Understanding Christian Zionism

A Special Report by the Islamophobia Studies Center

2020 Edition
Foreword by Dr. Hatem Bazian

 

Christian Zionism, Colonialism, & Islamophobia

The report on Christian Zionism is essential and timely research to unpack one key driver, among others, that contribute a distinctive form of Islamophobia that is connected to theology and religious discourses centering on Palestine. Moreover, the current strong relationship between several evangelical groups and Zionist organizations has made it possible to unleash political pressure in the US that shields Israel from accountability for its continued violations of international law.  The report is intended to generate the needed conversations on how Christian evangelical groups and others play a role in preventing the actualization of peace, justice, and dignity for the Palestinians.  Not to imply that this is an exclusively Christian problem; on the contrary, the Center’s future research intends to focus on the emergence of Muslim or Islamic Zionism, which articulate relations with Israel based on a distorted religious discourse that rationalizes normalizations of relations at the expense of Palestinian rights.  Lastly, the report’s discussion on Christian Zionism should not distract the reader from the positive work, advocacy and engagement with Palestinians by many churches and religious institutions in the US.

 

As a geographic and contemporary issue, Palestine is entangled in every aspect of American and European domestic and global discourses, which covers the socio-political, military, economic, and religious imagination.  American and European relations to Palestine are centered on their long-standing support for Zionism and the state of Israel.  Zionism, a secular political movement born in the 19th Century, emerged onto the world stage as a result of a complex set of socio-political, economic and religious factors that were unique to 19th century Western and Eastern Europe; this then was implanted in Palestine as a junior partner to British colonial plans in the Muslim world.  At times, separating the American and European interests and entanglements in Palestine from that of Zionism and the state of Israel is nearly impossible since the relationship between them is both ideologically constitutive and productive.  Critically, western Christianity, both institutionally and theologically, is implicated in the global colonization project and for rallying support in the postcolonial era to maintain and extend political, economic, and religious power disparities and hegemony.  Simply put, Palestine is facing a settler-colonial project. Christian Zionism played a significant role in the past and present in cementing Zionist colonization through the constant deployment of religious discourses to justify the indefensible and the illegal dispossession and transfer of the indigenous Palestinians.      

 

Religious text, symbolism, and rhetoric are never far from Palestine; the history of the land and its people are the tapestries that imperial prophecies, theology, and future imagination are written, reinterpreted, and implemented.  Western Christian imaginary and histography is never far away from Palestine and colonization.  In reality, the Palestinians, Zionist Jews, Arabs, and Muslims appear as mere supporting actors in a theater piece about their own lives, but it is written and acted to bring about the only “real” history, theology and meaning, the Western Christian world, for none other exist or are allowed to exist.  Palestine was colonized first by Great Britain, which deployed religious discourses in the lead-up to the conquest, and in the aftermath and then European Zionism was given the needed access to building a “homeland” under the British Mandate’s protection. 

 

Palestine’s colonization began in earnest toward the end of the WWI. The Ottoman army withdrew its troops and surrendered Jerusalem to the British command on the 8th or 9th of December 1917 with a letter from the city’s governor: “For the past two days, bombs are raining of Jerusalem holy to all communities. Therefore, the Ottoman Government, in order to safeguard the religious places from ruin and destruction, has withdrawn its forces from the city and has commissioned officials to take care of the religious places like the Holy Sepulcher and the Aqsa Mosque. Hoping that your treatment will also be similar, I am sending this paper with Husain Bey al-Husain, deputy mayor of the Jerusalem Municipality.” (‘Isa al-Safari, Filstin al-Arabiya, p. 27) Two days after the Ottoman’s surrender of Jerusalem to safeguard it from destruction, General Edmund Allenby entered the city on foot through the Jaffa gate while declaring on this historic occasion: “The wars of the crusades are now complete.” (Eitan Bar-Yosef, p. 17) Allenby’s reported statement is such a powerful indicator that the British considered, at least rhetorically, their arrival in Palestine and entry into Jerusalem as a continuation of and bringing into a “successful” conclusion the crusades.  The then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Lloyd George, described the capture of Jerusalem as “a Christmas present for the British people,” and making sure to direct Allenby to take the city before the Holidays per Cabinet instruction. (Eitan Bar-Yosef, Journal of Contemporary History, p. 86)

 

Allenby’s statement and referencing of the Crusades was not isolated or unique, as illustrated by several British press and book publications. The Punch’s main caption on December 19, 1917, declared “The Last Crusade” showing “Richard Coeur de Lion looking down towards Jerusalem and nodding contentedly, ‘My dream comes true!'” (Eitan Bar-Yosef, Journal of Contemporary History, p. 87) The British press was initially instructed in a “private and confidential” memo dated November 15, 1917 not to refer to the “military operations against Turkey in any sense as a Holy War, a modern Crusade, or anything whatever to do with religious questions,” but moved very quickly in a short period after the instruction and started to center religion while discussing the Occupation of Jerusalem. (Eitan Bar-Yosef, Journal of Contemporary History, p. 87). From the government’s point of view, the reason for the memo was to prevent any possible friction with Muslim troops recruited from British colonies to fight in the war as well as the alliance with Sharif Hussein of Mecca against the Ottomans. This “private and confidential” directive was very quickly set aside as the article from The Punch above shows. However, more importantly, the British Department of Information began to use the term “crusade” and convey very distinctive religious and historical connections to earlier periods. 

 

In a telegram wired from Palestine, the British information office mentioned, “two of the commanders who have played a great part in the South Palestine campaign are descended from knights who fought in the wars of the Crusades.” (Eitan Bar-Yosef, Journal of Contemporary History, p. 88) Also, the Department of Information a few months after the conquest of Jerusalem “released a 40-minute official film entitled The New Crusades: With the British Forces on the Palestine Front,” which once again articulated the adventure in the region though religious terms. (Eitan Bar-Yosef, Journal of Contemporary History, p. 88) Furthermore, in the period after WWI, a large number of published books had the Crusades incorporated into them: “Khaki Crusaders (1919), Temporary Crusaders (1919), The Modern Crusaders (1920), The Last Crusade (1920), With Allenby’s Crusaders (1923), and The Romance of the Last Crusade (1923).” (Eitan Bar-Yosef, Journal of Contemporary History, p. 87) 

 

Eitan Bar-Yosef correctly observes that the British government’s effort was consciously staged “as an exercise in propaganda, shaped, filtered, and capitalized on in order to enhance the nation’s morale.” (Eitan Bar-Yosef, Journal of Contemporary History, p. 88) This observation also aligns with the actual Crusades period’s effort; then efforts were intended to construct Europe’s identity in the face of fragmentation, internal disunity, and the contestation of the Catholic Church’s authority. What is essential to note in the framing of the campaign in Palestine is the extensive use of religious terms and the viewing of it as a continuation of the earlier Muslim-Christian conflicts despite the claim of fighting the Ottoman a on secular anti-religious modernity.  A similar account to the British press and Allenby’s comes from Tariq Ali citing the account of the French commander Gouraud supposedly traveling to Saladin’s tomb upon entry into Damascus, it is reported he kicked it and proclaimed: “‘The Crusades have ended now! Awake Saladin, we have returned! My presence here consecrates the victory of the Cross over the Crescent.'” (Tariq Ali, The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity, p. 42).  Religious epistemology was present all along in the Palestine campaign. The debates in London, France, and other Western capitals focused on supporting Zionism as a way to reconstitute the Jews in the Holy Land and as re-enactment of ancient history to prepare the ground for Jesus’ Second Coming.  

 

Even the drawing of the borders and the discussions concerning what constitutes Palestine were framed by re-reading and affirming the biblical narrative relating to the ancient Jewish polity in Canaan’s land as an attempt to recreate it. Furthermore, the modern colonial borders were projected from the ancient biblical period; contemplating what defensible borders should look like based on how and why the earlier polity failed as a result of attacks from the north and how it was defeated. In the British government, debates and discussion arose about the Golan Heights and why it was critical to include them in the newly crafted state to prevent history from repeating itself through an attack from the north. Thus, this establishes that the western reading of the Bible was present in the debates, and that the colonial discourses in Palestine were written through the biblical lens. Colonizing Palestine begins first as a western epistemic followed by direct British conquest and French, European, US, and Russian powers consent and approval for dispossessing the Palestinians and granting their land and country to the Zionist; this is a modern re-enactment of ancient biblical narratives and preparation of the ground for the Second Coming.

 

Significantly, the birth of Christian Zionism can be traced to this formative period and the emergence of Dispensationalist theology in the mid 19th Century. The teachings and theology of John Nelson Darby provided unique views on eschatology and ecclesiology, which became widely used in the United States through the works of D. L. Moody, and Cyrus Scofield’s 1909 Reference Bible.  Theology in service of policy is not new, and this was yet another example where the religious text was mobilized to serve such a role.

 

Indeed, Dispensationalist theology played a significant role in shaping the American mainline Christian denominations view and eventual embrace of Zionism, while accepting the erasure and silencing of Palestinian Christians, Muslims, and Jews.  Dispensationalist theology was constructed around seven major dispensations, which were viewed as unfolding progressively whereby Zionism and Israel’s emergence got connected to the awaited last stage: 1. Innocence (pre-Fall of Adam-Eve); 2. Conscience (from Fall–Noah’s floods); 3. Government (Noah–Abraham); 4. Promise (Abraham–Moses); 5. Mosaic Law (Moses–Christ on earth); 6. Grace (the current age of the world); 7. Millennial Kingdom (1,000-year reign of peace under Christ, which is yet to come).  Precisely, the progressive nature of Dispensationalist theology, which views every period of history-dependent on the previous era that is embracing Zionism by the Church and the establishment of Israel, is constructed as the needed pre-condition to bring forth the Second Coming.  Here, Israel, Christian Zionism and Western colonialism gets its marching order and is clothed in the highest purpose of all, the human being taking concrete action to facilitate the return of God in “the flesh” to the earthly plane and the ushering-in of a 1000 year reign of peace with Christ.  Destruction, death, wars, displacement, and every other consequence are an acceptable price or pre-condition to be offered to give birth to this Seventh Stage.

 

Dispensationalist theology gives rise to Zionist colonial geography over Palestine and the need to reconstitute “Greater Israel” as the stepping-stone for re-emergence of Christianity, the Kingdom of God, or more accurately, the centering of rapture theology and eschatology in political discourses.  In recent history, Dispensationalist theology has receded and no longer has sway over mainline Christian Churches in the US and Europe; however, it has found re-articulation within Evangelical circles, and the utilitarian alliances struck with Zionism and Israel serve domestic and global interests.  Evangelicals support for Israel builds upon mainline Christian churches. Dispensationalist theology is still lurking from the 19th and 20th-century writings as evidenced by the massive rise of membership, and the intertwining of speculative rapture theology and millenarism with the unfolding of complex global political events.  Moreover, September 11, 2001, and the wars in Iraq and Syria provided fertile ground for the strong re-emergence of a rapture and millenarism mega-churches and movements that worked to explain geopolitical events through theological discourses that centered Christian Zionism, Israel and utilization of Islamophobia.          

 

Christian Zionist expressions of Love for Zionist Jews is done to bring about the Second Coming and loathing Muslims is for Christian future horizons to unfold globally, which in both accounts are the pinnacle and drivers of theologically constructed anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.  In both cases, Christian Zionism uses distorted and erroneous theology to express concern for Jews. At the same time, both cases instrumentalize the contemporary relations with Zionism and the State of Israel, in reality to consolidate an insidious affirmation of self-love, which if it comes to pass will lead to the death and genocide of most Jews and the conversion of the rest to Christianity, while Muslims are to be eliminated.  Speculative theology preparing the ground for genocide is the new version of manifest destiny and Whiteman’s burden that uses the Jewish and Muslim subject to envision and bring forth a future Christian dominance era.  Nothing is wrong with self-love, but since one of the main pillars of normative Christian theology is love, then its utilitarian use by Christian Zionism to construct a false love of the other to drive self-benefits puts the whole theological foundation into question.  Thus, Christian Zionism’s loving and support of Israel and Zionism is not founded upon loving and supporting Jews for being Jews, or for Zionism as a political movement seeking a “homeland” in Palestine; instead, it is an affirmation of the singularity of Christian theological worldview and assertion of political hegemony in the here and now while waiting for the total domination of the world through the idea of the Second Coming. 

 

Importantly, to contextualize the critique offered here of Christian Zionism, rapture, and millenarism theologies, is that their focus is on power and domination of the world while using the backdrop of an expected Second Coming as the vehicle to achieve it.  The critique offered here is not of Christianity having or making universal claims or theological articulation of the Second Coming. Instead, it is the immediate translations of the ideas into geopolitical policies that have had and continue to have profound destructive impacts on the Palestinians, first and foremost, then Jews, Arabs, Muslims, and Western Christians themselves.   Being mobilized to support immoral and unethical engagements in Palestine and other parts of the Muslim world, Western Christianity’s support for war footing and interventions gets erroneously framed on high spiritual and theological ideas, which only further undermines religion and theology in society.  Support for Zionist conquest and colonization of the Holy Land and its geography is constitutive of Christian Zionism theology that then gets articulated politically and is always urging for the unconditional support for of Israel no matter what it does, while simultaneously pressing Congress and Senate members as well as the White House to maintain Israel as a close and uncontested ally. 

 

Setting aside relations with Muslims, the question to Christian Zionists is where they stand on Palestinian Christian’s rights to self-determination, sovereignty, and statehood, considering that the Palestinians did recognize Israel’s right to exist. However, so far, no reciprocation has occurred.  The constant questioning of Palestinians on whether they recognize Israel’s right to exist is a fictitious question intended to shield Israel from critique and frames it as a victim of Palestinian intransigence and rejection while allowing its continued expansion to actualize the Biblical narrative at the center of its theological understanding.  Furthermore, the strong relations and advocacy within the organized aspects of Zionism in the West make it possible to drive stronger Islamophobic discourses based on theology.  This transforms the sacred space and teachings into instruments of racism, oppression, and interventionist policies abroad.  

 

The report in your hands is intended to generate conversations, foster open debate, and inspire people to examine their views on Palestine and the role it plays in shaping Islamophobic discourses in contemporary America.  The Palestinian struggle against settler colonialism has been used by Christian Zionists and segments of the organized Zionist movement to drive Islamophobic discourses in the US and the time to address it is more urgent today than at any other time in the past.  Wrong theology is destructive and undermines the foundation of religion in an increasingly complex and diverse world.  Silence is no longer acceptable in the face of the unfolding calamity in Palestine, and religious leaders and institutions should be at the forefront of bringing about the needed transformative decolonial change.