more than adequate resources at its disposal. American Christian Zionist organisations which began to mushroom in the subsequent decades mobilised followers through large-scale conventions and Holy Land tours, consolidating them as a strong political lobby.
What began as a fledgling and diffused movement following the establishment of Israel in 1948, Christian Zionism emerged powerfully on the political scene as an organised movement by the 1970s. By then, the debates and theological wrangling around the role of Israel and the significance of Jews, according to Christian eschatology, had settled, giving Christian Zionism a clear-cut mission and vision.
Building on the work of influential American preachers like D.L. Moody in the 19th century, a number of high-profile American evangelists and Bible teachers of the 20th century like Billy Graham, G. Douglas Young, John Hagee, Arnold T. Olson, Jerry Falwell Sr., Pat Robertson, Hal Lindsey, among others further helped in its spread. Some of them even served as advisors and counsellors to US presidents. For instance, Falwell, Robertson, and Lindsey were part of many of the official programmes held at the White House during Ronald Reagn’s era. Even Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the staunchest supporters of Israel and Christian Zionism.
Of all, Billy Graham – who was a towering figure in the American evangelical firmament and whose ‘crusades’ were attended by hundreds of thousands around the world, including in India – was that “proverbial sun around which much of postwar evangelical-Jewish relations orbited”. As someone who is said to have known every US president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, Graham used his clout to garner support for the Zionist cause.
Many believe that it was Graham who played a major role in the background persuading President Nixon to airlift the largest amount of aid in US history to send enormous shipments of tanks, jet fighters, and ammunition to help Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the initial days of that war, it seemed the young Jewish state would not survive the double-front war launched by Egypt and Syria but for the support from the US.
By then, the increasing realisation on the part of the US political establishment to have a trusted ally in the form of Israel in a strategic and resource-rich region also helped Christian Zionists to advance their cause. Christian Zionists have been successful in taking its message through popular phrases like, “A land without a people for a people without a land.” What such messaging had done is to present Palestine as an uninhabited land and Jews just came over to settle down there in 1948 to escape persecution in Europe. However, what Christian Zionists either fail to realise or purposely deny is that diverse groups of Arab Muslims, Jews, and Christians had been living in historic Palestine for centuries when Israel was established by the fiat of Western powers in 1948. However, such historical realities pale in front of propaganda by both Jewish and Christian Zionists. Today, support for Israel in the US is bipartisan, which is clearly reflected in its foreign policy.
In 2017, when the US moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Donald Trump openly declared that it was done for Christian evangelists. “And we moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem. That’s for the evangelicals. You know, it’s amazing with that — the evangelicals are more excited by that than Jewish people. That’s right, it’s incredible,” Trump announced in August 2018. Although Israel considers Jerusalem as its capital, the world, however, treats it as an international city according to the UN Partition Plan.
According to a recent Pew Survey, 55% of the US citizens view Israel favourably, of whom 80% are white evangelicals, 61% white non-evangelicals, and 43% Black Protestants.
With such wide support for Israel, it would be risky for any political party or leader in the US to call out Israel’s occupation of Palestine and lend genuine vocal support to the Palestinian cause – even if such an intention existed. All the declarations about the two-state solution are mere lip service.
An alternative theological discourse
There are a number of Christians around the world who do not subscribe to the exclusivist and oppressive views of dispensationalism and Christian Zionism. Numerous Biblical verses point out that the Biblical God does not delight in the death and destruction of Palestine people, or any other ethnic group.
For instance, in Romans 10:12, it is said, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile.” Similarly, 1 Peter 2:9-10 says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
The particular verse by Apostle Peter emphasises that everyone who believes in Christ has become part of God’s chosen people. Numerous other verses from the Bible debunk the assertions of dispensationalism and Christian Zionism (Exodus 19:5,6, Ephesians 2:11-18, Romans 2:11, only to name a few). Dismissing dispensationalism, adherents of Replacement Theology hold the view that God’s covenant to Jewish patriarchs (Abraham, Issac, and Jacob) were fulfilled in Christ, and the Church (meaning, all those who follow Christ and not a physical place called ‘Israel’) is the ‘new Israel’, according to II Corinthians 1:20.
The tragedy is that not many zealous Christian Zionists would be cognisant that Jesus himself was a Palestinian Jew, and more particularly a Palestinian Jewish refugee under the Roman Empire.
If Jesus were to be born today, he would have been born on the Palestinian side of the 700-km wall built by Israel, passing through Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. But for Christian Zionists, who present Jesus as a white man with blonde hair, facts matter little.