April 15, 2009


Zionism for Christians (David Shushon, June/July 2008, First Things)

Think of it this way: Ultimately, Jews and Christians must remain a mystery to each other. Christians cannot help but ­recognize that Providence has sustained the Jews through their long exile, yet they cannot explain why Jews do not recognize Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of their prophecy. Jews cannot help but recognize that Christians are inspired by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, yet they cannot explain Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus, except to dismiss it as a “world-historical fiction” (in Franz Rosenzweig’s words).

Nonetheless, their respective concepts of what it means to be the People of God are mutually supportive. For Christians, the Jewish nation stands as a living reproach to Gentile nations: They reject Christian universality by desiring election in their own flesh. For the Jews, Christianity signifies that only as individuals can Gentiles enter the people of God, and that no other ethnicity may covet their election in the flesh. Jews ­cannot affirm salvation through Christ, and Christians cannot affirm salvation without Christ. But the ­mystery of enduring Jewish election negates the ethnocentrism that poses an existential threat to both Judaism and Christianity. Jews have little to fear from Christian universality; the mortal danger to their existence stems rather from the jealousy of Gentile nations who covet election.

This reading of Israel differs from the secular Zionism of Theodor Herzl, who believed that the need for a Jewish state arose from the hostility of Christian nations to Jewish communities. Just the opposite is true today: Israel’s prospects for survival against neighbors committed to her destruction depends in part on the Christian sympathy for the ­Jewish people, whether they live in Israel or in the Diaspora. The most Christian among the industrial nations, the United States, evinces the greatest sympathy for Israel as well as the greatest security for its own Jewish population.

Moreover, this reading differs just as strongly from Franz Rosenzweig’s vision of an encysted, quietist Jewish community existing as an inspiration to the Gentile world. As it happens, the Catholic Church has sometimes drawn close to Rosenzweig’s view. No Catholic leader today doubts that the continued ­existence of the Jewish people and the observance of the Jewish religion is a blessing for Christians. But the foundation of the State of Israel—a state with a ­specifically Jewish and to some extent theocratic ­character—presents a problem of a different order.

Officially, the Catholic Church instructs, “The ­existence of the State of Israel and its political options should be envisaged not in a perspective which is in itself religious, but in their reference to the common principles of international law,” in the formula given in “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church” (1985). Yet the next ­sentence of the 1985 document quotes John Paul II: “The permanence of Israel (while so many ancient peoples have disappeared without trace) is a historic fact and a sign to be interpreted within God’s design. . . . It remains a chosen people, ‘the pure olive on which were grafted the branches of the wild olive which are the gentiles.’”

The problem from the vantage point of the Church can be put this way: Jewish life is not necessarily identical with the existence of the State of Israel. Catholics do not have to live under a Catholic state in order to sustain their life as a People of God. At the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church renounced the exercise of secular power. Why should Jewish religious life require the existence of a Jewish state when Christian life does not? Many practical concerns, including the safety of Middle Eastern Christians, the interest of the Church in the holy places of Jerusalem, and the issue of war and peace in the region, have colored the Catholic attitude toward the State of Israel, but the theological concern ultimately overrides the temporal issues.

The State of Israel was founded with at least some theocratic elements—at exactly a point in history when the Catholic Church was renouncing theocracy and withdrawing from secular governance. Catholics, along with many Protestant and Orthodox Christians, view with disquiet the revival of a religiously defined political state just when religiously defined states were disappearing as a factor in Christian life. Although the theocratic elements in Israeli law are ad hoc rather than systemic, they are nonetheless integral to Israel’s character (the Right of Return for Jews, for example).

So why should Christians renounce a Christian theocracy while embracing a Jewish theocracy? The answer flows from the distinction between the People of God of the flesh and the People of God in the Spirit.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 15, 2009 10:14 AM
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