At the end of July, 34 evangelical leaders published a letter to President Bush, commending his attempts to "reinvigorate … Israeli-Palestinian negotiations" and affirming his "clear call for a two-state solution." These leaders represented a wide swath of American evangelicalism, hailing from such institutions as the Christian & Missionary Alliance, World Relief, World Vision, the Vineyard USA, the Evangelical Covenant Church, Fuller Theological Seminary, Bethel University, and this magazine. They also told the Administration that it is "a serious misperception" that American evangelicals are uniformly opposed to a two-state solution and the creation of a new Palestinian state out of the vast majority of the West Bank.

Just as significant, though, was the leaders' affirmation of love for Israel. "As evangelical Christians," they wrote, "we embrace the biblical promise to Abraham: 'I will bless those who bless you.'" American and British Christians have long hoped and worked for the restoration of the Jewish people to their historic homeland. From Puritan confidence in the latter-day conversion of the Jews as a people emerged a belief in the Jews' return to their homeland. Puritans plowed the soil in which Christian Zionism grew.

At its root, the term Zionism simply means support for a Jewish return to sovereignty in their ancient homeland, with a majority Jewish culture. At the beginning of the 19th century, two streams of Christian Zionism emerged. One, associated with politicians William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury and high-profile preachers Charles Simeon and Charles Spurgeon, was Reformed and covenantal in its theology. It strongly influenced British policy. The other was developed by Edward Irving and J. N. Darby and would later bear the label "dispensationalist." It shaped American support for the restoration of the Jews.

It is important to remember both groups. Mainline Protestant partisans of Palestinian "liberation" frequently dismiss Christian support for Israel because of its association with dispensationalism. Yet dispensationalists make up only 10 percent of America's 52 million white adult evangelicals, and there is now and long has been broader evangelical support for a secure homeland for the Jewish people in the Middle East.

The key complaint offered against dispensationalists is that they talk as though God had separate plans for saving Israel and the church. And contemporary Reformed Christians are accused of having a "replacement theology" in which the church takes the place of Israel, inheriting all of God's promises with no remainder for the Jewish people. The one view tends to find no fault with Israeli government decisions as long as they do not compromise dispensational theology. The other view tends to consider the continued existence of the Jewish people a historical anomaly with little theological significance.

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A place in God's economy

But we cannot read the New Testament without seeing that the Jews continue to have a place in God's economy. Gentile Christians do not replace the Jews, but are joint heirs and wild branches grafted onto the Jewish olive tree. God's ultimate purpose in saving Gentile Christians is to save the Jews (Rom. 11).

The evangelical mainstream needs to do some rigorous theological work on its relationship to Judaism, to the Jewish people, and to the state of Israel. The concerns we must address include:

The need to learn how Judaism and the Jewish people understand themselves.

What it means to bless Israel and to love it. True love is sometimes tough love that builds on God's unconditional love. Genesis 12:3 is often misused as a warm affirmation of anything done for the expansion of Israel's influence or borders. But genuine love asks not only about the extent of Israel's land, but also about its national character.

The fundamentally Jewish character of God's revelation in Jesus. Christianity has been immensely adaptable to a world of cultures. But without an awareness of Christianity's Jewish roots, believers will misunderstand its fundamental themes of creation, redemption, sacrifice, and restoration.

What justice means for a Jewish state and its neighbors. While the most vocal Christian Zionists call for Israel to possess all of the Davidic "Greater Israel," such goals come at too high a price. A majority of Israelis realize this and have voted for political parties committed to disengagement. As one Israeli blogger wrote in response to the July letter: "I, too, believe in Greater Israel, but I cannot have my dream if it means occupying millions of Palestinians."

In a post-Holocaust world, the security needs of Israel must be honored. At the same time, restorative justice must set aside absolute claims from any parties and find a workable middle ground in which Palestinians can have a viable economic life and Israelis can be secure.

What kind of theological and ethical significance evangelicals can give the state of Israel before the return of Messiah Jesus. Orthodox Jews distinguish between the return to Israel (which has religious meaning) and the government and state (which do not)—at least until Messiah comes. Evangelicals should beware of attributing too much theological meaning to the state of Israel and not enough to the Jewish people.

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Optimism for a negotiated solution to Israeli-Palestinian tensions fluctuates with the news. But Christians must hope in God's covenant faithfulness. Meanwhile, we should keep reminding those involved in direct negotiations that we long for a solution that provides a secure Jewish homeland and self-determination and prosperity for Palestinians. In God's eyes, the peace of Jerusalem is to bless all peoples.

Related Elsewhere:

The New York Times published the letter to George Bush with the list of signatures.

Christianity Today's previous articles on Israel and the Jewish people include:

Opinion Roundup: The Evangelical View of Israel? | Evangelicals are more diverse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than we are led to believe (June 1, 2003)
Christian History Corner: Zion Haste | Does the passion of a few nineteenth-century Chicagoans still influence American policy in the Middle East? (January 1, 2002)
The Chosen People Puzzle | When it comes to relating to the Jewish people, should we dialogue, cooperate, or evangelize? (Richard J. Mouw, March 5, 2001)
CT Classic: Do Jews Really Need Jesus? | What evangelicals believe about evangelization of the Jews—and whether the Holocaust makes a difference in that task. (October 8, 1990)

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