CHRISTIAN THEOLOGIANS, religious leaders and peace activists issued a stinging rebuke of “the heretical teachings of Christian Zionism” following the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center’s conference “Challenging Christian Zionism: Theology, Politics, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict,” held in Jerusalem April 14-18.
Released at the end of the meeting, the statement says that Christian Zionism, in its extreme form, “places an emphasis on apocalyptic events leading to the end of history rather than living Christ’s love and justice.”
“We categorically reject Christian Zionist doctrines as a false teaching that undermines the biblical message of love, mercy and justice,” said the statement, adopted by more than 600 participants from 32 countries.
Sabeel, which in Arabic means “the way” or a channel or spring of life-giving water, celebrated its fifth anniversary at the conference. It is a grassroots movement among Palestinian Christians striving to develop a spirituality based on justice, peace, nonviolence, liberation and reconciliation for different national and faith communities.
Two new developments in the ongoing Mideast crisis bracketed the conference: the memoranda of agreement between President George Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on April 14 that, according to the statement, moved the crisis “into a new phase of oppression of the Palestinian people”; and the targeted assassination of a second Hamas leader in Gaza, Abdul Aziz Rantisi.
In the letters, Bush endorsed Sharon’s plans for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, calling it “a real contribution to peace,” as well as “historic and courageous.” While repeating his commitment to a two-state solution, Bush went further than any previous American president in stating that the West Bank settlements are “new realities on the ground” and calling it “unrealistic” to expect Israel to abandon them. The official U.S. position has considered the settlements obstacles to peace.
No return for refugees
Bush also said that Palestinian refugees uprooted by previous wars could not expect to return to what is now Israel, thereby rejecting the argument for a “right to return” that was a major point of contention in any final negotiation.
“The presiding bishop has already issued a statement to the president on the Episcopal Church’s long commitment to a just peace process. This sea change in U.S. policy will require a response from the mainline churches not seen since the anti-apartheid movement,” said the Rev. Brian Grieves, the Episcopal Church’s peace officer and a conference participant.
“Otherwise, we are staring at a crushing injustice against the Palestinian people,” he said. “The fact that half of the participants at the conference came from the U.S. and Canada was perhaps the most hopeful sign.”
The conference’s statement affirmed that a just and lasting peace must be based on the principles articulated in the Jerusalem Sabeel Document. That calls for two sovereign states, Palestine and Israel, living in a confederation, possibly with neighboring countries, with Jerusalem serving as the federal capital.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams did not deliver a keynote address in person, reportedly at the urging of local religious leaders. Instead Williams sent his ecumenical secretary, the Rev. Jonathan Gough, to read his remarks. Making apologies, Gough said that the archbishop’s priority “is to be able to act as a bridge builder” and that his attendance “could be misunderstood.”
Strong voices heard
The Rev. Stephen Sizer, an Anglican priest who chairs the International Bible Society in the United Kingdom, said that the thesis of Christian Zionism is that “every act taken by Israel is orchestrated by God and should be condoned-period.”
He called the influence of the movement, which dates back to early 19th Century England, immense, with as many as 100 million adherents in the United States. Christian Zionists typically are ultra-literalist in interpreting Scripture, support Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternal and exclusive” capital, favor rebuilding the Jewish temple on Mount Zion and express antipathy for Arabs who stand in the way of such a vision, he said.
But Rosemary Radford Ruether of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., warned participants not to assume that Christian Zionism “is a problem of fanatics and fundamentalists.” She said subtle collaboration with Israel and a “sophisticated and unconscious Zionism” exist in mainline Christian churches.
During a daylong program in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the group met with President Yassir Arafat of the Palestinian Authority, who called attention to the suffering of Palestinians, now increased by the construction of the barrier wall.
Hanan Ashrawi, an Episcopalian who has served as spokeswoman for peace efforts, said the new agreements between Bush and Sharon undermine any chance for peace. She said that the solution must be legal, just and peaceful, based on the recognition that many of the political policies are bankrupt.
Damage to the soul
Preaching at closing worship at the Notre Dame Center, former Presiding Bishop Edmond Lee Browning, who, with his wife, Patti, was honored by Sabeel for the couple’s long commitment to peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said the Christian community clearly is divided between two views.
“One view would see God’s plan being enacted through the return of the Jewish people to Israel, to be followed by Armageddon and the second coming of Christ. The other holds up a vision of this land based not on an interpretation of Scripture but on a God of justice as revealed in the totality of Scriptures.
“Any vision that says God would bring about deliverance for one group at the expense of suffering and injustice to another group of people is just simply not acceptable Christian theology. Indeed, it is not of God,” Browning said.
“We know that for many Jewish people there is a sense of darkness, a fear of enemies all around who wish them harm. And they lose innocent lives in acts of dreadful violence.” But the future, he said, lies in the words of Isaiah: “If you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt and to every evil word; if you give food to the hungry and satisfy those who are in need, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon.”
For more information, visit www.sabeel.org