EPF PIN member Cliff Cutler, Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, reflects on Trump’s decision declaring Jerusalem Israel’s capital.
Just one month after a resolution to educate about peace in Israel/Palestine was not permitted to reach the Convention floor of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announced plans to relocate the US embassy there, reversing seven decades of US foreign policy. This is not to say that a resolution to learn about the call for justice in that place would have had any effect upon the President’s decision, but is merely another instance of the silence of the Episcopal Church on matters of Bible and theology that impacts Israel/Palestine.
This silence has allowed theology in Palestine to be defined by Christian Zionism and Biblical dispensationalism. Dispensationalism interprets scripture as having seven dispensations, the final one being the Millennial Reign of Christ. According to most Christian Zionists this final dispensation began with Israel returning to the land (1948), the return of Jerusalem to the State of Israel (1967), and continues with the recognition by the U.S. of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (2017). All of this for Christian Zionism heralds the second Coming.
Christian Zionists look for a blockbuster end-time when the church will be raptured, the dreadful war of Armageddon fought, and Christ will return to rule for 1000 years as a victorious God whose reign resembles empire. With this goal in mind, ethical guidance and moral call take a back seat. What do they matter when it is all going to end soon? Hence the support for increasing settlements, exposure of Palestinian school children to high levels of tear gas shot into schools, 45 Palestinian schools facing Israeli demolition orders, olive trees uprooted on Palestinian land, and 206 companies from around the world doing business linked to Israeli settlements built in the occupied West Bank in violation of international law. These things are accepted because after all they yield a “blessing” to Israel.
Christian Zionists see in Genesis 12: 3 a divine mandate to support the modern state of Israel, “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.” The Episcopal Church would see Gen. 12: 3 as God’s promise of protection to Abraham in his situation (not to a secular state in the 20th and 21st centuries). Scholars interpret the meaning of Genesis 12: 3 to assert the faith of Abraham as an ideal to be sought by all nations, and that his privileges would be extended to other nations, such as Palestine. We cannot let our Christian faith be hijacked through our silence.
The Episcopal Church when it finds a voice has a hopeful understanding of life. We believe in partnering with God to transform the world. We participate in society and are invested in the world to make it better. In 2008 I had dinner with a Palestinian Muslim family in Ramallah on the West Bank. Afterwards some of their friends joined us. They knew I was a Christian priest, and asked: “Do Christians believe that the Temple must be rebuilt in Jerusalem?” No, I replied. Jesus’ Second Coming is not about a rebuilt Temple but a rebuilt world. The Christian hope is that Christ will come at the completion of God’s purpose for the world that is the well-being of all, when all things will be made new, truly alive, compassionate, just, at peace. Rebuilding the Temple and the discord that would result seems hardly congruent with that.
Still, Christian Zionists are organized in this country under the leadership of John Hagee as Christians United for Israel (CUFI). Of themselves they say: “With more than 3.8 million members, Christians United for Israel is the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States and one of the leading Christian grassroots movements in the world.” This organization is a significant portion of President Trump’s base, and explains why he would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital when his predecessors would not. Dr. Juergen Buehler leads the global Christian Zionist organization, International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.
As an Episcopal Church our voice, Biblical understanding, and theology need to be heard in the Middle East. They are what give rise to ethical stances and efforts to respond to the moral call that is issued by Palestinians, 4 million of whom (some Christian) are under occupation.