Amid the bad news in 2016, 2 miracles for Israel
The Christian world has a sometimes contradictory relationship with Israel and the Jewish people. For all the problems of 2016, there were some truly positive developments including a potentially landmark book on Christians and Jews
It’s become axiomatic that 2016 was a bad year, but the way I see it, 2016 was a year of miracles, two in particular.
The first miracle was that the American publishing house InterVarsity Press, and its England-based affiliate which goes by almost the same name — Inter-Varsity Press — stopped publishing the books of Rev. Dr. Stephen Sizer, an Anglican Priest who made a career of attacking Israel and its Christian supporters.
Sizer’s animus toward Israel stoked controversy after he posted a link on Facebook to an article that promoted the notion that Israel's intelligence agency, the Mossad, was responsible for the attack against the United States that took place on Sept. 11, 2001 and resulted in the deaths of approximately 3,000 people.
He later said he didn’t think there was any link between Israel and 9/11, but the denial was not very credible. It wasn’t the first time Sizer had suggested Israel was responsible for the 9/11 attack. He had done the same thing with a footnote in one of his books published a few years before.
To make matters worse, Sizer had previously gone to a Holocaust-denial conference that took place in Iran where he denounced Christians who supported Israel.
He also appeared on Iran’s PressTV and stated that because of their misdeeds, Jews might be thrust forth from the Holy Land. With rhetoric like this, Sizer, like a lot of other Christian commentators, was helping to pave the way for jihad against the Jewish state – all in the name of peace and reconciliation.
Eventually, his rhetoric caught up with him and the bishop who oversaw his work in England told him to stop talking altogether about the Arab-Israeli conflict or face losing his job. Soon, that threat will be irrelevant, as Sizer is scheduled to step down as vicar in April.
It took a while, but in 2016, the two publishing houses that make up the IVP conglomerate stopped publishing Sizer’s two books, both of which condemned Christian Zionism as a misreading of the Bible. Sizer also argued that Christian Zionism undermined the ability of Christianity to come to some sort of rapprochement with Muslims in the Middle East.
As a commentator, Sizer simply would not come to grips with the issue of Islamic supremacism and its impact on human rights and the prospects for peace in the Middle East. It was a fatal flaw in his work, a flaw that is present in the writings of a lot of so-called peacemakers in the Christian world.
The IVP publishing houses did not come right out and say it, but it seems reasonable to conclude that the controversy surrounding Sizer’s comments about Israel played a role in their decision to remainder his books.
There is a certain tragedy about Sizer’s anti-Zionism and its impact on his ministry. When he wasn’t demonizing Israel and its supporters in places like Jakarta, the West Bank and Iran, he exuded an air of graciousness and kindness.
If you hadn’t read Sizer’s books and were unfamiliar with his public pronouncements about Israel and Christian Zionism, he could pass as a kindly country vicar straight out of a BBC crime procedural. But once readers familiarized themselves with the things Rev. Dr. Sizer said and wrote about Israel, they could see the dangers of combining churchly piety with contempt toward collective expressions of Jewish identity, which is at the heart of Christian anti-Zionism.
IVP’s wings in the U.S. and England did the right thing by remaindering his books, and it was a miraculous decision, but there is still an air of tragedy about it all. If Sizer hadn’t run afoul of the currents of anti-Zionism and anti-Judaism that sadly enough, are all too prevalent in the Christian world, he would have been a credible proponent of the Christian faith.
Sadly, with his virulent anti-Zionism, Sizer brought shame onto the Anglican communion and the wider church community.
Hopefully, some of the damage will be undone by another miraculous decision by the IVP conglomerate. IVP Academic, an imprint of the American-based InterVarsity Press has published, amazingly enough, a robust defense of Christian Zionism that is marked by a seriousness, scholasticism, prudence and graciousness that is badly needed in the discussion about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The book, The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land, was edited by Rev. Gerald R. McDermott, Ph.D. who serves as Anglican Chair of Divinity, History, and Doctrine at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.
The book, which includes essays by Darrell Bock, Mark Tooley and Robert Nicholson, deals with the scriptural, theological, legal and political issues related to Christianity’s attitude toward the Jewish people and their homeland.
The main thrust of the text is that responsible, thoughtful Christians can support the Jewish state without resorting to premillenial dispensationalism or the belief that Israel plays a role in the End Times. “The authors of this book reject those dispensationalist approaches that they can plot the sequence of chronology of end-time events,” McDermott writes in the introduction that These events “are in God’s secret providence.”
Another important argument put forth in the text is that in McDermott’s words, “Christian Zionism goes back two thousand years to the New Testament, and has been sustained with varying intensity ever since.” McDermott also writes that for most of this time, Christian Zionism “had nothing to do with dispensationalism.”
Underlying McDermott’s theological reasoning is an assumption that God moves from the particular to the universal in His effort to bring about the salvation of humanity and that “sacred history is not over.”
This is a pretty ambitious and counter-cultural argument to be making in an era which R.R. Reno from First Things recently described as suffering from a lack of enchantment that promotes a sense of homelessness in American society. I think Reno has it right and it is this sense of homelessness that makes the very notion of a sovereign Jewish homeland so offensive to a lot of people these days.
My guess is that people are hungry for a sense of belonging, a sense of home, but are unwilling to make commitments about the ultimate meaning and purpose of their lives.
People who are unwilling to make these commitments get pretty angry at — and envious of — folks, Jews especially, who have the sense of grounding that they lack. The relationship between the Jewish people and the modern state of Israel gives these folks a glimpse of home and connectedness that they cannot enjoy and it enrages them.
To demonstrate that the continued existence of the Jewish people and the establishment of a Jewish state in the modern era is not a violation of the Christian nomos (as suggested by innumerable Christian scholars), The New Christian Zionism includes chapters on Zionism in the gospel of Matthew, Luke-Acts, and in the Pauline literature — all of which contradict the notion that the New Testament erases the Jewish people from God’s plan for humanity.
The book also draws attention to the realism that Reinhold Niebuhr invoked to justify his support for Israel’s creation. It does this in a chapter on theology and politics written by Robert Benne who reports that Niebuhr was honest enough to accept that the Arabs in the Middle East would object to Israel’s creation.
Benne reports that Niebuhr also concluded that “in spite of [the] continuing Arab refusal to come to terms with Israel,” he “thought that the violation of some of the ‘natural rights’ of the Arabs were rightly overridden by the unique claims of the need for a Jewish homeland. The world will simply have to live with some of the intractabilities of this ongoing situation.” Benne has done his readers a great favor by retrieving these arguments from the historical record.
Benne argues that Niebuhr, who was always a bit ambivalent about justifying Israel’s existence on theological terms, might have overcome his ambivalence if he had been exposed to the essays elsewhere in the book that argue that “the covenant with Israel continues, and that it involves the land, not only attested to by the Old Testament prophets but also among New Testament writers.”
In light of these arguments, offering a theological justification “would not have been a difficult step for [Niebuhr],” Benne writes.
The publication of this book may prove to be a watershed event in the ongoing debate about how Christians should respond to the continued existence of the Jewish people and the establishment of their state in 1948.
May it be so.
Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. His opinions are his own
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