blessing the landWe have been dealing with some disturbing questions in recent posts about the theology of Christian Zionism as a foreign policy in sharp contrast to the ethic of Jesus. These questions challenge us at the core of our being, and in utterly practical ways. This post concludes the topic with more questions we may not have considered.

The ethic of Jesus challenges us:

To consider whether we are following the government policies of the state of Israel more than we are following Jesus.

To consider whether we are giving unqualified support to the policies of the modern state of Israel, as if they were always and only and perfectly just. We know from the Scriptures that in ancient times God judged the nation when it habitually followed unjust policies. Has God changed? Do we think that the modern state of Israel is incapable unrighteous behavior?

To consider whether we are endorsing, however unintentionally that may be, a chain reaction of violent events that encourage adversarial relations and conflict leading to the general ruin of the region. Or are we engaged, as individuals, groups, and churches in prayers and practical efforts to ease adversarial relations and stem the flow of violence?

Our ideas about Israel and the Palestinians ultimately serve either the way of war or the peaceable way of Jesus. Many American Christians who are huge supporters of Israel will be shocked to know that, as a theology of war, Christian Zionism favors a military solution as radial as Armageddon. For that is the inviolable direction of its teleology.

Caveat. Because I have been solely focusing in these current posts on the violent potential of Christian Zionism, in hopes of sparing followers of Jesus from going there, I have not had space to declare my opposition to Palestinian violence against Israelis. On the other hand, I understand why it takes place.

“If you’ve been driven from [refugee] camp to [refugee] camp, if you’ve had the living daylights persecuted out of you by your own people – by the Israelis but above all by your brother Arabs – I can understand that you would turn to violence.”

That’s John Le Carré being interviewed about the time he spent in the Middle East researching Little Drummer Girl. Since I began these posts on Christian Zionism with reference to that book, I thought I would close with him. He visited Palestinian camps talking with refugees. He met with Israeli generals and had help from Israeli special forces to speak with their Palestinian prisoners. He spoke to Palestinian commanders and their “fighting kids.” He even met Arafat, who asked, “Why have you come, what do you want?” “Well, Mr. Chairman, I’m trying to put my hand on the Palestinian heart.” Taking Le Carré’s hand and holding it to his own heart, Arafat replied, “Sir, it is here, it is here.”

“Many people,” Le Carré again, “who have [a] clichéd vision of the Palestinians would themselves, if they had been subjected to the same harassment and persecution and humiliation, if they had no passports, no friends, no permanent home, if they’d been bombed out of one place after another all through their lives, from the age of practically nothing – many of those people would have taken the violent path…. If you are a displaced people, and you’ve got to make the world listen, that is the Palestinian argument.”

That was in the early 1980s. But the solution is not a military one. It is a political one that comes through diplomacy. And today we must add this. When we look at the steadily rising and spreading bloody conflicts of the broader Middle East, it is easy to throw up one’s hands and say, “It’s hopeless.”

But hopelessness is not a gift of the Spirit. It does not excuse the followers of Christ from following him into the darkness with olive branches in hand. Jesus traveled that road ahead of us. We are called to follow him. If God had enough grace for Jesus – and God did – God has grace enough for Jesus’ followers to go and do likewise today. The Cross is the great stopping place in the universe that examines and judges all things, good and bad, even our theologies.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by UrbanWanderer (permission via Creative Commons)

“Land for Peace” in the Middle East

attached to the landAs a foreign policy, the theology of Christian Zionism is counterproductive to a negotiated Middle East peace. It is tone deaf to the cries of a large majority of Israelis and Palestinians, who, hoping against hope, continually strive for an equitable peace in the land through a political solution. The land is one of the four recognized keys to a political solution between Israel and the Palestinian government. The others are the settlements, Jerusalem, and the return of the Palestinian refugees. Let’s briefly consider just the land.

Palestinians and Jews have a profound sense of historical and religious attachment to the land. At extreme ends of the spectrum are Jews and Palestinians who claim the land completely for themselves. In between these extremes are the majorities of both peoples who, favoring a political agreement, are willing to share the land in a just and equitable way.

For nearly half a century, UN Security Council Resolution 242, shorthanded as “Land for Peace,” has been a central tenet of negotiations in final status peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors. It was a crucial principle in Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994. A “land for peace” formula is also a basic political tenet in Israeli – Palestinian negotiations. I do not want to enter, here, into the critical debate that surrounds this principle in those negotiations. (It will be obvious, however, that a land for peace formula is unacceptable to those who want the land solely for Israel or solely for the Palestinians. Equally obvious is the monkey wrench thrown into the works by that Israel’s ongoing West Bank settlements.)

Instead, I want to point out that insight from the Bible from Israel’s point of view and with Yahweh’s blessing is available for wisdom-based negotiations about the land. I want to stress this for Christian Zionists, for whom the Bible is the ultimate source of authority in this world.

In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet, in the spirit of jubilee, is recorded as speaking Yahweh’s intention for the land. The Israelites are to “allot it [the land] as a heritage for yourselves and for the strangers who reside among you, who have begotten children among you. You shall treat them as Israelite citizens; they shall receive allotments along with you among the tribes of Israel. You shall give the stranger an allotment within the tribe where he resides – declares the Lord God” (Ezekiel 47:22-23; The Jewish Study Bible: Tanakh Translation). (I want to thank Calvin Seerveld for drawing my attention to this passage, but the following thoughts are mine, not his, so any mistakes are my bad.)

blessing the land (wdfi)The significant phrase “treat them as Israelite citizens” – the NIV has “consider them as native-born Israelites” – indicates that allotments of land are to be given – with God’s blessing – to those who reside in the land who cannot meet a requisite qualification of first being an Israelite. The line about the progeny of the non-Israelites is equally significant. (1) It protects them by clarifying and strengthening the thought of settlements in the land held well into the future by “strangers” (Hebrew: gerim). And (2) it precludes land-grabbing by Israelites from the non-Israelites who reside in the land. Today we might call this something of a housing market policy.

In short, the text establishes the principle of permanent settlements in the land by both Israelites and non-Israelites, and with God’s blessing. Aside: Ezekiel may be expanding on Leviticus 19:33-34: “When a stranger (ger) resides with you in the land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers (gerim) in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Note that this text, too, ends with the signature of Yahweh. As a Levitical priest, Ezekiel was certainly skilled in the use and application of Leviticus.

I’m just thinking out loud here, but with some creative thinking from today’s religious and political leaders in the Middle East Israel, would not the acceptance and outworking of this text in the Middle East help to eliminate the psychology of exclusionary othering that hinders the land for peace formula?

Of course, of course. This is not to wave a magic wand over the peace process. I have merely wanted to point out to Christian Zionists just one illustration of how the Bible may be legitimately relied on to support a policy that does not oppose the ethic of Jesus, which is clearly evident in the life of Jesus as a teacher of wisdom in ancient Palestine. In my view it is much wiser to spend one’s time pondering creatively with the Bible in this way, rather than destructively with Christian Zionism as a theology of war.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Books on “the land” that you might want to read: The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, Walter Brueggemann; Whose Land? Whose Promise?: What Christians Are Not Being Told about Israel and the Palestinians, Gary M. Burge; Whose Promised Land?: The Continuing Crisis over Israel and Palestine, Colin Chapman.

Images by Frank M. Rafik & wdfi, respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)


Palestine Sun Bird Christians have a revelation of Israel. What is needed is a revelation of the plight of the Palestinians. In the previous post we considered why the political theology of Christian Zionism can be used to support a terribly disturbing political militancy against the Palestinian population in the Middle East, a population that includes Palestinian Christians. This alone should give American Christians pause. Do they want to endorse a theology of brother against brother? Further, Palestinian Christians of all denominations in Palestine stand united against the theology, which they consider a “false teaching that corrupts the biblical message of love, justice and reconciliation” (from: The Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism).

God’s call to “love, justice, and reconciliation” is, of course, central to the entire biblical narrative. It is such a huge area human responsibility – the subject of countless books and seminary courses, for example – that we cannot possibly delve into it here, in a short blog post. But let’s look at it in its most concentrated form, in the ethic of Jesus in the Gospels, especially in the Sermon on the Mount. (You may want to see the posts on Jesus’ way of reasoning as a teacher of wisdom in ancient Palestine, for I am trying to think from within that way here.) And let’s make it practical.

When Jesus called peacemakers blessed, when he emphasized turning the other cheek, when he commanded love of enemies, when he required sheathed swords of those who would follow him –  Jesus was talking about self-sacrifice. That is, he was throwing down the gauntlet to us at the deepest depths of our being.

The one whom the New Testament calls the wisdom – not the theology – of God was challenging his listeners at the core of their being: What do you want to live by? he was in essence asking them. Do you want to feed off of the desires in you that can alienate, hate, make enemies, fuel violence? Or do you want to live by my gospel-shaped wisdom, by inner motivations of love and reconciliation? What interests you, an ontology of violence or an ontology of peace?

Jesus’ ethic challenges the heart because it is deeply personal and utterly practical. True, no one lives consistent with it, but those who accept Jesus at his word must make a start and keep going. Many of us today, however, have restricted the ethic of Jesus to his audiences in ancient Palestine. We keep it filed “back there,” in that historical period. After all, it might get rather uncomfortable for us if we try to live it today, as individuals and churches, toward the peoples of Palestine.

Let’s think just about Jesus’ peacemakers, or peaceworkers. Christian Zionism as a theology of war opposes this norm of the ethic of Jesus. Peacemaking is about reconciliation, and reconciliation may be the most fundamental characteristic of the gospel of Jesus. I imagine Jesus asking: What are you doing to help reconciliation move forward between the Palestinians and the Jews in the Middle East?

Let Us Beat Our Swords into PloughsharesPeople go to war against enemies. I do not see how anyone who supports Christian Zionism as a war theology is not counting the Palestinians as hated enemies. I imagine Jesus asking comfortable American supporters of Christian Zionism: What did the Palestinians ever do to you? Can you pick up a gun against them? No? Then why are you in league with a theology that is on that trajectory?

Even if they were personal enemies, turning the other cheek is part of an ethic that calls its followers to eschew a traditional principle of self-defense and then to go further and love enemies. We may want to rationalize it away – it’s an exaggeration, it’s impractical, it was for another time – yet there it is in the ethic of Jesus. I imagine Jesus asking Christian Zionists: What are you doing about loving the Palestinians?

Maybe you can’t go this far, yet, on the path of self-sacrificing love. But you can make a start by choosing to stop mentally supporting a theology of war. Loving actions will eventually follow that decision. In the meantime, a huge step has been taken.

Turning from Christian Zionism is not about hurting Israel or bringing a curse on you. It is about leveling the playing field, raising the Palestinian issue on a level with Israel. The ethic of Jesus calls for showing the same kind of impartiality to friends and enemies that God shows all to all peoples everywhere in his distribution of sun and rain. With this posture we give further witness to our lives as followers of Jesus. To love one’s enemies is to express in the worst of conditions the best of the love of the Father in heaven.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image of the Palestinian Sun Bird by David King (permission via Creative Commons)


little drummer girlI remember what unbolted me from being held to some aberrant views of the Middle East. It was the power of a good story well told. I’m talking about John LeCarré’s The Little Drummer Girl. This was in the early 1990s. I had asked a literary friend to recommend just one seriously intelligent contemporary storyteller. I was, you see, in a novel-slump. At the time, nothing but the classics were working for me. Where was the power of a good contemporary story?

Ever read John LeCarré? my friend asked. No. Where should I start? Try The Perfect Spy. I did. I was hooked and began reading LeCarré regularly (thank you David). Sometime around then I read Drummer Girl. The novel, first published in 1983, opened my eyes to the Jewish – Palestinian conflict in a way that nonfiction had never done. That troubling story was so masterfully told that I knew there had to be a good deal of truth behind it. I felt compelled to find out what that was, so I set out on a path of research that unexpectedly faced me with a lot of difficult choices.

Central to them was this one. I could either keep believing ideas about the Middle East that I was beginning to see were bogus or I could ditch them. You might say, Well, Charles, what was the problem? We should always ditch our faulty beliefs. But it’s not always so easy as flipping a switch, is it? I had picked up those ideas over the years from the American media and, in the interest of full disclosure, from some Christian pulpits and books as well. I had trusted those sources, especially the latter one, and it was hard to admit they could have been wrong. Besides, what would friends think of me, or colleagues, or people at work, if I could no longer agree with such popularly held views?

This blog is not the place to take you through an exploration of the jungle of my mind to show you why I eventually ditched faulty ideas I held about the Middle East. (I admit that there may be more to go.) I just want to do two things here. One is to acknowledge that it was the power of a good story well told, The Little Drummer Girl, that set me on that path. Having now done that, I want to say a few words about the political theology of Christian Zionism. This was an idea about America and the Middle East I had been flirting with, but eventually left to other lovers.

Christian Zionism is hugely popular in many American churches and institutions, even though it is most likely that the ordinary person in the pew – those not part of the leadership – have never heard of the phrase “Christian Zionism.” Or if they have heard it, they probably know little, if anything, about it as a political theology. To them, it is most likely just a way to “support Israel,” such as through good works programs and monetary donations.

Popre Francis Dome of the RockTo hastily simplify here, the theology is comprised chiefly of a variety of Old Testament verses from the prophets and from God’s promises to Abraham. These verses are used by pastors, ministers, and other Christian leaders to argue that the modern state of Israel absolutely must get all the support it can from the United States and that Christians faithful to the biblical narrative will support this effort. The linchpin used to defend the theology is Genesis 12:3: I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.

A great debate among Evangelicals has been whether the theology is biblical. Stephen Sizer’s book Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon?, published by IVP, is the most definitive critical engagement with the theology that I know of. Anyone interested a very detailed history of the theology, and its religious and political implications, should read it. We could spend many posts unpacking all the existing pros and cons. Instead, after having done an extensive amount of research, here is the conclusion I came to:

Christian Zionism can easily become a theology of violence and war, and as such it has no space for diplomacy and negotiations to bring peace in the Middle East.

This was tough to admit, and it may be even tougher for Christians and churches that support Israel with good works projects. The problem is not in good works – where they are good works indeed.

The problem is in the theology when it tries to become a foreign policy, for there is a terribly disturbing political militancy at work in theology of Christian Zionism, and ordinary Christian supporters of Israel may not be aware of this or of its looming, tragic implications. That is, the theology is always on the lookout for signs that history is nearing Armageddon.

The most dramatic of these signs to date, according to the theology, has been the return of the Jews to their biblical homeland. The next major turning-point event would be the second coming of Christ. So the history of the world, again, according to the theology, is currently experiencing the time between these two events.

The question must then be asked: What, according to the theology, needs to be occurring during this in-between period? Since conflict and war in the Middle East need to be increasing preceding the second coming of Christ exist, the modern state of Israel and its neighbors need to be at war with each other, leading up to Armageddon. In the next post I will explain why I believe followers of Jesus should steer clear of this foreign policy.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer


wisdom traditionI have a love-hate relationship with theology. I understand its importance, but I’ve seen and experienced too many ways in which it has be used to injure rather than to heal. For instance, people may treat the Bible as if it were a book of theology. Or they may fold up life, and their own lives, and that of others too, to fit inside their theology. I’ve witnessed others, and I’ve been guilty of this too, hauling out theological views like Job’s counselors – as if they answered the mysteries of life’s irregularities, human suffering, theodicy, and the sovereignty of God.

More personally still, it’s probably due to being born a wisdom guy. Hey, I couldn’t help that. You’ll have to take that up with my Maker. Also, wisdom has a family resemblance closer to philosophy than to theology, and my interests and reading have always been strongly more inclined to the former. You may imagine, then, how much I felt confirmed in my existence the day I discovered that a prominent meaning of “philosophy” is “love of wisdom” (in Greek, philos refers to “love” and sophia to “wisdom”).

I don’t want to push wisdom and theology into a dichotomy, nor do I mean that the two disciplines don’t influence each other. But I do find some distinctions helpful, which I share here because this is, after all, a blog dedicated to wisdom and to what may be called the diplomacy of wisdom.

For one thing, whereas wisdom is an agency for motivating diverse peoples to build cooperative and peaceable relations, a theology, because it falls within the purview of a particular religious community, unites only those who believe its particular dogmas. And some theologies make enemies of believers of different religious traditions.

Also, when confronted by a problem, whereas theology tends to bring ready-made answers to the discussion, as did Job’s friends, wisdom tends to arrive with questions seeking insight, as we noted in recent posts. I like the way Abraham Joshua Heschel put the distinction: “Theology starts with dogmas, philosophy begins with problems. Philosophy sees the problem first, theology has the answer in advance” (God in Search of Man, 4).

Further, theological studies (like traditional apologetics) make wide the gulf of dissimilarities between different religions and the peoples who hold to them; wisdom seeks to bring even different religious people together on common ground for mutual good. Immediately we see a great problem that theology presents to the diplomatic corps. Theology in its dogmatic role and wisdom in its diplomatic role have contrasting starting points when approaching problems of international relations and foreign policy.

I have been known to joke with Christian friends that you won’t find the word “theology” in the Bible, but you will find “wisdom” hundreds of times. Scripture explains that God founded the world on wisdom, and it advises us not only to seek wisdom but that wisdom is more precious than gems, silver, and gold, and that nothing we desire can compare with her (Proverbs 3:14-15; 4:5-7). Further, according to the Bible, and as we are considering on this blog, it is in the historic wisdom tradition that we find tremendous resources for discovering how to ease adversarial tensions, prevent violence and wars, and build more cooperative peaceable foreign relations.

The differences between theology and wisdom that I am suggesting come into sharp relief if we consider how some Christians approach the problem of peace in the Middle East. Rather than taking their cues from the biblical emphasis on wisdom, they have relied on a theology called Christian Zionism. In the next post I want us to look at how serious a category mistake that is.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer