Don Wagner: The Widespread Influence of Christian Zionism and Growing Backlash Inside American Churches

DON WAGNER

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2022, pp. 37-43

2022 May Conference Issue

Dale Sprusansky: Don Wagner is the recently retired director of Friends of Sabeel North America. Prior to that, he was a professor of Middle East Studies at North Park University where he was also the director of its Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is also a former director of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in New Jersey and Evanston, IL. He is the co-author of five books. He has one coming out called, Glory to God in the Lowest: Journeys to an Unholy Land, which you can pre-order today or buy online at our bookstore MiddleEast Books.com.

He will be discussing the widespread influence of Christian Zionism and growing backlash inside American churches. We discussed this topic one other time at our conference with Thomas Getman and it’s one of our most popular YouTube videos. I’m sure Don is worthy to follow that talk. So welcome, Don.

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Don Wagner: Thank you, Dale. Thank you to the whole staff and all of you. Let me begin with a little vignette I got from our friend Mary Neznek about two hours ago. She follows the Christian Zionism issue. I haven’t seen this because I haven’t been following the news. But on Wednesday, March 2nd, Pat Robertson, an unbelievable Christian Zionist, made another prediction. He said God is using [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to prepare the way for Armageddon, the final battle when the forces of the anti-Christ—maybe he’s alluding to Putin as the anti-Christ, I don’t know—will come and attack Israel to bring on the second coming of Jesus in the final battle of history. 

I grew up with that. Seriously, as a young kid, that’s what my mom believed to her dying day at the age of 95. “Say, Don, why are you working on justice for Palestine? It’s not going to happen. They’ve been fighting since Cain and Abel. It’ll never end until Jesus returns.” So there’s a little summary of Christian Zionism that I had passed down. I pulled out of that when I was about 13. I just couldn’t understand the violence and the dual narrative of violence that it supported. I had a little bit of insight and left it. 

But then, when I went to a seminary, I got another type of Christian Zionism, one that’s rarely discussed: mainline liberal Protestant and Catholic Christian Zionism, a post-Holocaust version that elevates Israel as an exceptional power that we must support as God’s agent. It was an answer to the Holocaust, which we can all believe and agree to, but now it elevates Israel and creates an exceptionalism. I call it the Christian Zionism hiding in plain sight in our churches and in the Democratic Party. It’s the kind of Christian Zionism that forces progressives to be good on every issue except this, Palestine. 

Our friend and Jewish liberation theologian, Marc Ellis, called it the “ecumenical deal.” Let’s have dialogue and wonderful dinners. We’ll get together and work on racism and every other issue, but check Palestine at the door. It’s complicated, leave that to us. You Christians shouldn’t be involved in it because we are on the front lines.

I want to start with a little bit of a historical overview, a historical context on the rise of two Zionisms, and then we’ll move to the other issues. 

I used to give my students an exercise when I was teaching about the Israel-Palestine struggle. I don’t use the word “conflict” anymore because it assumes parity. I use “struggle.” It’s a political struggle. On the first day of classes I would give them this exercise: Where, when and why did the Palestine-Israel struggle begin? Now what would you say? Where does it begin? The students would often start with 1967, the 1967 war. But if you start there, and some textbooks do, you don’t get what happened in the Nakba. You’ll miss the genocide of 1948 and 1949. You’d miss it. Or you go back a little further to the Balfour Declaration. A lot of students would say that. That’s closer, but I go back earlier.

The Beginning of the Struggle

I said the struggle begins not in Palestine where Muslim, Jews and Christians basically were living together in peace up until the British Mandate and the influx of Zionism and settlers. It begins in Europe. It begins in the 1840 to 1900 period when the lethal history of mostly Christian anti-Semitism was filling Eastern Europe and Russian and Ukrainian cities with pogroms. That’s where it begins. That was when Jewish leaders began to articulate the need for a homeland because we’ll never be safe in Europe. 

The great Jewish physician of Odessa, Dr. [Leo] Pinsker, was an assimilationist as most Jews in Europe were. He decided, no, we’ve got to fit in. He was a leader of that movement in Odessa. Then his house was attacked and burned by violent Christian mobs. A pogrom. He realized overnight, no longer can we be secure. As a physician, he used the analysis Judeophobia. It was a medical analysis of a condition, of hatred and fear of the Jews. Thus, the attacks and blaming the Jews. 

So Pinsker was what the great Dr. Arthur Hertzberg calls a precursor. He prepared the way for the Zionist movement. He wasn’t actually an articulator of a political plan, but he called for a homeland. So he prepared the way for Theodor Herzl and others. Now, Herzl comes and begins official Zionism in 1897 with the World Zionist Congress—that’s the official launch of the political ideology of Zionism. Christian Zionism had been percolating for 400 years, mostly in Europe.

When I did my earlier research and writing, I figured that all these early speakers who were calling for support for the Jews and a homeland were Christian Zionists. I’ve decided to change that. So now I would say that these early forerunners—like John Nelson Darby, Lord Shaftesbury and many others—they are precursors because their movements were religious on behalf of the Jews calling for some kind of a homeland. A solution. But they did not have a political plan until about 1888.

Along came Reverend William Hechler. Reverend Hechler was an old Christian Zionist. He was the chaplain to the British army in Vienna. Hechler had been dreaming and hoping for a Jewish movement to come along and save the Jewish people. His origins, he was a restorationist. He believed that the Christian duty was to convert the Jews and encourage them to move to Palestine or somewhere to hasten the return of Jesus. 

He kind of switched overnight when he met Herzl in Vienna. He saw him as a great prophet, and Hechler became active in political Zionism for the rest of his life. He became a very close friend of Herzl. He arranged for meetings with a German Kaiser where Herzl asked for land in Palestine. He arranged for a meeting with the Ottoman leadership. They all rejected and turned him down. But Herzl valued that friendship and Hechler was one of the only Gentiles with the family on Herzl’s deathbed. Herzl told him, you are the father of Christian Zionism. This was before the Zionist movement. So Hechler is one.

The other one, who was kind of a precursor turned into a Christian Zionist, is a guy from my home area in Chicago, William E. Blackstone. Blackstone was kind of an end-time theology guy. He believed in the rapture, like Pat Robertson, that at the end Israel would come under fire from the anti-Christ and its hordes coming down from the north. Now, conveniently, Born Again Christians would be removed. You know what that’s called? The rapture. I bought into that for a while. So it’s so convenient for Born Again Christians. They won’t go through the final battle and all the hassles. 

So overnight Blackstone believed this isn’t enough. He organized the first Zionist lobby in 1891. A petition drive from coast to coast. It was financed by John D. Rockefeller; Charles Scribner, the publisher; J.P. Morgan. He had about a dozen or more U.S. congressmen and senators and the chief justice of the Supreme Court on the petition appealing to the president, Benjamin Harrison at that time, to create a Jewish state in Palestine because of the pogroms and the suffering of Jews in Europe. 

Before Herzl at the first World Zionist Congress, the Christian Zionists had a lobby in 1891. That is the beginning of Christian Zionism. So I define Christian Zionism as a political movement calling for support for Israel guaranteed by foreign powers. Because God gave all of the land to the Jewish people, Christians must therefore provide religious and spiritual, economic and political support. This is the basis of fundamentalist Christian Zionism. 

Most of the fundamentalists call themselves evangelicals. Evangelicalism is a movement of about 110 million Christians in the United States. Many evangelicals reject Christian Zionism. Christian Zionism is in the fundamentalist right-wing of the movement, so that’s why it’s important to use “fundamentalism.” Almost all the secular and religious media [portray all evangelicals as Christian Zionists]. This kind of plays into their favor because they can say, oh, we represent 110 million Christians. No. You might represent at best about 18 million. That’s a lot.don wagner2x740

Followers of American Pastor John Hagee chant slogans in support of Israel as they wave Israeli and U.S. flags during a rally in downtown Jerusalem on April 7, 2008. (GALI TIBBON/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

So the movement of Reverend John Hagee of Christian Zionism, Christians United for Israel [CUFI], has now become more numerically powerful than the pro-Israel Jewish lobby, AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], and the others. They have worked hand in glove together. David Brog, who came right out of AIPAC, was the director of CUFI and did all the hard wiring of the movement with the pro-Israel lobby for years. He has just declared he’s going to run for Congress in Nevada. 

So they got new people, but Hagee’s movement and other Christian Zionist movements is what really was used by the Trump administration and quietly by [former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu to push for the move of the U.S. Embassy and basically the annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. They lobbied heavily and pushed that through. Trump admitted it himself, when he was in Wisconsin fundraising during his election campaign—“we did it for the evangelicals” (better yet, fundamentalists). So, that’s an admission of how that played out.

How to Criticize Christian Zionism

Now let me use a little bit of judicial focus here. As I go into more of a critique of Zionism, Christian Zionism. I try to follow what Ilan Pappé recommended—that we need to be very precise and careful with our language. I’m not here criticizing the Jewish religion or the Jewish people. Pappé said denying Israel’s existence is impossible and unrealistic. However, evaluating Israel ethically, morally and politically is not only possible but at present it is urgent as never before. We’ve been a little too soft, particularly in the Christian quarters, on our critique of Christian Zionism. We’re fearful of criticizing Zionism itself. Times are changing and denominations are really beginning to step up and see the difference.

So let me move now to part three. I want to talk a little bit about liberal mainline Christian Zionism. As I said, when I was in seminary at Princeton I was politicized. I came from a conservative Republican family, a fundamentalist Zionist background. Even though I had left some of that, the views lingered. So I went into Holocaust studies a great deal. As I was working on post-Holocaust theology, I was really standing with the Jewish people against anti-Semitism—and still will, we must do that. I, however, caught this elevation of Israel as God’s chosen people in a different way. There is a fellow I was reading called Reinhold Niebuhr, a great liberal theologian. President Barack Obama said he is his favorite ethical theologian and philosopher.

Niebuhr organized a lobby during World War II that lobbied for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. It was very successful, putting pressure on the Truman administration. Niebuhr, however, had a blind spot. Another progressive who was good on every issue—on race, human rights, everything else. But when it came to Palestine, it was really a blank tablet. don wagner dale sprusanskyx740

Dale Sprusansky (r) urges the audience to order Glory to God in the Lowest: Journeys to an Unholy Land. (PHOTO PHIL PASQUINI)

He was told when he was lobbying that there was a genocide going on in Palestine with the Israeli militias and the new army annihilating Palestinians and forcing them to leave. Niebuhr said this will be necessary for Israel to become a state. He excused it. That was how far he went in his blindness to Palestinian justice.

Now many of our liberal congressmen and senators, maybe even the president, have been influenced by that liberal kind of post-Holocaust theology that places Israel above the norms of international law and standards. So this is a liberal Christian Zionism, I say hiding in plain sight. It’s in our culture. It runs deep; The city on a hill, that we are blessed as a nation to bless Israel and elevate Israel. This, however, is beginning to change. 

Let me shift a little bit to that. As I’ve changed my analysis, I’ve turned to two sources of critique in the past five years. One is settler colonial analysis and the second is liberation theology. My book will deal with the liberation theology. Let me just mention a few things about settler colonialism. Most of you are probably familiar with this. Traditional colonialism basically will come as the British did in India and occupy, take the resources, control, abuse the population. But they generally leave. They’re either forced out or they become bankrupt and they exit. 

Settler colonialism is different. Settler colonialism comes and the occupier stays. Their endgame, their goal, is to replace the indigenous population with their own settlers. This is what the United States eventually turned to become, a settler colonial regime. Look what we’ve done to our indigenous population. It’s criminal. This is what Israel now has done.

Now, there are several different types of Zionism. When I taught this, I identified six. But the revisionist form of Zionism, the more militant, is modeled after a settler colonial ideology. This is the Zionism of the [Menachem] Begins, Netanyahus and now [Naftali] Bennett, [Yair] Lapid, [Avigdor] Lieberman and the rest. It’s also merged with an even more militant messianic type of Zionism, where they believe the land has been given to them by God. They can no longer argue on international law for them to have a right to the land, so they pull out the divine argument. It is a replace and displace movement, using any means necessary. 

Just look at the Nakba. What’s going on now is a slow genocide of settler colonialism in Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan, across the West Bank. Tent of Nations, a wonderful project that many of us support, is constantly threatened to lose their land even though they have the deed going back to, I think, 1914. The settlers and the government of Israel want that 100 acres of property high on the hill. So, settler colonialism is designed to replace and displace. 

Patrick Wolfe, an Australian, was the one who pushed this issue and said settler colonialism should be a separate and identifiable field of study. Now it is. Here’s how he summarized it as applied to Israel: “Settler colonialism destroys to replace.”  As Theodore Herzl, founding father of Zionism, observed in his allegorical manifesto novel—listen to this quote: “If I wish to substitute a new building for an old one, I must demolish before I construct.” I must demolish the people and what was there in Palestine before I construct the new Jewish state. That’s the ideology in a nutshell.

Now let me turn to the final part.

In the fall of 2019, after 100 years of Zionist settler colonization’s attempts to kill, occupy and murder the Palestinians, Palestinians were still over 50 percent of the population in historic Palestine. If you add the refugees, much more. However, the Christian population has shrunk. In 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan, the Christians in the West Bank were 13 percent. Do you know what they are today? It slipped under one percent. They’re disappearing not because of militant Islam, as Israel and the Christian Zionists would have us believe. It’s the occupation, the brutality, the settler colonialism that’s destroying their lives and their future.

In July 2020, a group of Christians met in Jerusalem as Netanyahu was about to issue the annexation executive order for all of the West Bank, until he got significant pushback from Europe and held back. As Sheikh Jarrah was losing homes, Silwan the same, a group of Christian leaders met and they issued what’s called a “cry for hope.” They said it’s beyond urgent. It was a cry to the global—not just churches—but the global progressive Jewish and Muslim community. Come and stand with us. Accelerate your work. It isn’t enough just to pass resolutions. We need action, an aggressive action now. 

So here are some of the things that they focused on. I’ll just mention these. This went out globally to the churches around the world.

1: Urgent resolutions, inter-denominations, calling for legislative action, organizing, boycotts and the rest. 

2: Theological analysis on the misuse of the Bible. Pastor Mitri Raheb said, “We in Palestine are occupied by the Israeli military and by the Bible.” The Bible is abused and misused to force another people into suffrage.

3: Solidarity with Palestinians. Letting us [Palestinians] set the agenda and listening and standing with us on what we need now, and using all the tools of non-violent action, especially BDS. This is a call from the churches. As a Presbyterian, we worked for 10 years to get BDS passed. Finally in 2014, after strong pressure and argument, we passed it in Detroit. Jewish Voice for Peace and American Muslims for Palestine were standing with us to celebrate. Now several other denominations are doing that. So BDS. But now it has to also move to sanctions, as it did in South Africa. 

4: Stand against anti-Semitism. Stand with Jews and fight anti-Semitism at all costs at all times. We must do that to be consistent. While I’m on this one, did you notice how anti-Semitic Christian Zionism is? One model, the restorationists, say let’s convert the Jews and move them to Palestine because we don’t want them living in our neighborhood. The other one, let’s also convert the Jews and give them a state or a homeland. This was Darby and Blackstone and the rest. Lord Balfour, who was a Zionist Christian, he opposed the Jewish immigration bill in the parliament, I think it was 1901, because he didn’t want Jews in his neighborhood. But we’ll send them to Palestine. So these movements are inherently racist and anti-Semitic. We need to stand against anti-Semitism in all forms. 

5: Come and see, come and stand with us. See the real situation on the ground and then go home, and go to work, and get busy. By the way, several denominations are now working very hard since July of 2020 to push new resolutions. The United Church of Christ had one of the strongest last year. Now the Episcopal Church is following. It’s go and do likewise. We Presbyterians now have to catch up with the others.

Here are the others: Declare Christian Zionism a heresy. It is a heresy. It takes a portion of the truth, it turns it upside down and empties it and then fills it with racist anti-biblical content. So this is what Christian Zionism and Zionism are. They are ideologies that are idolatrous of the State of Israel, absolutely idolatrous, and that is [a violation of] the First Commandment. They also are racist and we need to call them to account for the lack of humanity and accountability. We are all equal before God—imago dei [created in the image of God]. 

There’s a term called status confessionis. It is a theological term. Dietrich Bonhoeffer used this idea when he was critiquing, as a German under Nazism, that the National Socialist ideology that the German church had adopted is racist and out of our confessional tradition and must be rejected. The South African Christians saw this and applied it to apartheid. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches had their international meeting in Ottawa, Canada in 1982. Allan Boesak and some of the ministers walked out when communion was served saying, we can’t take communion in white churches in South Africa, so we’re not going to take it here until you change and declare apartheid a heresy. We need to do the same thing now on Christian Zionism. It is a heresy, an abomination to the Christian message of Jesus. 

We need to work to close the tax loopholes that Zionist and Christian Zionist organizations have. CUFI, Christians United for Israel, is raising money for settlements. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews raises money from Christian evangelicals primarily, and annually gives a million to two dollars to the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and is working on settlements. It is all tax-exempt money, exploiting the IRS [Internal Revenue Service]. This needs legislative action. Albeit long and hard, but it has to be done.

A great film, by the way, “’Til Kingdom Come,” done by an Israeli filmmaker, Maya Zinshtein. It was scheduled to air in Chicago on PBS a few months ago. At the last minute it was pulled and never aired. One of the things it does, it shows the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews handing a check over to the IDF for a million dollars. So it’s clear. There’s the evidence. 

Next, decolonize Palestine. Decolonize Palestine through global grassroots advocacy work. And it’s coming up. It’s emerging with Black Lives Matter, American Muslims for Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace and many others. A solidarity movement is coming up at the grassroots. We can’t access power at the top level with [President Joe] Biden, [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken and the boys. But the grassroots movement, if we get mobilized, elect more people like Huwaida Arraf and put pressure on the rest of the Democrats and Republicans to change their policies in Palestine, the grassroots is our hope. Our hope is the next generation and it’s rising. It’s coming.

Well, let me close with this. Advocacy, hard work, is really going to be the key. Organizing. 

Let me close with this quote from my friend Mark Braverman, a great theologian and Jewish writer, talking about Zionism and our need to critique it—and Christian Zionism. He writes, “We must acknowledge that Zionism was a mistake.” I would add, and Christian Zionism. “An understandable but catastrophic wrong turn in our quest for safety and dignity.  Until then, until we reject it, we will continue to build a state on top of a lie and a crime. Until then Palestinians will continue to resist by steadfastly refusing to relinquish their identity, their way of life, their connection to their homeland. Occupied, harassed, imprisoned, blockaded, bombarded, starved, betrayed by their political leaders, but proud, unbowed, refusing to disappear. Jews must recognize, and Christians, that our stories today are not what was done to us, but what we will now do for justice for the sake of others.”

Let’s rise to be part of this new wave of change, to transform Palestine from the occupation and Israel from settler colonialism. It’s something we all have a stake in and must do. Thank you.

Dale Sprusansky: All right. Thank you so much for that enlightening and also impassioned speech. Just once again a reminder. His book can be pre-ordered at MiddleEastBooks.com. If that speech isn’t going to make you want to buy it, I don’t know what will. 

Questions and Answers

So, Don, I think before we get some questions from the audience, I guess I’ll just start with a question. If you could maybe talk a little bit more about your own path out of Christian Zionism and what that means for how other people can help lead people out of that strain of thinking.

Don Wagner: Yeah. Well, that’s what the story in that book is. It was my pandemic project. I couldn’t go anywhere, so [my wife] Linda and I just hunkered down and I wrote a book. 

It’s my story out of two Christian Zionisms, where I was shaped by my family to buy into this end-time theology as a kid. After a while it just didn’t make sense and I was able to think a little bit more critically. But these Christian Zionisms are a worldview. It gives you a narrative to interpret the world. It’s fear-based. It’s not love-based. It’s not love your neighbor as yourself. It’s a fear-based narrative. After a while I just couldn’t stomach it anymore. 

I was about 13 when I asked a pastor: I don’t understand why, in the Book of Joshua, they virtually commit genocide against the original inhabitants. Isn’t that in direct conflict with the Hebrew prophets and Jesus? And his words to me basically said, just accept the Bible as it’s written. I said I can’t accept this. This is not the word of God.

Then the post-Holocaust version was a little bit more difficult because it’s more subtle. With the whole issue of anti-Semitism and connecting it with Israel, it was more difficult for me. The way that breakthrough came, I mentioned it briefly last night. I had moved down to my last church in Evanston, IL. I was the youngest guy on the staff in a big downtown church and we did a series on the Middle East “conflict.” Then we called it “conflict.” Now “struggle,” of course. And I was very much wedded to the Zionist narrative. We decided in the course that we’ll divide it. We’ll bring in a speaker on Zionism and the defense of Israel. Then we’ll have a speaker on the pro-Palestine issue. 

So I brought in the [Israeli] Consul General of Chicago. He gave a passionate defense of Israel. I was thrilled. Good job. My partner, who was organizing it, happened to be a layman who was a fundraiser at Northwestern University. He went and settled Palestinians in 1949 and 1950 in tents with the United Nations. So he brought in Dr. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod who was at that time chair of political science at Northwestern University. That was the first time I heard the story of the Nakba by someone who went through it, who lost their home, was forced out of Jaffa and settled in tents in Ramallah. It jarred my narrative. It opened it a little bit, but not completely. 

Then I went to the office the next morning and my phone rang. It was a Jewish leader from Skokie, which is right next door to Evanston, saying, “you have brought in Abu-Lughod. He is a member of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], a friend of [Yasser] Arafat and a terrorist. You are dignifying terrorism. If this series is not canceled, we’re going to march on your church during the Sunday morning service.”

I’d only been there two weeks. So I headed down and told my boss, the senior pastor, about this. He said, “jeez, Wagner, you’ve only been here two weeks and we’ve got big problems already.” But it was hot air. Nothing happened. I began then, once my narrative was jarred, to study. I met with Dr. Abu-Lughod and other Palestinians and, long story short, gradually not only was my narrative changed, I went and saw it for a month firsthand and came back and felt, I want to go to work on this cause full time. And I did.

Dale Sprusansky: What biblical scripture can be used to respond to Christian Zionism? 

Don Wagner: Okay. Well, first I’d recommend that you get Walter Brueggemann’s book, Chosen? or anything by Dr. Gary Burge. Gary is an evangelical. He used to teach at Wheaton and he is a biblical scholar. So he’s analyzed all these texts.

I’ll just say a couple things. The Israel of the Bible is conflated with the modern state. They ain’t the same, folks. There are four references to who Israel is in the Bible and none of them talk about an independent Jewish state in the future. So that’s one thing. Second, the narrative of the scriptures is about loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. It’s based on fundamental equality. 

We are called to be in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the hurting. Not to elevate a state as a tribal state above others with military solutions, but we’re to be in the trenches with those who are suffering and struggling. Right now it’s the Palestinians. And to call for Jewish progressives and Muslims, so we work together, and fight racism because it’s a very racist project.

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