Tomorrow I leave for Israel. I will be attending GAFCON, the Global Anglican Future Conference taking place in Jerusalem. My role will be to assist the Rt. Reverend Bill Atwood, the Bishop of the International Diocese for the Anglican Church in North America, and GAFCON Ambassador.
From my experience at GAFCON 2015 in Nairobi, I know how exciting it will be to gather with members of the Anglican Communion from across the globe. But compounding that excitement is the thrill of being in Israel – especially at such an exciting time in her recent history. Israel has just celebrated the 70th anniversary of her restoration and the anniversary of the miraculous Six Day War. And to top it off – she has seen a recommitment of friendship and partnership from President Donald Trump with the moving of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and with the declaration that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish nation.
My own love for Israel began long before I had any theological, historical, or geopolitical awareness of the tiny Middle East nation. When I was about 10 years old, I fell in love with a Jewish family that I had never met.
That family was on the pages of Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family stories about the Jewish community in turn-of-the-century New York’s lower East Side. I adored the sisters, Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie, from the first page of the first book because they loved to read, just like me.
As I devoured the entire series, I learned about Jewish culture and Jewish faith. At the same time, the Old Testament taught me about Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, and my favorite, Joseph. It seemed obvious that Israel, the home that God gave to these heroes and leaders, was still the true home of Jewish people today.
Years later, (okay, let’s be honest, decades later) Israel means more to me than ever. I went to Israel twice in the late 1980’s. To me back then, Israel’s security measures seemed overly dramatic, and “terrorism” was a vague term that made me think of some movie I had seen in which men with black turtlenecks rolled a seemingly innocuous baby carriage into a Paris café and it blew up. Boy, have things changed! Today, I heed the lyrics by Regina Spektor, “all you can do is try to know who your friends are as you head off to the war.”
Israel is America’s ally. But there’s more for me.
My almost 25 years as director of the International Religious Freedom Program at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, my identity as an Anglican Christian, and my theological perspective as a follower of Jesus, one who has been “grafted onto the vine” all help shape what Israel means to me.
Religious Freedom and Democracy . . . in the Middle East?!
Israel is not perfect. No nation is. But it is free.
At a time when we see ancient Christian communities throughout the Middle East in danger of being wiped out by ISIS, al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, al Nusra, and other Islamist supremacists, in Israel Christian and Muslim communities are thriving – not as dhimmi, but full-fledged citizens. Arab Israelis, Christian and Muslim alike, have a far better life in Israel than under the Palestinian Authority.
Statistics given on the status of Arabs in Israel reveal that Arabs Israelis have equal voting rights. Arab Israelis currently hold 10 seats in the Knesset. Arabic, along with Hebrew, is an official language of Israel. And while many Arabs do serve in the Israeli Armed Forces, only Jewish Israelis are required to do so. And G-d (well, at least Sharia) forbid someone should want to convert from Islam to Christianity in any other Middle Eastern country!
In addition, Israel has been a place of refuge for both Christians and Muslims fleeing persecution and oppression. My Sudanese Darfuri and Nubian Muslim friends love Israel for this reason. They know that they fight a common enemy – the Caliphate Builders of the Arab world. And some South Sudanese Christians who found refuge and education in Israel have now embraced a Messianic Jewish form of Christianity.
Back in 2004, one older South Sudanese friend of mine came to a White House rally for Israel wearing a kippah that he found in the pocket of a suit that he got at the thrift store. “I wear it because I love the Jewish people and Israel,” he had told me as he lovingly put on the head covering. He had known Israelis in what was then southern Sudan. One Israeli hero for the Southern Sudanese was one with the code name “Tarzan” who helped the South during Anyanya One. This war, whose name is translated as “snake venom,” was the first resistance movement of the South against Islamization by Khartoum. And Israel was a friend and ally to the people of southern Sudan.
Israel has been unfairly condemned for its more recent stance on limiting refugees, but I think that the Israelis understand the hijrah better than Western Europe and the United States do. You can bet that Israel won’t have the problem of Islamic “grooming” gangs that the United Kingdom has, with thousands of girls raped and trafficked, because of Israel’s rejection of insane political correctness.
Anglicans Like William Wilberforce and Charles Simeon Got It!
Reflecting on what Israel means to me is also connected to what being an Anglican means to me. We have a proud heritage in godly “social justice warriors” of their day. Men such as William Wilberforce, Charles Simeon, Joseph Frey, and Lord Shaftesbury in 1809 helped found the longest-standing Christian organization created to serve the Jewish people, the Church’s Ministry Among Jewish People (CMJ). CMJ’s history reveals:
From the beginning CMJ was aware that God had promised to bring Israel back to her God, Messiah and land. Seeing the oppression and persecution of the Jewish people, CMJ began a ministry of relieving the suffering of the Jewish people through charity at local levels, political activism in the highest echelons of the British government and proclaiming the Gospel of God’s Kingdom. The Good News of His love for mankind and the ultimate consummation of His reign on the earth included the promised restoration of His covenant people to their calling.
As far back as 1820, CMJ lobbied for the Right of Return for the Jewish people to Israel. Even further back, Anglican Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, martyred in 1556, modeled his Book of Common Prayer’s service of Morning Prayer on the Synagogue prayer practiced by the first Christians (who happened to be Jewish!). And, coincidentally I am sure, the Anglican “Harvest Home” celebration take place at the same time as the Jewish festival of Sukkot.
Shoots and Branches and the Restoration of the World
Finally, I don’t pretend to be a theologian, but my love of Israel is shaped by my theological perspective and my observation of Israelis today. The Bible contains promises about Israel the nation. It also sets out the unchangeable truth that the Jews are God’s chosen people, and that they were chosen to be a light to the nations.
The covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis is Israel’s spiritual foundation. God said He would establish His covenant “as an everlasting covenant” to be the God of Abraham and his descendants”. He also declared that He was giving the “whole land of Canaan . . . as an everlasting possession” to Abraham and his descendants. Well, if that is what He said, that is what He meant.
CMJ saw the rebirth of Israel as one of the greatest proofs for the very existence of God, and proof that God does indeed keep His promises. Even the secular State of Israel speaks of the nation’s rebirth as a “miracle.” Certainly, the victories of that fledgling nation over the attempted “war of annihilation” in 1948 by the five Arab armies of Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon and Iraq and the Six Day War of 1967 against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan were against all odds. The tiny, embattled country performed extraordinary deeds of valor. Its victories were costly, but they were also miraculous.
Israel’s spiritual past, being the people of the covenant, is connected to its spiritual future. Jesus told His disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (just before He healed the daughter of the Canaanite – a.k.a. Gentile – woman). He was not rejecting Gentiles; He was fulfilling prophecy and His mandate as Messiah. In the book of the Prophet Jeremiah 50: 6, God calls the people of Israel His lost sheep, and the Messiah their Shepherd. “The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”
St. Paul understood Israel’s spiritual future. He was the evangelist to the Gentiles, to us, the “graftees” and “wild shoots.” But he had a heart of tender love for his Jewish brothers and sisters. He told Gentile believers in Rome (Romans 11: 17-18):
If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches.
(Emphasis mine, but I am sure Paul would have also emphasized it!)
Paul declares both that “all Israel will be saved” and that “God’s gifts and His call are irrevocable.” And he says that because of the transgressions of Israel, “salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.” And he adds that if “their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!”
This is God’s assurance to Israel about its spiritual future.
Today I am amazed by the selfless service of Israelis all over the world. The Israelis today, often the first to arrive at disaster sites – and often in locations where Israel is not loved – demonstrate the principle of tikkun olam, the healing (or redemption) of the world, and they also continue to be a light to the nations. A 3rd century Hebrew prayer, the Aleinu, acknowledges that the completion of that healing, that redemption, can only come from God Himself:
And therefore we hope to You, Lord our God, that we may speedily behold the splendor of Your might, to banish idolatry from the earth – and false gods will be utterly destroyed; to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty. All mankind shall invoke Your Name to turn all the wicked of the earth to you.