I was recently invited to give a series of lectures in a dozen or so universities across Iran and dialogued with Islamic scholars in Qom. The Q&A session after each presentation was a lively affair – longer in fact than my presentations. The most frequently asked question concerned the reliability of the Bible. What did I think about Dan Brown’s book, TheDa Vinci Code? Apparently more than a billion people worldwide believe the views popularized in the Da Vinci Code.
They believe the message of the Bible has been corrupted and distorted, that Jesus is not the Son of God, but a prophet and that he did not die on the cross or rise from the dead.
They believe that in 325AD the Emperor Constantine commissioned the writing of the New Testament we now have which portrays Jesus as a divine figure. Dozens of other “gospels” were censored or destroyed. Constantine actually summoned the Council of Nicaea to end disunity caused by the Arian controversy. Arius taught that although Jesus was the Son of God, he was less than the Father. The Council was attended by around 300 bishops. The Arian Creed was soundly rejected. The Nicene Creed was accepted by 298 Bishops. 2 were against. (i.e., over 99% in favour). The Council of Nicaea recognized Jesus as “begotten not made, of the same substance (homousios) as the Father.”
With Basim Eljamal and Hazem Akkila at Alghad TV being interviewed about the Balfour Declaration, the influence of Christian Zionism and why, on the centenary, Britain should apologise for its broken promises. Cause for repentance not celebration.
Israel, Palestine, the Promised Land, the Holy Land, the very name we use says as much about us and our presuppositions and aspirations as about this inscrutable, hypnotic, exotic location. Historically the birthplace of the Judeo-Christian heritage, it is today claimed by two peoples, the Jews and Palestinians, its holy sites shared, at times uneasily, by three religions, Jewish, Christian and Moslem, often in close proximity as at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem or the tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem. Baraba Tuchman summarises some of the reasons why this place holds such fascination to so many,
More blood has been shed for Palestine than for any other spot on earth. To Protestant England it was not only, as Lord Curzon said, “the holiest space of ground on the face of the globe,” the land of the Scriptures, the land of the Crusades, the land “to which all our faces are turned when we are finally laid in our graves in the churchyard.” It was also the geographical junction between East and West, the bridge-head between three continents, the focal point in the strategy of empire…
Few countries attract so much media coverage, or arouse such intense religious feeling and political controversy. Yet it has been the same for countless generations. Why have people for millennia, longed to live here, or make a pilgrimage to this land? What is the fascination this land has over so many people around the world?
The term Jihad tends to be associated with Islam – indeed for some, the two words are synonymous. But the fact is violent extremism is found in all religions. I could easily quote Islamic or Jewish leaders who justify the use of violence in the name of God, but I will give you one example from a well-known Christian. Following the tragedy of 9/11 and destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York, multi-bestselling author and Christian journalist Anne Coulter, wrote,
“We don’t need long investigations of the forensic evidence to determine with scientific accuracy the person or persons who ordered this specific attack. We don’t need an “international coalition.” We don’t need a study on “terrorism.” … We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren’t punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war.”
In my opinion, too many evangelical leaders have also been quick to endorse Mr Donald Trump’s threat to “totally destroy North Korea.” Thankfully, many Christians in the USA as well as Europe and Asia repudiate views such as these as a gross distortion of Christianity and grave insult to the teachings of Jesus the Christ.
This year’s ReNew conference was organised by Anglican Mission in England, Church Society, and Reform and held in Leeds under the title Gospel Advance. The major theological theme of the conference explored the Atonement. Contributors included Christopher Ash, Sam Allberry, George Crowder, Matthew Mason, Vaughan Roberts, Rob Scott, Glen Scrivener, William Taylor, Rico Tice, Robin Weekes, and Paul Williams.
I bought this book in March 2014, soon after it was published, at the bookshop at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem. Although Verso have recently published it as a paperback, its title and length (313 pages) may not immediately appeal to many readers. I wanted therefore to write a fairly full summary of the book (not a review or a critique) because I believe it sheds so much light on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If ten pages are too long to read, just read this first page to get an idea of what the book is about!
This is how the blurb explains the title:
‘Since its foundation in 1948, Israel has drawn on Zionism, the movement behind its creation, to provide a sense of self and political direction. In this groundbreaking new work, Ilan Pappe looks at the continued role of Zionist ideology. The Idea of Israel considers the way Zionism operates outside of the government and military in areas such as the country’s education system, media, and cinema, and the uses that are made of the Holocaust in supporting the state’s ideological structure.
‘In particular, Pappe examines the way successive generations of historians have framed the 1948 conflict as a liberation campaign, creating a foundation myth that went unquestioned in Israeli society until the 1990s. Pappe himself was part of the post-Zionist movement that arose then. He was attacked and received death threats as he exposed the truth about how Palestinians have been treated and the gruesome structure that links the production of knowledge to the exercise of power. The Idea of Israel is a powerful and urgent intervention in the war of ideas concerning the past, and the future, of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.’
In his short but passionate little book, Chosen? Walter Brueggemann addresses some of the important questions regarding God’s purposes for Israel and the Church. For example, are contemporary Israeli citizens the descendants of the Israelites in the Bible whom God called chosen? Was the promise of land to Abraham permanent and irrevocable? What about others living in the promised land? Who are the Zionists, and what do they believe? The subtitle of the book tells us where he intends to look for answers, “Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” His publisher, Westminster John Knox, promises,
“The reader will get answers to their key questions about how to understand God’s promises to the biblical people often called Israel and the conflict between Israel and Palestine today.”
Chosen? comprises 59 pages of scripture commentary in four short chapters, a Q&A with the author, a glossary and 20-page study guide to facilitate group discussion around each of the chapters. The four chapters are:
Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
God’s Chosen People, Claim and Problem
Zionism and Israel
The book also contains very helpful guidelines for respectful dialogue first published by the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1992. Significantly, the title includes a question mark. I added a question mark to the titles of two of my own books: Christian Zionism: Roadmap to Armageddon? and Zion’s Christian Soldiers? The Bible, Israel and the Church.[i] Walter is recognising, as I did, that views differ on whether the Jews are God’s chosen people, even though, unlike me, he personally concludes that they are.
The late Tony Judt described this book as ‘the best modern history of the Balfour Declaration,’ and Eugene Rogan of Oxford sees it as ‘the most original exposition of the Balfour Declaration to date.’ It deserves a wide circulation as we live through the centenary of the Balfour Declaration on 2 November, 2017. The author, Jonathan Schneer, is an American historian who specialises in modern British history and teaches at Georgia Tech’s School of History, Technology, and Society.
This is an attempt simply to summarise the contents of the book with a number of quotations. If it were a review, my only criticism of the book would be that, in concentrating so much on the politics behind the Declaration, there is no discussion of the religious beliefs of key players like Lord Balfour and David Lloyd George which made them so open to supporting Zionism.
The Balfour Declaration (BD) needs to be understood in the context of World War I
By the time the BD was issued on 2 November 1917, Britain and Germany had been at war for over three years. Millions had been slaughtered in the trenches and neither side seemed to be winning. The Battle of the Somme had been fought between 1 July and 1 November, 1916, and Passchendale between July and November, 1917. The British government was seeking for ways to turn the tide in the war. Some in the cabinet believed that all their energies should be concentrated on the western front on the continent (‘the westerners’), while others believed that new initiatives in the Middle East could break the deadlock and give Britain the advantage (‘the easterners’). After the fall of the Asquith government in December 1916, Lloyd George, an easterner, became Prime Minister.
When you find yourself in deep trouble, when the rubber has hit the fan, it really does not matter whose fault it was or what caused it. All you really want is someone to help, someone to understand, someone to get you out of trouble. You see dying people, broken people, hurt people, used and abused people, don’t need theological explanations, or self-help tutorials, they need practical help, not next month, not next week, but today, right now, this very minute.
In Matthew 15 we meet a mother. A desperate mother. A mother with a sick child. Imagine that you’ve carried this baby in your womb for nine long months. You’ve been through the excruciating pain of childbirth. You’ve nursed her, fed her, washed her, changed her. Watched her grow, take her first step, say her first word. You can still remember her first day of school. How pretty she looked in that dress. The first time you let her out of your sight. She’s your little girl. Your little girl. And this was her little girl. Maybe she had been sick before. A cold here. A headache there, maybe a bruise or bump from time to time. But nothing ever like this before. In the daytime she screams and shouts constantly. You can’t put clothes on her because she’ll tear them off. Her hair is no longer washed and tidy with sweet little pig-tails. Her hair is all pulled out at the roots and the remaining ones are left sticking up. Strange voices come out of her mouth. She can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t play. But one thing is constant, those eyes. There’s a strange look in her eyes. Eyes that tell you that this is no ordinary sickness, no ordinary problem, no ordinary trouble. She is …. and you don’t want to even say the word… possessed.
On my first visit to Palestine, about 25 years ago, our tour guide was a Messianic Jew called Zvi. One day, someone in the group asked him a question about the Palestinians. He was prepared. He gave each of us a piece of paper with a quote by Golda Meir,
“It was not as if there was a Palestinian people in Palestine and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”
We didn’t ask any more questions until we got to Nazareth and met one of the local pastors. He gave us a short talk about why he was an Arab, a Palestinian, an Israeli and a Christian. I learnt that day that it was wiser and safer to let people self-identify and not presume to tell them who they are or are not.
Who am I? The world out there has plenty of ideas. Some would say I am who I was – the quest to trace our family tree, to know who are ancestors were can define us. My ancestors were here before yours were. Others insist I am what I achieve. What university did you go to? For others, I am what I drive. For some it is all about where I live. In a Settlement or an unregistered village? For some I am what I eat. For many I am what I do. For some I am who I love. For some I am what I know. For others I am who I know. For lots of people I am what I possess. But many people just don’t know. They are searching for meaning and purpose. They are trapped not knowing who they really are. Who am I? The Bible says, we will never know who we are until we decide who Jesus is. Because Jesus says, “I am who I follow”.