ONE of the most extraordinary reversals that I have witnessed during the past 30 years or so is the change in Christian attitudes towards Israel. I remember when it was almost a Christian duty to support the Jewish State. This was justified by the biblical theology of the post-war period, with its emphasis on the notion of “salvation history”, which set out to show how the will of God for humanity was expressed through the biblical themes of election and fulfilment.
Salvation history denied that the part played by Jews as God’s people had been superseded, recognising how much this view had contributed to European anti-Semitism. Support for Israel was, therefore, an expression both of Christian repentance and an attempt at reconciliation with the Jews. This was not a naïve Christian Zionism of the kind that looks to the fulfilment of biblical prophecies as a herald of Armageddon: it was much more an attempt to recognise, and make theological and pastoral sense of, the continuous Jewish vocation to be God’s people. The rewritten liturgies for Holy Week in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions attempt to do justice to these insights.
But, in more recent years, the emergence of the various liberation theologies has produced something of a change of heart among many mainstream Christians. Liberation theologies emerge out of a range of experiences of oppression, and they reflect the theological assumption, articulated by the RC Bishops of Latin America at Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, that God’s “preferential option” is for the poor.
From a liberationist point of view, the Palestinian experience of Israeli policies, including illegal settlements, unwelcome surveillance, and constant suspicion, puts them in the category of the unjustly oppressed. Palestinian Christians, who have not always been well or fairly treated by the Muslim majority, have often struggled to accept the Israeli State, and today they are eloquent in their condemnation of what is happening in Gaza. It is their perspective that has won sympathy this time round; and, while I have heard much in Christian comment and sermons expressing outrage at the Israeli bombardment, there is much less comment about the growth of flagrantly anti-Semitic incidents both in the Middle East and in the West.
I have visited the Holy Land many times. It is impossible not to feel the anguish of both sides of this conflict. But it worries me how commonplace it has become for Christians to ally themselves with Muslim communities in Europe and the United States, student communities, and left-wing commentators, in valorising Palestine’s suffering, while mocking Israel’s hard-won existence, sometimes claiming that Israel is no more than the product of Western colonialism.
If Christians are going to be of any use in this conflict, they need to revisit their own prejudices and find ways to balance the claims of the liberationists with theology that accepted the Jewish right to a homeland after the Holocaust.