King's Evangelical Divinity School

18 January 2010

Arabs, Christians, Israel and Ethnicity

Let’s bring our perusal of this thorny issue of ethnicity and racism vis-a-vis the relationship between the Church and Israel to an end for now (there are other issues I want to explore at a later date) with a brief consideration of the extent to which some Christians themselves might be guilty of racism within this wider debate. Let me begin by pointing out just how harsh and hateful genuine racism is, so I don’t use the term lightly here, unlike some who hijack and employ it loosely for polemical reasons and cheap political point-scoring. I’m talking here about real, premeditated racism, that is, hatred of someone by virtue of their race, rather than the unwitting variety that may also cause offence but which is not driven by outright hatred of someone because of their race.

As such, I do not consider criticising Judaism on purely theological grounds to be racist, just as so-called ‘Islamaphobia’ is not racist, whatever some would have us believe (such people seem unaware of the openly proselytising nature of Islam and how it is practised by people of all races). I am wary of deep-seated anti-Judaism within the Church because it has ultimately manifested itself in expressions of anti-Semitism during certain epochs in the Church’s history. But this aside, I do not consider criticism of Judaism on theological grounds to be racist. It can certainly be distasteful (depending on how it is done), while anti-Judaism moves firmly beyond a respectful theological critique. But I do not believe criticism of a religion is automatically racist.

So how might we differentiate between criticism of Judaism and anti-Semitism? In short, I suggest any irrational treatment of Judaism which goes beyond criticism of the religion to outright demonisation of the Jewish people as a whole marks an important defining line between the two. And here is the crux of the issue with relation to this debate. When the Church has, at different times during its history, singled out for criticism and demonised the Jewish people as a whole on theological grounds, this marks a defining shift beyond simple criticism of Judaism - via anti-Judaism - to outright anti-Semitism. Whether the Spanish Inquisition, Martin Luther’s denunciation of the Jews, or some Nazi Protestants’ role in the Holocaust, I believe an important boundary has been traversed.

I think we are in danger of seeing it again today within some Church circles. Supercessionism as a theological position is quite one thing, and perfectly acceptable to express (though I believe from a biblical theology position quite untenable), and I’m certainly not suggesting most, or even many supercesionists are anti-Semitic. Just as criticism of Judaism on purely theological grounds is not racist, so supercessionism alone is not racist. Neither is Christian anti-Zionism automatically anti-Semitic. But I do think passive supercessionism can and often does differ from proactive Christian anti-Zionism because, just as anti-Zionism often serves as a convenient disguise for anti-Semitism (which is arguably why someone like Martin Luther King Jr maintained anti-Zionism was in fact anti-Semitism), so some Christian anti-Israel statements emanating from segments of the Church today threaten to take on an evermore shrill and polemical tone. This is when there is a real danger of crossing a definining boundary into demonisation of Israel and the Jewish people. I suggest Christian anti-Zionist expressions which constantly and unequivocally present Israel as a bogeyman that can do no right marks an important crossing of that boundary. At the very least such an approach gives the impression of a crusade where all objectivity is ditched.

Neither must we limit our discussion of racism to a woeful Church history of anti-Judaism which has sometimes led to anti-Semitism. Within this wider debate of the Church’s relationship with Israel there are many Christians who so love the Jews as God's chosen people that they resist and challenge her enemies on theological grounds. Challenging her enemies is quite one thing, but the problem is that this can (and in a minority of extreme cases does) degenerate into another example of racism, namely towards Arabs. To believe God still retains a plan and special place in His heart for the Jewish people is one thing. But this does not justify rejecting Arabs as evil and enemies of God purely because they are Arabs. Regarding this last point, quite the opposite in fact. Remember that as well as making a covenant with the Jewish people, God also made one with Hagar, the mother of Ishmael who fathered the Arab nation. Both peoples, then, have according to the Jewish and Christian Scriptures a special place in God’s heart, and just because He has set one aside for a particular revelatory purpose is not to the detriment of other. (I say this as a Gentile who is not a participant of either of these special covenants, but rather an adopted son.) An important caveat here is that Christian love for the Arab people does not mean one cannot be critical of Islam. Muslims and Christians are critical of each other's religion on theological grounds. That is not racism.
Thus it behoves all of us, regardless of where we stand on this issue, to avoid unnecessarily inflammatory and sensational language to score theological points. Christian anti-Zionism, then, should at all costs avoid the language of anti-Judaism and anti-Israelism, which can lead to anti-Semitism, or at the very least be seen by unbelievers to be so, which is hardly a good Christian witness. Meanwhile, some Christian friends of Israel should take care not to use language which seems to condemn all Arabs. I suggest criticism of many Arab leaders is perfectly acceptable, and indeed this is where much of the fault lies in the current conflict (many Arabs, including Christian supercessionist, Muslim or atheist, I speak to constantly express frustration with their leaders’ inability to bring about real peace). But just as criticism of Israel should never be allowed to spill over into anti-Semitism, neither should criticism of woeful Arab political leadership spill over into racism towards all Arabs.

In short, Christians should eschew inflammatory language for mere theological posturing and point scoring. Theological points are won on the best, most persuasive biblical arguments, short and simple.

Adapted from a post originally published on the KEDS blog. Take my poll on Christian responses to the State of Israel. See top-right of this page.


Stuart said...

What a beautifully balanced piece.

Dissenters said...

Is it possible though to question established positions? i.e. is the arguments against the theological significance of the modern State of Israel really supercessionism, especially in light of a Calvinist' type of covenant theology?
So I would ask whether it is possible to ask the question 'who is Israel today?'
And ask whether it is possible to reject the State of Israel, but not be a supercessionist because the Christian church is seen to embrace the faithful part of the house of Judah and the house of Israel?

Dissenters said...

Sorry I left out the 'Dissenter's' name - I am Andrew Sibley posting from one of my blog links.

But what are you saying 'no' to Calvin ;o)

Calvin L. Smith said...

Second part of the third, no, fourth, question.

Andrew Sibley said...

Incidentally, I have started reading RK Soulen's book on Israel. I am disappointed he doesn't address Calvin's theology at all. Neither does he ask 'who is Israel?', but assumes the question is settled already. His poor characterisation of the debate does lead to an understanding of Christian theology that is inevitably supercessionist.

I have though come across this paper that helps with understanding Calvin's approach.

Calvin L. Smith said...

Pity you made a snap judgment on Soulen after having just started the book. It is highly acclaimed by his theological peers (including those who disagree with him). Not very objective.

Andrew Sibley said...

It wasn't a comment on the whole book, just my initial thoughts, and I'll see if they are correct when I complete it - if I find some detailed comment on Calvin I'll change my view, but there is no mention of Calvin in the index. If he even addresses the type of theology that Calvin developed, I'll also consider changing my view.
I am planning a revised edition of my book so am looking to engage with the major works in greater depth.

Calvin L. Smith said...

Take care with Calvin, somewhat ambiguous. Theologians are divided on his view of Israel.

Stuart said...

I have just purchased Harvey’s "Mapping Messianic Jewish Theology" after a recommendation from the Derek4Messiah blog.

Hopefully this will give me a better grip on some of the issues from a Messianic Jewish perspective, which are still a little confusing for me.

It is a seriously steep learning curve.