America owes part of its national identity to powerful myths that arose out of its early history. Some of these myths are attached to founding “fathers,” others to the experience of nation building.
Perhaps the most powerful myth is the one that developed out of the frontier experience of an emerging nation. Manifest destiny is how historians label it, a belief that the settlement and taming of this vast, largely uninhabited land by European colonialists was divinely ordained. Here’s how the story goes: a brave pioneering people, escaping from religious and political oppression in Europe, meet great obstacles in realizing their dreams of building a free land for free people out of an untamed wilderness. Among these obstacles are “savage” natives who use terrorist tactics to attempt to thwart their designs. With God’s help the settlers defeat the “savages” and force them off the land, at least the best land, thus making way for those better able to exploit the God-given resources that it yields.
Recent scholarship has debunked this myth, highlighting the brutality and negative consequences of this early form of ethnic cleansing, but the mythic theme of the story–heroic pioneers escaping persecution to give birth to a free nation–continues to shape American self-identity. Witness the ease with which politicians, most recently President George W. Bush, are able to rally support for foreign policy ventures by drawing on key elements of the myth: “any attack on America is an attack on freedom!”
This American fundamental helps explain what is otherwise inexplicable: how the eschatology of an obscure nineteenth-century sect of British Christians has become a prime contender for the imagination of the largest, most politically powerful non-Catholic grouping of Christians in America, the Evangelicals. The sect in question is the Plymouth Brethren whose inspiration was a man named John Nelson Darby. Darby taught an approach to biblical interpretation known as “dispensationalism.”
A central tenet of dispensationalism is the disjunction it draws between Israel and the Church in God’s plan of salvation. It was Darby’s belief that Old Testament prophecies related to the restoration of Diaspora Jews to the pre-exilic land of Israel were to be fulfilled literally. This contradicted the more common teaching of the western Church which read the ancient Hebrew prophecies through the lens of Augustine’s “displacement” eschatology. Augustine identified the Church as the heir of the promises, a “New Israel” looking ahead to an eternal “New Jerusalem,” thus eliminating the promise of land from the equation.
Darby’s teaching became popularized (some would say, sanitized) in America at the turn of the century through the preaching of the popular evangelist Dwight L. Moody and the publication of the widely-read Scofield Reference Bible, which used color-coded charts to identify which prophecies applied to which particular group of believers. Later, Dallas Theological Seminary picked up the dispensationalist torch, the most notable of its graduates being Hal Lindsey, author of the single best-selling book of the 1970s, the dispensationalist Late Great Planet Earth (1970).
In the eyes of dispensationalists the pivotal event of the twentieth century was the founding of the State of Israel in 1947, which they took to be proof positive that Darby got it right. Added credence came from the Zionist state’s swift and decisive victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. “Clearly God’s hand was in this,” the dispensationalists agreed. God’s ancient promises to Israel were coming true before their very eyes. But the dispensationalists were and are not necessarily the dominant voice of the evangelical mainstream. For that to happen the two myths–the dispensationalist and the American–had to merge.
I use the word “myth” with some hesitancy, as some might take me to be putting the biblical message on a par with children’s fairy tales. Such is not the case. Myth in the sense I am using it here connotes the power of a story to shape consciousness, to define truth in a way that transcends the story itself. The myth of manifest destiny functions this way as it draws on historical events to define something about America beyond the events themselves. The dispensationalist myth does the same with the story of the founding of the state of Israel. Here, too, historical events are framed in a way that gives rise to a larger Truth.
Let’s look, then, at the condensed version of the dispensational myth. A persecuted people longing for a land where they can practice their faith in freedom overcome great odds and a determined opposition under God’s direction and empowerment to create a state of their own. The opposition comes from “savages” who use terrorist tactics to keep the brave settlers from establishing their state, savages whose poor stewardship of the land justifies their removal.
The strong echoes between this myth and that of the American frontier provides one explanation for the tenacious hold that the dispensationalist myth exerts on the American consciousness, even beyond evangelical circles. We Americans hear our own story in Israel’s story. We identify with the Zionists because, under this interpretation, their experience matches ours. It would be easy to overstate the case; no doubt those who take a dispensationalist view of eschatology do so for the most part because they are convinced that it is the best way to read the Bible. But the hold that this view has on the imagination among and well beyond American evangelicals can only be explained, I believe, by the links thus forged between the Zionist story and the American story.
It is hard to overstate the damage that this does to ecumenical relations within Christianity, particularly relations between the more conservative wing of American evangelicalism and the community of believers in the Middle East. At issue is the way these American Christians identify with Zionist ideology over against those who are oppressed by it, including Middle Eastern Christians. Truth be told, many American Christian Zionists are unaware that Palestinian Christians even exist. To them “the Middle East” means Christians and Jews against Muslims; more crudely, civilized citizens of free societies versus savage terrorists.
So what is to be done? Given the tenacious grip of the dispensational myth on this conservative and politically powerful constituency, how can these Christians be turned towards at least recognizing their fellow Christians in Palestine?
By engaging them in conversation, I believe. This would overcome the first mistake that ecumenical Christians often make–not even starting a conversation in the first place. It is easy to demonize those who hold the dispensationalist position, particularly in light of the suffering of the Palestinian people. But there is no other way to counter the perceptions that give rise to the myth. It is notable in this regard that Palestinian Christians who visit America to talk about the occupation of their land often limit their visits to mainline ecumenical churches; in essence, they preach to the choir. Granted that it is difficult to find ways to open up a dialogue with Christian Zionists on this issue; the effort must still be made, to begin breaking the imaginative impact of the myth. Christian Zionists have heard only one story. It is important that they hear another.
A hopeful example comes from the visit that Dr. Riad Jarjour, General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches, paid to the General Synod of my own denomination in 2002. The Reformed Church in America does not
fall into the Christian Zionist camp, but it is a generally conservative evangelical body whose membership is familiar with dispensational mythology. A good number of RCA members have read the “Left Behind” series. But the General Synod delegates heard another story from Dr. Jarjour in his informal conversations and two plenary addresses. They then voted in favor of two resolutions about the Middle East, one of them calling for Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders. Given how cautious the RCA is about passing such openly political pronouncements, long-time observers were astonished at how easily the resolutions passed. Clearly, Dr. Jarjour’s presence and the way he was able to evoke empathy for fellow Christians in the Middle East turned the tide.
Likewise, it is telling that nearly every American Christian who has visited Palestine and had a chance to meet Palestinians in the occupied territory, listening to their stories and enjoying their hospitality, has returned to America with a new-found empathy–sometimes militant support–for the Palestinian cause. Again, the key is hearing and experiencing the story told in a different way, allowing the voice of those who have lost their homes and suffered under the humiliating weight of the occupation to be heard. Especially when this is the story of fellow Christians, it is difficult to continue to hold onto the demonizing aspects of the dispensationalist-Zionist myth.
Christian Zionism is a powerful movement in America primarily because of its compelling story line, which echoes the national story line. The key in countering it, I believe, is to tell another story–the true-life story of people who have lost their homes and livelihoods, their dignity and in some cases their lives, at least partly because of unqualified American support for the Zionist cause. Hard-core Christian Zionists will continue to hang on to their perceptions in the face of whatever evidence may be produced to counter the myth. But many others are open to hearing another story. These can be brought into the camp of Christians who are working, as we all should be, to respond to the situation in Palestine out of the sense of justice and compassion that God calls us to bring into all of our affairs, political and personal. Putting a human and humane face on the struggle is what is needed if for no other reason than to prove that Palestinians are not the “savages” which the myth has made them out to be. Whatever can be done to make this happen will be a step in the right direction.