/ 10 May 2012

A not-so-biblical view of Israel

Large sectors of evangelical Christianity have historically supported Israel's right to expand.
Large sectors of evangelical Christianity have historically supported Israel's right to expand.

‘A loaded question, I know, but can someone direct me to an insightful article about the founding of modern-day Israel?” I tweeted.

“The Bible” was one response. And that is precisely the problem.

Christian churches can vary quite widely. A few weeks ago I enjoyed visiting one that was quite different to the type I usually attend. There was an energetic gospel choir instead of a rock band, as well as a Zulu translator and longer services than I am used to attending. It was par for the course in a country as diverse as ours.

Then I spotted it: the blue-and-white Israeli flag on the wall. Modern-day Israel, that is, because I am not sure we know the type of banner King David and his band of mighty men marched under during the biblical stories of old. The photographs on the wall of Jerusalem were similarly puzzling.

Were these displays an extended metaphor for the biblical nation of Israel, to which, according to the New Testament, all believers are said to belong? I hoped so. But then the pastor stepped up and pronounced it was time to pray for Israel and – leaving me in no doubt that this was the modern-day state version – to pray for the United States because it “supported Israel” in its travails. Alongside me, the congregants earnestly nodded their heads.

Taking sides
It is not unusual for church congregations to pray for global events, but generally our prayers are of the “let there be peace and an end to suffering” variety, not explicitly taking the side of one party in a conflict over the other. It seemed unthinkable that we could ignore the thousands of Palestinians civilians, including children, who have been brutally killed in the ongoing conflict.

I was upset but not shocked. It is common knowledge that large sections of evangelical Christianity historically supported Israel’s right to expand – even into annexed territory. But I had always assumed this thinking emanated largely from the US and had never seen it displayed so blatantly in South Africa.

I also did not imagine this sort of thinking, in radical ignorance of the Bible and history, could still exist.

I am neither pro-Palestine nor pro-Israel. It is such a complex and age-old conflict with so much blame and suffering on both sides that I simply cannot take a side. The situation seems intractable, but the first principle for resolution should be justice and equal treatment for both sides.

However, the conflict is such an incredibly divisive and emotive topic that loyalties and deep-rooted beliefs often reign over reason – and not just for the Muslim and Jewish communities. Too many Christians default to a pro-Israel position based on a strange understanding of the Bible. They will tell you that the Bible promised the land to the Israelites, as the 12 tribes descended from Judah were then known.

Biblical allusions
But that is just how it starts. By the end we are told of a new or heavenly Jerusalem, which is clearly not a physical space. And that is without getting into the niggly – and possibly controversial bits – where the same Bible (both Old and New Testaments) promises to uproot Israel from the land.

So for Christians to support unquestioningly modern-day Israel’s right to the contested land, based on a biblical reading, is bizarre in my opinion. It has been more than 2 000 years since that biblical version of Israel and since then the nation itself has changed dramatically and all sorts of people have laid claim to the land: Persian, Byzantine and, of course, the Ottoman empire, to name a few.

Any biblical allusions to the chosen nation, the holy city and the like have been unveiled in the New Testament as allegories for the non-geographical kingdom of God.

When we pronounce on the present-day conflict we should examine the facts: the United Nations resolution that created the modern-day state of Israel, subsequent wars and the annexation of certain territories, the use of deadly force on both sides to resolve this conflict and so on. We can apportion blame – and favour – accordingly.

Sense of superiority
It is dangerous, however, to absolve Israel of any accountability for its  wrong actions by bestowing on it a “chosen nation” status, which many Christians invoke in its defence.
It creates a blanket amnesty that is difficult to argue against, as I found with my companions at the church.

“Why are you so upset? Do you have Muslim family?” was one response.

It is convenient to resort to labels, dodgy beliefs or a secret sense of superiority as far as the thorny issue of Israel and Palestine is concerned. But it is neither helpful nor in keeping with what the Bible teaches, if that is your inspiration.

I am no expert on the Israel-Palestine conflict, but one thing I am sure of is that we need less, not more, irrational and unfounded bias in how we think about it – from any quarter.

Follow Verashni Pillay on Twitter @verashni