Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Christianity and modern Israel: good and bad theology

This is a follow-up to something I discussed yesterday, namely the reason for the deep-rooted support of Israel in the United States, particularly among Christians, which leads to a rather one-sided approach to the Middle East conflict. In this, it is at odds with the more prudent approach taken by the Vatican.

Yesterday, I noted that aspects of predestination play a role. But, among many, it goes deeper than that, and reflects the influence of dispensationalism in protestant theology. This arises from John Nelson Darby, founder of the Plymouth Brethren, and includes such bizarre beliefs as the rapture (all "believing" Christians will one day disappear into thin air and go to heaven!) prior to the second coming of Christ. Following the rapture, there is the period of tribulation and Armageddon, and which point Christ returns an establishes a 1000 year reign. Or something along those lines. Dispensationalists are also fond of looking to current events to predict these end times. If you think this is a quirky minority view, think again, and look to the 50 million copies of the "Left Behind" series sold. A poll from 2002 suggests that 59 percent of Americans believe these events will take place. It is noteworthy that the followers of Darby gained great influence in the US, but not elsewhere. This has immense implications for middle eastern policy, as one of the signs of Jesus's return is supposed to be when the Jews return to Israel. Hence fundamentalists are the leading supporters of Israel, especially those on the expansionist, Likud, wing. I think this, above all, explains the widespread tilt toward Israel in the United States.

This is bad theology. Good theology, on the other hand, would recognize that the Jewish people were the chosen people, the first to hear the word of God, and denounce all anti-semitism. The Catechism (#839) notes that "the Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God's revelation in the Old Covenant." They are our "elder brothers" as Pope John Paul II noted. But this does not mean we must support Israel, the state, for theological reasons. Nobody has a divine right to a piece of real estate, especially when others must be displaced from that land. But again, this kind of thinking is not alien to American protestants: John Withrop's famous (infamous?) "city on a hill" speech in 1630 laid claim to the territory of New England for the puritans, and claimed a covenant with God. The problem with divine mandates to land is that the existing inhabitants tend to suffer-- just look at what happened to the native Americans.

So, yes, defend the security and welfare of the Israeli people, but do not assume they have the mandate of heaven to live where they do.


panem quotidianum said...

No one has mentioned the very real impact of the crisis in the Middle East on women, children and the elderly (as well the men) who are non-combatants. While politicians, diplomats and bloggers discuss the moral, theological and political outlook, real people are suffering

shadhu said...

The impact is huge, no doubt. The sad thing is that we have so many horrible things going on right now that we are reacting less and less. Anyway, here's a story on the refugee problem stemming from the crisis:

Lebanon battles refugee problem

By Christian Henderson in Beirut

As the Israeli assault on Lebanon intensifies an increasing number of Lebanese from the south of the country and the southern suburbs of Beirut - two areas that have borne the brunt of the bombardment - have sought refuge in the central areas of Beirut.

NGOs and political parties have started a relief effort with the help of volunteers and donations in an attempt to help the refugees, many of whom have abandoned their homes with no money or belongings.

Schools and other public buildings across the country have opened their doors to refugees. There are an estimated 60,000 people seeking refuge in Beirut alone.

Ghassan Makarem, an NGO worker, said: "There's a big group of us co-ordinating relief work, because the government did not think of this. Yesterday we had 40 schools and around 500 persons in each school, but today I think that number has doubled or tripled.

"We were finding them everywhere. There were people hiding in half-built buildings, on the beach, if you go to any space in west Beirut you will see people staying there, sometimes in parking lots."

Those involved with the operation say the Lebanese government has provided little support, and facilities for refugees in Beirut are already overstretched.

"Most of the schools are now full. They are sending them to other areas of Lebanon," said one volunteer, who declined to give his name.

Volunteers said there was space in schools in the north of the country, but there was no transport available to move refugees there.

Many left behind

NGOs expect the number of refugees to rise as the conflict worsens. On Sunday, at least 20 Lebanese were killed in Israeli attacks, including 16 in a strike on Tyre, a large town in the south.

NGOs say the number of refugees
will go up as the conflict worsens

One man staying in a school in Ashrafieh in east Beirut, who had fled his village near Tyre, said most of his family had been unable to leave after the roads were destroyed.

"My wife and two daughters can't get out. My brothers and cousins are also there. In the area where I am from they are bombing heavily and they hit the local hospital," he said.

Although many have fled the south, tens of thousands remain in areas close to the border with Israel.

"Most of the villagers are still there and there are many women and children," the man said.

Another man in the school had fled the southern suburbs of Beirut with his family and said only a handful of people remained in the area that has been bombed heavily for the last three days.

"We ask the West to help us and stop the bombing and let us return to our homes. The women and children are in a state of panic," he said.