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Today I tackle one of the thorniest topics facing America and many Christians today.
First, a Little Throat-Clearing
I’ve usually avoided political topics and current events in this Newsletter and Substack page. There have certainly been exceptions, though most of my comments on these have been reserved for the shorter sections, not the “main material.”
There are two important caveats I want to make about this choice. First, what people would understand to be “political” or “current” is debatable! There’s no clear definition of either term that all parties would agree to.
Second, the reason I have steered away from such topics is not to avoid controversy. What significant issues aren’t prone to controversy, especially in this polarized moment in American life? (I can understand people's desire to avoid controversy in what they write or discuss publicly, but that would eliminate nearly anything of substance for anyone to address!)
The main reason I’ve avoided them is that there is a level of nuance, precision, and understanding that is needed to address issues that are presently unfolding. We’re all tempted to rush to judgment on matters about which our knowledge is incomplete. Political topics are fraught in this way also, though perhaps the larger problem with them is that even if all the pertinent facts and arguments are known, I don’t trust myself to cover them sufficiently and for readers to take the time to work through them. Perhaps that’s cynical, but I suspect it to be somewhat true.
All that being said…let’s talk about Israel.
A Few, Hopefully Uncontroversial Insights
Israel has been a common fixture in American news and politics for over half a century. I dare say that none of my readers would say they haven’t been thinking about modern Israel, ancient Israel, or some combination of both for most of the formative years of their lives.
Since the events of October 7, American news networks has devoted more than a little attention to the unfolding situation—mayhem and all. It’s impossible to avoid the coverage, or at least water cooler conversation.
For many reared in an evangelical church setting, it can feel irresponsible to express ambiguity or uncertainty. Whatever it means to be “pro-Israel,” that’s what we should be. However, we have several critical questions we need to ponder if we’re to be faithful—and if we’re going to be able to answer the two big questions below.
What’s the proper response from Christians? And how does being an American Christian shape that response?
These questions seem to impose themselves upon us, whether we’re asking them because of what politicians are saying, or we’ve recently read Genesis 12:1-3. I recently attended a pastor appreciation event sponsored by a local Christian radio station. One of the major event sponsor-partners was One for Israel. Pastors aren’t the only ones bombarded with messaging about Israel; Christians are met with it in numerous ways, too.
Who is Israel?
This is the proverbial $64,000 question. There are a few ways of posing this question. One could ask, “Who resides within the modern borders of Israel?” However, since there are competing claims to the land dating back centuries, this is far from simple. In fact, the borders question varies depending on what point in the Old Testament is in view.
Is Israel just the Jews who reside within whatever boundaries are in view? We must ask given that that not all Israelis are Jews. A simple religious or ethnic test won’t do. Should we rely upon what the United Nations says? Neighboring nations? The current Prime Minister?
The question is even more challenging when we bring it into a biblical-theological frame. Arguably, the identity of Israel is one of the major themes of Scripture. Romans 9-11 partially address the question, yet they remain some of the most debated chapters in the New Testament. For Paul and others, true and sincere belief is central to the definition. However, if we blur the lines between Israelites (Old Testament) and Israelis (present day) we’re forced to reckon with the number of Israeli Jews who have rejected the Messiah, whether they be devout or secular Jews. Only about two percent of Israelis are Christian.
Now it's still possible that Israel is (1) an actual entity, (2) an enduring group for which God cares, and (3) one which deserves special consideration from Americans and American Christians. However, we need to acknowledge that defining Israel itself is a complex task. Even many Israelis have said as much.
What’s the Rationale for Supporting that Group?
Once one decides what count as Israel—or the various Israels of the past, present, and future—that leads to two other difficult questions: what are they owed and why? Let’s start with the second.
Recall the oft-used term “Zionism.” In essence, it means belief in and support for an Israeli state. Generally, we can say that all who believe that Jews have the right self-determination in their historic homeland are Zionists. In “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem,” Thomas Kidd helpfully summarizes the three strands of Christian Zionism as identified by political scientist Mark Amstutz: prophetic, progressive, and covenantal.
Prophetic Zionism refers to the belief that supporting the modern state of Israel is somehow central to the events associated with the end of time, whether the rise of the Antichrist, Armageddon, and/or Christ’s return. Whether one believes that supporting Israel will hasten these events, or simply place Christians “on the right side of the Lord” with respect to His future intentions for Israel, these views generally fit within the “prophetic” strand.
Progressive Zionism is broader and less theological in nature. It stems from widespread sympathy for Jews in the wake of the Holocaust, but also their centuries-long persecutions and sufferings. Politically then, progressive Zionists see the conduct of nations and foreign policy not only through the lens of national self-interest. They are concerned what they think is right or wrong.
In the case of Israel, it isn’t only in the self-interests of Americans to have an ally in the Middle East. It is right for them to support a Jewish state. As Kidd points out, this approach may be moral in nature, but it isn’t necessarily theological or religious.
Finally, covenantal Zionism is the most robustly theological of the three strands of Zionism. As Kidd explains:
God’s promises to the Jews in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament remain in effect because God’s promises do not change and because the whole Bible (Old and New Testaments) communicates an infallible message that is relevant today. Gentile Christians have been “grafted into” God’s blessings to Israel (Romans 11), but God has not rejected the Jews or revoked his promises to them.
The benefit of setting these three perspectives on the table to compare and evaluate is two-fold. First, it makes clear that people have different ways of arriving at their commitment to Israel. Some people have a fundamental sympathy toward Jewish people. Others have a theological conviction about God’s future for Jewish people and/or the land in which they live. Others simply believe supporting the nation of Israel is in America’s self-interest in terms of alliances. And I suppose one could conceivably subscribe to multiple reasons for supporting Israel.
Second, working through our rationale forces us to evaluate whether we’ve been hijacked by a political propaganda, aberrant theology, or some other deficient basis for how we speak about and respond to the troubles of Israel.
What Could Support Entail?
The first two “big questions” about Israel’s identity and whether to support them obviously hinge upon each other. A final big question constitutes a third link in the chain: what are they owed? Such a question makes a lot of practical sense. It’s one thing to say, “I support person, nation, or entity x.” It’s another to say that support must be y or z.
I’m convinced that two of the most dangerous phrases in the English language are “whatever it takes” and “no matter what. A parent says, “I support my child, whatever it takes.” Whatever it takes? No matter what? Suppose Junior decides to become an axe murderer. Still on board? As I have said repeatedly on this Substack page and elsewhere, we must be precise and clear about what we mean! By support does the parent mean, “I will love my child no matter what”? “Support” is a term we must be very careful with.
Back to Israel. What one thinks about Israel will begin to form some parameters for what supporting them may or may not require.
Those who adopt a more covenantal or prophetic Zionism may use Genesis 12 as a justification for supporting Israel. Even if Israel is bigger than the Jewish people, it exists especially because of Jewish people and history. And since they have Abraham as their most crucial patriarch, Christians and all peoples should take note of the Lord’s promise to bless those who bless Abraham’s descendants, and curse those who curse them.
My question is, “How do Americans—American Christians especially—“bless” a foreign nation? Does this mean finances? Military support? Well wishes? Prayer? Moreover, should our support (“blessings”) be unconditional and unlimited?
I’ve never heard anyone explicitly parse out the questions this way, though I have no doubt that there are wise people who have considered them. I raise them because I think advocates of covenantal or prophetic Zionism ought to help Christians understand what their actual obligations are—and to substantiate those using Scripture and good reason. Sentimental appeals to “standing with God’s people” are insufficient. They have a theological responsibility to explain the many passages which expand the boundaries of the “sons of Abraham” and “Israel” (Rom. 2:28-29; 9:6-8; Gal. 3:28-29). They also need to help Christians understand how they can support modern Israel in the context of countless other spiritual commitments and obligations.
A Few Non-Controversial Suggestions
As for myself, I do have questions about the history and destiny of Israel. There are biblical passages that I’m still mulling over. (Don’t we all?) I’ve been a tentative adherent of amillennialism, which doesn’t entirely jibe with some of the conventional evangelical zealotry for Israel. Yet I have zero problem acknowledging the historic sufferings of Jews, and the importance of America having a democratic ally in a troubled region of the world. I’m also persuaded that a lot of the standard eschatological views which are often pitted against other may not be as incompatible as we’ve sometimes thought. When we meet the Lord, there’s no doubt he’ll scramble many of our categories!
For now, I think two general cautions are in order.
First, clarity and precision are so important. Terms are too easy thrown around. Cliches pervade social media, Bible studies, and pulpits. Can we take a deep breath, do our homework, think, and then speak? Our society often privileges being first instead of being right. This is true not only in journalism, but in interpersonal situations, too. Whether we’re responding to an event, an idea, or policy, we need to learn as much as we can before we express a firm opinion. History, theology, and politics are a potent combination!
Second, even as we pray for our political leaders, we need to be very careful about taking our cues on complicated issues from them. This caution is especially warranted on the “Israel question.”
Besides living through a highly polarized political era, we’re in an election season. A LOT of people are concerned about their political prospects in the next year. They are keenly aware of the calendar, as well as the passions of their constituents. I’m not claiming that everyone is lying about everything. However, we can spot a lot of verbal posturing happens around certain issues. Sometimes the bold stances people appear to be taking aren’t reflective of where they have stood in the past, nor the most fitting stance in the present. We should listen very carefully but do our own homework on the issues at hand.
And by all means, whatever we can do to turn the temperature down in our churches, while turning it up on truth and love, we should do.
I always enjoy Thomas Kidd’s newsletter, which typically deals with various research projects and suggestions for aspiring academics and authors. His latest concerns the importance of knowing the literature of one’s particular field or research project. It’s wisely written, and dovetails with the theme of Ph.D. studies, which was discussed in Newsletter #86.
What I’m Reading (or Rereading):
Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, How to Build a Healthy Church.
James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky, Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality.
Quote of the Week:
The task in any ministry moment is to choose, emphasize, and “unbalance” truth for the sake of relevant application to particular persons and situations. You can’t say everything all at once—and you shouldn’t try. The Bible’s authors minister in this way. They say one relevant thing at a time…You will find it hard to talk with another person about [everything] at once. If you try, you will likely overwhelm your struggling friend with too much truth at one time. You will miss the pertinent need of the moment. Which is most timely to this person in this situation facing these struggles?
David Powlison, How Does Sanctification Work?
Common Grace Wisdom: On Antisemitism and Cultural Decay
Scads of articles have been written since the horrendous attack by Hamas on October 7. While the historical-political issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are beyond my ken, much can be gleaned by looking at the American response to the situation. Bari Weiss and The Free Press continue to provide incredible coverage of this and many other stories from American life, especially ones that mainstream outlets simply refuse to shine a light on.
Weiss recently gave a speech to the Federalist Society, an organization of conservative, Constitutional attorneys. In “You Are the Last Line of Defense,” she offers this concise, wise insight into antisemitism and cultural decay:
“When antisemitism moves from the shameful fringe into the public square, it is not about Jews. It is never about Jews. It is about everyone else. It is about the surrounding society or the culture or the country. It is an early warning system—a sign that the society itself is breaking down. That it is dying.”
On My Mind: Thanksgiving
Most certainly, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Food. Football. Family. Need I say more? I hope everyone has a terrific week next week!