Understanding Christian Zionism: Theological and Regional Variations
by Calvin L. Smith
Arguably, Christian Zionism is a newsworthy phenomenon. For example, there are several well-known televangelists who are openly and strongly Zionist, seeking to bring pressure to bear on successive US governments so that it will lend Israel the country’s political report. Indeed, it is sometimes claimed US foreign policy in the Middle East is influenced, even partially shaped, by what is regarded as a powerful Christian Zionist lobby. I believe such views are somewhat exaggerated, that the actual evidence does not fully bear out such views. Nonetheless, the fact they are echoed in certain circles so often suggests at the very least there are some who regard Christian Zionism as a potent political force. Apparently, too, groups such as Hamas perceive Christian Zionism in this way, resulting in several quite public denunciations of, and even warning issued against, adherents of Christian Zionism by the Palestinian militant group. Meanwhile, in the UK recently there have been several reports of churches with the word “Zion” in their name being attacked or vandalised by some who, lacking theological sophistication, assume the word automatically denotes some kind of Christian support for Israel. Thus, Christian Zionism has featured quite prominently in the news, which is hardly surprising given the high-profile and incessant nature of the Middle East situation.
Neither is this prominence of the phenomenon within current affairs new. After all, Christian Zionists helped to contribute to efforts to establish a Jewish homeland in the region of Palestine, resulting in the 1917 Balfour Declaration. Just for the record, it should be noted that early Christian support for a Jewish homeland did not emanate solely from some lunatic fringe, as some would have us believe. Early Christian proponents of a Jewish homeland included leading churchmen from mainstream historic denominations, and attempts to portray such figures and several of today’s more extreme Christian Zionist televangelists as chips of the same block are, at best mischievous, and at worse, represent quite sloppy scholarship.
This paper seeks to illustrate this precise point, that Christian Zionism is far from homogenous, and that attempts to portray it thus are disingenuous. But first, what, exactly, is Christian Zionism? The name comes from the Hebrew word which is transliterated “Sion” (Zion), which originally referred to the city of David, the Jerusalem lying across the length of the Ophel ridge, which ascends from south to north towards the Temple Mount. (Zion is also the name of one of Jerusalem’s hills at the southwest corner of the Old City, named thus by the Crusaders who thought they had discovered the original Jerusalem.) In time, Zion came to mean the whole of Jerusalem, and eventually the whole of the Jewish homeland and nation, or Israel. Nineteenth century political Zionism was the Jewish nationalist movement which supported the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland on political grounds, while Christian Zionism supports such a homeland on theological grounds. Christian Zionism is primarily Evangelical in nature, though of course not all Evangelicals are Christian Zionists.
For some commentators strongly critical of Christian Zionism, the movement (better, phenomenon; “movement” somehow suggests a centrally led, largely united, and homogenous entity with a common purpose and worldview) is presented as a monolithic bloc, generally regarded as offering uncritical support for the modern State of Israel, and on the whole rejecting the possibility of any kind of peace deal with the Arabs. The purpose of this brief paper is to challenge such views, demonstrating the various expressions of Christian Zionism and how these are quite often shaped by local factors and different theological emphases. In short, I argue that portrayals of Christian Zionist homogeneity are fundamentally flawed, that it is more accurate to speak of Christian “Zionisms”, and indeed that many expressing sympathy with the view that God retains a special place in His plans towards His historic people are not even necessarily Zionist in the traditionally understood meaning of the word.
First, however, it is worth considering briefly why this issue even matters. I suggest it is important for several reasons. First, the Israel-Palestinian conflict represents a major player on the geopolitical stage. Second, it is, regardless of what many politicians and diplomats would have us believe, a thoroughly theological conflict. I recall one Ministry of Defence official explaining to me how, once we could get beyond the theological rhetoric and properly engage the conflict’s various stakeholders, politics would kick in and we could get to the heart of solving the conflict. To be sure, not all the conflict’s players are religiously-driven, but I believe such a view misses just how theologically-entrenched the conflict actually is. Whether the theologically-driven nature of a great deal of Jewish settler activity, the Islamisation of a great swathe of a traditionally secular Palestinian people during the past 15 or 20 years, the view that Israel exists on Muslim land, the rise of Palestinian nationalist liberation theology, or Christian Zionist and Religious Left responses to the situation, it is clear theology plays a major role in this conflict. Indeed this is why I remain unconvinced there can ever be a purely political settlement.
This strongly religio-political aspect of the conflict is precisely one more reason why this issue matters so much. In short, it is an example of how religion has an important bearing on society and politics, and we have come a long way from the premature declarations by sociologists and political scientists embracing secularisation theories in the 1950s and 1960s that religion had somehow ceased to be a determinant of political behaviour. Various religio-political events and phenomena in the late 1970s and early 1980s changed all that, and today we see religion is once again firmly on the geopolitical stage, including a starring role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
REGIONAL AND THEOLOGICAL VARIATIONS OF CHRISTIAN ZIONISM
In seeking to demonstrate how Christian Zionism lacks absolute homogeneity I have chosen several regional examples to illustrate briefly this point.
Israel and Latin American Pentecostalism
A good example of how local factors helped foster a particular brand of Christian Zionism is evident among classical Pentecostals in revolutionary Nicaragua (1979-1990). Briefly (for full details see my Revolution, Revival, and Religious Conflict in Sandinista Nicaragua. Leiden and Boston, Brill, 2007), in 1979 the leftist Sandinista guerrillas (named after Nicaragua’s 1920s-30s nationalist rebel leader Cesar Augusto Sandino) swept the corrupt Somoza military dictatorship aside and took control of Nicaragua. Significantly, prior to their triumph the Sandinistas enjoyed close links with Yassir Arafat’s PLO, even training with the Palestinian terrorist group in the Middle East. Arafat was publicly fêted in Managua, while a PLO presence was established in the Nicaraguan capital. (After the revolution a missionary friend of mine purchased a house which had been a PLO headquarter in the country and which, according to the neighbours, had occasionally been visited by Arafat when he visited the country).
Now Nicaraguan Pentecostalism at that time was predominantly of the classical variety, that is, the first expression of the movement emanating from the Holiness movement, associated with denominations such as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God. As such, it retained strong links with its US counterparts, was greatly influenced by its North American counterpart’s theology, and as such was quite Zionist in its view of Israel. Moreover, when pastors where harangued for expressing support for Israel by the PLO-friendly Sandinistas, this merely served to reinforce classical Pentecostals’ Zionist tendencies. Pentecostals were already deeply suspicious of a leftist revolutionary government which enjoyed close relations with Fidel Castro’s Cuba, East Germany (including links with the notorious Stasi), and much of the East Bloc in general. When a food rationing system was introduced which was sometimes used to silence or help make compliant some of the Sandinistas’ critics (including pro-Israel Pentecostals), many Pentecostals regarded this as an example of the “mark of the Beast” as described in the Book of Revelation. That they were persecuted by a pro-Palestinian government for their support for Israel, together with the Sandinista daily La Barricada’s anti-Israel reports bordering on anti-Semitism (which even some Sandinista supporters concede), together with the purported hounding of Nicaragua’s tiny Jewish community, all served to heighten classical Pentecostals’ perception of the Sandinistas as a type of the Beast in the Book of Revelation which hated the people of God, the Jews. As such, the reacted accordingly, and one can see how specifically local factors helped heighten a particularly strong expression of Christian Zionism in that part of Latin America.
Yet this is not necessarily the case within Pentecostalism throughout the rest of Latin America (where the movement is exploding numerically to the extent that it has attracted considerable interest from sociologists, political scientists and historians, as well as theologians). Latin American Pentecostalism, and indeed Pentecostalism generally, is far from monolithic, a key point of difference being between the classical, externally-established and influenced variety and what is known as autochthonous Pentecostalism, that is, Pentecostalism which developed locally, indigenously and which tends to be independent of external influences and power structures. Notable examples of the latter include Pentecostalism in Chile and Brazil. Autochthonous Pentecostals in Latin America are therefore less dependent on exogenous theological influences, an important case in point being how Chilean Pentecostalism regards glossolalia as no more important than other signs and wonders gifts, compared with their classical counterparts for whom speaking in tongues is a central plank of Pentecostal doctrine.
Thus, this indigenous Pentecostalism is less inclined to embrace some of the doctrines espoused by their classical (and predominantly US-influenced) counterparts, including eschatology and, consequently, Christian Zionism, and indeed there is evidence to suggest Latin American Pentecostalism is not homogenous in its view of Israel. Certainly the whole movement does not take the position expressed by classical Pentecostals in revolutionary Nicaragua. That is not to say autochthonous Pentecostals are unsympathetic to Zionism – some clearly are, though to varying degrees – but the fact remains this is less important theologically than in some classical circles. Autochthonous Pentecostals in Latin America are also more willing to engage with the political left (unlike some 70% of Nicaraguan Pentecostals, compared with around 30% of autochthonous Nicaraguan Pentecostals) than some of their US-influenced counterparts. Consider, for example, Chile, where there is evidence that grassroots Pentecostals tended to vote for the Marxist Salvador Allende in 1970, compared with their leaders who expressed greater support for the ensuing Pinochet regime later in the 1970s.
UK and US Christian “Zionisms”
It is also important to differentiate between expressions of Christian Zionism in the US and UK. In the US Christian Zionism tends to be, for the large part, highly politicised, invariably among those on the political right, strongly eschatologically-driven, even apocalyptic in its outlook, while it is sometimes claimed that among the fringes there are those who actively seek to hasten the parousia. Some allegedly read themselves into pivotal biblical prophetic roles, arguably even seeking to foment a Middle East war and bring about the end times. I do not say all US Christian Zionists take this position. Clearly, all do not. Neither am I suggesting such expressions do not exist in the UK. Indeed, any attempt to portray the majority of US Christian Zionists in this way suggests they have allowed the actions of a few to define the movement as a whole. But it would be fair to acknowledge how, in the US, Christian Zionism (at least its more public face) is perhaps more eschatologically-driven and highly politicised than its UK counterpart. At a recent meeting I listened to a leading British Christian Zionist explain how, in the UK at least, much of Christian Zionism is driven less by eschatology than by a covenantal agenda, that is, focusing on the Jews as God’s continued covenant people. So once again one notes how blanket treatments of Christian Zionism are unsatisfactory and how local factors can lead to variations of expressions of the movement.
British Pentecostalism and Israel
Closer to home it is worth noting varying British Pentecostal responses to the modern State of Israel. Just like in Latin America (as described above), there are several responses to the Middle East, even in a movement which, traditionally in the UK, has been supportive of the modern State of Israel as an example of fulfilled prophecy. My parents were raised in the movement and I distinctly recall how Israel featured strongly in sermons and discussions, both at church and in family and social gatherings. Indeed, there was a great deal of excitement in the years following the Six Day War and Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in 1967 (I was born in 1966), exacerbated in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. (Interestingly, in recent years British classical Pentecostalism has shifted away in large part from its Zionist principles, with the Assemblies of God increasingly embracing an amillennial line.)
However, another important expression of British Pentecostalism – restorationism (the Charismatic house church movement which in the 1970s began to rival classical Pentecostal denominations) – has taken a quite different line from its classical counterparts. Most notably, restorationist leader Bryn Jones embraced a form of internationalism which led him to promulgate quite firmly a pro-Palestinian position. Given such restorationist leaders’ socioeconomic backgrounds, it seems likely that the influence of British trade unionism and its particular focus on working class internationalism may have influenced Jones. Meanwhile, restorationist leader Terry Virgo (New Frontiers) has promoted a book by Stephen Sizer, an Reformed Anglican deeply critical of Christian Zionism.
Evangelical Views From the Holy Land
It is also worth mentioning in passing the widely diverging theological views on Israel from within the Holy Land itself. Without a doubt, tensions between Arabs and Israel have had a major theological impact upon the theology of some Arab Evangelical Christians. Within wider Arab Christianity there has arisen a form of Palestinian liberation theology, while Evangelical Arabs have often embraced a Reformed theology. But throughout my ongoing research into Evangelical-state relations across the Holy Land I have come across a not insignificant number of Christian Arabs who actually embrace Zionism from a theological perspective. Interesting, too, is that the further such groups are located away from Israel proper and within the Palestinian realm, fears of Islamism often become more pronounced and views of Israel less negative.
Of course, the situation is highly complex, and it is important to differentiate between Israeli-Arabs and those in the Palestinian Territories, Jerusalem and West Bank Arab Christians, grassroots and hierarchical Arab Christianity, and also religio-political views between the Evangelical and historic denomination wings of the Arab Christian churches. Thus, I have interviewed Arab Christian Zionists, those who reject both supercessionism and Zionism, and supercessionists (and various mediating positions between these views). Meanwhile, within Messianic Judaism, likewise, there are several expressions ranging from deeply Zionist to those who are far more concerned theologically with supercessionism, to Reformed Jewish believers who are political Zionists yet who reject quite firmly theological Zionism. Again, the situation is complex, and I look forward to setting out the complex nature of Evangelical-state relations in the Holy Land in my forthcoming book. Yet one thing is clear at this stage: yet again, one sees how expressions broadly interpreted as pro-Israel are varied and belie the oft presented view of Christian Zionism by some as homogenous.
CHRISTIAN ZIONISM OR ANTI-SUPERCESSIONISM?
In his significant book The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Fortress Press, 1996) theologian R. Kendall Soulen explains how second century responses to anti-Christian Judaism contributed to a distorted understanding of the canonical narrative. By canonical narrative we mean the thread, or overarching central narrative which runs through the Bible. The Church’s reaction to anti-Christian Judaism in the second century led it to emphasise some aspects of the canonical narrative at the expense of others, so that the New Testament was elevated and the Old Testament relegated. This demotion of the Jewish Scriptures also downgraded the theological importance of Israel, a central biblical theology feature of the Old Testament. Soulen calls this relegation of Israel “structural supercessionism”. He also identifies other forms of supercessionism (economic and punitive) in his book.
What is important to note here is this: Soulen firmly rejects supercessionism and presents a persuasive theological case which, to date, I have not seen challenged (much less refuted) by the vast majority of Christian commentators highly critical of Christian Zionism. Yet neither is Soulen a Christian Zionist, quite the opposite in fact. Thus, rather than bunching together all Christians who hold to the view God has not finished with His people Israel, and in doing so labelling them all Christian Zionists, perhaps it is in order at this stage to coin new terminology to identify such Christians. If, as we have noted, Christian Zionism proper is far from homogenous, than even less so is that (very wide) branch of Christianity which rejects supercessionism on theological grounds.
Finally, it is also important to note some additional differences across Christian Zionism. Some Christian Zionists publicly criticise Israel, and while a minority on the fringes possibly exhibit racism towards Arabs, many others promulgate the position that God, as well as retaining a special place in His plans for His continued historic people, also retains a special place for the Arab people by virtue of His covenant with Hagar, her son Ishmael and their offspring (known as the Hagaric covenant). Some pro-Israel Christians also allow, theoretically, for the possible exchange of land for peace, though they consider such a situation inconceivable as long as Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran refuse ever to accept Israel’s legitimacy, even existence. Finally, some Christians who reject supercessionism are not even Zionist in the true, political sense of the world. Most would argue the return of Christ sees the Jewish people in the land beforehand, but a substantial number would not state dogmatically we are necessarily in those times now.
Some supercessionist and anti Christian Zionist writers have sought to parody pro-Israel Christianity as theologically homogenous. For example, they are presented as believing in two peoples of God (the Jews and the Church), holding to two means of salvation (Torah observance for Jews and accepting Christ for the Church, known as dual covenantalism, and they are also caricatured as exhibit and obsession with two central issues, the land and the end times. Moreover, very often all Christians who simply reject supercessionism and maintain God’s continued dealings with His historic people are presented as Christian Zionists on the political right, actively engaged in lobbying their governments on behalf of the modern State of Israel, and for the most part racist towards Arabs.
Yet such views lack nuance and totally belie the theological complexities among Christians sympathetic towards the Jewish people. It is true that within Christian Zionism the parodies outlined above exist, but they are far from embraced by all. This short paper has noted, with global illustrations, not just several expressions of Christian support for the people Israel, but also how local issues often contribute to theological variations of what some refer to homogenously as Christian Zionism. In particular, one should note the difference within the broadly pro-Israel camp between those who focus primarily on the land and those who focus theologically upon the Jewish people. A focus on the latter may even offer a positive way forward for dialogue between the various stakeholders, helping to relegate to the fringes the extremists on both sides.
Finally, in light of the illustrations from Latin America, Britain and the US, British Pentecostalism and the Holy Land drawn upon here, it is worth pointing out in closing several methodological pitfalls when engaging in religio-political field research exploring conflicts such as this. First, one should take care with explanations which rely heavily on homogeneity and generalised explanations. It is also important when engaging in field research to interview all stakeholders in a conflict, taking care not to limit one’s interviews to a short cross section. Grassroots and hierarchy, denominational differences, geographical, socioeconomic and other factors all have an important bearing on how respondents reply to interview questions. Both qualitative and quantitative factors must be carefully taken into account when drawing up any interview sample. Finally, beware of ideologically-driven sources. That is not to say they cannot be used, but they must be handled with great care, while it is important also not to invest too much authority in a single or small collection of sources.
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