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First ‘Confronting Christian Zionism’ webinar draws large audience

Speakers present Zionism ideology from varying perspectives

by Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Latrach Med Jamil via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — A packed virtual Zoom room of nearly 500 participants logged on Thursday to listen to the first webinar in a series of three which addresses the topic of “Confronting Christian Zionism.” Presented by the PC(USA)’s Christian Zionism working group, which includes PC(USA) national staff from World Mission’s Middle East and Europe office, the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, the Office of Public Witness, and members of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, the 90-minute session discussed how the Zionism ideology contributes to the violence Palestinians have experienced and the consequences of the settler colonial experience.

View the webinar here.

The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Holder Rich

The webinar was facilitated by the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Holder Rich, a Presbyterian pastor and theologian whose research includes the spread of Christian Zionism in Africa. She currently serves as faculty at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, is the pastor of Corinth Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio and is a member of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network. Rich welcomed the participants with Psalm 33:1-5 and noted that the pursuit of justice is the reason for the day’s gathering. She summarized Christian Zionism in her opening remarks, noting it’s based on the idea that Jesus’ return requires Jews to be in power in Jerusalem. This concept has led to a variety of problematic understandings, including equating ancient Israel with modern Israel. She acknowledged the Christian Zionism Working Group’s efforts for assembling the day’s speakers, who explored Christian Zionism’s impact in the Middle East and among people of faith in the U.S.

Each speaker was given 15 minutes to discuss Zionism from their unique perspectives. First to speak was the Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac. A Palestinian Christian pastor and theologian, Isaac pastors the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem and the Lutheran Church in Beit Sahour. He is also the academic dean at Bethlehem Bible College.

Isaac opened his remarks noting the timeliness of the webinar coinciding with 190 days of continuous war, tens of thousands of deaths — including 14,000 children. “How is it possible the world is at peace with all this? Human rights don’t apply to Palestinians? Do international laws not apply?” he asked.

The Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac

Isaac pushed for a broader understanding of Christian Zionism, noting it’s not just how we interpret the Bible, a brand of theology, or a concept related to dealing with the end of time. Rather, it’s part of a triangle rooted in colonialism, racism and white supremacy. He defined colonialism, a term he would reference often in his presentation and during the Q&A session, as “the coming together of economic, cultural, political and military power that constitutes a system of domination.” He even called Christian Zionism a “lobby.”

“We do think of Christian Zionism as something related to the second coming to the gathering of Jews in Palestine, but I think it’s much more than that,” said Isaac. “Recently, Rev. Dr. Mitri Rehab, a Palestinian theologian, wrote a book about decolonizing Palestine and he defines Christian Zionism as a Christian lobby that supports the Jewish settlement colonization of Palestinian land using biblical theological constructs. And in that book, we both agree, that Christian Zionism is not confined to conservative evangelicals; it can also be found among liberals. We should look at Christian Zionism as a lobby and focus not on what people believe, but what they do based on that belief.”

He continued to emphasize the deeper nuances beyond Jesus coming to Palestine, noting that Zionism was the theology and ideology used to justify the settler colonialism of Palestine. More than 800,000 Palestinians had to be ethnically cleansed to make that happen.

“They displaced Palestinians and Zionist Jews came and occupied the land to create the state of Israel and over time Zionism developed into an exclusive ideology. As a Palestinian I plead that the church look deeper beyond end of times theology, this movement is embedded in coloniality and in your context the idea of American exceptionalism.”

Rabbi Brant Rosen

Rabbi Brant Rosen discussed Christian Zionism from the perspective of Jewish theologies. Rosen is the founding rabbi of the Tzedek Chicago Congregation and co-founder of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council. Rosen opened his remarks by stating the day’s gathering was amidst an ongoing genocide that needs to be named out loud at every available opportunity. He affirmed Isaac’s statement that we must judge people not just by what they profess, but by what they do.

According to Rosen, Christian Zionism specifically refers to a form of evangelical Christianity that is apocalyptic in nature and in its broad sense needs to be understood as a powerful force in the world.

“The U.S. is aiding and abetting. This genocide is led by a President who is Catholic but has professed Zionism to his emotional core and has for his entire political career,” said Rosen. “He may not be an evangelical Christian, but he is certainly a Christian Zionist, and I think that’s very important to underline.”

As a Jew, Rosen believes evangelical Christian Zionism has profound and troubling implications for the Jewish community around the world. He highlighted two main points in his presentation. First, Zionism needs to be understood as not uniquely Jewish. Christian Zionism actually predates Jewish Zionism as an ideology and a movement, even if they share the same basic goals.

Second, Judaism as a spiritual tradition for much of its history through millennia has not embraced the ideas of Zionism.

“The idea of creating a Jewish commonwealth in historic Palestine has always been considered anathema to the rabbis who formed and propagated Jewish tradition,” said Rosen.

Jewish Zionism, or the idea that Jews would return to the land to create a sovereign political nation state, emerged in the 19th century. That concept was mostly influenced and forwarded by Theodor Herzl, considered the father of political Zionism. According to Rosen, Herzl was not shy about gaining favor with any imperial power that could help him with his endeavors.

“(Herzl) created the movement to return Jews to the land in response to growing antisemitism in Europe. He made it clear the Jewish people should prevail upon any imperial power to help them and that meant seeking favor with people who did not necessarily have the best interest of the Jewish people at heart,” said Rosen. “From its beginning Zionism has curried favor with antisemites.”

Rosen held up the Balfour Declaration of 1917 as an example, noting that Lord Balfour was a Christian Zionist and well-known for being someone who tried to rid Great Britain of their Jewish population in 1905.

“Christian and Jewish Zionism have been in this Faustian bargain with one another, using each other for their own interests,” said Rosen. “Great Britain and the U.S., after 1948, looked at Zionism as a tool to further its imperial and colonial interests in the region.”

The third speaker was the Rev. Marietta Macy, associate pastor of Christian Education at the First Presbyterian Church in Charleston, West Virginia. Macy, also a member of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, focused on Presbyterian responses to Christian Zionism.

The Rev. Marietta Macy

As an educator, Macy values the denomination’s strong history of lifting up and seeking education opportunities that leads to us to wrestle with complex issues, especially when they have both theological and real-world implications. A former Youth Advisory Delegate at the 216th General Assembly (2004), Macy noted Presbyterians have been wrestling with, and addressing through overtures, Christian Zionism for a long time; the work is not just a response to current events. Her first introduction to Israel-Palestine and Zionism came at the 222nd General Assembly (2016), which approved the “active opposition” by the PC(USA), “to Christian Zionism and the development of a plan to communicate the theological and political ramifications it engenders within our denomination, in the mass media, and among U.S. government officials.” The overture directed the Stated Clerk to inform government officials that Christian Zionism did not represent the faith of PC(USA) and to promote resources that aided Presbyterians’ knowledge of the Middle East and its history.

Describing the overture and General Assembly work that preceded it, Macy said, “I am so glad we called for that, but I wish that we could have put more effort and education at that point because 20 years later this is where we are. We’re still trying to understand what this theology is and the effects it has on our world and our own faith journeys.”

In light of that, there is another overture coming to this summer’s General Assembly. Confessing Our Complicity on Christian Zionism, sponsored by Muskingum Valley Presbytery, seeks to update and expand on the 2004 resolution.

“It has a substantial amount of background and detail. It is a strong overture,” said Macy. “It essentially calls us to reject Christian Zionism in all its forms and to issue a new study document so that we can continue the conversations that we desperately need.”

Macy concluded her presentation pointing out the Church’s Matthew 25 invitation calls us to look at systems that keep people hungry, keep people in prison and keep people without resources.

“We need to do systemic unpacking and untangling of theology that keeps people hungry and imprisoned — Christian Zionism is a theology that does that,” said Macy. “It closes down and divides us from each other and from opening our hearts in an expansive theological way that recognizes the Divine and all of Creation again.”

The second Confronting Christian Zionism webinar is scheduled for May 23 at noon Eastern Time. Titled “Nationalism and Christian Zionism,” this segment will explore rising nationalism around the world and understanding the history of our nation’s white supremacy and how it has enabled the rise of racism both in the U.S. and abroad. Confirmed speakers, to date, include the Rev. Jermaine Ross-Allam, director of the PC(USA)’s Center for the Repair of Historic Harms, the Rev. Addie Domske, Steering Committee member of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, and Jonathan Kuttab, international human rights attorney and executive director of Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA).

Registration for “Nationalism and Christian Zionism” is limited to 500 participants and is currently open here.

All registrants will receive a confirmation email and a recording of the webinar via email. Webinar recordings are also available to view on the PC(USA) Israel-Palestine resource page, which contains a multitude of multi-media documents addressing the crisis and the church’s response to it.

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