It's time for a new form of Christian Zionism based not on hypothetical End Times scenarios but firmly rooted in the best intellectual traditions of ecumenical Christianity.
Why now? As Iran's apocalyptic regime of mullahs strives for nuclear weapons, as the Middle East is engulfed in strife, and as Christians in the region are killed and expelled by ISIS among other enemies, democratic Israel remains an island of law and stability, where persons of all faiths are safe.
Yet an increasing number of elites among Evangelicals, traditionally Israel's strongest friends, are turning against Israel. These elites want a new non-controversial image for themselves disconnected from the old Religious Right.
Some in the new Evangelical Left claim the Gospel precludes taking sides, and that Christianity has no relation to modern Israel. They are wrong, we believe.
Recently the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. hosted a "People of the Land: A 21st-Century Case for Christian Zionism," featuring distinguished scholars making the case for ongoing, sacred ties between Christians and Jews, and between Jews and the land of Israel.
There have been lots of academic conferences bashing Christian Zionism. Ours was the first of which we know proposing that a thoughtful CZ is a good idea theologically.
This conference was also historic, at least for the 21stcentury, because it, and the book that will come out of it, make a theological case that is substantively differentfrom the various cases that have been made for CZ by traditional "dispensationalists" who focus on the End Times.
Instead, our scholars argued that CZ is at the heart of the New Testament. Even anti-Zionists agree, mostly, that Zionism is part of the Old Testament. But Zionism is also presumed by New Testament authors, which many modern readers miss because they've been trained not to see it.
For example, Luke’s Gospel says that Jesus forecast a time when Jerusalem would no longer “be trampled underfoot [controlled] by the Gentiles”(Luke 21.24),which never happened until the establishment of Israel in 1948.
Peter, the leader of the early Christian movement, spoke of “the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (Acts 3.21)—referring to prophecies of a restoration of Israel in which Jews would return to and control their own land.
What do we mean by CZ? Several things. First, that Jews need and deserve a homeland in Israel. Not to displace others, but to accept and develop what the family of nations—the U.N.—gave them in 1948. And to fulfill a special history of continual presence going back at least three thousand years.
Second, that the Bible as a whole proclaims that the God of Israel is saving the world through Israel—through its people (including its perfect Son, Jesus) and its land. Not just thousands of years ago but today and in the future. That the people and the land still have theological significance. That the return of Jews from all over the world to the land, and to set up a polity in the land, in the 20thcentury after nearly two millennia of being separated from controlling the land, is part of the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
We do NOT mean that Israel is a perfect polity or immune from critique. Or that it is necessarily the last Jewish polity we will see before the eschaton. Or that we know the particular timetable or political schema that will come beforeor in the eschaton.
But we do believe that this is a historic time for Israel and for us. For all the people of God. Support for this polity of Israel—this return of God’s people to the land—is eroding globally. It is surrounded by regimes bent on its destruction. Mainline Protestants have withdrawn their support. The Evangelical Left is now withdrawing support, using the same faulty arguments. It is a time for Christians, not just Jews, to make a case for the people and the land.
Some of our speakers made prudential arguments—political and legal and moral for Israel. But chiefly they made a new theological argument for the 21stcentury that the people of Israel continue to be significant for the history of redemption, and that the land of Israel, which is at the heart of the covenantal promises, remains critical to God’s providential purposes.
We believe that this people of Israel, at this moment in history, in the land, in this politeia, is part of God’s loving purpose for the salvation of the world. Contrary to common critique, Christian Zionism is not a modern political movement, popularized by "Left Behind" fiction. It dates to the early Church Fathers and runs through sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Puritans and modern thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth.
Yet too few Christians and Americans today know the deeply biblical and ecumenical intellectual traditions affirming a modern Jewish Israel. We hope our new 21st-century Christian Zionism, rooted in the venerable past, will open an exciting new chapter in Christian friendship with Jews and with Israel.
Mark Tooley is President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
Gerald McDermott is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College.