Recently, the president declared our recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. While I was not surprised, it was a painful announcement to watch on multiple levels. It was difficult as a supporter of civil rights and liberties which are often denied in Israel. But, even deeper, it was difficult as an Orthodox Christian, and that pain is compounded by knowing that this is championed by American Protestant Evangelicalism. In this article, I’d like to spend some time tackling the problematic theology of Zionism among American Protestants vis-a-vis ancient Christianity, and then talk about the socio-political ramifications of this policy shift.
The ancient doctrines of the Christian faith, passed down from Christ to the Apostles and their descendents to the present, had no preoccupation with an Israeli state, especially not in their eschatology (that is, their doctrine on the “last days”). At the time of Christ, Israel was a vassal of the Rome, not a sovereign nation, and it was Christ Himself who prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem that would occur in AD 70. Not until the fourth century would the Empress Helen tour the Holy Land to find many of the holy sites of Christianity and reclaim them. She funded the building of both the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (properly, the Cathedral of the Holy Resurrection) in Jerusalem. Churches still stand there today, which belong to the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox of the Holy Land are overwhelmingly Palestinian, and Palestinians were majority Christian before the creation of Israel. Today, Palestinians are only 2 percent Christian, as many have fled the persecution of Israel and the radicalization of Palestinian Muslims. I have met many Orthodox Palestinians who ended up here after being forced to leave their homes and businesses to make room for Israeli settlements. Many have been Christian since the time Christ walked those same streets. So, why do American Protestants so overwhelmingly support Israel?
The theology behind Christian Zionism comes from a Protestant doctrine called dispensationalism. It was invented in the 19th century by John Nelson Darby. Darby was the first to create a systematic paradigm of dispensationalism, which teaches that God acts in different ways at different times to administer his plan for the world. While this is built on earlier concepts that date all the way back to St. Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century, Darby goes much further. A key concept, unique to Darby, is that there is a prophecy from Isaiah that requires the re-establishment of the nation of Israel on earth, that this is separate from the Church, and that this must happen before the “end times.” This idea was strongly advocated by Darby, who travelled much of continental Europe and North America to spread this idea during the 1800s. It has caught on in some Protestant circles, and is Gospel for them: Israel must be fully recognized and re-established before Christ can return.
However, there is no basis for this idea before Darby. The Scriptures do not teach it, and it is unknown to all fathers of the church and even the Protestant reformers. St. Paul, in the Scriptures, declares the Church of Christ the New Israel, and it has always, until Darby, been understood by all Christians that the church is the continuation and fulfillment of the nation of Israel. The idea that there was some special, divine plan for the nation who had rejected Christ would be bizarre to any Christian that lived more than 200 years ago. This is a radical break from what has always been known to be true by Christians the world over. Many would say it is a “different opinion” (the literal meaning of the word “heresy”) from all of Christianity before it. And yet, it has gained such traction that a large segment of Evangelicals in America accept it as gospel and expect American foreign policy to align with their theology, which is foreign to 1,800 years of all Christian teaching.
So, what does this mean for American foreign policy and the Middle East? Nothing good. The United Nations emphatically condemned the decision in a General Assembly vote after only one nation, the U.S., vetoed a Security Council resolution. Many Mideast nations are looking for other arbiters and refuse to accept the U.S. as an unbiased broker. Recently, Afghanistan and Pakistan sat down to negotiate problems between them with China as arbiter. Palestinian President Abbas refused to meet with Vice President Pence, who had to cancel his Holy Land tour in the midst of the turmoil and our closest ally, Britain, has strongly condemned our decision. As we receive rebuke after rebuke, the Trump administration touts that the world respects America again. They are either incompetent or liars, as the actions of our foreign allies say the opposite and polling shows respect of the U.S. slipping among foreign nationals.
Granted, many of the president’s most ardent supporters will see no problem, as this administration has vowed to be the most isolationist one in modern history. The problem is that the economy, trade, communications and many other facets of the world are truly global today. We cannot ignore the world as we did in the past. In the declaration of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, we find ourselves alone among world powers, having upset a delicate balance and embarrassed ourselves, all on the account of one man’s ramblings from the 19th century.
Ben Amis lives in Rome and works as a local Democratic activist. He studied theology at Asbury University and accounting at GNTC.