No one in Christian circles this side of the Atlantic has done more than Stephen Sizer to raise alarm bells about a ‘formidable and dangerous movement’ called Christian Zionism whose geopolitical peril he locates in the core conviction that ‘God blesses those nations that stand with Israel and curses those who don’t.’
What this conviction has meant, especially ominously since 9/11 2001 when the ensuing War (or Crusade) on Terror added copious grist to the Christian Zionist mill, is that the entire Muslim world is ‘cursed’, while Israel and her western allies are blessed. For a Christian Zionist there can never be an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and nor must Israel ever be forced to abandon her illegal settlements in the West Bank, let alone her claim to Jerusalem as her indivisible capital. Christian Zionists expect no peace in the Middle East until Jesus Second Coming, so all efforts to obtain a peace there are pre-doomed to failure. That some important aspects of thus Christian Zionist worldview have neatly dovetailed with that of the Neo-conservatives in charge of US foreign policy in the Middle East since 2000 is well known, as is the fact that the evangelical Christian vote was vital to Bush’s victory in 2004.
But why should the faith-based worldview of around a third of American evangelical Christians so closely resemble the guiding political ideology of the Jewish state? Anyone unversed in the biblical rationale for Christian Zionism will be tempted to explain it out of existence by listing other reasons for American’s support for Israel: emotive Hollywood Holocaust movies have done their job; Israel advertises itself as the only democracy in the Middle East; Israel was a pioneering society like America. But there is a great deal more to Christian Zionism than that. In a nutshell, we are up against the word of God in the Jewish Old Testament as opposed to the word of his son Jesus, also God of course, in the Christian New Testament.
Dr Sizer’s Zion’s Christian Soldiers: The Bible, Israel and the Church does an excellent job demonstrating the extent to which the age-old problem of discerning a clear and consistent message in both books of the Bible has led to Christian Zionists over-weighting on the side of the Jewish Old Testament, at the expense of Jesus’ universal and inclusive mission, at the expense, Sizer points out-though without putting it quite so starkly-of Christianity itself: ‘Did the coming of Jesus, his death and resurrection and the founding of the church, fulfil or postpone the biblical prophecies concerning Israel? Is the church central to God’s purposes on earth, or a temporary sideshow? If you believe the former to be the case then you are a covenantalist, if the latter, then you’re a Dispensationalist. If you are a Dispensationalist then you are almost de facto a Christian Zionist.
Dr Sizer is a theologian, so his overriding concern is with painstakingly demonstrating-with the aid of useful diagrams and charts as well as detailed argument-that the Dispensationalist view of God’s purposes are rooted in an inadequate, sometimes hilarious but also dangerously mistaken understanding of bible prophecy. He argues for a contextual rather than an ultra-literal reading of prophecy. The Dispensationalists’ ultra-literalism, he says, leads to a plethora of pitfalls, or rather pratfalls: Transient Literalism (confidently identifying one of Israel’s prophesied enemies as Russia in the 1970s, but adjusting that to the ‘Russian-Syrian-Iranian axis’ to match the reality of the 2000s, for example); Speculative Literalism (suggesting that one of the apostles forecast a nuclear war but had to explain it in terms intelligible to his age, as a volcano of fire and brimstone); Contradictory Literalism (no two ultra-literalist exegetes think alike on the meaning of any given prophecy); Enhanced Literalism (adding words to the original meaning here and there, to assist understanding); Arbitrary Literalism (mention of an eagle in the Bible, for example, is taken as mention of the US because the bald-headed eagle is America’s national symbol.
Sizer’s book is not aimed at the lay reader. With its clear lay-out and helpful study hints at the end of each chapter, it is clearly intended for the bible student or clergyperson seeking to understand the theological method of Christian Zionism and/or looking for some ammunition to effectively combat the ideology. To that extent it is an ideally practical tool, an important weapon in any covenantalist’s arsenal. However, as a non-theologian writer of Christian Zionism, past and present, as someone who is as alarmed as Sizer by its political implications, I would say that he may be underestimating the degree to which its growing popularity depends on factors that will prove impervious to his cogent argument.
Anyone who has attended a bible ‘prophecy conference’ at which a leading Christian Zionist has declared, after reading Isaiah 17:1 to an audience of 4,000, ‘An oracle concerning Damascus. Behold Damascus will cease to be a city,’ that he wished ‘the US would obliterate Syria and not leave it to Israel’ will have some idea of the intellectual weight of popular Christian Zionism. With its focus on war and Armageddon, Christian Zionism’s appeal can best be likened to that of a disaster movie; this is Christianity recast as a thriller. Anyone who has listened to an aeronautical engineer cum Bible prophecy expert like Chuck Missler will note how natural it is for a scientifically-trained evangelical Christian to read the Bible ultra-literally, as one would a computer manual or a code to be ingeniously deciphered. An encounter with San Antonio’s Pastor John Hagee, probably the most important Christian Zionist in America today, showed me that Christian Zionism is a reassuringly macho, gun-loving, super-confident and impatient for action as its counterpart, Islamic fundamentalism. Just as Moslem fundamentalism appeals to trained doctors and engineers, so Christian Zionism has a strong appeal for scientists and intelligence operatives, and to readers of thrillers and science fiction. Pastor Hagee writes Bible prophecy thrillers with titles like ‘Jerusalem Countdown: A Warning to the World.’
Like any religious fundamentalism, Christian Zionism has to do with Zeitgeist, with insecurity caused by change occurring at the pace it has since the end of the Cold War, with mass psychology. Travelling around Texas I discovered how rooted it is in emotion rather than reason. Time and again I encountered an appalling fear that America is falling out of favour with God in its adherents, a gut-level pessimism that has precious little to do with Bible-reading. In October 2006 a salegirl in the tourist office in Waco burst into tears when I asked her the reason for her overwhelming ‘heart for israel’: ‘I’m just so scared that if we get the Democrats again they won’t defend Israel so well, and that’s going to bring suffering on America,’ she sobbed, ‘We have to go on blessing the Jews!’