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Friends Like These...?
Robert M. Price
The attacks by Jihadist terrorists on September 11, 2001, made, or should have made, various things much clearer, though some seem determined to ignore, yet again, the lessons of a history much too eager to repeat itself. In its own way just as astonishing and even bloodcurdling as the airplane attacks was the aftermath of European anti-Semitism. Suddenly many of us understood how right Jews had been to continually "harp" on the Holocaust. It became plain that the defiant cry of "Never Again!" was an agenda, not a belief. And it is an agenda not only for Jews. Looking back on the brewing horror of the Holocaust, many Christians are stricken with loathing at their coreligionists of the time who passively stood aside to let the Jewish sheep and their Nazi butchers pass on the way to the slaughterhouse. In retrospect it seems clear that any Christian who did not, like Corrie ten Boom, cast his or her lot with Jews had by default cast it with their murderers. Not to decide was to decide, and compliant Christians had taken the very Mark of the Beast by their damning, complacent silence. Many American Christian witnesses of today's terrible events, both in Europe and in the bullet-eroded Holy Land, do not want to stand by and lose their souls today. They want to act. They want to get their American government to act on their behalf, in turn, on behalf of the beleaguered State of Israel. Foremost among these vocal Christian supporters of Jews and Israel are Protestant fundamentalists of the stripe of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, people not hitherto known for any great love of Judaism. But, many American Jews are asking themselves, "With such friends, who needs enemies?"
It is naturally very hard for Jews to see past the terrible Christian record of persecution and, more recently, of obnoxious proselytizing and of phony dialogue used as an excuse for proselytizing. Suddenly many of the very same figures who not long ago called publicly and nationally for efforts to convert American Jews to Christianity now stand with Israel against PLO terror and the Jew-hating vitriol of decadent Europe. Why? What accounts for such an about-face, if it is one? And can these people be trusted?
Jewish Gentiles, Horned Christians
Briefly, there has been no about-face, nor even any inconsistency. And yes, they can be trusted. Dogma, not just sentiment, binds American Christian fundamentalists to the cause of Jews and Israel. To understand why this is so, we must first see what dogma led to historic Christian opposition of Christians to Jews and to Israel. Both Catholics and Calvinists, together with all other Protestant movements of the sixteenth century, have believed that the Bible taught (i.e., was written by people who believed) that Christians had supplanted Jews as the chosen people of God. To retain their election, Jews must needs embrace Jesus of Nazareth as their messiah king. This they failed to do, but those who did accept him, some few Jews and mostly Gentiles, inherited the mantle of God's chosen. From that time on, Christians counted as the New Israel or the True Israel. Jews, on the other hand, slipped ironically into the category of Gentiles, "unsaved" outsiders who needed to become "proselytes" in order to be saved.
This understanding, insulting enough to Jews, needs to be distinguished from that popular (and with some churches, official) anti-Semitic doctrine that scapegoats Jews collectively as "Christ-killers." Basically, it seems to me, this is an extension of the so-called Deuteronomic or Prophetic philosophy of history from a Christian viewpoint: when God's people backslide, he visits judgments upon them as a "wake-up call" to repent. This is the great lesson of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Thus, Christians reasoned, the rejection of the messiah Jesus led to geographic displacement, bloody persecution, etc., in precisely the same way that the failure to live up to the Deuteronomic reform of Josiah led providentially to the Babylonian conquest in 586 BCE. Three things are wrong with this piece of theology.
First, while such judgments may have been appropriate within Judaism, as when the Exilarchs sitting in Babylon pondered what they were doing there and decided their nation was being punished, it seems presumptuous for outsiders, Christians, to render such a judgment on others, Jews. Talk about Job's comforters! I can only try to evaluate my own conscience; I can never pretend to know yours.
Second, the doctrine presupposes that Jews have not merely forfeited their onetime status as God's elect people. It further implies what Christian theology has no category to say: that Jews have become the reprobate people of God. That is, God is still preoccupied with Jews but in a vindictive way, the stalker and scourge of Israel.
This unspoken doctrine is really just an abstraction of the third problem: the whole thing is merely a dignifying of Christian/Gentile envy of Jews. Rene Girard, I think, would call it a case of "mimetic rivalry" like that which moved The Man Whose Name We Must Never Mention (to use the term proposed by Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono) to adore John Lennon to the point of killing him. He idolized John Lennon and wanted to be like him so completely that in the long run there couldn't be room enough on the planet for the both of them. The real Lennon's very presence on earth served as a reminder to his deranged fan that the latter was not, could not become, Lennon, no matter how hard he tried. So he had to get Lennon out of the way to take his place. In the same way, by accepting the Jewish Scriptures (albeit reinterpreting them), Christians could not but accept the ubiquitous claim that Jews were the chosen of God. Jews became an example and soon more than that. But here stood Christians and Jews aloof as two separate communities. For Christians to emulate the Jews' elect status, for them to become Israel, they must destroy the obstacle that stood in their way, the original Jews, the real Jews, the ones who didn't accept Jesus. Once they were out of the way, Christians would be Jews! So the persecutions and pogroms began. But this is not exactly a doctrine. This is a psychosis which is occasioned, fed, and fueled by a doctrine.
Thankfully, the belief-set just summarized seems obsolete among all but conspicuously fanatical sects like the Christian Identity Movement/Aryan Nations, etc. This is not to say the idea is not still dangerous. It is just to get the taxonomy right. It will be unhelpful to approach most Christians thinking they hold such views. Few do, and they are rightly pariahs even among fundamentalist Christians, who would even deny them the name Christian. The question is how to deal with Southern Baptists, the Christian Right, and others with more moderate, but still obnoxious views. What are those opinions?
Though the very name "fundamentalist" implies a stubborn attachment to the oldest and most basic doctrines of a faith, it happens that today's Protestant fundamentalists are revisionists in at least one significant respect. They do not hold to the doctrine of Christian supercessionism of Jews. They do not believe they have replaced Jews as God's chosen people. Decades before liberal Christian dialoguers with Judaism posited that God might hold out a separate arrangement for Jews as a distinct covenant partner, conservative pietists had beaten them to the punch. A nineteenth-century Church of Ireland minister named John Nelson Darby with a lot of time on his hands recuperating from a carriage accident, created a controversial theological system called Dispensationalism. This doctrine gained currency through the rapidly spreading influence of the Plymouth Brethren sect (also founded by Darby) and the popularity of the Scofield Reference Bible (annotated by another great Dispensationalist, Cyrus I. Scofield) in various editions, as well as in numerous popular books of "Bible prophecy" (especially Hal Lindsey's The Late, Great Planet Earth, 1970 and ad infinitum). Dispensationalism was in some ways an accommodation to the findings of the Higher Criticism of the Bible, though no Dispensationalists would have viewed it that way. Darby and Scofield wanted to read the Bible as literally as seemed reasonable. This meant they had to posit a version of the doctrine of "progressive revelation," as opposed to the traditional Christian/Catholic conceit that even Adam and Eve could have repeated the Nicene Creed, albeit in the future tense. They cast off the illusion that ancient Israelites were "saved" on the basis of consciously looking forward to the incarnation, atonement and resurrection of Jesus. If you could read this sort of thing in between the lines of scripture, they admitted, you could read in anything. If the Old Testament had really contained a pre-Christian preaching of faith in Jesus Christ, as Christians had usually claimed, the Old Testament would sound like the Book of Mormon, with its ancient Israelite camp meetings and revivals.
Dispensationalists did retain the familiar idea that there were numerous prophetic predictions of Jesus, however much this made nonsense of the texts, but it was newly obvious to them that over a series of "dispensations" God had deigned to deal with the human race, then specifically with Israel, in a series of different ways, none of them entailing explicit Christian belief, not, that is, till God unveiled "the great parenthesis," the wholly unanticipated advent of the Church as a faith-based community of Jews and Gentiles gathered around Christian preaching and sacraments. The prophets had said not a word about this. Prophecies about Israel were not figurative predictions of Christianity; they were really about Israel.
During this, the Christian dispensation, personal salvation was available to individuals, whether Jew or Christian, through faith in Jesus Christ. In the meantime, God had by no means abandoned his ancient covenant partner Israel. His plan for them was merely on hold. But soon the divine plan for Israel must gear up and move on again to its climax, the restoration of Israel in political liberation under the just command of the Messiah of the house of David--who would turn out to be the glorified Jesus of Nazareth. Dispensationalism freely admitted that scripture had predicted a noble, theocratic destiny for the twelve tribes of Israel. They should share the rule of the nations with their Messiah, a righteous conqueror. Jesus had died once for sinners, to establish the Christian dispensation, but as had always been obvious to Jews, Jesus had done nothing to break the yoke of pagan domination. This, however, was his scheduled task for his second coming. And Christians would have no role in this except for cheering from the sidelines, pretty much the way they feel while watching the climactic scenes of Cecil B. de Mille's The Ten Commandments on TV. For Dispensationalists, the prophecies concerned "national Israel," "Israel after the flesh," most definitely not the Christian church. That was something quite different.
And once biblical prophecy should be fulfilled at the second advent of Jesus, with all the requisite butt-kicking of the Antichrist and his Israel-persecuting minions, Jews would "come to Christ," if you wanted to put it that way. It would be an anachronism, though, after the Christian dispensation. That is, with Jesus ben-David actually sitting on the throne in Jerusalem as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, "accepting Christ" would no longer be a quaint matter of raising one's hand in a Billy Graham rally, nor of praying a quiet prayer with a Baptist friend after perusing a gospel tract. No, it would be more like Frenchmen welcoming Napoleon back from exile to assume the reins of power. Jews wouldn't start going to church with their Gentile neighbors as fellow Christians. No, there would be no churches, no temples, with the direct presence on earth of God and of his Christ.
I call this a pretty meaty "double covenant theory." This ingenious allocation of scriptural texts and plans of salvation among different faith communities, each with a respectable share, does not entail redefining either religion in light of the other as often happens in liberal "Jewish-Christian dialogue," which ends up evacuating one or both faiths to reach some imagined "Lowest Common Denomination."
Out of My Face
And yet the coast is not entirely clear. If, as I argue, the majority of vocal fundamentalist New Right Christians are either Dispensationalists or significantly influenced by the doctrine, why do these same Christians persist in announcing evangelistic efforts to "make sure their Jewish neighbors have a chance to accept Christ as their personal savior"? Why do we still hear nasty comments from Southern Baptist leaders to the effect that "God Almighty does not hear the prayers of a Jew"? Well, you see, these people believe we are yet lingering in the Christian dispensation, during which each individual must sign on for a "personal relationship with Christ" to be saved. They are not going to stop talking about that, you can be sure. One must try to tolerate it. They mean well. Jews are in the same position as the "unsaved" family members of these born-again Christians. Eventually, they'll let up when you make your stance clear.
But all this is almost moot, since they believe they are on the very cusp of the next dispensation, that of the Great Tribulation, shortly to be followed by the Millennial reign of Jesus Christ. Into these dispensations, the first a mere seven years long, are squeezed the hypothetical events of Hal Lindsey's The Late, Great Planet Earth as well as of the recent paperback thriller series ghost-written for Tim LaHaye, Left Behind, etc. Fundamentalists view today's events in the Middle East (and have since at least before World War One--see Dwight Wilson, Armageddon Now! The Premillenarian Resaponse to Russia and Israel since 1917, 1977) as direct precursors of the End-Time scenario, the nations assuming their places on stage for a final war in which the fundamentalists have most definitely chosen sides. They are for Israel and against the Antichrist, whose hapless stooges the Arabs nations are. With no particular inclination to cozy up to Islam in an ecumenical huddle, Christian fundamentalists allow them, as nations, no other room in the prophetic scenario.
It is important to realize that since Dispensationalists expect the End-Time scenario to begin very soon, the urgency they would otherwise have to seek conversion of Jews to Christianity becomes relativized, fades. The Christian fundamentalist finds himself in much the same situation as ancient Jews in the Hellenistic world. God had appointed them a light unto the Gentiles, but did this mean they ought to undertake a missionary outreach to Gentiles? Some thought so, and ancient records do attest the activities of a scant few Jewish missionaries. But they seem to have held a minority opinion. Most Jews likely believed that, according to the prophecies of Isaiah (2:2-3) and Micah (4:1-2), the nations would one day come to Zion on their own initiative to embrace the Torah. That was all according to God's timing, and till then mortals had no business trying to hasten things. In the meantime, many Gentiles were finding Judaism quite attractive, either converting or at least attending synagogue and happy to be there.
In the reckoning of Dispensationalists, too, God has a timetable according to which he, without human aid, will gather in Jews, his ancient people. As the forces of Antichrist assume their places on the historical chessboard, the Christian evangelistic mission to Jews becomes increasingly moot. In light of the new day they believe to be dawning, Pro-Israel Christians are not inclined to require Christian confession from Jews before they will support them.
Any Friend of Jehovah...
For Christian fundamentalists as for Jewish ones, Israel is the apple of God's eye. God will curse whoever curses Israel and will bless whomever blesses Israel (Genesis 12:3a). Christian fundamentalists, as long as they are Dispensationalists, do not think of taking this verse anything but literally. Unlike Calvinist (Reformed) or Catholic Christians, they do not allegorize and arrogate these scriptural promises for themselves. Not surprisingly, one finds more "both-sides-ism" as well as more outright pro-Palestinianism among Presbyterians, Methodists, Roman Catholics, and other non-Dispensationalists, who consider themselves to have supplanted Israel's role as the elect of God. As for the fanatics on the extreme, the redneck Nazi Christians, they, too, assume their "Christian Identity" as the True Israel, specifically as displaced Israelites a la the nineteenth-century doctrine of British Israelism. This was a piece of pseudo-ethnology that tried to discover among the Britons and Nordics the Lost Tribes of Israel, attributing the Patriarchal blessings and promises to America and the British Commonwealth. How on earth can these people afford to be anti-Semitic? Simply because they believe not only that they are Israelites, but also that today's Jews are not! They imagine that biblical Jewry succumbed long ago to persecution and assimilation, today's "Jews" being in reality the descendants of Central Asian Khazar tribes. In a sense, this baleful nonsense is but a literalized version of the traditional Christian supracessionism, carried to a vicious extreme. (On all this, see Michael Barkun, Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement, 1994)
But there have, famously, been plenty of Christians with far less bizarre-sounding views who still found what seemed to them ample excuses to persecute Jews. My point here is that today's fundamentalists, Dispensationalists, have broken with this doctrine in any form. They deem Jews as covenant allies. It would be tragic for Jews, increasingly bereft of allies, to spurn their offers of aid and friendship and so repeat the mistake of Zerubbabel who rebuffed the offers of well-wishers to help rebuild the temple and replaced good will with lasting enmity (Ezra 4:1-6).
Robert M Price
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