November 2, 2007

A Teach-In against Christian Zionism

Friends of Sabeel North America opened its October 26-27 conference in Boston with a teach-in on “Christian Zionism: A Theology in Service of Empire.” The principal speaker was Dr. Donald Wagner, a professor at North Park University in Chicago and a self-styled “Sojourners-type” evangelical.

Wagner defined his target, Christian Zionism, as “unconditional support of modern Israel.” He traced it back to a theology of premillenial dispensationalism that equates the modern secular state of Israel with the ancient Hebrew people.

Dissenting Voice: A protester from The David Project mocks the one-sidedness of the Sabeel conference underway across the street.

Wagner, who grew up as a fundamentalist Christian, vehemently rejected this theology. “Christian Zionism presents a crusader, Zionist, western Christianity that undermines the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his Church,” he charged. “It’s a theology of colonialism and empire.”

While Wagner prefaced his statements by saying that only 15-20 percent of American evangelicals subscribe to a premillenial dispensationalist theology, he said its ideas can have farther-reaching implications. “Young people in Presbyterian, Methodist and even some Episcopal churches are being drawn into this by youth ministers,” alleged Wagner.

“Dispensational theology is also growing in the culture of fear and militarism in western societies,” claimed Wagner. He asserted that Christian Zionism draws its political power “from its current alignment with the pro-Israel lobby, neo-conservative ideologues, the arms industry, the military (Israeli and U.S.), and the far right Israeli parties and the settler movement.”

Wagner did not directly identify any current U.S. government officials as Christian Zionists. Instead  he harked back more than 20 years ago, citing the late President Reagan’s and former Secretary of the Interior James Watt’s supposed views on the apocalypse and pro-Israeli briefings in the Reagan White House as evidence of Christian Zionist influence.

The North Park professor maintained that current Bush administration policies were aligned with the far right in Israel. “Following the September 11th attacks, a convergence [occurred] among neo-conservative and pro-Israel leaders,” he said.

Wagner also lamented that Christian Zionism supports American and Israeli exceptionalism at the expense of other peoples. “Christian Zionism ignores the Palestinian Christians and the indigenous Arab Christians while it idolizes the state of Israel and its policies of occupation and militarization,” he said. Wagner accused Christian Zionism of being “inherently anti-Semitic” because it envisions large numbers of Jews converting to Christianity in the end times.  In this scenario Wagner sees no special love or respect for the Jewish people themselves, but instead the simple classification of them as characters in a Christian apocalyptic narrative.

Wagner also made reference to the steep drop in Christian population in the Palestinian territories. He insisted that the “primary onus” for the decline had to be placed upon Israel’s “apartheid policies” rather than upon the rise of Hamas and other militant Islamist groups among the Palestinians.

In order to counteract Christian Zionism, Wagner advised that younger people be sought out. “We have to get into the evangelical colleges and universities; this is a long haul,” said Wagner. He suggested that “massive organizations like World Vision” be courted for the pro-Palestinian cause. The professor also advised working to better the image of Islam so that evangelicals would not be anti-Islamic.

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