The movement founded by Blackstone did not appreciably advance except that adherents often spoke on behalf of persecuted Jews, especially victims of pogroms in Russia. In 1916 Jewish leaders successfully urged Blackstone to revive his Memorial, this time for another Presbyterian President, Woodrow Wilson, even gaining official Presbyterian Church support in the private appeal, which was believed to influence the Administration to support Britain’s Balfour Declaration.
Blackstone’s Zionism comfortably melded with wider Mainline Protestant interpretations of WWI as a divine instrument for chastening and reforming the nations, pushing them in the direction of God’s ultimate Kingdom. Bishop Samuel Spreng preached on the war’s lessons in the summer of 1918 to the Oakwood Park Assembly outside Chicago. He was a bishop in The Evangelical Church, a denomination in which Orville and Wilbur Wright’s father was also a bishop, and which would decades later merge into The United Methodist Church.
The “cataclysm” of world war had brought suffering but also a “new birth,” Bishop Spreng promised. “Above the battle’s roar, and the cannon’s thunder one can hear the voice of the Almighty saying, ‘Behold I make all things new.’” He pronounced the war as a judgment upon the world and was confident that God, never intending that “one man should rule the world,” would ensure that Germany’s “war lord would fail too,” with Germany ultimately freed from the “tyrant’s yoke.” Bishop Spreng celebrated the fall of Russia’s czar and the “tyranny of the Greek Church,” leaving Russia “now ready for the Gospel.” Speaking before the Bolshevik takeover in a few months, he enthused that Russia is “religiously free as a direct result of the war,” and “this alone is worth all that the war has as yet cost in blood and life and treasure.” He also rejoiced that with the fall of Turkey, the “political significance of Islam will be broken.” Spreng foresaw that “Mohammedan lands will be open to the Gospel as never before.” Thanks to British arms, the “flag of a Christian nation” now floats above Jerusalem. Britain had promised a homeland for the Jews, which the Bishop saw as one of God’s “miracles” emerging from the war. “War is the surgeon’s knife in God’s hand for the purpose of delivering the nations from their imperiling sins,” Spreng suggested, adding that “Jehovah is a man of war.” And this war is the “thunder and crash of the irresistible march of progress.”
SOME CONSIDERABLE BULLSHIT IN THE ABOVE PARAGRAPH!
Christian Zionism continued after WWI in groups like the now to us ironically named “Pro-Palestine Federation,” which organized church leaders for Jewish return to Zion. In 1936 the group, including the Episcopal Bishop of Washington among other prominent Mainliners, met the British ambassador, while claiming to represent ‘the consensus of enlightened Christian American opinion,” to remind the British government that “God has bestowed upon England one of the greatest missions in human history – the salvation of Israel and restoration to its ancient patrimony’. Also participating was liberal Methodist Bishop Francis J. McConnell, a founder of the Methodist Federation for Social Action, now today a leading proponent of anti-Israel divestment, but who in the 1930s was urging Britain ‘to fulfill its convenental pledges” about a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
In the late 1930s a similar group, with some of the same church voices, arose, called “Christian Leaders, Clergymen and Laymen, on Behalf of Jewish Immigration into Palestine Federation,” declaring that “the destiny of the Jews is a matter of immediate concern to the Christian conscience, the amelioration of their lot a duty that rests upon all that profess Christian principles.” Joining prelates like Bishop McConnell was an increasingly prominent German Reformed theologian at New York’s Union Seminary named Reinhold Niebuhr. This group was “committed to the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine in relation to the overall settlement in the postwar era,” while “urg[ing] as immediate policy the admission now of Jewish exiles into other countries, including the United States, as well as Palestine.” One of its seminary leaders, a Congregationalist, confidently exclaimed that, “As soon as the British see that list of men on our stationery – Niebuhr, Tillich, McConnell, Albright, Sockman, and Poling – they’ll open the gates of Palestine and let those Jewish refugees come pouring in. Then we’ll disband the committee. It’s as simple as that.”
Niebuhr wrote describing the group’s purpose:
The Jews require a homeland, if for no other reason, because even the most generous immigration laws of Western democracies will not permit all the dispossessed Jews of Europe to find a haven in which they may look forward to a tolerable future … Whether the Jews will be allowed to develop a genuine homeland under their own sovereignty within the framework of the British Empire depends solely upon the amount of support that they secure in the two great democracies, for those democracies will have it in their power if Hitler is defeated to make the necessary political arrangements … The Anglo-Saxon hegemony that is bound to exist in the event of an Axis defeat will be in a position to see to it that Palestine is set aside for the Jews, that the present restrictions on immigration are abrogated, and that the Arabs are otherwise compensated.
As one author noted, the prominent Mainline Protestant Zionists by this time were no longer speaking theologically but in terms of earthly political justice. It was said that liberal sophisticates like Niebuhr thought Christian so-called fundamentalists were correct on Zionism only inadvertently.
In 1958 Niebuhr wrote:
Many Christians are pro-Zionist in the sense that they believe that a homeless people require a homeland; but we feel as embarrassed as anti-Zionist religious Jews when messianic claims are used to substantiate the right of the Jews to the particular homeland in Palestine … History is full of strange configurations. Among them is the thrilling emergence of the State of Israel.
Liberal Protestants in the early post WWII years agreed mostly with Niebuhr. New York Methodism in 1948 commended President Harry Truman for recognizing Israel and urged the United Nations to treat attacking Arab states as a “threat to world peace.” New York Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam was presented an award for honoring newly formed Israel’s “stand for dignity and equality of opportunity.”
In 1954, Missouri Bishop Ivan Holt of the World Methodist Council and another bishop joined prominent officials in urging Arab states to resettle 800,000 Arab (i.e., Palestinian) refugees from the 1948 war. Of the Palestinians, they declared: “Led into flight from their homes by Arab leaders, they are prevented from seeking permanent rehabilitation by these same leaders who use existence of the problem as a weapon against the West and against Israel.”
By the 1970s, Mainline Protestantism, no longer seeing Israel as the underdog after the 1967 victory, and increasingly enthralled by Liberation Theology, which assumed Western nations like Israel were de facto oppressors of Third World peoples, was shifting against Zionism. Liberal Protestant pronouncements reacting to the 1973 war were ambivalent. Declared one official:
“The events of the last few years have tended to obscure the origin of the ongoing struggle in the Middle East … Behind the big power conferences there are Israelis and Palestinians, two people who claim the same land, two people whose history in the twentieth century includes horror, war, resistance, and survival.”
By 1974, Israel was boycotting a United Methodist panel on the Middle East held at the Church Center for the United Nations (located across the street from the UN headquarters in New York), alleging the program was biased towards Arabs. In 1975, Mainline Protestant officials did not mostly deplore the UN’s declaration equating Zionism with “racism,” although perhaps more out of concern for the UN than for Israel.
In 1976, the United Methodist Church adopted its first official stance on the Middle East, which noted Israeli Jews live with “insecurity,” amid a “long history of oppression suffered by Jews,” culminating with the Holocaust. It also cited Palestinian “suffering,” including “arrests, tortures, and expulsions” by Israelis. It affirmed “self determination” for Jews and Palestinians, including a Palestinian state, while faulting the U.S. for ignoring Palestinian “aspirations.” And it urged recognizing the Palestine Liberation Organization.
By the 1980s Mainline Churches were supporting pro-PLO advocacy groups in the U.S., including one headquartered in the Interchurch Center in New York. In the 1990s Mainline church voices were denouncing Jewish settlements urging reconsideration of U.S. aid for Israel.” In 1997 a United Methodist “Volunteers- in- Mission” official denounced Israel’s crackdown in response to Palestinian suicide bombers, accusing Israel of “ethnic cleansing, racism, and the creating of a Jerusalem for Jews only.” Dallas Bishop William Oden, visiting the Middle East in early 2001, complained: “Israel is the only nation that buys arms from us from whom we do not require accountability.”
By the start of the 21st century, liberal Protestantism had not only abandoned Christian Zionism, it was denouncing it as heresy. In 2008, the National Council of Churches released a special brochure called “Why We Should Be Concerned About Christian Zionism” to warn its 35 member denominations.
“The danger of this ideology is that it is a manipulation of Christian scripture and teaching,” fretted the NCC’s interfaith spokesman. “Unfortunately it has influence in American churches, to the point where many well-meaning Christians are swayed to support particularly destructive directions in U.S. foreign policy with regard to the Middle East.” Not typically concerned about upholding orthodox theology, the NCC even claimed that Christian Zionists violate the “traditional teachings of the church.”
An NCC news release summarized: “’Christian Zionism’ is a dangerous movement that distorts the teachings of the Church, fosters fear and hatred of Muslims and non-Western Christians, and has negative consequences for Middle East Peace.” It portrayed pro-Israel evangelicals as mindless zealots who are eager to precipitate the End Times, not to mention bigots and paranoid ignoramuses.
The NCC perspective is echoed in even more strident terms by infamously anti-Israel Church of England priest Stephen Sizer, whose book, Zion’s Christian Soldiers, warns that, “In its worst forms, Christian Zionism uses the Bible to justify racial superiority, land expropriation, home demolitions, colonial settlements, the denial of international law and the dehumanization of Arabs.”
Sizer further complained that Christian Zionism also “provides a biblical justification for U.s. intervention in the Middle East. It is deeply mistrustful of the United Nations and the European Community, and actively opposes the implementation of international law and the right of Palestinians to a sovereign state alongside Israel.”
For Sizer, Christian Zionism seems like a plague: “It not only fuels Islamophobia but also anti-Semitism and Islamist retaliation against Christians.” His charge that pro-Israel Christians incite “retaliation” against Christians echoes a small but growing sentiment among the Evangelical Left, both British and American, to oppose public critique of jihadist Islam in favor of accommodation.
“Why have Britain and America become the focus of so much hatred from the Islamic world?” Sizer further asked. “Why are our countries the target for Islamist terrorism – despite our commitment to the rule of international law, democracy and human rights?” For Sizer the reasons are clear: “The answers to these questions remain inexplicable unless we factor in what is now probably the most influential and destructive movement amongst Christians today – Christian Zionism.”
A softer critique of Christian Zionism is offered by Evangelicals like Lynne Hybels, and groups like World Vision and Telos, who urge a “Pro-Israel. Pro-Palestine. Pro-Peace. Pro-Justice. Pro-Jesus:” agenda. This critique resents and often caricatures the ostensibly simplistic and unquestioning support that Christian Zionists give Israel. They understand that U.S. evangelicals’ historically pro-Israel views explain much of America’s alliance with Israel. And they clearly hope that persuading many evangelicals into a more neutralist stance, if not openly partial to Palestinians, could have significant geopolitical repercussions.
During the recent Gaza conflict, the head of Telos, Todd Deatherage expressed the therapeutic alternative to Christian Zionism and benignly blogged that a “ceasefire is needed immediately.” Neither “acts of terrorism nor aggressive military campaigns” can displace the need for “addressing the fundamental issues underlying the years of violence,” he noted, as “each side needs friends who will challenge them to do what is best for their own people, and, at the same time, who will encourage visionary leadership which realizes that the future of the two people is interconnected, that neither is going away, that the pain of grieving mothers is always the same, and that freedom and security for one people cannot be found at the expense of the other.”
In a more polemical vein, a film of several years ago aimed at Evangelicals called “With God on Our Side” faulted Christian Zionism for Palestinian suffering, for U.S. military adventurism, and for impeding Christian witness and evangelism among Israel’s Arab adversaries.
Articulating a hardliner line old style version of Liberation Theology, a United Methodist theologian, formerly Southern Baptist, Miguel De La Torre, complaining about Netanyahu’s reelection, succinctly explained:
“My preferential option towards the Palestinians is because overall, they are the ones who are suffering economic and political oppression. As a liberation theologian, I must stand with Palestinians while remaining ready to also criticize their policies.”
Last year, the Presbyterian Church (USA) before adopting anti-Israel divestment, published Zionism Unsettled, which faulted Christian Zionism because it “fuses religion with politics, distorts faith, and imperils peace in the Middle East.” Further, “In its liberal Christian manifestations, Zionism serves as a ‘price-tag’ theology providing Christians with a vehicle of repentance for the guilt accrued during centuries of European Christian anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust.” In fact, ““Israeli and American myths of origin are similar and derived from the same biblical sources,” Zionism Unsettled noted that “the history and ideology of settler colonialism have been so central to the political history of the United States that it is not surprising the political and religious leadership in the US has been predisposed to uncritical support for the Zionist movement.”
At least the liberal Protestant hostility to Christian Zionism, guided by Liberation Theology, is concise and relatively consistent. The more recent Evangelical Left critique is more situational and therapeutic, claiming to be concerned about evangelism, which liberal Protestants decidedly are not. Meanwhile, a neo-Anabaptist twist to the ongoing critique of Christian Zionism, which overlaps the liberal Protestant and Evangelical worlds, portrays it as an ideology of empire, war and domination, largely a particularly sinister manifestation of Constantinianism, with Israel the prong of American militarism.
None of these critiques of Christian Zionism really understand or seriously address the original 19th Century American Christian Zionism which, in rather simple terms, sought to restore a long displaced and tormented people to their ancient homeland, as an act of restorative justice, and for their ongoing protection from persecution, but also, more widely to create a new Zion that would model political and economic justice to the world as well as serve as an ongoing witness of God’s faithful fulfillment of His promises.
Blackstone the Methodist and his earnest adherents, mostly Mainline Protestants working with Jewish colleagues in an early manifestation of interfaith collaboration, offered a vision of spiritual and moral beauty that the critics, whether harsh or therapeutic, cannot match.