Commentary

Christian Zionism in the end is neither

In 2009 the ELCA Conference of Bishops will be touring Israel with Bishop
Mark Hanson as part of the ELCA’s “Strategy for Engagement of Israel and
Palestine.” In preparation for that tour, Robert O. Smith, director of the
Europe/Middle East Continental Desk for ELCA Global Mission, spoke to the
group in March on the topic of “Christian Zionism.” Such a conversation was
occasioned by — and needed because — the topic of “Christian Zionism”
continues to be embraced in many corners of Christendom, not least in parts
of the ELCA. So what is it and why is it controversial?

Some Christians, primarily of a conservative/fundamentalist strain, Lutheran
or otherwise, are attracted to the land of Israel (Jerusalem/Zion) as part of a
theology involving “dispensational premillennialism.” This particular kind of
rapture/end-time/apocalyptic thinking draws on certain prophetic texts of
the Bible and envisions the return of Jews to Zion as a prelude for the Second
Coming of Jesus.

For these Christians, Jewish people and the land of Israel are instrumental in
God’s plan for wrapping up history; of course, both Jews — who don’t confess
Jesus as Messiah — and Israel — the land that will belong to Christians after
God forecloses on the Jewish mortgage — are pawns that will be sacrificed
during the battle of Armageddon, a battle handing over eternity to (Christian)
believers.

Although mainline Christian theology has never affirmed such an instrumental
view of Jerusalem/Zion, only quite recently has the Church addressed
supercessionism (the Church replacing Judaism in God’s scheme of salvation)
in its teaching and preaching. Thankfully the ELCA is now encouraging its
members to affirm God’s ongoing covenant with Jews and Judaism, as
certainly as it confesses that God’s faithfulness is revealed in His covenant in
and through Jesus Christ. That also means that Lutheran Christians should
understand and recognize the importance of Jerusalem/Zion for Jews.

The relationship of Christians to the Land of Israel, especially Jerusalem/Zion,
resembles the relationship Christians have had with Jews, a relationship that
could be characterized throughout history with both words “love and hate.”
Sharing similar patrimony and scripture, these two traditions (Christianity and
Judaism) have struggled for nearly 2,000 years, each claiming to be the true
heir of (Second Temple) Judaism.

The diasporic (dispersed) shape of Judaism since 70 C.E. has been, in part,
responsible for its persistent vulnerability and its perennial desire for a
physical homeland. Modern Zionism, beginning as a late 19th-century
movement, has been an attempt to secure a place for Jews in a world that
fluctuates regularly between open hostility and genuine affir- mation.

Theodor Herzl, in 1896, wrote The Jewish State, and gathered 250 delegates
in Basil, Switzerland, in 1897 for the first of many Zionist Conferences to
discuss and promote such a homeland for Jews. Although Jews around the
world are quite diverse in their views about Zionism, there is considerable
agreement that some kind of homeland, embodying tradition and security, is
a reasonable, if not necessary, goal.

“Christian Zionism is neither” . . . because being Christian ought to mean
affirming Jews (whose tradition is the root out of which the Church has come)
as partners in covenant, not simply as fodder for God’s apocalyptic cannon;
and because respecting Zionism ought to mean affirming Jerusalem/Zion as
Israel does, having intrinsic value, not simply as the battleground to be
scorched and wasted for some ultimate “Christian” victory. Christian Zionism
is neither Christian nor Zionist. It is sheer biblical distortion, even human
arrogance, which creates such an instrumental view of God’s beloved people
and promised land.

Two excellent resources for further understanding of Jews, Judaism, Israel,
and Zionism are Christians and a Land Called Holy (Charles P. Lutz and Robert
O. Smith, Fortress Press, 2006), and Covenantal Conversations: Christians in
Dialogue with Jews & Judaism (edited by Darrell Jodock, Fortress Press, 2008).

An excellent educational opportunity for clergy and laity relating to the topics
of Jews, Judaism, the Land and the Church is being offered on May 15, 2008,
at Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church, Minneapolis. The seminar that morning will be
discussing the recently published book, Covenantal Conversations: Christians
in Dialogue with Jews & Judaism, with some of the authors making
presentations. Information or registration can be obtained by calling:
507/933-7001.

John W. Matthews is senior pastor of Grace Lutheran Church of Apple Valley,
Minnesota. He served from 1990-2000 on the ELCA Consultative Panel for
Lutheran-Jewish Relations, chairs the Region III Task Force for Jewish-
Christian Relations, and is on the Advisory Committee for the Jay Phillips
Center for Jewish-Christian Learning at the University of St. Thomas.