Chosen? Israel-Palestine and Theological Assumptions

Chosen? Israel-Palestine and Theological Assumptions

al_nakbaMay 15th is the commemoration of the Palestinian ‘Al-Nakba’ or Catastrophe that began (officially) in 1948, and in a perverse marriage of political and religious ideology, continues today!  This blog has several theological-historical accounts of this particular subject, and below is a book review by a respected New Testament theologian on a book by an esteemed Old Testament theologian.

Chosen? Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

 

Today we are witnessing a sea change regarding evangelical attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In its cover story for its March 2015 issue, Sojourners Magazine illustrated this change with an article that went viral: “Pro-Israeli, Pro-Palestinian, and Pro-Jesus.” The article shows how many conservative North American evangelicals have always listened to and supported the Israeli narrative. But here’s the change: evangelicals are now discovering the Palestinian narrative. This has led them to go back to their Bibles and to rethink many theological first principles.

Chosen

This change has been quantified by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which has conducted regular interviews among evangelicals for years (see G. M. Burge, “Are Evangelicals Abandoning Israel?,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 33.7 [October 2014]: 50–51; D. Brog, “The End of Evangelical Support for Israel,” Middle East Quarterly 21.2 [Spring 2014]; S. Bailey, “American Evangelicals’ Support For Israel Is Waning, Reports Say,” Huffington Post, April 9, 2014). The Pew Forum’s October 2010 survey conducted at the Third Lausanne Congress of World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa, made one thing clear: younger evangelicals who see social justice as an integral part of their discipleship now see the moral ambiguity of this conflict. While once evangelicals gave exclusive support to Israel, today that support is balanced in that younger evangelicals have sympathies with both sides in this struggle and are rejecting the unilateral commitments held by an older generation.

A number of authors and books have been contributing to these theological shifts. The esteemed OT scholar Walter Brueggemann has long had an interest in this conflict. His well-known book, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002) is the premier study of “land” (as in Holy Land) in biblical theology. And it inevitably drew him into the question of modern claims to possess the Holy Land based on theological commitments. Now Brueggemann has supplied a brief and poignant guide for churches that want to discuss further. Chosen? is his unrelenting Amos-like appeal to Christians to rethink their theological assumptions when looking at the Middle East. This book joins a host of recent volumes that do the same thing, from popular-level works (e.g., R. Dalrymple, These Brothers of Mine: A Biblical Theology of Land and Family [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015]) to heftier theological works (e.g., O. Martin, Bound for the Promised Land, NSBT 34 [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015]), and my own Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010). In a word, evangelicals are revisiting this topic and asking if their views are contributing to or rather undermining the peace process.

Brueggemann’s offering is a short, fifty-page study of theological assumptions followed by a Q&A section. The book concludes with an outline complete with questions showing how the book can be used in a study session. In four chapters, he summarizes in easy-to-read style what he thinks are the four essential problems we face:

  1. Reading the Bible. Brueggemann challenges how we use the Scriptures and draw simplistic connections between ancient Israel and the modern Israeli state. His specialty is the OT Prophets, and at moments throughout the book, the thunder of Jeremiah or Elijah leaps from the page.
  2. Chosenness. Brueggemann wants us to rethink what election means and how it can be exploited. He warns against any position that produces a theological exceptionalism or privilege due to lineage claims or promises (whose ethical component has been ignored). Above all, he challenges the so-called “unconditional” nature of this status.
  3. Land. In a handful of pages, he summarizes his major academic theses: the land is a gift and living in it brings enormous moral duties. Moreover, in the New Testament, the land experiences a transformation of identity and purpose.
  4. Zionism. Here he describes what happens when misdirected theological commitments evolve into political ideology. He illustrates how this happened in biblical times and quickly shows how it is happening today.

This is a passionate book. And readers should be warned: it will upend many of the things we’ve heard in churches most of our lives. Some readers will cheer, some will despair, and others will reject his views out of hand. But perhaps that is why this specialist in the Prophets sounds like a prophet himself. He writes to discomfort the comfortable. And reactions both negative and positive are inevitable.

When a major scholar like Brueggemann writes from the heart—when he writes for the church and its disciples—we would all do well to pause and listen carefully. This is not an amateur we are reading. This is a man so thoroughly steeped in the Hebrew prophets that his heart beats with their rhythm. And he has thought long and hard—a career’s worth—on this utterly timely subject.

 

Preaching: A word from elsewhere

thebible_brueggeman_theologian“I heard a Rabbi say not long ago, that Christian pastors have ruined the life of a Rabbi, because a Rabbi is a scholar and a preacher; but Christian pastors are social workers and therapists and a bunch of managers, and now people in his synagogue expect him to do that!

I would think that preachers – I think it’s exceedingly difficult – but I think that preachers have to decide what the main tasks are and practise enormous self-discipline about not being drawn away to do other things that do not properly belong to the ministry of Word and Sacrament….now you can’t do that completely…

But I believe that many preachers finally get around to their sermon in their fatigue from everything else.  And if imagination is the key to good preaching, you cannot be imaginative when you’re exhausted! 

So I think it has to do with ordering ones priorities, for the sake of ones best energy.  And that, for many preachers, that means really deciding that this is the main task, and if you want the congregation to have missional energy and all of that, preaching is the pivot point for all of it.

If a pastor decides that, then a pastor is going to make more time for reading and study and prayer, which are the disciplines that cause the pastor to live, to some extent, in a different zone.  And if we are to bring a word from elsewhere, then we have to live to some extent, elsewhere, and I don’t think that’s very easy given the huge demands and expectations on most pastors.”

Walter Breuggemann

(You can see this short interview here)

Although this very short interview does not fully outline the task of preaching or pastoral care, as this was not Breuggemann’s point.  To my mind, he is suggesting that Christian ministry of any kind but especially that linked to Word and Sacrament, is less effective when conducted in the toxic atmosphere of fatigue.

The problem is that our toxic atmosphere of fatigue is also a toxic atmosphere of relentless activism (I wonder if there’s a link), so much so that we’ve made it a virtue, to the point where we feel guilty or feel compelled to express embarrassed justification when ‘caught’ reading a book – because when in-toxic-ated, we neither view nor value reading a book, or study, or even prayer as work!  

So although not all questions are answered here, what WB does remind us of, is the supreme importance that the Gospel subverts our common narrative and purifies the toxicity all around us and crucially, in us.  We need men and women called by God to Word and Sacrament, who are serving and feeding the Church from playful and thoughtful rest; playful and thoughtful study and playful and thoughtful prayer!

I don’t even know how to do it but I’m gonna die trying…..

A love affair with more!

An excert from a brilliant article entitled ‘The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity‘ by Old Testament Professor Walter Breuggemann, written in 1999.

wbThough many of us are well intentioned, we have invested our lives in consumerism. We have a love affair with “more” — and we will never have enough. Consumerism is not simply a marketing strategy. It has become a demonic spiritual force among us, and the theological question facing us is whether the gospel has the power to help us withstand it.

The whole article can be found here.

Zionism Unsettled

Zionism UnsettledZionism Unsettled produced by Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (website here), released one year ago in January 2014, is a great resource for Churches working towards a more healthy and hopeful  understanding of the terrible situation between Israelis and Palestinians.  PDF flyer here.

One blogger, a Rabbi no less, Brant Rosen, calls this production an “exciting guide…..smart, gutsy and important.”

James M. Wall, over at Wallwritings defends the publication in the face of an inevitable outcry of antisemitism, poor history, a guide that is “neither false nor misguided.”

The video production links are given below, and in the space given to each video, approximately twenty minutes each, they really are a succint and helpful introduction, something I would commend to followers of Jesus in the Churches everywhere.

In many ways, the criticism, whilst treading a very tired and frankly, predictable path, is a cheap shot given the people who have commended the work.  Of note is the great Old Testament Scholar Walter Breuggemann, Professor Emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary,

“The urgency of the Palestinian plight in the face of Israeli intransigence indicates that intentional, concrete, and sustained public action is necessary to respond credibly to the crisis. Zionism Unsettled…will prove an effective vehicle for helping to mobilize public opinion so that both attitudes and policies can be transformed in the face of an imperious and exploitative ideology.”

Similarly, Ilan Pappe, Israeli Professor of History at Exeter University, England, is a contributor on one of the productions.  Pappe has contributed to a critique of the Zionist ideology through many articles and books over many years, and has paid a high price for his convictions.

And conviction is the reason I am posting this.  In a paper unconnected to Zionism Unsettled, in a critique of Christian Zionism inTruth Speaking the Truth – Zionism, Israel and Occupation (ed. Michael Prior), Peter J. Miano, Executive Director of the Society for Biblical Studies, writes in his chapter ‘Mainstream Christian Zionism’ that in

“Reconsidering Christian Zionism in its mainstream form leads inevitably to vexing moral conflicts.  It requires re-examination of widely held assumptions about ethnic identity and nationhood and the moral implications of these.”

He adds,

“It raises issues that are considered taboo in the Church and takes us into perilous academic ‘no-fly zones’.  But intellectual honesty requires no less” (emphasis mine) p.145.

I myself have firsthand experience of this taboo in the Church, from people I do not know and people I do.  It is always a heart-sinking moment when the letter you’ve just opened is not so much a robust converstaion but a ‘no-fly zone’ hidden behind language masquerading as informed whilst reinforcing the unspoken taboo – “Don’t criticise Israel – anything but that!”

Well, I love Jewish people, secular or religious.  I love the ancient biblical land of Israel/Palestine.  I love Palestinians, Muslim or Christian.  I do not love or like Zionism, an experimental ideology that has been weighed and found wanting, and in the process, ruined generations of lives.  It is not just intellectual honesty that requires this terrible system of oppression and de-humanising be confronted, but it is moral courage in the face of occupation and conquest that must also drive forward this conflict to peaceful conclusions.

 

Click here to go to the Vimeo video production links…

 

 

…or individually below:

http://vimeo.com/channels/zuepisodes

http://vimeo.com/channels/zuepisodes/90020873

http://vimeo.com/channels/zuepisodes/90025253

http://vimeo.com/channels/zuepisodes/90035526

http://vimeo.com/channels/zuepisodes/90695342

http://vimeo.com/channels/zuepisodes/90698337

http://vimeo.com/channels/zuepisodes/90700383

http://vimeo.com/channels/zuepisodes/90703150

http://vimeo.com/channels/zuepisodes/91430944

Change the Script

 DSC_0556Most of us love stories.  I was read to as a child.  When my dad was on shore leave from the Navy we had a gluttony of stories (mostly the classic fairy stories, but it was because dad was reading that it became an event)!

Stories are scripts!  They can be about anything, teaching us profound truth or just sheer drama for sheer drama’s sake.  And when heard enough times, they can become a script that shapes how we view the world (To this day I don’t eat green beans because of Jack and the Beanstalk.)

Theatres have scripts.  The script shapes the play, in contour, flow, character development and dialogue, each actor playing their part!  It is the controlling element in the play.  It was Shakespeare who said,  “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”  So a stage has a script and we are all beholden to that script!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And everyone on the planet has a script.  We have our own personal script, and we all partake in group-scripts, like the golf club, social club or the church.  Each group, each church also has a script.  The reason why I’ve chosen the text (or script if you prefer) in Rom 12:1-2 is because the Bible, the Gospel, insists that our scripts need to change.  The classic Gospel call to “repent and believe”, is an invitation to change the script, the script of the Old Adam to the script of the New Adam, which is Christ Jesus. Continue reading