The big international news these past two weeks has been the eruption of war in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. Opinions abound. Emotions are charged. Suspicion is high.
To be honest, I don’t really have an opinion on the actual conflict. It’s too complex and layered for most of us to actually have a well informed opinion on it that isn’t formed by our prejudice (in my “non-opinion”). To speak on it in any way makes people put you into only one of two camps – either you’re Anti-Semitic or you’re a Zionist. There doesn’t seem to be another viewpoint available!
So why write anything at all? Well, there is an aspect of this conversation I’m interested in and that is the Christian response. Is there even a Christian response? Yes, I think there is a valid one, but the response I deem appropriate isn’t the response I see coming from mainstream Christian circles in South Africa. I ask myself: why is this?
The first response I believe that is legitimate from a Bible and Christian tradition perspective is that we pray for peace, as we do every day, for the whole world – including both Palestine and Israel (not just peace for the one and destruction for the other!). In the (Online) Book of Common Prayer (the Anglican Prayerbook) which I use most days to kick start my prayer times, peace in this world is a common theme. Christians are concerned about peace and we’re called to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). Peace is obviously what it means to see the Kingdom on earth.
Interestingly, however, there seem to be a lot of South African Christians who are very charged about praying for peace in Israel but seem, by observation, to pray very little for peace in our own country – and peace is something we really need as discontentment brews in our society. Am I saying what’s happening in South Africa is more important than in the Middle-East? No, but what I am saying is that I’ve seen Christians turn a blind eye to the needs in their own neighbourhoods because they’re so distracted by Israel and what’s going on there – they’re so distracted by it that they forget to live out their Christian faith in their own community.
This distraction is covered well in theologican Michael Eaton’s small book, The Christian, Israel and the Hope of World Revival. In it he says, “There are some who have a quite heretical adulation of Israel.”
I think he is right when I look at how many South African Christians “pray” for peace in Israel in the public sphere. It seems that many believe that our calling to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9) and our calling to pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44) is over-ridden by the blessing to be received by praying and blessing Israel (Genesis 12:3 and other places).
Christian Zionists should be praying for the people of Palestine too, not just for the people of Israel. I’ve seen Christians openly pray that Israel find military success in its campaign and that a military victory for Israel over Palestine would now come to fruit. They support this war because it’s Israel, forgetting our higher Christian calling from Christ to love all – even those of a different religion. You can’t complain about the violence in South Africa and openly endorse violence somewhere else in the world, regardless of who the victims really are. How does that work?
Why is this?
Personally, I blame the very popular negative dispensational pre-millenialism that most Christians (at least Protestant Christians) appear to believe these days. I realise that eschatology (the study of last things) is a touchy subject in most Christian circles, but I’m going there anyway. I also realise that many readers won’t know what dispensational pre-millenialism means, so I’ll provide a summary.
In Revelation 20 it talks of a ‘thousand years’ where Christ will reign with His people on earth. Pre-millenialism is the idea that this will be a physical reigning on earth and a literal thousand years and it will take place after a great tribulation (a time of persecution). The idea is also that most Christians will be raptured (taken up to heaven) before this great tribulation, leaving space for the anti-christ to move in and rule the world. Some Christians may be raptured in the middle of this tribulation.
The ‘dispensational’ part basically teaches that God has dealt with man in different ‘dispensations’ – “a distinctive arrangement or period in history that forms the framework through which God relates to mankind.” (Wikipedia). Dispensationalism has traditionally taught that there is a sharp distinction between Israel and the Church.
Because of dispensational pre-millenialism’s general negative outlook on where the world is going – that the world is getting darker and the anti-christ is coming; and that Christians are called to just hang on faithfully until God raptures us from the world before it completely collapses – it makes sense that many respond as they do to the Israel/Palestine conflict. War against Israel is proof of the world’s darkness and how soon the Battle of Armageddon is around the corner. Each time a nation condemns Israel, it is seen to be getting on the wrong side of the battle of Armageddon. When the ANC’s Jessie Duarte condemned Israel last week in a scathing and inappropriate manner, saying “The African National Congress condemns in the strongest terms the barbaric attacks on the defenseless Palestinian people of Gaza… As we move towards the month of August and are reminded of [t]he atrocities of Nazi Germany, surely we must ask the people of Israel has the term ‘lest we forget’ lost it[s] meaning?” it’s not just what she said that concerned many SA Christians but the fact that this is seen as putting South Africa in harms way and on the wrong side of the war to end all wars. In short, many Christians seem to believe that God will curse a country if it doesn’t support Israel (regardless of what Israel does).
Meanwhile, at Ecumenical News Desmond Tutu is quoted as saying, “Once again, the people of Israel and Palestine are embroiled in a deadly contest of tit-for-tat violence in which there can never be victors, only losers… Like children following a playground dust-up, political and religious leaders fall over each other, not to make peace, but to proclaim: It wasn’t us, they started it.” I agree with him here, but compare Tutu’s comments to the comments of readers at Gateway News and you will see that many South African Christians really believe that Israel is right because, well, it’s Israel. (Tutu also does touch on a two-state solution and it’s here where I wonder if he goes beyond what he should have said.)
Perhaps I’m being too negative about pre-millenialism. But even if it’s right, doctrinally speaking, it needs to be balanced with Christ’s teachings to love our enemies, go into all the world, love all, live at peace with everyone, preach the Gospel, and so on. I wonder if many of the Christians who pray for Israel and support Israel are just looking to receive the promised blessings of the Bible if they do (and avoid what they see as curses if they don’t) but don’t really care about the fact that people are actually dying. It may be unfair to question motives in such a generalised way, but I do wonder.