King's Evangelical Divinity School

7 February 2012

Christian Palestinianism, Christian Anti-Zionism, Palestinian Christianity and the Jewish Roots of Christianity

On his blog Olivier Melnick has a piece on how "Christian Palestinianism" contributes to the demonisation and thus delegitimisation of Israel. But this wider political effect aside, I was interested in Melnich's comment highlighting how Christian Palestinianism strips Christianity of its Jewish roots and seeks to de-Judaise Jesus and the Christian faith, creating a kind of modern-day Marcionism (a second century heresy which similarly relegated, better, ditched, the God and scriptures of the Old Testament).

Of course, an academic focus in recent years on the Jewish roots of the Church, 1st century Jewish-Christian hermeneutics, and the religious and cultural milieu of New Testament Christianity all demonstrate unequivocally the thoroughly Jewish origin and nature of early Christianity and how de-Judaising Christianity is pure folly. Neither is focusing on the Jewish roots of the faith the exclusive domain of nonsupersessionism, as important contributions in this field by, for example, N.T. Wright demonstrate. So recognising, appreciating and exploring the Jewish roots of Christianity does not necessarily translate into holding a nonsupersessionist view.

At this stage I think it might be helpful to step back for a moment and clarify some of the terminology which is bandied about, which unfortunately is not helped by how some of the new supersessionist authors present Christian Zionism (CZ) as a monolithic and extremist bloc. I suppose, at its most basic, we could say that just as CZ champions the Jewish people and is generally sympathetic to the modern State of Israel, so Christian Palestinianism (CP) champions the Arab people and supports the creation of a Palestinian state. Beyond this, the current polarised debate makes it is difficult to define either term more satisfactorily without being polemical or pejorative. But perhaps the way around this impasse is to define CP in exactly the same manner as Christian Palestinianists define CZ (a kind of mirror image, if you will). Thus just as some CPs define CZs as extremists, racists, condoning Israeli state terrorism and repudiating the Gospel, conversely extremist CPs are similarly anti-Semitic, turn a blind eye to Islamic terrorism and are pro-Islam. Alternatively, while some CZs support Israel but struggle with aspects of Israeli policy, likewise some CPs may support the Arab people but struggle with aspects of Hamas and Fatah. If you think about it this twin system of defining CP and CZ works rather well, allowing for moderate and extreme expressions on both sides. At the vey least it will certainly help to challenge the stereotype of CZ as somehow monolithic and extremist (the proviso being, of course, that there are also moderate expressions of CP).

To confuse the issue further, at this stage we should also mention Christian anti-Zionism. Whereas CP is defined by who it sides with (the Palestinians), Christian anti-Zionism, as the name suggests, is defined first and foremost by what it opposes. Thus theoretically Christian anti-Zionism need not imply wholesale, uncritical (or indeed any) support for the Palestinians, Palestinian Authority or a Palestinian state. Primarily Christian anti-Zionism is concerned with theologically challenging Christian Zionism. Thus the theological shift is away from either peoples in the Middle East (Arabs and Jews) to a theological debate and challenging the views of a segment of Christians within the wider church.

At the risk of complicating the matter yet further, it is also essential to differentiate between Christian Palestinianism and Palestinian Christianity. Like Christian Zionism, the former represents a bloc within wider Christianity which support and champions one of the peoples of the Middle East, whereas Palestinian Christianity represents an exclusively Arab expression of Christianity among the Palestinian people. Hence, Palestinian Christianity consists of Palestinian Anglicans, Baptists, Charismatics, Orthodox, Catholic, and so on, some of which are Evangelicals, others not.

In any debate exploring a complex issues, such as the Middle East conflict, it is essential not to generalise and oversimplify, always seeking to bring sophistication and nuance to the issue. This is why carefully defining terminology represents such an essential first step in any academic treatment of an issue. Thus it is important to recognise the technical and theoretical differences between Christian Palestinianism, Christian anti-Zionism and Palestinian Christianity. Utilising this terminology begins to help one see the different agendas and approaches of all three camps, allowing one to craft a separate and tailored response to each.

Unfortunately, and with important exceptions aside (for example, it is clearly the case that many grassroots Evangelical Palestinian Christians reject a version of Palestinian liberation theology espoused by their leaders), today it is not always easy to differentiate between Christian Palestinianism, Christian anti-Zionism and Palestinian Christianity. And going back to where I began this post, one of the important ways in which all three camps seem to be so similar is the way in which the Jewish roots of Christianity are relegated or ditched completely. Consider when was the last time you heard a well-known representative of either camp express a positive view of the Jewish roots of Christianity in a book, journal article, talk or blog post? Or how often is the Old Testament downplayed by church leaders in Palestinian Christian circles? One well-known minister of a historic Protestant denomination explained to me recently how, while attending several conferences with various Palestinian Christian leaders, they barely acknowledged the Old Testament. It is not surprising, then, that Melnick conflates all three definitions when he writes...
Christian Palestinianism is well on its way to de-judaize Jesus – a job that the gentile branch of Christianity generously contributed to, out of ignorance or pure hatred of the Jews over the centuries. CP will also continue to invalidate much of the Jewish Scriptures as history gets re-written and Jewish references get replaced to accommodate the “Islamization” of the Bible.
At a time when those Christians who believe God retains a plan and purpose for the Jewish people (including those who believe He has restored them to the land) are increasingly eschewing the extremes of Christian Zionism and seek to be more nuanced in their theological and political treatment of the issues, it is equally fitting and appropriate for our Christian brothers on the other side of the debate to challenge the relegation of the Old Testament and the Jewish roots, reprimanding and resisting any form of modern day Marcionism. The Jewish roots of the Christian faith is a given, a fact of life which supersessionist and nonsupersessionist scholars alike agree upon, and therefore any version of pro-Palestinian Christianity which denies the Jewish roots of Christianity arguably gives the dangerous impression of seeking to expunge Jews and Jewishness from Christianity.


Derek Leman said...

I think there could be a health Christian advocacy for Palestinians. I say this very aware of Israeli Messianic Jews involved in justice work for Palestinians. If the focus were truly on justice for the oppressed and not on baser political bandwagons, CP could be a good thing. CZ is a movement out of balance and so is CP. Truth-telling and theology based on the entire narrative of God's saving work in the Bible would all be quite helpful.

Daniel Nessim said...

Thank you, Calvin, for a helpful article that brings some definition to the discussion. I am always cautious in talking about ‘Jewish roots’ as the Christian’s ‘roots’ go far deeper than that. However, I understand you to mean Christian roots that go right back to Genesis 1:1 in the Hebrew (Jewish) Bible, where we Jews also find our ‘roots’.
In general the CZ and CP 'camps' approach the OT Scriptures on radically different terms. This was partly addressed in a chapter by Prasch in your book 'The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supercessionism'. If Sizer is anyone to go by, CP's would caricaturise CZ's as wooden literalists, whereas I have no doubt that most CZ's would characterise the CP position as 'spiritualising' the OT. In addition, CP's tend towards 'covenant' theology and Reformed doctrinal positions. CP’s seek to (mis-)portray covenant theology and Reformed doctrine as the dominant, correct, and accepted views, and as naturally leading to Supercessionism. Thus non-Supersessionists are pictured as holding to aberrant theologies, quite often as quirky dispensationalists.
Dispensationalists are to be commended for at least one thing – an insistence upon interpreting Scripture literally unless there is reason not to. If one leaves the moorings of literality, then Scripture can be interpreted willy-nilly according to the inclinations of the reader. This, it seems to me, is quite convenient for the CP, who would like to minimise the importance of Israel and God’s covenants with him in the OT. These, the ‘Jewish Roots’ of Christianity become a very inconvenient truth. Thus the CP chooses to read their particular interpretation of the NT back into the OT, reinterpreting its original meaning and sense regardless of the text's initial sitz-im-leben. The OT is relegated to a subservient status to the NT. Thus it is inevitable that a modern form of Marcionism should become a threat.
CP’s are seeking to convince CZ’s and Christians in general of their warped hermeneutical approach. This is necessary for them as they contend that modern Israel is irrelevant to God and therefore to Christians today. I fear that their political positions are driving their hermeneutics and ultimately their theology, forcing them into yet more radical political postures in a vicious circle that they would like to turn into a vortex, dragging the whole church down with them.

Olivier said...

Thanks Calvin. I appreciate your further defining Christian Palestianism and Palestinian Chrsitianity. I have to admit that when I listen to somebody like Stephen Sizer on " With God on Our Side" interview, he gives us simplistic definitions of CP and CZ that run the risk of being the wrong representation of both sides. I would have to agree with Daniel Nessim's comment as well regarding a literal approach to Scripture. Once you start allegorizing, the sky is the limit, and it usually never include Israel and the Jewish people. The problem is that many who allegorize don't feel or don't know that they do.
But that is another can of worms

Chris said...

Politeness is good thing but not at the expense of truth. I feel it is not right to equate CZ with CP, one is based on sound Biblical truth the other is not.
Many are led to believe CZ began with J.N.Darby, when in fact it has its origins in Holy Writ, I will not cite various Scriptures to prove my point, but one will suffice: 'So when they had come together they asked him, 'Lord are you now restoring the Kingdom to Israel?' (Acts 1.6)
It is all well to remember that Christianity has Jewish roots, but the story does not end there, and so we look forward to Israel's future glory!

Dissenters said...

Calvin - some good points. NT Wright does indeed wish to include Israel in the meta-narrative, particularly in his book 'Justification' where he speaks of 'God's-single-plan-of-salvation-through-Israel-for-the world' and shows how Paul's gospel message is rooted in the family of Abraham (Galatians 3), but it is a family of faith in the Messiah, the seed of Abraham who became central to the life of Israel.

But why see NT Wright as supercessionist? If we are to refine language, let us remember there are those of us who wish to include Israel in the root of the Church. The problem is that Judah was divided in the time of Christ, one section accepted the Messiah and formed the foundation of the Church, the other rejected Christ. So are we really supercessionist if we believe that one section of Judah continued in the Church?

For me the problem is whether a State can today call itself Israel if it is not obedient to the Messiah. So I might be a Christian anti-zionist, but still wish to express love for Jews as a people as well as Palestianians and work for peace, justice and reconciliation in the land. Andrew S

Joseph W said...

The thing is, some Christians like N.T. Wright are deeply interested in the Jewish roots of our faith, yet come away with strongly anti-Zionist/ antisemitic theology.

victoria said...

The problem is that Judah was divided in the time of Christ, one section accepted the Messiah and formed the foundation of the Church, the other rejected Christ.