My trip to Israel this summer brought to light a number of nuances in the question of Israel and her relationships with the Palestinians, the Arab nations, and the West, not least of which is the role of the Church (American and Israeli) in the future of the Middle East. I look forward to sharing some of those issues with you over the next few days.
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Mention Israel to any evangelical American Christian age 50 or older and his or her face will most likely light up at the mention of the Promised Land, the place where Jesus walked and where all the events of the apocalyptic age will play themselves us (and rather conveniently, too; all that fire and brimstone and plagues of blood would make a mess of the retirement home golf course communities).
Mention Israel to any evangelical American Christian age 30 or younger and your are much more likely to get a furrowed brow and a look of unease, if not out right disdain, for the country that has displaced millions of Arabs and refuses to make a just peace.
Somewhere between the Billy Graham generation and Brian McLaren’s acolytes there has been a massive shift in thinking that has moved Israel from most-favored nation status to ambiguously unjust (and probably cruel) in the minds of many American Christians. What was once an easy question to answer (is Israel good?) has recently become much more murky in the minds of the faithful.
The reason for this movement might have less to do with theological deliberation (although the popularity of Reformed theology among a growing number of young men might account for a minority) and more to do with an openness to popular culture influence that never would have been accepted 50 or 60 years ago. While my grandparents tried to raise their children in line with an older Christian social code that was grounded in certain theological commitments, they were living in a time when the conservative branch of the American Church increasingly split itself between fundamentalism and a new evangelicalism. The split can be understood and traced in a variety of ways, however, one telling difference was the attitude of Christians towards their culture.
Although risking painting with too broad a brush, the fundamentalist branch moved towards isolating itself from society while the evangelicals were optimistic that the teachings of Jesus and the Scriptures could be expressed in powerful and relevant ways, ways that might shape and influence American life. Many Christian institutions of higher learning were developed by the evangelicals with a distinctive mission to offer liberal arts education that was fully informed by Christian thought—schools like Wheaton College or Biola University. On the other side, fundamentalists tended to start Bible schools, language institutes, and missionary training programs.
Without dissecting the relative merits and shortcomings of these two branches of American Christianity, it is worthwhile to keep this split in mind while examining America’s relationship with Israel, foreign policy, and our current inability to come anywhere near presenting a coherent front on Middle Eastern politics.
America’s older Christians, and the ones who currently are still holding office in state and national senates, grew up when dispensationalism was THE reigning paradigm in American churches (arguably it still is…just ask Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins) and every churchgoer was convinced that Israel belonged to the Jewish people by divine fiat. The creation and prosperity if Israel seemed to underline this interpretation of biblical prophecy and convinced many that the final days were drawing near; the threat of impending doom for all of Israel’s (and YHWH’s) enemies underlined the wisdom of fostering friendly diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv.
Furthermore, the investment in the development of Bible schools and missionary agencies had the interesting effect of exporting dispensationalism to Israel itself. Many of the evangelical congregations in Israel are heavily dispensational, as are many of the Messianic synagogues, often modifying the American dispensationalism with a strong Jewish nationalism and ethno-religious overtones. While the Christian population in Israel is still a minority, the religiously motivated pro-Israeli religious sentiments added to the Israeli nationalistic fervor and opened many Israelis to American influence in their government.
However, as later generations of evangelical Christians grew up, they were not so heavily influenced by Christian dispensationalism—or at least it was counter-balanced by the generally politically liberal and leftist views being promulgated in popular culture, by rock artists, MTV, and professors who found pupils ready to listen to a narrative detailing the destructive, imperialistic, and selfish practices of America and her closest Middle Eastern ally.
How was it that younger Christians were able to be more heavily influenced by the opinions of those outside their church doors? Again, while risking too large a generalization, one effect of the evangelical view of culture allowed Christians to enter into discussion with those outside the church and even concede that those voices might have something worthwhile (and true) to say to the world. One thing the left has done with marked success is market its political parties, views, and proposed solutions as THE parties, views, and solutions of compassion and justice. Many younger Christians are eager to have compassion and promote justice and have moved towards the political left in an attempt to see these values realized in the world.
The effect of all this is a growing discomfiture among American Christians with Israel, our support of its hawkish policies with regard to the Palestinians, and the way America has involved itself in Middle Eastern politics. Events like the September 11th tragedy help move us closer to Israel in our stand against terror, but as those events fade to a dim memory American sympathies slide towards the underdog and find it increasingly hard to view Israel as an underdog when we receive constant reports of Israeli troops retaliating against terror attacks by destroying the homes of the wives and children of terrorists or supporting settlers who raid nearby Arab villages with the goal only of terrorizing school children and old men and women.
The future of Israel and Palestine (and so the Middle East) remains veiled but what once seemed a certainty (unwavering American support of Israel) now seems a bit more questionable. The day when American involvement in the Middle East mirrors that of most European nations is still a long way off; however, the seeds have been planted that might quite easily produce a harvest radically different from the one envisioned by so many children of the Greatest Generation.