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Nationalism and Christian Zionism focus of latest webinar

Current theology is the antithesis of Christ’s message

by Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Tristan Sosteric via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — As in the first webinar that examined the effects of the settler-colonial experience on Palestinians, the PC(USA)’s Christian Zionism working group hosted a large audience of interested participants in its most recent in a series of webinars, titled “Nationalism and Christian Zionism.” More than 700 people registered for the Zoom-based event and more than 300 watched live. The Christian Zionism working group includes PC(USA) national staff, congregation members and grassroots Presbyterians connected to the Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN).

The forum was moderated by the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Holder Rich, a pastor at Corinth Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio and a theologian whose research includes the spread of Christian Zionism in Africa. She opened the webinar with introductions, a prayer, and read from Acts 1:6-8, where Luke recalls a conversation between Jesus and his disciples immediately before the Ascension:

“So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth.’

The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Holder Rich

“The disciples longed for Zion, the return of royal power and authority in Israel recalling the glory days, David and Solomon and for the seat of governmental authority to be in Jerusalem,” noted Rich. “But Jesus did not answer directly their question and reminded them the answer they seek is not for them to know. He called them to do and be witnesses empowered by the Holy Spirit to take the good news beyond Jerusalem. It’s a reminder from Jesus that the gospel is not about loyalty to a particular place, but rather being witnesses to Jesus’s good news, which is about love, justice, and peace.”

The first to speak was Jonathan Kuttab, an international human rights attorney and executive director of Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA). Kuttab practices in the U.S., Palestine and Israel, and is also an established author.

He began his presentation noting that when he started dealing with the Christian Zionism question, he felt it was limited to conservative evangelical Christians who viewed the State of Israel as a fulfillment of prophecy, and supporting it was required to facilitate the second coming of Jesus. But as he dug deeper into the theology, he found a different form of Christian Zionism was prevalent among mainline denominations.

“It took me awhile to realize that while the theological test of addressing Christian Zionism is important and should be undertaken, there is another kind of Christian Zionism that was not very theologically deep at all, that was not limited to evangelical Christians who are theologically conservative,” said Kuttab.

Jonathan Kuttab

“In fact, that theology around Christian Zionism is found in mainline churches, among Catholics and Protestants and somehow prevalent throughout society, which dovetails into Christian nationalism. This theology basically says: ‘The State of Israel, just like the United States, is exceptional. They have a special role and special place in God’s view and God’s plan.’”

He went on to say that because they are favored by God and because there is some sort of special dispensation from God that applies to them, they have permission to be evil and promote racism and discrimination.

“That is totally abhorrent,” said Kuttab.

“We need a new message, a new ethic and a new way of looking at things,” continued Kuttab. “Unfortunately, Zionism doesn’t preach that and most of the churches in the U.S. do not preach that message. There is no fear, [no] prophetic message that God is a God of justice; that violence is not the answer, that God cares for Palestinians as human beings. The message is very clear: Christian Zionism today is offering a theology and message that is the antithesis of Christ’s message, which is one of peace, love and the kingdom of God, rather than power, domination, and destruction of others.”

The Rev. Addie Domske, who is a Steering Committee member for the Israel/Palestine Mission Network, was the next speaker. A self-professed “generational Presbyterian,” Domske is a social worker and theologian who first visited Palestine in 2013, which is when she first became aware of Palestinian resistance movements. Just last week she returned from her most recent visit there.

Domske’s first message pointed to white people on the call.

“We don’t get to opt out of this conversation. I want to bring the idea that sometimes we think we’re dealing with people who are different, not part of the Presbyterian Church who don’t have the same eschatology as us, and that difference allows us to take a backseat and say, ‘That’s not what our church says,’” said Domske.

“While we don’t relate to that theology, that separation gives us a pass we don’t deserve. As mainline Presbyterians, as white people, we all have to do something right now. We are not exempt from this conversation.”

After a brief technical glitch in which Domske lost internet service, she returned to speak about colonialism and Israel’s “Disneyfication” of the Holy Land. She referenced a statement by the Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac in the first webinar that it is hard to separate Christian Zionism from American exceptionalism.

The Rev. Addie Domske

“I’d like to build on that by saying that when we are trying to interact with Christian Zionism in the U.S., we have a responsibility as Christians to take care of what our people have done to respond to what Christians have done in Christ’s name,” said Domske.

She noted that risk is part of the responsibility of Christians and “being the church” is an endeavor not to be taken on one’s own.

“We have to take risky actions. I, (along with my spouse and mother, who is a Presbyterian pastor) were arrested in the Senate cafeteria in (Washington,) D.C. with students for Free Palestine,” said Domske. “This was like pouring water over seeds already planted living into the things that I profess, and the overtures (the church) has passed [including this one]. It felt like I was following the long lineage of Presbyterians who have cared about Palestine and have tried to do right by Israel/Palestine.”

“We’re not going to be church on our own,” she said. “It is something that we are called to do as a collective. We do things together as part of a collective and the church is a great model for that. Scripture tells about how the church can only be a body when all the parts are present.”

Unfortunately, one of the scheduled speakers, the Rev. Jermaine Ross-Allam, director of the PC(USA)’s Center for the Repair of Historic Harms, was a last-minute cancellation due to illness. The extra time allowed for a robust Q&A session among participants.

Questions focused on the viability of a one- or two-state solution moving forward, the Biden administration’s handling of the crisis, the perceived difference between the Ukraine conflict and Israel/Palestine, and the appropriate response to Hamas and their actions on Oct. 7 as well as the recent protests on college campuses across Europe and the U.S.

Regarding a one- vs. two-state solution, Kuttab noted that many people want to live in the small strip of land that is currently Israel, so the basic question is, “What do we do with so many people who want to be in one place?”

“I put aside the arguments of who has more rights, who was here first, who violated international law. The reality is today there is only one entity,” said Kuttab. “There are seven million Jews who have power and control, and roughly seven million Palestinians who are fragmented, oppressed and denied rights. They are under utter destruction. These two peoples somehow need to find a way to live together rather than destroy each other.”

He noted several elements that need to exist in whatever solution is arrived at:

  • no violence
  • equality
  • human rights and human dignity
  • democracy and participation

“That is my solution,” said Kuttab. “You may have a better one. But make sure whatever solution you support or work towards is one that has elements of justice, fairness, equality, decency, and human respect.”

PC(USA) offers an Israel/Palestine resource page that lists numerous multimedia resources, including recordings of all the Christian Zionism-focused webinars, which can be found here. A Spanish interpretation is also available to view.

The “Confronting Christian Zionism” series is co-sponsored by World Mission’s Middle East and Europe office, the Office of Public Witness, the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and members of the IPMN. For more information about Christian Zionism, including FAQs on its biblical, theological, and political implications, click here.

Note: The 216th General Assembly (2004) 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 of the General Assembly of the PC(USA) to inform government officials that Christian Zionism did not represent the majority of American Christians and the faith of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). An updated and expanded overture is coming forth during the 226th General Assembly (2024).

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