Refuse to Normalize US Gun Violence

Normalization. This is but one of the challenges of living as an expatriate in the Israeli-Palestinian context. What I mean here by normalization is the sense that what was once disconcerting, stress-inducing, offensive, or disgusting becomes … normal.

Here, guns are everywhere. Jerusalem is saturated with a massive number of Israeli soldiers, private security, and various levels of police, each with sidearms and black assault rifles. Together, they make up the unofficial catchall referred to as the ISF—Israeli Security Forces. At any given time, Damascus Gate contains 50 firearms at the ready.

The sight of so many weapons was once shocking. Now, I hardly notice. For me, for the most part, these guns have become normalized. What I am describing is a subjective experience, likely different for every person. I’m not speaking primarily about the political strategy of normalization, where governmental policies are so pervasive and logical that they become accepted by all who live here, Palestinians and Israelis alike. But it is related.

What strikes me is that the massive firepower available in Jerusalem does not increase security. It does not increase even a sense of security. Instead of experiencing security, a militarized and mobilized Israeli civilian population is taught again and again to trust that these guns, these tear gas canisters, these barriers, will protect them from an ever-present threat of Palestinians who want nothing more than to kill them and their children.

Far from engendering comfort and ease, the arsenal of Israeli Jerusalem supplies a constant reminder of the threat looming on the other side of the road, the other side of the wall, the other side of the service counter. Palestinian Armenian legal scholar Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian describes the cycle of threat and fear in her latest book, Security Theology, Surveillance, and the Politics of Fear (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

There is no doubt that Jewish Israelis have reason to live in fear. Attacks have occurred, of greater and lesser scale. The person who feels that she or her society have nothing more to lose may indeed choose a path of violence that ends with stabbing an Israeli civilian and likely being shot and killed by one of Jerusalem’s many guns. Rockets are fired out of Gaza and the Sinai. Firepower alone cannot stop these sorts of attacks. But still the show of force continues.

The normalization of violence came back to me this week with the latest school shooting in the United States. To be clear, the latest school shooting of sufficient magnitude to be reported by US national media. This was the eighteenth shooting on school property in the US in 2018, just at the midpoint of February.

I remember asking my younger son (he’s 17 now) what the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas made him think. Nothing much, he shrugged. It’s become normal. He reported a similar conversation at his school here in Jerusalem about what happened in Florida. Nothing new here. It’s a real problem that the United States isn’t dealing with.

What I’ve noticed as well is that the response to this Florida school shooting has resulted in the same responses from politicians and social media mavens. The same cartoons, the same memes. The same declarations that this “wasn’t terrorism” (presumably because the alleged shooter is not Arab and/or Muslim) but just a “disturbed young man” (that from Pierre Thomas of ABC News).

The sameness of the response indicates a normalization, a numbing to the horror of gun-related violence in the United States. The numbing blunts all possibilities for political response. Simply attacking a lobby—in this case, the National Rifle Association—accomplishes little.

It is time to admit that the US system is broken. It is helpless in the face of this particular form of violence. Why? Because this violence is woven into its foundation.

The Constitution of the United States of America has guns written into its text. In the US, guns are no mere commodity. They are enshrined as a right (well-regulated, no doubt, but enshrined).

But guns are not the only factor of this violence threaded through the US Constitution. The Constitution, though partially self-correcting, contains the logics of male superiority over women and white supremacy over African-descent and Indigenous communities, along with others who show up.

As Americans, we are guided by our Constitution. It is our norming norm for interpreting our common life. Presently, interpretations of the Constitution—especially the Second Amendment—are dominated by narrow and simplistic readings. But that mode of reading cannot be separated from other pockets of power preserved within the text.

Normalization—both political and existential—suggests that you should just accept the status quo. If there are problems, they’re too big to fix and others are in charge. What we see in Jerusalem, however, is that this situation just isn’t normal. It’s not good for Israelis or for Palestinians and it can’t be normalized.

The same is true for this epidemic of gun violence, especially school shootings, in the United States. Any international comparison chart shows that what we Americans experience just isn’t normal; we shouldn’t accept it as such. There is a lot of violence in the Middle East, but it doesn’t look like this.

But to challenge this unacceptable normality, Americans will need to revisit our foundational documents, including the US Constitution. We must revisit—and likely remake—what makes us the United States of America.

It is time for people to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work of out-arguing the simplistic arguments of the NRA and showing just who is fighting for weapons manufacturers and who is fighting for freedom, liberty, and justice for all America’s children.

 


 

Robert O. Smith is Director of the University of Notre Dame’s Jerusalem Global Gateway. Smith is author of More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013) and editor, with Swedish scholar Göran Gunner, of Comprehending Christian Zionism: Perspectives in Comparison (Fortress, 2014).

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Toward Practical Ecumenism: On Catholic-Lutheran Relationship

The following text is an address I delivered on 1 February 2018 at the Ratisbonne Monastery in Jerusalem, which houses the Jerusalem Campus of the Faculty of Theology of the Salesian Pontifical University. The occasion was the opening of the Spring 2018 semester of the Graduate Diploma in Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism. The official title was “The Relationships between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Communities, in the Light of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation” but I’ve renamed it for the blog.

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

It is a great pleasure to be here with you today at the Jerusalem Campus of the Faculty of Theology of the Salesian Pontifical University. I am particularly happy to be with you as you open this semester of studying the Christian Churches within the context of the Graduate Diploma in Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism. This Diploma emphasizes an area of study and expertise beneficial and necessary not just for Christian communities, but for the wellbeing of the societies and communities the church is called to serve.

In John’s gospel, we read that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3.16–17). Building on this inclusive, embracing vision of the Gospel—the Good News—the Apostle Paul proclaimed that the work of God in Christ Jesus brought lasting peace since “in his flesh he . . . has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph 2.14). In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul concludes that because “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them . . . the message of reconciliation” has been “entrust[ed] . . . to us” (2 Cor 5:17–19).

This vision of God’s reconciling embrace in Christ Jesus and call to the ministry of reconciliation has animated my career of engagement across lines of ecumenical and interreligious difference. Because we confess that Jesus is the incarnation of a universal God with a universal mission, we are called into a life of global awareness with unceasing commitment for the wellbeing of the poor, the least of these, the communities placed on the margin by the logic of the world. The joint commemoration of the Reformation undertaken by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church provided reminder upon reminder that God’s concern is not for our particular confessions or our particular communities alone, but that we are called into God’s mission for the sake of the world.

Fr. Gustavo invited me here to speak about “The relationships between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Communities, in the light of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.” This is a wonderful topic; you are fortunate to be studying the theme of ecumenical relations between the churches during this remarkable year.

I will attempt to do justice to such a profound and far-reaching title. As he will share with you, however, I did protest to Fr. Gustavo that the topic falls outside of my precise academic expertise. What that means for you, dear students, is that in this address, you will largely be spared the dry minutiae of academic precision. I will be a bit more experiential in my approach, which will hopefully spark some conversation between us.

For the past several years, I served as the Special Adviser to the President of the Lutheran World Federation, Bishop Munib Younan. One of the greatest achievements of his time as LWF President was the joint commemoration of the Reformation in Lund, Sweden, co-hosted with His Holiness, Pope Francis. I was blessed to attend that event, an experience that changed my heart. But before I tell you how it changed my heart, you need to know a bit about me and how I worked with Bishop Younan to prepare for the event.

Presently, I am a Lutheran pastor working for a Roman Catholic University in partnership with the Vatican’s Tantur Ecumenical Institute. I’ve had more than one person say “and it’s okay for someone who’s not Catholic to work there?” Tantur was set up after the Second Vatican Council to continue the pursuit of Christian unity so beautifully envisioned during the Council. It’s an ecumenical institute. So yes, it’s okay that I am there!

I am an ordained Minister of Word & Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The ELCA, which has its churchwide office in Chicago, is one of the 145 member churches of the Lutheran World Federation, which is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. The LWF membership represents over 74 million Christians in the Lutheran tradition in 98 countries across the globe.

I am originally from the US state of Oklahoma, the state directly on top of Texas. Oklahoma was designated as “Indian Territory” before it was made into a state. I am a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, a tribe ethnically cleansed out of the southeastern US in the mid-1800s. Oklahoma is now a politically conservative state, with a great deal of support for politicians like President Trump. I was raised in a Pentecostal megachurch, the sort of evangelicalism now growing in many places around the world.

During my teenage years, my family and I stopped going to church. In contemporary congregational theory lingo, we became “de-churched.” Part of it was that we moved to Germany, where my father had a position with the US Government. The Protestant church on the army base (this was in the early 1990s) was, in a word, boring. It wasn’t until much later that I found out it was Lutheran. But the deeper reason we became unchurched was that the evangelicalism of my youth was infused with something called the Prosperity Gospel.

The Prosperity Gospel teaches that if you believe the right way, if you pray the right way, and especially if you give money to your church, you will live a life of blessing, especially financial prosperity. That so-called Gospel makes sense in places as diverse as suburban Oklahoma City or rural Nigeria. The problem in my family, though, was that I had a brother who died of leukemia when he was just five years old. Later, I would find out that church members had blamed my parents for not having enough faith for him to be healed. His death left them with tremendous pain and the additional burden of judgment for their apparent failure. When I was a teenager, though, all I knew is that the constant drumbeat of the Prosperity Gospel didn’t make sense in my life.

But it was also a tradition where any question probing the teaching was rejected as a lack of faith. So eventually, I just stopped asking questions. At least within the church. I took my questions elsewhere—to literature, to history, to philosophy. Eventually, during my university years, I found myself asking all of these pent-up questions to a Lutheran pastor. She wasn’t afraid, and she wasn’t dismissive. And soon after, I was confirmed as a Lutheran. It was a quick jump after that to discerning a call to ministry. The next year, I was in seminary.

While at seminary, I found a new love: the study of Christian theologies of other religions. Through the study of Islam, I was exposed to a new world of religious ideas. I was of course aware of other religions; what I did not know was the long history of interfaith engagement and dialogue. I wound up writing an additional MA thesis comparing Nicene, Arian, and Qur’anic Christologies and developed a sense of interfaith ethics.

All of this is what first brought me into relationship with Christians from Palestine and other Arab countries. That included an opportunity to build a relationship with the Rt. Rev. Munib Younan, who, when I was in seminary, was near the beginning of his 20 years serving as Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. All of this is what brought me to Israel and Palestine in late 2002, in the middle of Second Intifada.

After serving in parish ministry in central Texas during my years of PhD coursework and some time as Lutheran Campus Pastor at the University of Chicago, I was invited to join the churchwide staff of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as Global Mission Director for the Middle East and North Africa. During my time in that role, I continued our church’s focus on accompanying fellow Lutherans in the Holy Land. That brought me directly into a working relationship with Bishop Younan.

Our relationship intensified through the years of the so-called Arab Spring. Through the World Council of Churches, I was able to develop relationships on behalf of the ELCA with other churches in the Middle East, especially those living in Syria and Iraq under conditions that could be described as genocidal. It was in these relationships that my responsibility as a Christian from the United States became clearer: in order to be in right relationship with these sisters and brothers, I needed to acknowledge the destruction wrought by US policies in the Middle East.

Bishop Younan was a constant conversation partner as we—from our very different perspectives and roles—sought to navigate a region and an ecumenical landscape changing before our eyes. When he was elected as President of the Lutheran World Federation, I soon found myself assisting him—informally, always as a volunteer—as he prepared the many necessary speeches and sermons.

It was quite exciting for me to realize that Bishop Younan’s term as President would include the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. Quickly, plans began to form for a joint Lutheran-Roman Catholic event. I soon found out that nice ideas like that quickly develop into an entire world of work.

One of the first tasks was to develop the theological and historical foundations for joint commemoration. That joint foundation came in the form of a document titled “From Conflict to Communion,” produced in 2013 by the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity. In a way, this document and all that followed it can be understood as the fruit of 50 years of intensive dialogue established as a result of the Second Vatican Council, the same spirit that led to the founding of Tantur Ecumenical Institute.

But we needed to arrive at several other mutual decisions and understandings before a major event could be planned. First, we needed to agree that the Reformation is not Lutheran alone; it is a broadly ecumenical reality itself. We cannot forget the reforming work of Wycliffe and Hus, both of whom inspired Luther. And we will soon come upon anniversaries related to Zwingli and Calvin, two equally important Reformers. Our other understanding is that the Reformation is not European alone. Christianity now has a global reach. Although the story of the Reformation begins in Europe, the geographic center of Christianity has crossed into the Global South. A Eurocentric commemoration would not be true to the realities of Christian witness over the past 500 years.

The other deep question had to do with what we could call a gathering focused on the Reformation. Was it a celebration? Do we celebrate divisions in the Body of Christ? The decision was made to call any joint efforts a “Commemoration” of the Reformation, a neutral word for a shared observing of an historical reality.

This is quite different from how many Lutherans—at least in my American experience—have observed the anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Every year, “Reformation Sunday” celebrations in churches too often devolve into a sort of Lutheran triumphalism. Too often, our celebrations focus less on what Bishop Younan calls “the freshness of the Gospel” than on some supposed triumph against Roman Catholic Christianity or some abstract notion of “the Pope.” I am sure many Catholics also have their same unhelpful conceptions of Martin Luther and Protestantism in general. These feelings, of course, do nothing to promote Christian unity or ecumenical cooperation.

I was therefore deeply grateful to see early drafts of “From Conflict to Communion.” The document examines the stories we tell about one another and provides guidance on how we can reconstruct the historical narratives that we have built up over the past 500 years. I continue to be inspired by the five “Ecumenical Imperatives” that form its conclusion. They are short, so I will read them here:

  • The first imperative: “Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced.”
  • The second imperative: “Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.”
  • The third imperative: “Catholics and Lutherans should again commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal.”
  • The fourth imperative: “Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.”
  • The fifth imperative: “Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.”

The joint commemoration prayer service in Sweden involved a great deal more negotiation. Everything—from the location to the various statements, messages and sermons, to every element of the liturgy, including vestments—was the subject of careful study and negotiation. That level of practical cooperation, although sometimes frustrating for everyone involved, was a beautiful manifestation of the commitment to walk together in this new era of ecumenical cooperation. It showed that we could truly live in the theme chosen for the occasion: Together in Hope.

As important as the official ceremonies and statements of the joint commemoration were and will continue to be, it was something that happened the day before October 31—Reformation Day—the day before His Holiness, Pope Francis, joined the LWF President, Bishop Younan, and General Secretary, Martin Junge—that changed my ecumenical heart.

As I reported via Facebook to people who were following my experiences, I was in Lund for this major ecumenical event, but I haven’t always been the most stereotypically ecumenical person. As I think you can tell, I really like being Lutheran, just like I hope you love being Catholic. Lutheran doctrine provides a theological and philosophical touchstone for my life and work. When I first discovered the tradition, I appreciated its embrace of critical thought, its commitment to absolute human equality before God, and its willingness to take risks in confronting power.

I admitted that I was, at some level, skeptical of the week’s events. Are we simply embracing the same power against which we have defined ourselves for centuries? Just what was it we were so excited about in Lund? That Sunday morning, Oct. 30, I wrote that the major public events would have little meaning without a strong process of ecumenical reception. The big event is important, but not as important as the one Lutheran-Catholic couple in your own congregation who could eventually openly receive the Eucharist in both of their churches. Gestures of openness and embrace at the top of the ecclesiastical hierarchy only matter if that same embrace is offered in your neighborhood.

And then it happened.

That Sunday morning, as we neared the completion of normal Sunday worship at the Lund Cathedral, the main doors of the church opened and we were joined by another congregation. A buzz went through several of us who hadn’t fully understood the previous announcement in Swedish: there, with a banner, a processional cross wrapped with olive branches, and an icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe, were the priests and the entire congregation of Lund’s St. Thomas Aquinas Parish.

As they processed to the front of the Lutheran cathedral, their choir joined the Lutheran choir for a beautiful, shared song. As the leadership of both congregations joined around the altar, Bishop Younan, as President of the LWF, was invited to address the now-combined congregations. As we closed the worship in song, Lutherans handed their worship books over to Catholic neighbors eager to join in a shared hymn. Everyone, including me, had tears in their eyes.

My skepticism evaporated. The prayer I had posted earlier that morning was being fulfilled before my eyes. It was a doubtful prayer, and in that moment, I recalled the verse from Mark’s Gospel: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (9.24). That morning, I saw and felt what ecumenical unity can be. Seeing Pope Francis and Bishop Younan embrace the next day was impressive, but not as important as what I saw in the cooperation between local parishes.

Now that I have shared some of my personal experience and you are ready to study the official documents underlying the Joint Commemoration of the Reformation, I would like to speak more directly about the possibilities of what we can call Applied Ecumenism or Practical Ecumenism. When you are finished with this course of study, what will you take with you in the parishes and offices you will serve?

The events in Sweden included a broader public event in the Malmö Arena. There, the World Service division of the Lutheran World Federation and Caritas Internationalis—our churches’ aid and development agencies—signed a declaration of intent for cooperation. As I said in my opening comments, the growth of mutually affirming relationships between Lutheran and Roman Catholic Christians strengthens our mutual capacity to respond to the needs of the world, seeking the flourishing of human communities far beyond the limits of our confessions alone. LWF World Service and Caritas were doing that before any such document was signed; but signaling our intent for meaningful integration and cooperation implies a globally significant partnership.

Constantly improving relationships between Roman Catholics and Lutherans also allow us to more fully promote women’s voices and leadership within our communities. The Lutheran Archbishop of Sweden, Antje Jackelén, was a local host of the Joint Commemoration. During the prayer service at the Cathedral, Pope Francis embraced her. This was not in the official protocol for the event; it was a spontaneous act of gratitude between leaders of two Christian communities.

Although I am a strong advocate for women’s leadership at all levels within the church, I am not necessarily raising the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood. We should be troubled, however, when questions of gender become a stumbling block. Unfortunately, this feeds the simplistic misogyny of many men throughout the world, many claiming to be religious leaders. The American Protestant ideologue John Piper comes to mind. He recently claimed that no woman should be allowed to teach in seminaries since only men are fit to be pastors. My only guess is that he hasn’t reflected on the examples of St. Paula and St. Eustochium, who assisted St. Jerome in his translation of the Vulgate. The internal challenge of Christianity—a challenge we share with Jews and Muslims—is recovering the beautiful, inclusive complexity of our traditions from those like Piper who reduce people to being pawns in their theological games.

When misogyny is wrapped in theological justification, people are afraid to challenge it. Speaking as a man to men training for ministry, we need to be aware of how these dynamics operate to silence women and reinforce fears rather than moving the conversations forward. We are seeing a global groundswell of women’s voices and women’s leadership, women reclaiming their time and women refusing to act as objects of male desire. The Roman Catholic Church has a sophisticated, empathetic structure for justifying its stances concerning gender relations and ordination. Catholic women are deeply engaged in the leadership of the church, with many serving as academic leaders, seminary instructors, and close advisors to every level of church leadership, including Pope Francis. It is time for us to deepen cooperation in the area of gender justice so we can contribute to global change.

When you go into your new assignments, especially if it is into the hyper-local work of parish ministry, I urge you to maintain global awareness. You have the immense privilege of international travel and experience; you can serve as your congregation’s window to the world. This global perspective will directly enhance your ability to nurture ecumenical and interreligious relationships in your ministry context.

The situation here in Jerusalem provides ample evidence that local issues have global implications. I will briefly address practical ecumenical and interreligious cooperation in relation to the three interlocking areas international law, global migration, and climate justice.

  1. International Law. Wherever you serve, the stability and legitimacy of international law will be an issue of concern. The steps being taken by the United States, Russia, and smaller states like Israel to exercise sovereignty in ways that disrupt and sometimes break international conventions have broad, unintended implications. This is especially the case for people living under dictatorial and totalitarian regimes. Even as our churches work at regional and global levels, advocating for fair and stable legal and humanitarian structures, local ecumenical and interreligious alliances will likely become more essential for promoting the wellbeing of communities throughout the world.
  2. Global Refugee / Migration Crisis. There are 65 million refugees in the world today. These are people displaced by famine, by war—people who bear the image of God. This figure is supplemented by a huge number of what can be called economic migrants. Because of its unique concern for demographic factors, the State of Israel, despite its relative wealth, welcomes none of these people into its borders. In the coming days, we will see if the Israeli government follows through on its promise of rounding up and deporting asylum seekers and economic migrants. You can be sure that other governments throughout the world—including the United States—will be monitoring the international response to see what they can do with undesirable, undocumented populations. Christians, alongside other religious communities, have an opportunity to speak out forcefully for the dignity of every human being, insisting that no person is illegal.
  3. Climate Justice. As the international community continues to grapple with the best ways to assess and respond to the global challenge of climate change, the churches have an important platform to seek justice, especially for the most vulnerable. Climate change will continue to create more refugees and migrants, increasing strain on global systems. Many coastal communities will find themselves under water. While the wealthy will simply relocate, what will happen to those without economic means? Climate justice engages local and international systems of law and culture, seeking the dignity and wellbeing of the most vulnerable. Ecumenical and interreligious alliances facing these issues head-on will ensure that decisions are not informed by profit motives alone.

None of these global challenges can or should be faced by any religious community alone. But for collaborative efforts to be successful, we will need to follow the wisdom of moving “from conflict to communion,” especially as we consciously reconstruct the centuries of narratives we have told about our supposed religious opponents. Lutherans and Roman Catholics have, I hope, shown the way toward reconciliation for the sake of the world. Similar efforts must take root throughout Christian ecumenical efforts and within interreligious dialogues. Among other religions, we must start first with Jews and Muslims, taking responsibility for our Christian contributions to millennia of conflict and persecution, manifesting themselves today in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. As Lutherans and Catholics have found, the first step toward repairing the relationship is confession. Sincerity opens a world of new possibilities.

In conclusion, I want to again provide a word of affirmation for the program of study you are undertaking as you earn the Graduate Diploma in Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism. We live and work in a world of political forces that compromise the core values of all religious traditions, that seek to divide rather than unite, that encourage us to develop immoral perceptions of our neighbors.

But we are called to a different path. The message of the Gospel extends far beyond the complicated but improving relationship between Lutheran and Roman Catholic Christians. As disciples of Jesus—even if we follow in slightly different paths—we now freely affirm with another that we follow the One who has broken down the dividing wall” (Eph 2.14), the One through whom we have been reconciled to God and to one another, the One who has “entrust[ed] the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor 5:19).

Robert O. Smith is Director of the University of Notre Dame’s Jerusalem Global Gateway. Smith is author of More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013) and editor, with Swedish scholar Göran Gunner, of Comprehending Christian Zionism: Perspectives in Comparison (Fortress, 2014).

 

Critiquing Christian Zionism, Old and New

In its August 30, 2017, issue, The Christian Century published a review article by ELCA pastor and professor Peter Pettit assessing recent work from Anglican theologian Gerald McDermott promoting what McDermott is packaging as a “new Christian Zionism.” Both the article and the two books under review cite my own monograph, More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013).

I submitted a comment as a “Letter to the Editor,” but it was far too long to be published as such. So I am sharing it here instead. I hope this can be a resource for other progressive Christians seeking to address the complex of issues surrounding Christian Zionism, including Jewish-Christian and Muslim-Christian relations alongside the quest for a just, sustainable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Let a new conversation commence.


 

Dear Editor,

I read with great interest Peter Pettit’s critical review of recent work from Gerald McDermott on what he heralds as a “new” Christian Zionism. By “new,” both Pettit and McDermott mean non-dispensationalist. On the basis of an historically-informed theological position, they formulate a Christian Zionism that doesn’t rely on rapture schemes or other elaborate apocalyptic scenarios.

My own academic work on the topic of Christian Zionism—More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013)—is cited in support of these efforts. While Pettit describes the book as “coherent,” McDermott (in both books under review) says it is “the best analysis of seventeenth-century Zionism among Puritans.” While it is true that I make a definitive case to sever analysis of Christian Zionism from the regnant concerns of premillennial dispensationalism, that is but a surface reading of my overall critique.

McDermott and Pettit are heavily engaged in a constructive project, whose overarching theme seems limited to “how to be a better Christian Zionist.” In this narrow conversation, they ignore basic questions raised in academic analyses. Critical, analytical work like mine and that of the scholars Göran Gunner and I assembled over several years to participate in the American Academy of Religion Seminar on Christian Zionism serves a different purpose.

I am sympathetic to some of the questions writers like McDermott and Pettit raise. I share their uneasiness about attitudes engendered by Christian supersessionism (more commonly known as “replacement theology”). All Christians should be wary of the reprehensible millennia of anti-Jewish theological teachings and the deadlier forms of anti-Semitism that emerged in the modern era, laying the groundwork for the Shoah.

Attentiveness to that history and its continued implications leads to the exigent claim of Christian responsibility. That sense of Christian responsibility should also include concern for centuries of Christian theological constructions of the Muslim other (i.e., “enemy”) concomitant to centuries of western Christian chauvinism concerning their Orthodox and Oriental coreligionists. With respect to the Holy Land, Christian responsibility demands direct commitment to seeking a just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict while embraces each of the many communities that now belong to the land. In is in this context that my own academic work seeks to critique the way Christian Zionists enact what I identify as an English Protestant tradition of Judeo-centric prophecy interpretation.

That tradition of engaging Scripture, which McDermott seeks to revive and refine, imagines Jews through Christian theological lenses. Any contemporary form of Christian Zionism, even while affirming the integrity of Jewish existence and identifying a special status for the State of Israel, ultimately manipulates Jewish existence for Christian purposes alone. Jews and Judaism thus become mere means for Christian theological ends.

In an era following the Crusades, the Holocaust, and 50 years of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, Christian historical responsibility indicates that theologizing about the existence of other ethnic and religious communities has led to disastrous results. As Franklin Littell, a pioneer of post-Holocaust Jewish-Christian relations, put it, “To teach that a people’s mission in God’s providence is finished, that they have been relegated to the limbo of history, has murderous implications which murderers in time will spell out.” Simply put, it is unethical to theologize about the God-ordained existence or non-existence of another people or community of faith.

In this new round of conversation, Christians in the United States cannot forget that our theological attitudes have direct political implications for communities in today’s Middle East. Purportedly theological efforts like Christian Zionism—in both dispensationalist and non-dispensationalist forms—function politically to protect structures of official U.S. military, political, diplomatic, and monetary support for the State of Israel.

In the first sentence of his review, Pettit suggests that “talking about Israel is one of the most dependable . . . ways to fracture a congregation.” This statement serves to reinforce the familiar refrain: “it’s all just so complicated; I suppose we just shouldn’t say anything.” Reticence on critical issues is tantamount to an abdication of ethical, indeed, religious responsibility.

Now is the time for a new conversation about Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations, a new conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a new conversation about historical Christian responsibility. Let us indeed have the courage to create something new.

Robert Smith
Jerusalem

 


 

Robert O. Smith is Director of the University of Notre Dame’s Jerusalem Global Gateway. Smith is author of More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013) and editor, with Swedish scholar Göran Gunner, of Comprehending Christian Zionism: Perspectives in Comparison (Fortress, 2014). He is a Co-Moderator of the World Council of Churches’ Palestine-Israel Ecumenical Forum.

 

“Only a Pawn in Their Game” – Charlottesville and Me

According to family lore, a great-great uncle of mine was a personal bodyguard to Robert E. Lee, the Confederate General whose statue Charlottesville, Virginia, has voted to remove. Even though my heart wasn’t with the thugs demonstrating to protect the statue, I recognized part of myself in them. 

Instead, I thought of the Bob Dylan song, “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” debuted in July 1963 after Medgar Evers was assassinated on June 12. 

Dylan’s song is a brilliant analysis of how systemic racism keeps white men locked in a system of inequality and violence. “The poor white,” Dylan says, is taught “in his school … 

To protect his white skin / To keep up his hate / So he never thinks straight / ‘Bout the shape that he’s in / But it ain’t him to blame / He’s only a pawn in their game. 

The same, Dylan says, is true of the assassin, who is not worth being remembered with a name.

Although Dylan’s song — which he sang later in 1963 during the March on Washington — could be read as letting the individual off the hook for heinous actions, he points to broader systems manipulating white racial fragility and rage. The actions of the individuals are certainly terrible, but outrage needs to be directed also at the power structure encouraging these pawns to act.

Yesterday, here in Jerusalem with a quasi-legal CNN feed, I saw a great deal many pawns marching in Charlottesville. They had no intention of engaging in a peaceful demonstration; that’s why they brought clubs and shields and pepper spray. They were emboldened by what they have been told is their political moment; that’s why they didn’t hide their faces. 

More than the marching and the violence, I recognized the ideas animating those pawns. I went to the same schools and, especially, the same gun shows. To be sure, I also saw myself in the rainbow of ecumenical and interfaith clergy participating in the counter-protests to offer a witness of faith beyond exclusion. I am a doctorate-holding professor and ordained pastor, whose left-leaning politics are no secret to anyone.

However, my teenage years in suburban south Oklahoma City could have been a seedbed for the sort of extremism we’ve seen in Charlottesville. Before I moved to Europe at age 16 (my parents couldn’t have anticipated what that international experience would do to me), I grew up hunting, fishing, and shooting. I was constantly surrounded by an arsenal of firearms.

I remember quite well the disaffected, no-way-up middle class emptiness of 1980s suburban Oklahoma City. I was fed a steady diet of suspicion of the federal government and, even if it wasn’t always so explicitly stated, white racial pride … despite the fact that I am also an enrolled Citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. 

Later, after my time in Europe, I remember being at a gun show in Oklahoma City and meeting Randy Weaver, whose son and wife had been killed in a 1992 FBI/ATF siege on their cabin in northern Idaho. The same federal crew had raided the Branch Davidian compound in Waco in 1993. These two events catalyzed Timothy McVeigh, leading to his own act of domestic terrorism in 1995.

Many other people besides me have devoted their careers to researching how people get radicalized. That hasn’t been the focus of my work. But the popular perceptions of people drawn to join these groups and participate in these rallies are often quite wrong.

A white supremacist willing to engage in public, political violence (the most basic definition of terrorism) has noticed things changing around him. The basic order of American society has changed, and his particular norms (heterosexuality, hyper-masculinity, nationalist cultural Christianity, and whiteness) are no longer the highest norms for American society. 

Those are still the norms of American society, mind you, but they are not as strong as they used to be. Difference is accepted more and more. Things are slipping.

A white supremacist invading Charlottesville to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee is not doing so to seek privilege and power. Rather, that person is threatening violence to protect privilege and power they think they already have. They are there to beat back the savages and to reestablish what they believe to be a God-given order which has them situated firmly on top.

Recognizing elements of that culture in myself does not mean I accept or condone it. Comprehension does not imply sympathy. As former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted, “There is only one side.” 

Addressing events like what happened in Charlottesville means going beyond condemning the actions of individuals. The actions are bad. The ideas driving the actions are pernicious. The malevolent intellectual forces generating and refining those ideas to cynically motivate racial resentment are still worse. 

The problem we face is that the current occupant of the Oval Office has intentionally fanned the flames of those ideas, presenting them as solutions to problems he has utterly no intention of fixing. And he knows that the chief architect of those ideas — Steve Bannon — is the one who brought him to the dance. 

What the white men who invaded Charlottesville need to know is that the movement they have decided to join — now calling itself the Alt-Right, but associated with many past organizations proclaiming white supremacy — has been lurking around in the shadows for a long time, waiting for its chance to return to national prominence. 

The racial supremacist Alt-Right has jumped on the opportunities provided by President Trump’s racism, both overt and implied. But they are the same as Trump, using intellectual manipulation to drag white men into their camp. They can’t be trusted any more than a billionaire claiming to represent the common man. 

All of this is to the detriment of those who think they are taking something back or making something great. The Klan and organizations like it rely on insecurity and fear to find their success. Their success is not in challenging systems of government or trends in society; their success is solely bound up in creating pawns to validate their existence, either by showing up at their meetings or suggesting to other potential pawns that they really aren’t that bad. 

Because these organizations thrive on the weakness of their pawns — their fragility and fear — they are never interested in building the strength that comes through unity in diversity. They are only interested in pawns who will work to protect structures of power for others to enjoy. 

Bannon has long advocated for varying forms of fascism. With Trump, he identified his patsy. They are seeking to hold the country hostage to a vision that turns every white male into a jackbooted thug subjugating and persecuting every form of difference. That appearance of strength is, in the end, the most profound weakness, a weakness only a pawn could accept.

My intention in sharing my awareness of at least a small sliver of the culture animating the white invaders of Charlottesville is not to validate their actions, but to help my fellow leftists better understand their opponents. Those men won’t listen to me anyway. 

But there is work to be done. We are in a crisis and people are dying. I wrote this because I couldn’t keep silent. I was horrified by what I saw, and I was horrified that I saw elements of myself in those awful images from Charlottesville. But I must own up to that if I am to be part of the solution. Let it begin with me.

Robert O. Smith is Director of the University of Notre Dame’s Jerusalem Global Gateway. Smith is author of More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013) and editor, with Swedish scholar Göran Gunner, of Comprehending Christian Zionism: Perspectives in Comparison (Fortress, 2014). He is a Co-Moderator of the World Council of Churches’ Palestine-Israel Ecumenical Forum.

Can Holy Leaders Stop Holy War in the World’s Holiest City?

The present crisis in Jerusalem threatens to engulf the entirety of Israel and Palestine, change the emerging order of the Middle East, and exacerbate global tensions. Centered on the holy site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, this current moment in the decades-long nationalist struggle between Jews and Palestinians could be marking a shift from a predominantly political to a predominantly religious mode of engagement. Given this shift, it is essential that religious representatives be brought into the political dialogue.  

For many in the secularized West, it is counterintuitive to think that more religious involvement, rather than less, is helpful in the present situation. If religion is part of the problem, how can it be part of the solution? Diplomats and politicians have serious doubts about whether holy men in holy robes can offer anything close to the right response to the possibility of a holy war.  

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the shift from predominantly political to predominantly religious has been happening for several years. Muslim concerns about Zionist designs on Al-Aqsa have sparked violence for nearly a century; such fears were part of the motivation for the 1929 riots resulting in the deaths of many Jews in Hebron (though many more were protected by their Muslim neighbors). Religious commitments have always been part of this conflict over a land perceived as holy by different political communities, each with access to varying levels of worldly power.  

One of the defining features of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is its seeming intractability. The presence of religious commitments to particular pieces of geography (within the larger whole animating some religious passions) contributes directly to this dynamic. The shorthand understanding among foreign policy specialists on the topic of religion and politics is that political struggles can always be solved through dialogue, engagement and, most of all, compromise. When religion becomes the main driver of a conflict, the motivation for compromise is diminished.  

If you believe that the entirety of Jewish identity is bound up with living in Hebron and being able to pray at the Temple Mount, what motivation is there to compromise with Palestinians? For this person, even the State of Israel is a means to an end, a tool, for achieving religious purposes. That person is willing to take up arms even against her own state to advance a religious ideal.

Also reflected within segments of the Palestinian population, this type of religious logic—a blend of politics and religion best understood as theopolitical—can have explosive consequences. 

Palestinian Muslim Jerusalemites have been profoundly moved by this present perceived Zionist threat to Al-Aqsa. The people—quite apart from political and even religious leadership—have taken to the streets, organizing themselves through theopolitical rather than secular logic. At the present moment, it is meaningless to present any talk of compromise with a hostile state seeking to wrest away control of the holy site in their midst. While uncompromising, these street demonstrations have been marked by prayer and nonviolence. Only a very small minority of Muslim Jerusalemites participating in prayers around Al-Aqsa engaged in any activity that could be construed as violent. They were met, on the other hand, with a great deal of state violence from Israeli Border Police.

Political leadership alone—by which I mean leadership that is predominantly secular in nature even if tries to accommodate religious factors—cannot fully address the crisis now engulfing Israel and Palestine. Religious actors must be brought to the table. They are the only ones who can speak to their own communities, using theopolitical terms, in a way that can remove the threat from Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. 

The ideal would be if non-state religious actors could be located. In this context, however, such a search will be difficult. All officially recognized Jewish and Muslim leaders are appointed by Israeli and Palestinian governmental processes. Christian leadership is similarly compromised by involvement with state politics. The Patriarchs and Heads of Churches must be attentive to the political pressures placed on them by Israeli and Palestinian political forces, with the State of Israel often gaining more deference than the Palestinian Authority by virtue of the bureaucratic power it can wield. 

Even within this compromised reality, the situation could be addressed by the CRIHL, the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land, which includes the Chief Rabbis, the Islamic Courts and the Heads of Churches. If that group can come to some level of common mind about how to address the present crisis or at least the element of dehumanization infecting all sides of the conflict, a contribution could be made.  Moreover, each of these official leaders is concerned with the historic status quo governing religious sites in Jerusalem. Their voices can be an invaluable source of perspective for secular political leadership. 

The next step is to identify religious actors within the community of NGOs. Here too there are problems for identifying organizations and persons who can contribute toward building peaceful engagement. Many of these NGOs are built around charismatic individuals rather than systematic approaches to peacebuilding and reconciliation. Many do not have a broader vision of what a sustainable peace may entail, a theopolitical theory for the future of Israel and Palestine. 

For too long, religious actors have been shut out of political dialogues concerning the Holy Land. Negotiations have preferred to leave Jerusalem—with its many layers of political and religious complication—to the end of any negotiations process. Recent crises involving Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount tensions indicate that both approaches were flawed.  

I am not appealing for a return to negotiations toward final-status issues. Nor am I suggesting that all Palestinian frustrations can be explained by religious impulses. Palestinians have very real, material objections to Israeli state policy that have virtually nothing to do with religion. But when Al-Aqsa is touched, the theopolitical impulse comes to the fore.

What I am suggesting is that identifying an appropriate cadre of religious actors who seek the best for the three religions and two peoples of this land, religious actors who embrace the humanist impulses of their respective faiths and can effectively communicate those impulses back to their communities, is an essential step toward pulling this crisis back from avoidable suffering and toward the possibility of compromise. 
Once this present crisis is reaches a point of resolution—if that is indeed possible—religious actors would be positioned to address longer-term concerns related to the overall Israeli-Palestinian situation. Religious resources, using theopolitical rationale, have greater resources to address imbalances of power and harmful policies, including Israel’s continuous encroachments on occupied territory, replete with direct harm to Palestinians. Not addressing these matter in a way that seeks the best for all Palestinians and Israelis would be an abdication of both political and religious responsibility. 

Rev. Robert O. Smith, PhD, is Director of the Jerusalem Global Gateway of the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013), and editor, with Göran Gunner, of Comprehending Christian Zionism: Perspectives in Comparison (Fortress, 2014). He sometimes thinks about things other than Israel and Palestine.

Media Critique: Identifying Allies for the Fight

 

In response to the recent attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt, several analysts and commentators have offered interpretations of why militant Islamists are so focused on terrorizing Egypt’s Christians. This is an important topic providing one avenue into the broader challenges facing Middle Eastern Christian communities today as they navigate a changing landscape of relations with Muslim neighbors.

Among these many analyses, this piece from Samuel Tadros, titled “Coptic Christians: Islamic State’s ‘Favorite Prey,’” caught my attention. Tadros seeks to argue that the experiences of Jews and Christians in Egypt are similar since the numbers for both communities have diminished over the past decades.

While the claim of diminishing numbers is empirically true, the comparison is virtually meaningless given the wildly different regional dynamics contributing to each community’s decline. There is no mention, for instance, of the Zionist movement’s explicit efforts to bring Mizrachi (Oriental) Jews to the State of Israel. Without recognition of this factor enticing Jews to leave Egypt, readers are left to assume that the two communities have declined for the same reasons.

But the author doesn’t stop there. Through a rather clumsy importing of a German linguistic concept, Tadros hints tellingly at Jewish experience during the Holocaust when he says that “the Northern Sinai is now ‘Christianfrei,’ or free of Christians.” This, one assumes, is Tadros’s real point: Daesh / ISIS is no better than the Nazis; Egyptian Christians (perhaps along with other Christians in the region) are the persecuted Jews facing attempted genocide in 2017.

It is a compelling argument. Given the tremendous suffering endured by many Middle Eastern Christians within the past few years, one can understand its driving emotion. Once persecuted and despised, Jews are now accepted within western society. They are sympathetic characters through whom Coptic concerns can be interpreted. There are, however, implications to this comparison that may lead to non-optimal outcomes.

The first thing to notice is that the comparison, at least in the mind of western Christians, builds a conceptual alliance between Jews and Christians in a shared struggle against Muslims. This feeds into long-standing, destructive trends in western thought. Rather than engaging in the difficult work of inter-communal engagement, such an argument, perhaps blinded by crisis and necessity, opts for unrelenting confrontation.

The call for confrontation between Jews and Christians on one side against Muslims on the other cannot be separated from the contemporary geopolitics of the Middle East. By hinting at the Holocaust (an event of such enormity it can rarely serve well as a mere footnote in an argument), Tadros appears to be calling for some sort of dramatic, external intervention. He is unconvinced that the problem can be solved internally; only conflict prosecuted from outside Egypt can make a difference.

The unspoken thrust of these arguments, most of them unspoken, is that the problem facing Christians and Jews in the Middle East today can be summed up in one word: Islam. By not articulating the distinct causes of Jewish and Christian departure from Egypt in two different eras, the reader is left to assume that bad relations with Muslim neighbors caused each community to flee. Encountering this argument, western readers are more likely than not to by reconfirmed in centuries-held negative beliefs about Islam and the Muslim world.

In the end, Tadros offers an emotional appeal rather than a clear-headed analysis of what ought to be done in the present moment. The horrible incident in Mina deserves mourning, but it must not drive us to despair. Rather than desperately seeking allies for the fight, now is the time to strengthen the voice of moderates among Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, finding a common path forward for the good of all communities in the Middle East.

Rev. Robert O. Smith, PhD, is Director of the Jerusalem Global Gateway of the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013), and editor, with Göran Gunner, of Comprehending Christian Zionism: Perspectives in Comparison (Fortress, 2014). He sometimes thinks about things other than Israel and Palestine.

Marks of the Prophetic

 

I recently delivered this short speech in Geneva, alongside Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann from Rabbis for Human Rights, at a gathering hosted by the World Council of Churches. It sought to bring together reflections on “the prophetic” in the context of awareness-raising and advocacy concerning the situation in Israel and Palestine. 


 

In my home context of mainline, liberal churches in the US, the notion of being “prophetic” has come in for criticism. It has become a cliché among progressive Christians, along with the phrase “speak truth to power.”

Liberal Christians have a tremendous capacity to domesticate radical concepts, conforming them to institutional interests and needs. Prophets, however, are precisely those who refuse to be conformed and domesticated.

We have chosen “prophetic” as a theme for this meeting. I’ll offer some reflections and readings on what could be considered some of the “marks of the prophetic” in terms of ecumenical Christian action in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I’m sure you can offer many other “marks” that can extend this conversation.

 

Speaking Truth to (and about) Power

The popular phrase “speak truth to power” imagines a situation in which some individual or group summons up the courage to tell the truth to those holding power. In church-based conversations, this notion shapes our imagination of advocacy in relation to those holding policymaking power. One of the problems with this image is the assumption that those speaking out are powerless.

But the witness of the prophets does not stop with Nathan, who had direct access to the king and could call him out directly. Instead, the prophets also disrupt the complacency of those who have capitulated to the status quo of existing power structures, either through acceptance of their systemic privilege or those who have internalized their oppression. The prophetic speaks to the power of the people, not just to those in positions identified with power; the message of Jonah was to the entire city of Nineveh, not just to its governor.

The prophets do not just speak to power; they also speak about power. In other words, they incisively analyze present realities. Prophets therefore operate with a “hermeneutic of suspicion” when encountering formal and informal power. Everything is open to question; every relationship with formal power is characterized by critical distance, even (and sometimes especially) when persons in positions of formal power seek to affirm religious impulses. Just as theologians engaging power always risk becoming “court theologians” through the production of “church theology” and “state theology” (terms from Kairos South Africa, 1985), powerful parties are always willing to welcome and cultivate court prophets.

 

Moving beyond Respectability

The prophetic moves beyond the boundaries of respectable society and behavior. All of us engaged in critical analysis around sensitive issues (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is certainly one of those) are familiar with individuals and organizations who busy themselves policing the boundaries of thinkable thought. The prophetic blasts through the boundaries of respectable thought and behavior, calling into question any notion of “common sense.” I’m thinking of Ezekiel lying naked in a pile of ashes. For years. In public.

Thought and dialogue are suppressed when they threaten the interests of the powerful. The prophet, responsive to God’s call alone, pays little heed to the threats emerging from those who imagine they wield earthly power. They therefore cannot be silenced. If they were, Jesus says, “the stones will cry out” (Luke 19.40).

 

Accepting a Life of Exile

This formula of criticizing both leaders and regular people is not a strategy to win friends and influence people. Biblical prophets, even when they were effective, didn’t win popularity contests. The prophet walks a lonely road, a life of displacement and exile.

In living out what has been called the “preferential option for the poor,” prophets privilege and amplify voices not regularly heard. In seeking the word and will of God in unexpected sources—remember Balaam’s donkey (Numbers 22)—the prophet places no limits on God’s agents and risks her own reputation on behalf of vulnerable people. Instead, the prophetic embodies marginality in the midst of the center. We don’t have to go looking for the margins; we only need to listen to the voices who have not often had the chance to speak.

The lonely road of the prophet can result from adopting a “third way” perspective unwilling to accept binary options to problems. In our churches, a simplistic binary is often found in “yes/no” responses to hot-button issues connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

 

Leveling Incisive, Confident, Comprehensive Critique

Informed critique is a central feature of the prophetic. The prophet is one who calls us to account. The prophetic impulse names sin in itself and in others. Prophets address structural, not just individual, sin. The Kairos Palestine document, for instance, names Israeli occupation as a sin against God and humanity.

In relation to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, there are other sins that must be named. Christians in western traditions (that includes some Palestinians, not just western Christians) must confess their churches’ complicity in the Shoah and the anti-Jewish teaching from which that attempted genocide drew its cultural validation. This confession can be supplemented with open confession of centuries of anti-Islamic and, as a result, anti-Arab attitudes.

Anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic traditions in the western churches contribute to ongoing suffering of the three religions and two peoples of Jerusalem. Specifically, the western Christian inability or disinterest in processing our complicity has allowed the occupying power to do as it wishes for the past 50 years. Moreover, in this anniversary year of the Balfour Declaration, those of us from invader countries must recognize that our patterns of land theft and systemic oppressions of indigenous populations have provided the models of settler colonialism adopted by the modern State of Israel. In the western context, therefore, a prophetic perspective reminds us it is not sufficient to criticize Israel alone.

 

Offering a Word of Hope

As I have mentioned, the prophets were not popular people. They were not pleasant to be around. Their critiques are harsh, unrelenting, and sometimes indecent.

But prophetic critique is not prophetic without a word of hope. In the biblical prophets, hope is found in the possibility of reconciliation with God and other human beings. The hope offered is sometimes eschatological, and is certainly in tension with lived experience. Prophetic witness in Israel and Palestine reminds us that hope is no easy thing.

The prophetic message of accusation is also a call to repentance trusting in God’s purpose and grace. The Good News is that repentance is always met with absolution and forgiveness. To mention Jonah again, the steadfastness of God’s grace can sometimes even surprise the prophet. Indeed, the strength of the prophet’s accusations is sustained by confidence in God’s forgiveness. She acts in total freedom, unbound by human concerns.

 

Closing Thoughts

In mainline liberal church circles, encouragement to be “prophetic” seeks to shape how we act and speak, both individually and institutionally. Almost by definition, the prophetic is incompatible with institutions. At the least, we should mention that the prophetic is one function among many. The Bible is made up of many different forms of witness: origin stories, historical chronicles, liturgy, theology and mysticism, community organization and management.

We need to be challenged by the prophets, both in the past and in our midst, and many of us have the capacity to be prophetic. The prophetic should not be suppressed; but it should not be presumed to be the totality of who we are as a holistic community (Romans 12.6). We all have roles to play.

Martin Luther once wrote that the prophets provide the poor and vulnerable with “strong comfort and comforting strength.” One feature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that biblical witness—including the prophets—has been appropriated by colonial and imperial interests. Reclaiming the prophetic—in all its messy, offensive, indecent, and uncomfortable challenge—is a central task, therefore, for the churches today.

Rev. Robert O. Smith, PhD, is Director of the Jerusalem Global Gateway of the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013), and editor, with Göran Gunner, of Comprehending Christian Zionism: Perspectives in Comparison (Fortress, 2014). He sometimes thinks about things other than Israel and Palestine.

Christian Zionism as Christian Extremism

It is a pleasure to be here to discuss Christian extremism. In my home country of the United States, the only extremism openly discussed is associated with Muslims and Islam. Everyone else—especially armed white men shooting Indian engineers in Kansas bars or occupying US Federal facilities—are either mentally ill or defending American ideals. Muslims, however, need to be banned from and potentially removed from the country.

Extremism is a subjective category with no clear definition. The Oxford English Dictionary helpfully defines an “extremist” as “a person who holds extreme political or religious views, especially one who advocates illegal, violent, or other extreme action.” Merriam-Webster is no better, defining “extremism” as “the quality or state of being extreme.” In its special definition of “English Language Learners,” Merriam-Webster says “extremism” is “belief in and support for ideas that are very far from what most people consider correct or reasonable.”

We learn from these definitions the tautology that an extremist is one who is extreme. More specifically, we hear that extremism is associated with radicalism and violence. In other words, designating something as “extremist” is a pejorative way to ensure that some ideas are beyond the pale, outside what “most people consider correct or reasonable.” Any idea outside the norm is potentially extremist. The designation, then, is a way to police the boundaries of thinkable thought while stigmatizing any form of resistance to the presumably legitimate violence of the dominant collective. I wonder, then, how we can talk about extremism if we can’t say objectively what the word even means, much less build a conference theme around it?

In the absence of clarity, I offer this working definition: Extremism is political action devoted solely to the implementation of its ideology rather than to the wellbeing of human communities. Religious extremism, it follows, is when such political action is informed, validated, and sanctioned by religious commitments.

Since it is singularly committed to ideological purity (even if the content of ideology can vary), extremism resists interaction with contrary ideals. The introduction of religious commitments further limits the possibility of reasoned critique. Religious claims resist critique because they draw on proprietary sources of knowledge and truth. Therefore, the most effective critique of a religiously-sanctioned ideology—extremist or not—is from within that religious tradition itself. Any discussion of Christian extremism, therefore, immediately invokes a notion of intra-Christian responsibility. It is much easier to externalize and ridicule than it is to take responsibility. And the first step toward taking responsibility is to seek understanding.

My approach to Christian extremism is intimately bound up with the sweep of my academic project: for close to 20 years I have dwelled on the question of why American Christians act the way we act in relation to Israel and Palestine. This is a self-critical project, because I am one of those American Christians. The ideas informing American relation to this geography—Christian Zionism chief among them—are part of my formative culture. As a result, I seek to understand rather than ridicule or simply dismiss. In this, I hope to challenge the Christian extremism permeating my home country, inflicting violence and pain on much of the rest of the world.

In what follows, I will share some of the results of my research on Christian Zionism and discuss what we can do to challenge its continued primacy in western churches.

Christian Zionism has very little to do with the so-called Rapture Theology of premillennial dispensationalism developed in the late 1800s. It is, instead, the outgrowth of English Protestant biblical interpretation in the 1500s and 1600s, when Protestants faced the dual threats of Roman Catholic and Ottoman imperial power. The resulting anti-Catholic and anti-Islamic theology imagined Jews to be allies in an apocalyptic drama. These ideas bolstered an English Puritan sense of special mission and, thus, superiority. When these ideas were transferred to English colonies in the New World, they soon informed the deepest undercurrents of American identity and mission.

When this tradition of Judeo-centric prophecy interpretation informed political action, the result was Christian Zionism. The first documented example of Christian Zionism is in 1649, when two English subjects living in Amsterdam suggest to English authorities that the English civil wars would end if “this Nation of England, with the Inhabitants of the Netherlands, shall be the first and readiest to transport Izraells Sons & Daughters in their Ships to the land promised to their forefathers.”

Several characteristics of Christian Zionism emerge through historical comparison. First, Christian Zionism constructs Muslims and Jews for its own theological and political purposes. Moreover, its anti-Catholic and anti-Islamic foundations conspire against any relationship between western and eastern Christians, especially those who claim it is possible to live with Muslim neighbors.

Second, Christian Zionism is an imperial theology. In 1649, English and Dutch ships were not being built for pleasure cruises; these were ships of war and commerce, the tools of empire. In the theology of John Hagee today, imperial strength is necessary for preserving the theological fact of the State of Israel which, of course, functions as a satrap (regional governor) for American and European imperial interests in the Middle East. Contemporary Christian Zionists can be understood as court theologians serving the interests of corporate and military masters by providing religious sanction for state violence.

Given the pervasive cultural consensus of Christian Zionism and its underlying theologies, Anglo-American Christians tend to encounter this land as a projection of their own imaginations. The people associated with this land—both Jews and Palestinians—are commonly filtered through a literarily constructed imaginary of Anglo-American biblical interpretation. The end result of this process is the creation of theopolitical systems seeking to implement ideologies grounded, first and foremost, in ethno-religious triumphalism, namely the global hegemony of White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Jews, through an Anglo-American tradition of Judeo-centric prophecy interpretation, are conscripted to play a part in a Christian drama of global redemption. As a result, Christian Zionism works hand-in-hand with white possessive settler colonialism.

If Christian extremism is political action informed, validated, and sanctioned by Christian commitments devoted solely to the pure implementation of its ideology rather than to the wellbeing of human communities, Christian Zionism certainly fits the definition.

There are, however, problems with addressing Christian Zionism through the discourses of extremism. While there is no doubt Christian Zionism, in the Oxford English Dictionary definition of extremism, “advocates illegal, violent, or other extreme action” by both the United States and the State of Israel (especially in validating settler violence), one cannot say, at least regarding the United States, that Christian Zionism is “very far from what most people consider correct or reasonable.”

Christian Zionism, rather, is found at the root of American identity and culture. The resulting cultural consensus helps reinforce western disregard for the wellbeing of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities in what many call the Holy Land. Moreover, the notion of extremism often denotes disorderly, barbarian violence; Christian Zionists, on the other hand, promote theologies as civilized and sophisticated as the structural violence, drones, and cruise missiles of the imperial interests they serve.

When progressive or liberationist Christians describe Christian Zionism as extremist, they risk thinking of the movement as marginal or as somehow illegitimate. This assessment potentially minimizes the ongoing dangers of the movement as well as the sense of Christian responsibility it demands.

The first step for treating an illness is to seek a proper diagnosis, determining the etiology of the disease. What has caused this disease to come into being? If something is wrong, we must first stop merely recoiling from it and condemning it. Simply saying cancer is a horrible, bad thing doesn’t get us anywhere toward treating it. The first step is seeking to understand. In physical illnesses as well as theopolitical maladies, this means diving deep in history and seeking comparative cases. In the midst of a pandemic, medical scientists have two primary tasks: develop an antidote to cure the disease or an inoculation to help prevent infection. In response to the many forms of religious extremism, including Christian Zionism, afflicting our world today, religious communities, including churches, have a responsibility to explore both tracks of action.

So if discussing Christian extremism invokes a notion of intra-Christian responsibility, what shall we do? How can Christian Zionism be effectively challenged as a form of Christian extremism? The panels of the past few days have made it clear that the antidote to extremism is not more extremism—state-sponsored or otherwise. Within each religious community, extremism must instead be counteracted with “robust moderation,” a concept I helped develop with Bishop Munib Younan in his role as President of the Lutheran World Federation. Robust moderation is neither soft nor weak; it isn’t based in simplistic wishes papering over the real challenges and divisions within communities. It instead promotes a vision for living together peaceably, recognizing the legitimacy of difference and seeking the good of the neighbor.

For those of us from countries far away from Nazareth and Zababde, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Netanya and Sderot—but where the Christian extremism of Christian Zionism seeks its own purposes through the violence of empire—our responsibility is not merely to condemn but to shape a different vision seeking not the theopolitical interests of western Christian empire, but the wellbeing of all the peoples of God in Israel and Palestine and around the world.

This is a speech I delivered last night at a conference gathered in Nazareth. It draws from a good deal of practical reflection, as well as my research on Christian Zionism, contained in my book More Desired than our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013). The good response to this presentation indicates yet again that I may need to develop a more accessible (not-a-dissertation) resource on the topic. After I finished the dissertation, graduated with the PhD, and edited the book for publication, I thought I was done with the topic. Evidently not.

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