April 30, 2009
Christian Zionism, Evangelicals, and Israel
Rev. Stephen Sizer probably knows more about Christian Zionism than anyone in the world. At least, it seemed that way as we sat in the coffee shop at a Border’s bookstore in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Reverend Sizer has been an Anglican priest for 30 years, serving a parish in the UK with the quaint name of Christ Church Virginia Water.
Two of Reverend Sizer’s books, Christian Zionism (2004) and Zion’s Christian Soldiers (2007) are considered indispensible for understanding the steadfast support of U.S. Evangelicals for Israel. On the last leg of a speaking tour, Reverend Sizer was gracious enough to speak with me about the reasons why Evangelicals have become such a strong political lobby for Israel.
Reverend Sizer started the story with the “Six-Day War” of 1967, when Israel took occupation of East Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza strip. “Many leading Evangelicals, such as L. Nelson Bell, the father-in-law of Billy Graham, welcomed that war as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy,” he said. In Christianity Today, Bell wrote, “That for the first time in more than 2,000 years Jerusalem is now completely in the hands of the Jews, gives the student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible.”
Israeli politicians, Reverend Sizer went on, seeing the opportunity for strengthening U.S. support, started courting leading Evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, Pat Boone, Anita Bryant, and Pat Robertson. Out of gratitude for his public support, the Israeli government gave Falwell the gift of a Lear jet for his personal travel. And with the election of the Evangelical Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, the strong pro-Israel stand found its way into the White House.
The 1967 war was followed in 1970 by Billy Graham’s feature-length film His Land and the publication of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, the best-known apologia of Christian Zionism. The following year, Dr. Carl F. H. Henry organized the Jerusalem Conference of Biblical Prophecy, attended by 1,500 delegates from 52 nations. Welcomed by Prime Minister Ben Gurion, many of the speakers proclaimed that Israeli control over Jerusalem was an irrefutable sign that God’s final “dispensation” had begun. For Reverend Sizer, the theology of “dispensationalism” among Evangelicals is what best explains the rise in Evangelical support for Israel since the 1967 war. (Dispensationalist theology is taught in the notes of the highly influential Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909.)
Dispensationalism comes in various forms, but the common thread is a division of biblical history into discreet “dispensations,” culminating in a final dispensation through which God will deal directly with the Jews when Israel has been reestablished. The Church, in other words, is distinguished from Israel, which is responding to a distinctive set of God’s promises. Reverend Sizer summarized it this way: “God has a separate plan for the Jews — there are two covenants, two people, and two faiths.”
Since Christ will not come to earth to establish His kingdom, and the Jews cannot be saved, Israel must be allowed to settle on the land given to the Jews by God. According to Reverend Sizer, this is the reason Evangelicals not only support the settlements on the West Bank but also help to finance them. Reverend Sizer thinks part of the reason President Carter lost the support of Evangelicals was because he began to vacillate on the settlements.
Reverend Sizer went on to explain that there were, of course, historical forces at work in forging the relationship between the United States and Israel. Until 1980, the world was split into two factions, communism and democracy, and “Israel was seen as the bastion of democracy in the Middle East, as our friend. As communism declined, Islam became the enemy, and the U.S. once again needed Israel on its side.”
Reverend Sizer disagrees with the dispensationalist view of Biblical history, as you discover in Zion’s Christian Soldiers, but he is not interested in waging a theological war with America’s Evangelical community. A gentle man with a ready smile, he wants to meet with Evangelical leaders, so that “we can all be made more aware of our working assumptions.” When I got together with him, Reverend Sizer had just spoken with a group of several hundred Evangelicals in South Carolina. “It was a delightful meeting, no one got exercised — it was a constructive conversation.”
Most Catholics live in a world well apart from discussions of dispensationalism, the Second Coming, and the role of Israel in the final days. But, as I learned from Reverend Sizer, these are not merely in-house theological concerns belonging to our Evangelical brethren; they are assumptions that have had — and will have — a powerful influence on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and especially in negotiations between Israel and Palestine.
A two-state solution means, from the dispensationalist viewpoint, that Israel would be denied its existence on all the land bestowed by God. That’s why Pat Robertson protested so strongly against Ariel Sharon’s removal of the settlements from the Gaza strip, and later said Sharon’s subsequent coma and death were the result of God’s wrath. Robertson’s outburst was unseemly and disturbed the Israelis, but it was evidence of the deeply held convictions in the Evangelical community that Israel must never give up any of the land gained in the 1967 war.