At a super-secret conservative confab last week a long-time friend and ally said that after 30 years of giving lectures and speeches to conservative groups there was only one event where he could show his true colors, and it wasn’t the one we were attending.
I asked him what colors he could not show at the conference we were attending. First was his opposition to the war in Iraq, which he believes was one of the worst foreign policy blunders in the history of our country, one that has ruined our reputation all over the world and given us nothing in return. Then he said, “Israel.”
Among political conservatives there is a reflexive support for Israel, one that I share. Israel is a democracy, the only one in the Middle East, standing like a beacon in the midst of chaos and danger. And Israel defends our national interests almost alone in whole world.
We also understand that if Israel ceased to exist, the stated goal of various Islamic actors, it would not be the end of our Islamic troubles. For Islamists, the continued existence of Israel is a rallying point but not much more than that.
For Evangelicals, though, support for Israel goes far beyond geopolitics. For them there are also theological reasons; chiefly, that the state of Israel is somehow tied to the End Times. What flows from that is the tacit belief that the State of Israel can do no wrong.
It is surprising for Evangelicals to learn that the State of Israel is one of the worst when it comes to such important matters to Christians as life and family issues. They are as bad as it gets, as bad as the UK, worse than France and Germany. The State of Israel routinely tries to block pro-life Christian NGOs from getting UN accreditation.
It is odd that the State of Israel is so hostile to pro-life Christian NGOs at the UN because it is just these groups that make up the strongest constituency the State of Israel has in the whole world. The Jews in American might not be enough to sustain US support for the State of Israel without the enormous and enthusiastic support of Evangelicals, a support grounded in the belief that the founding of the modern State of Israel constituted the beginning of the End Times.
Christian Zionists believe that the founding of the modern State of Israel was a necessary component to the return of Christ and that upon that piece of land will come the final battle and the establishment of a 1,000-year reign of Christ on Earth.
Not all Evangelicals believe this. According to a Pew poll of 2,000 evangelical leaders, only 48 percent agreed that the formation of the modern State of Israel was a fulfillment of Biblical prophesies related to End Times. Forty-two percent disagreed. Not surprisingly, the poll found regular pew sitters scored higher numbers than this, roughly 60 percent believing this was a manifestation of the Biblical prophesy.
Still, as Robert Nicholson, a young evangelical leader who runs something called the Philos Project, reports: “In citing eschatology as a motivation for Christian Zionism, one can prudently say only that most evangelicals believe that the ingathering of the Jewish people to their historic homeland is connected in some way to biblical prophesy.”
Nicholson has published a long essay at a Jewish website called Mosaic in which he describes in great detail the various threads of Christian Zionism. Eschatology is only a part of it. He says, “In brief, evangelicals love Israel because God loves Israel” and that his covenant with the Jewish people remains and is not breakable, no matter how unfaithful they may be.
He also describes a “deep cultural affinity with the Jewish people” that includes not just a shared love for the Hebrew Scriptures, but a common disdain for what he describes as the 1,000 years of “corruption and paganism” between the time of the apostles and the Reformation. He writes that they look for “inspiration not to Origen and Aquinas but to the heady days when all Christians were, in fact, Jews.”
Along that obvious anti-Catholic line, Nicholson says Christian Zionists are eager to show the Jews that they are not like “other Christians by whom the Jewish people were mercilessly persecuted in history.” He goes on to suggest that the material abundance of America may be directly related to how Americans have properly treated the Jews. He says it is commonly heard in evangelical churches that “America will be taken care of as long as we take care of the Jews.”
Nicholson talks about the Jewish role in Salvation History. He says, “Over the centuries, Christians in general have debated whether Jews still have a role in history after their rejection of Jesus. Some have denied it, affirming instead that the Christian church constitutes the ‘true Israel,’ superseding and replacing the Jews in God’s favor.”
There is another term for this, “replacement theology,” the belief that once they rejected God, the Covenant He made with them was forever broken and the Christian church has replaced them in toto.
Indeed, at the conservative confab and what drew me to this topic, my friend said, “We are Israel. The Catholic Church is Israel.”
Does the Church teach “replacement theology?” Does the Church teach that God’s covenant with the Jews is broken?
There is a heresy that is called “dispensationalism,” the belief that God has two Covenants that are separate and distinct, one with the Jewish people of the Old Covenant and another one with the Church of the New Covenant. It is heresy for Catholics, but this notion has to be a problem, too, for those Evangelicals who hold it because it assumes the Jews are somehow saved without an explicit belief in Christ.
And how exactly does Israel fit? Like many debates between Catholics and Evangelicals, this one is about definitions, deep important theological definitions, but definitions nonetheless. What is Israel? Is it a piece of land in the Middle East. Is it that specific piece of land and the Jews living there who are specially covenanted by God? Or is Israel a people only, a people specially covenanted by God.
The teaching of the Catholic Church lies somewhere in between “millennialism,” which is the belief that modern day Jews are God’s covenanted ones, and “replacement theology,” which is the belief that only those who convert are God’s chosen people. I take much of this from a very good unsigned essay at Catholic Bridge, an essay informed by a Hebrew Catholic I met years ago named Marty Barrack.
The Church teaches that the covenant that God made with Israel still stands; complete and in total; that “the Church is not a replacement for Israel, but an unbroken continuation of Israel under the promised King and Messiah of Israel, and His Church is His Kingdom of Israel, expanded to include all the Gentile peoples of the Earth.”
According to Barrack and his colleagues, my friend is spot on.
Israel is not that piece of land in the Middle East. It is a people and we Catholics are that people. There is abundant Scriptural evidence for this, too. “There is a constant theme in the Bible that the elder son will be replaced by the younger son as the true heir of God’s promises.” Cain and Abel. Ishmael and Isaac. Esau and Jacob. David and Saul. Jesus gave the keys of the Kingdom to Peter. He gave the keys of the Old Covenant to the Israel of the New Covenant. “The New Israel are those who follow Jesus.”
The essayists point out that St. Paul makes clear that the Old Covenant may be obsolete but it is not revoked. They say, “The problem with modern day Judaism is that it is living in the Old Covenant as if it contains power in and of itself apart from the New Covenant.”
But doesn’t that sound like “replacement theology”? The question becomes, what about modern day Jews? The Church does not teach that the Jews are accursed because a tiny number of them condemned Jesus to death 2,000 years ago. Nor are those Jews who never converted necessarily accursed. There is obviously something special about the Jewish people. From the time of the foundation of the Church until the end of days, Jews are in and will be in the Catholic Church and St. Paul said this would always be so. So, Jews are indeed a part of the New Israel—Hebrew Christians—and this unique promise was made to no other people.
The Jews, even modern day Jews, are therefore inexorably connected to the return of Christ because St. Paul strongly hints that one day the Jews will convert together, all at once, and this will be a trigger for the Second Coming of Christ.
I have been a Catholic for many, many years and an avid student of my faith. But this is something altogether new for me to chew on.
The Catholic Church is Israel. There is no other. The Catholic Church is Zion. There is no other. The Catholic Church is Jerusalem. There is no other.
And what about that piece of land in the Middle East? What about the State of Israel? It is another country, no more, no less. There are abundant national security reasons to support the State of Israel. It is a beacon of democracy in a horrible part of the world. It is one of America’s most important allies. It is the physical and spiritual home to the Jewish people, children of the One True God and so our spiritual brothers, and our forefathers in faith.
But as to theological reasons to support the State of Israel, I find the stark answer persuasive: there are none. But I would not want to say that to a room full of Evangelicals.
Editor’s note: The photo above was taken in the Israeli president’s residence shortly before the papal visit to Jerusalem, May 22, 2014. (Photo credit: AP / Tsafrir Abayov)