Monday, December 26, 2016

Keeping The Issues Clear When Talking About Contemporary Israel

In his ongoing effort to be as juvenile as possible before leaving office, the Obama administration abstained from a vote at the United Nations that essentially condemned Israel in a bunch of ways, allowing it to pass without the courage of an actual vote from the U.S. one way or the other. This has led to the expected angry backlash online from conservative media sources with articles like this from pro-Zionism Frontpage Mag: President Obama Throws Israel To The Wolves.

Of course a UN resolution is as impotent as everything else the UN does. It has no real impact other than serving as a diplomatic black eye and with what appears to be an overwhelmingly pro-Israel administration about to take over in a few weeks, there is little doubt that this resolution will be yet another empty gesture of the sort that has generally marked the utterly useless body of yammering, self-important bureaucrats that bears the risible and inaccurate name "United Nations". In fact it might backfire spectacularly as many Republicans are using this as an excuse to push for defunding the UN, a move I would be all in favor of. For example former Trump Presidential rival Senator Ted Cruz said that he will push to withhold U.S. funding of the UN until the resolution if reversed. As I posted on Facebook, the U.S. pays billions of dollars in UN funding and foots the bill for 22% of the entire budget, a percentage more than double that of Japan with the next highest percentage at 9.68%. The total sum of over $3,000,000,000 is more than 185 other countries pay combined. When you add in the huge amounts we spend on our military the bill gets a lot higher. So much for "United Nations". A more appropriate name would be more like "Bags of Cash From American Tax-Payers To Be Spent By Other Nations In Foolish Ways" but the acronym BOCFATTBSBONIFW doesn't have quiet the same ring to it.

The response is understandable in many ways. Coming as it does at the very end of the Obama reign it smacks of the same sort of petulance that has marked his entire administration and doubly so the month since it was apparent that the American electorate rejected his legacy and replaced him with someone who, at least on the surface, couldn't be more different. But it also raises the same concern that I usually have when the topic of the contemporary nation of Israel is at the forefront of the news, namely the response of American evangelicals.

I want to be crystal clear on this. Whether or not you support the secular nation-state of Israel as a matter of geopolitical preference, a democratic ally of sorts of the United States in an otherwise largely hostile region and whether or not you think the resolution that was passed and the U.S. decision to abstain (itself a cowardly act of inaction, if we supported the resolution we should have voted for it and if we didn't we should have voted against it. Abstention was the cowardly response.) was wise or foolish is a matter of geopolitics and U.S. national security. It is not a theological question, at least insofar as it is not a theological question about specific loyalty from one secular nation toward another.

There are not many issues in American evangelicalism which are more confused and more potentially costly to our witness than the mass misunderstanding of the theological nature of ancient and now extinct Israel as opposed to the contemporary secular nation-state of Israel. When you combine the "America as God's chosen nation" misplaced patriotic fervor with the dispensational confusion over the nature of Israel, you end up with a toxic mix that is dangerous and misguided. The ancient Old Covenant nation of Israel was a covenant-breaking unfaithful people (Jeremiah 31:32). God replaced that Old Covenant, making it obsolete (Hebrews 8:13), with a New Covenant that is in every way better (Hebrews 8:6). People of ethnic Jewish ancestry who are born-again are part of the New Covenant. Those that are not born-again are cut off (Romans 11:13-24 esp. verse 20) and their fate is no different from any other unbelieving people. As such there is no special place for the contemporary nation of Israel as it exists in redemptive history and there is no obligation for Christians to show deference to the secular covenant breaking leaders of Israel over any other nation. We are often reluctant to make that case, even from non-dispensational church leaders, for fears of raising the specter of "anti-semitism" but it is dishonest to pretend that there is a sharp distinction between the historic Old Covenant nation of Israel and the secular reconstituted contemporary nation that bears the same name.

When we associate the church and the Gospel with a secular nation and favor that nation and that ethnicity over others we make a mockery of the Great Commission and tell other people groups that they are second-class citizens of the world even though the overwhelmingly unbelieving citizens of Israel have no special standing with God compared to the people of any other contemporary nation and indeed believers in places like Syria and China have a relationship with God unlike that which any Israelite ever had under the Old Covenant. We do the people of Israel no favors when we extend to them the promise of covenant blessings that they do not possess instead of preaching the Gospel of the New Covenant in Christ to them no differently than we do any other nation or ethnicity.

I think that the behavior of the President via his surrogates was cowardly and petulant toward Israel and pandering toward other nations that are no friend of the United States. I also believe that there are many troubling questions in general about the relationship between the U.S. and Israel that need sober reflection. The entire relationship between the United States, Israel, the rest of the Middle East, the "Palestinian" people and so many other variables is excruciatingly complex. That complexity and the peril of missteps is far too great for Christians to interject a clumsy hermeneutic into it that further muddies water already roiled by decades of antagonism. We should encourage our leaders in America to be even-handed toward all other nations, showing deference where warranted by friendship and mutual benefit but not based on erroneous theological assumptions. It is fine, proper and necessary to have our theological convictions inform our understanding and involvement in contemporary secular issues but let's make sure we have the proper theological framework to make those decisions.

For more on this topic see a couple of prior posts,  Israel, Gaza and the Gospel and One of the best summaries of the relationship between Christians and the modern state of Israel I have ever read.

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