What is it ? Where is it going ? There are no easy or quick answers. Christian Zionism claims to love Jews while vilifying them and it bears ideological resemblance to the most virulently racist tendency in Christianity. Yet it is ethnically inclusive. At every turn the movement seems cloaked in paradox.
In previous installments of our ongoing series my colleague Rachel Tabachnick and I have explored anti-Semitic undercurrents of Christian Zionism. Reluctance of politicians and mainstream media, both in the US and Israel, to recognize evangelical distribution of anti-Jewish propaganda on a worldwide and industrial scale that professed anti-Semites could only dream of is to some extent understandable given that the very Christian Zionists doing so can be found at their boisterous pro-Israel rallies singing Jewish folk songs.
But the line between love and hate can be thin, and few apologists for this ostensibly philo-Semitic and pro-Israel tendency appear fully aware of its historical lineage or potential volatility.
Lost Tribes of Israel
Contemporary Christian Zionism is a complex hybrid of philo-Semitic Protestantism; British Israelism (or Anglo-Israelism), whose adherents believe they are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel while vilifying contemporary Jews; and Christian Identity, which teaches that members of non-white races have no souls and that Jews are the literal offspring of Satan.
Some contemporary incarnations of Christian Zionism lie within the British Israelism tendency or appear to be moving towards it. Some Christian Zionist leaders, such as John Hagee, display a level of theological vilification of liberal Jews not too far removed from that found in Christian Identity.
Still, an obvious firewall prevents contemporary Christian Zionism from sliding towards Christian Identity. As on display at John Hagee’s heavily Hispanic San Antonio, Texas Cornerstone Church, the tendency is for the most part racially and ethnically inclusive, sometimes even militantly so. It’s a successful evolutionary adaptation which has facilitated global export and now, on all continents but Antarctica, Christian Zionists can be found performing ceremonies wearing tallitot, blowing shofars, and doing the same “Davidic” dances.
And yet, as stories in this series have detailed, Christian Zionists spread anti-Jewish memes, stereotypes, and conspiracy theory; attack Rabbinic Judaism; characterize Jews as having supernatural power over the fate of peoples, cities, and entire nations; rewrite the history of the Holocaust to portray liberals, homosexuals, and even Jews as the perpetrators; accuse international Jewish banking concerns of conspiring to rule the world, and generally vilify both liberal Jews and also the humanist tradition that has historically characterized Jewish culture.
Such narratives mirror those of the racist Christian right. In her 2003 book Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, author Jessica Stern described the objectives of the heavily armed Christian Identity cult The Cross The Sword and The Arm of The Lord that, in contrast to the later Waco, Texas fiasco was in 1985 peacefully disarmed by state and federal law-enforcement agents:
“The cult hoped to hasten the return of the Messiah by “carrying out God’s judgments” against unrepentant sinners. They believed that communists, humanists, socialists, and Zionists had taken over the U.S. government. They knew for a fact that Jews, Satan’s direct descendants, were working closely with the Antichrist, whose forces included the United Nations, the IMF, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Illuminati, and the “One-Worlders.” They had discovered, through their intelligence channels, that the aim of this cabal was to create a world government…”
It was a conspiracy narrative that could have been lifted almost word-for-word from one of John Hagee’s books from the late 1990’s, or from sermons and writing from other leading Christian Zionists. Still, whereas Christian Identity demonizes Jews, Christian Zionism overtly celebrates and is indeed rapidly appropriating Jewish ethnic identity - to a degree not generally understood
For many years, Christians United For Israel founder John Hagee has delivered sermons to his San Antonio megachurch flock while wearing a tallit and seated on a blue and white throne (representing the colors of the Israeli flag.) Hagee’s church is divided into 12 administrative units named after the Twelve Tribes of Israel. As the the husband-and-wife leaders of the Cornerstone Church’s “Tribe of Ephraim” declared(featured in 2005 on the John Hagee Ministries web site), “Karen and I know that the Government of 12 is God’s plan and we are blessed and honored to lead the Tribe of Ephraim. It is exciting to be a part of what God is doing on the earth – building His church and producing fruit. After all Ephraim means “fruitful”.”
Hagee’s ministry also retails a line of Judaica, and an advertisement for tallitot in Hagee’s Cornerstone Church magazine suggests the prayer shawls function as magical talismans which can confer special powers:
“The Mystery of the Prayer Shawl
The tallit or prayer shawl, designed by God, has been worn by devout Jews for centuries. Its legacy is woven throughout the Old and New Testaments. It still carries the power to energize your prayer life. Pastor Hagee gives you the keys from the Word of God to unleash this power in your own life.”
While John Hagee does not himself proclaim Jewish identity, his friend Kenneth Copeland does.
In the summer of 2006, I attended the Christians United For Israel Washington DC summit. Giving the benediction at the capstone event for the summit, the Night To Honor Israel, was wealthy television evangelist Copeland who serves, along with his wife Gloria, as a Christians United For Israel co-director for the state of Texas.
On January 23, 2008, Copeland declared before his church members, to cackles and applause, “I’m rich !…. I’m the seed of Abraham ! The seed of Abraham are known for being rich. I’m a Jew ! I am a rich Jew backed by a richer Jew !” Copeland’s demeanor suggested the truism that imitation is not always the most sincere form of flattery.
Other Christian Zionists are still more explicit. Angus and Batya Wootten are founders of the Messianic Israel Alliance which has courted members of the Likud Party such as Sagiv Asulin. The Woottens represent a faction of “Hebrew Christians” who claim to be descended from the tribe of Ephraim, assert land rights within Israel, and believe that Biblical prophecy mandates Israel’s territorial expansion, to a vast swath that would stretch from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates.
As Angus Wootten describes the MIA’s correspondence with Likud’s Asulin, “Sagiv is speaking for a new generation of Jews, who no longer define friends and enemies on theological lines. They see their enemies as those that are trying to destroy them, and their friends are those that are trying to help them. They are looking to “Bnei Efraim” (B’nai Ephraim, or Sons of Ephraim) as Sagiv calls us, for the numbers to enable the people of Israel to possess the land.”
Better Zionists Than You
While the MIA represents only a small minority of the Christian Zionist tendency, its theology suggests the wider tradition might be evolving towards more aggressive Christian assumption of Jewish identity. This is not new. As quoted by Yaakov Ariel, at the 1991 International Christian Embassy Feast of the Tabernacles event, founder of the ICEJ Jan Willem Van Der Hoeven told Jews in the audience, “We are better Zionists than you.”
One of the key doctrinal points separating British Israelism from Christian Identity is this: while the former allows that, along with Christians, Jews are also descendants of the Tribes of Israel, the latter excludes Jews, branding them as evil impostors. The hateful stance does theological work very similar to the Supercessionary position traditionally held within Christianity, that the Christian church supersedes and replaces Rabbinic Judaism, and, additionally, it addresses an issue that has long vexed the Christian faith.
Christianity is haunted by the fact that Jesus was Jewish, as was much of the membership of the early Christian church. While Catholicism as a tradition has not emphasized the Jewish ethnic identity of the early church, Christians within philo-Semitic but also anti-Semitic strains of Protestantism are drawn to take on Jewish ethnic identity as a way of returning to the original, supposedly authentic version of the faith.
Broadly speaking, the Protestant tradition was originally restorationist in the sense that it sought to purify the church, to return it to an earlier and supposedly more authentic form. Along with his 1517 Ninety Five Theses that condemned what Martin Luther viewed as corrupt Catholic Church practices such as the sale of ‘indulgences,’ Luther also translated the Bible from Latin into German and taught that it was the sole source of divinely revealed knowledge. The revolutionary idea that anyone who could read might also therefore be able to interpret scripture had major theological consequences.
One of the notable outcomes was an explosive growth of Protestant millenarian sects including the Puritans, whose reading of the controversial Book of Revelation led them to believe they needed to purify the church and bring about the kingdom of Christ on Earth. Beyond signifying that project Restorationism, as a term, carries another meaning. Puritan reading of Revelation told them that the Jews must return to Palestine and convert to Christianity, for only then would Jesus Christ return.
The Puritans also came to identify, deeply, with the struggles of the ancient Hebrews described in the Old Testament, to the point that they came to regard themselves as modern day, perhaps superior Israelites, whose actions could bring about a new Jerusalem on Earth. America would be a new Zion, and a new Jerusalem. It was a utopian millenarian outlook that came to characterize evolving American civil religion.
Centuries have since passed but those three themes - the identification with Jewish identity, the eschatological imperative of returning Jews to Israel and converting them to Christianity, and the goal of establishing a purified Christian millennial kingdom on Earth, are once again coming to the fore.
Christian Zionism has often been characterized as mainly hewing to the Premillennial Dispensationalist theological scheme developed in the early 19th century by John Nelson Darby, which posits the future establishment of two millennial kingdoms: one, Christian, in heaven and another, Jewish, on earth. But in truth the movement is a hybrid.
An earlier theological scheme, running from Puritanism up through British Israelism and Christian Identity and into some strands of contemporary Christian Zionism as well, envisions human agency as carrying out prophecy to bring about a millennial kingdom on Earth, not in Heaven.
In the spirit of looking back to look forward, consider:
Following the downfall of Oliver Cromwell’s short-lived regime during the mid-17th century, many Puritans fled religious persecution in England to establish a radically sectarian and intolerant form of Christian theocracy in the New World. In 1647, Jesuits were banned from the Massachusetts Bay Colony on pain of death. Baptists and Quakers were beaten and hounded from the colony. Native Americans often fared worse. In the Puritan vision for a new Zion there was little room for racial, cultural, or theological difference.
Contemporary Christian Zionism looks very different from Puritanism but shares a core doctrinal element - Christian supremacy. In the July/August 2004 edition of John Hagee’s Cornerstone Ministries church magazine, the globally influential pastor declared,
“Today the Church of Jesus Christ is in a culture war for the soul of this nation. It is a war of light vs. darkness, of Christ vs. antichrist, the Word of God vs. secular humanism. There will be a winner and a loser! To the winner go our children and our grandchildren. There is no compromise with the enemy. There is no neutrality in this war!…”
This rising tendency on the Christian right, which aspires to Jewish identity and seems to seek to transcend its former ethnic and racial bigotries and establish a global presence, may be outstripping awareness of those outside the movement. What does that mean ?
The historical record is only a distant mirror. But what if Christian Zionists, claiming Jewish identity, decide they are the true Jews and ethnic Jews are malevolent imposters ? Christian Identity, as a movement, barely rose above fringe status. But Christian Zionism is an international movement embraced by tens of millions at least and which, as this series has documented, attacks both Jews and Judaism.
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