The uncritical US evangelical embrace of the Trump US embassy move, as well as of the hard-line Netanyahu government in Israel, has important but odd theological roots.
America’s most visibly pro-Israel evangelicals, fundamentalists, and dispensationalists act as they do, in large part, because for them what the modern State of Israel does matters far less than the fact that a modern State of Israel is. Their interest in Israel is theological, even mythological, rather than ethical or this-worldly political. Their unwavering defense of Trump’s Jerusalem policy and his partnership with Netanyahu is rooted not just in their loyalty to Trump but also in their highly questionable eschatological scenarios, in which a return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland is viewed as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy and a decisive event in the end-times before Jesus returns.
Christians who are serious about the Bible have long tended to feel an electric sense either of attraction or repulsion to the Jewish people. Repulsion, as in theological anti-Judaism, has been the dominant tendency, and it has been more than disastrous. (I have fought it my whole career, including through sustained attention to the Holocaust and its implications.) Attraction, as in theological philo-Judaism, is also a strand of Christian history, though certainly not a dominant one.
Both this attraction and this repulsion have been tied to the fact that over 2/3 of the Christian Bible is the Hebrew Bible, that many Christians are schooled in a detailed knowledge of (a version of, a reading of) the Hebrew Bible, and that Christians have deeply desired to find a coherent theological narrative that ties together Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament, our “Old Testament” and “New Testament.” Christians have forever felt the need to make theological sense of Jewish scripture, religion, history, and peoplehood, and this theologizing has taken some fateful, even dangerous, turns.
For many conservative Protestant Christians, the return of the Jewish people to the Holy Land, before, during, and especially after the Holocaust, is an event in salvation history. It is seen as a divine miracle, as a kind of resurrection from the dead for the Jewish people, and as a major step in the fulfillment of scripture on the way to the climactic return of Christ – and perhaps even the last-second conversion of the Jewish people to belief in Jesus Christ.
The political and ethical facts on the ground simply don’t matter that much when one is in the grip of a fevered theological dream come true. Among these humble earthly facts are the politically disputed nature of the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, and the existence in this land of some of the world’s oldest Christian communities, most of them Orthodox religiously and most of them Palestinian ethnically and nationally. None of it matters to these American evangelicals/fundamentalists because none of it is included in the mythico-theological narrative that is functioning so powerfully for them.
But the State of Israel is a political reality with real needs and real challenges; it is not just the theological dream of eschatologically-minded Christians, and the conflation is frankly disastrous. Too many American evangelicals push American Israeli policy in specific directions, like the embassy move, because they have little or no concern for how those policies effects real people in the region—all they know or care about is the Jerusalem of their mythologies.
Many Christians, like me, feel a different kind of theological loyalty to Israel. We too feel a deep ancestral connection to the Jewish people, the people of the Book that we share with them. We are especially moved by the prophetic tradition of Israel, the tradition of Isaiah, Amos, Micah, and Jeremiah, including its demands that justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. We are loyal to the Jewish prophetic tradition to which, we believe, Jesus was also loyal. We therefore have an ethical interest in what happens in modern Israel, a compassion-based and justice-oriented interest, not just an eschatological interest.
We would be quite supportive of a modern State of Israel that demonstrated deep attentiveness to Israel’s own prophetic tradition, which would force attention to the plight of the Palestinians and indeed to the plight of marginalized Christians in the Holy Land.
But that justice-oriented, compassionate, prophetic strand is not terribly visible in the Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu. It is also not terribly visible among America’s pro-Trump court evangelicals, who in their eschatological zeal have “neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith” (Mt 23:23).
David P. Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.