Christian Realism and Christian Zionism.
By Paul Merkley.
Back in the early 1940s, when the World Zionist Organization as was seeking credible Christian support for the cause of creating a Jewish State, they settled upon Reinhold Niebuhr, the principal spokesman for the Christian Council for Palestine, and later for the American Christian Palestine Committee.
There was great advantage for the Zionist cause in the fact that, in a time when theology still played a modest (although clearly failing) part in academic discussion, Niebuhr was the only American theologian who was widely read throughout the English-speaking world. He commanded a large audience not only of Christians but also of secular intellectuals.
Niebuhr was the acknowledged leading light of Christian Realism- the movement that emerged slowly and painfully out of resistance to the appeasement which took hold of all the journals of Christian opinion in the late 1930s. By 1945, he was widely recognized, inside church ranks and even more outside church ranks, as an exceptionally realistic commentator on world affairs.
Niebuhr’s prominence in the Christian pro-Zionist camp does not mark him as a Christian Zionist however. A Christian Zionist is one who believes that his support of the people of Israel in their ongoing struggles traces follows from a claim put upon himself by Biblical prophecy. To Niebuhr, the notion of predictive prophecy was all superstition, and accordingly he had no patience for the idea that working for the Restoration of the Jews was a task commanded by Scripture. This attitude was consistent with his theology: when it came to matters of the Creed, in typically liberal fashion, he swept away the miracles, the raising from the dead, and the life everlasting. He shared this mindset with all but perhaps one or two of the leaders of the Christian Council for Palestine and American Christian Palestine Committee.
There were two strings to the Liberal-Christian Pro-Zionist Christian argument for Partition of the Mandate and support for the State of Israel.
The first string was that it was a requirement of justice in light of the perilous state in which the Hitler war had left the Jewish people. Appearing before the body which the UN had appointed to consider the case for Partition, Niebuhr said “The Jews have a right to a homeland. They are a nation, scattered among the nations of the world. They have no place where they are not exposed to the perils of minority status.” As for the complaint that this solution would work some injustice for the Arabs of the region, Niebuhr said: “The Arabs have a vast hinterland in the Middle East, and the fact that the Jews have nowhere to go, establishes the relative justice of their claims and their cause…. Arab sovereignty over a portion of a debated territory must undoubtedly be sacrificed for the sake of establishing a world homeland for the Jews.”
The second string to the Liberal argument was that the Jewish people would establish in the Middle East a bridgehead for the values of European civilization, beginning a process of rolling back what Niebuhr described as the “feudal realities” left by centuries of Islam.
This second argument does not resonate favorably in liberal circles today. The moment of Israel’s creation, however, belongs to the hour when Western intellectuals were reviewing the strengths of our Christian civilization in the light of the recent escape from Nazism and the prospect of a long struggle against the Soviet Communist Empire.
Before another generation had gone by, academics and elites of opinion had got themselves persuaded that the first duty of the inquiring mind is to despise what one belongs to: it was becoming impossible in academic circles to say a kind word for “civilization” and downright heresy to say a kind word for the Christian legacy. At the end of this process, the intellectual consensus was that the democratic State of Israel was an engine of imperialism, the oppressor of Third World peoples, the proxy of the bloody Crusaders.
Reinhold Niebuhr stood out among his generation of Christian intellectuals because he was such a discriminating critic of the thoughtless generalities that were current among his Christian academic contemporaries. Since the bottom line to these generalities was reckoned as “liberalism,” a new word had to be invented to catch what distinguished him from the others. The word “Neo-Orthodox” was recruited.
This word is quite misleading, however. Niebuhr’s own theology was far from orthodox. He recited the Apostles Creed every Sunday along with everyone else, but in private conversation he confessed that he had no commitment to the reality of the Deity of Jesus or the Resurrection from the dead. With reference to our interests here: he refused to acknowledge any predictive character in any part of the Bible – including the Major and Minor Prophets. Thus, Niebuhr refused to credit any argument made in favour of the Zionist cause that was built upon confidence in the predictive capacity of Scripture.
During the years leading to the Partition Debate, Niebuhr did everything he could to avoid being associated with people who called themselves Christian Zionists. The arguments that he made in those days in support of the Partition and the creation of the State were both idealistic and realistic – never theological.
At the same time, however, Niebuhr never lost his commitment to defense of Israel, and partly for that reason became alienated from the main body of liberal Christians who shifted to the anti-Israel camp in the wake of the 1967 War and who effectively eased him out of the pages of the liberal Christian journals of opinion – including the journal which he himself had founded, Christianity and Crisis.
Never in WCC documents today do we find the least hint that Israel came into existence in response to the decision of the world’s parliament, taken on November 29, 1947, and that, therefore, the dilemma of the other side follows from its steadfast and illegal rejection of the legitimacy of this decision. Ecumenical Christian organizations became steadily less enthusiastic about “legitimacy” and increasingly infatuated throughout the 1960s with “Liberation theology.” Today, WCC documents ring with denunciations of “colonialism,” “cultural imperialism” and “oppression.”
Somewhere along this line the anti-Zionists gave up their interest in realism. Back at the time of the Partition of Palestine debate, it was “realistic” to expect that Arab people would soon embrace the promises of democracy, self-government and liberalism, and, as they did so, would accept a Jewish State as a partner in this same struggle. Meanwhile, seventy odd years have gone by since the Arab nations were set free of European empires. Likewise been-and-gone was the Arab Spring – and there is less democracy, not more in the Arab world. The day of Arab acceptance of Jews as neighbours in the Middle East is likewise postponed until the Greek kalends.
As Israel overcame the challenge to her right to life a new image of the Jews emerged. As the Israelis drove back their enemies and improved their boundaries, the plight of Arab refugees from Palestine now seemed to many people to be the pre-eminent issue in the Middle East. After the 1967 war, the anti-Zionists signed on to the left-wing bandwagon dedicated to rolling-back civilization, at home and abroad. From that moment on, Israel has had to deal with the handicap that accompanies heroic success. There were many whose sympathetic imagination could not comprehend the idea of the triumphant Jew. Old habits of mind returned: resentment began to intrude into many hearts where condescension had reigned before. In this new world — where “Israel” was not a thing of the past or a thing of the future or a “metaphor” for all kinds of things, but a living, breathing State — anti-Semitism took on new life as neo-anti-Zionism.
World Council of Churches documents of at least forty years’ standing have denounced Christians who are active in organizations that befriend Israel, stigmatizing them as mindless tools of Israeli politicians, simple people, unfamiliar with the “realities on the ground”, whose vision is beclouded by “Fundamentalist” teaching taking the “heretical” form of “dispensationalist millennialism.” In WCC literature the very term “Christian Zionist” is treated as a contemptible oxymoron: Christian Zionists are, in fact, a callous, cynical, xenophobic, political lobby, controlled by a coterie of pretended Christians who are in reality instruments of right-wing Israeli politicians.
The Christian and secular adversaries of Christian Zionism are committed to repression of historical reality. They have forgotten, if they ever knew, the story of the creation of the present State of Israel –all the desperation of the Jewish people and the urgency of putting a State in place in British Palestine; the iron-clad promises that had been made by the League of Nations and all the major powers of the time; the solid agreement of the major superpowers. Anti-Zionists ask: Did Israel really come into existence by the front door? Does Israel exist? Is it “legitimate.” Anti-Zionists draw upon all the anti-historical fantasies that are undermining the prestige of historical fact.
Christian Zionists, by contrast, are realists: they begin with acknowledgement of what is manifest in present reality and they appeal to the historical record. They point to the irreversible character of the decisions which brought modern Israel into place – irreversible, that is, unless by the deliberate submission of civilization to anarchy.