A Political Case for Christian Zionism
Christian support for the State of Israel is founded on the biblical anticipation of Jewish restoration to the land God gave them, and as such, many pillars of the Christian faith believed the Jewish people would be restored to their land. Thus, it can easily be said that Christian Zionism is biblical and has roots in historical Christianity. But what about the political case for Christian Zionism? Can Christians feel comfortable supporting the State of Israel as it exists today?
To answer these questions, we will examine one Christian theologian’s reasoning for Christian support for the State of Israel on a political basis. Robert Benne, in his chapter of The New Christian Zionism, discusses theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Zionism. Benne notes that Niebuhr fully supported the Zionist cause. He was a member of the American Palestine Committee in the 1930s and helped found the Christian Council on Palestine in 1942. He wrote many articles in support of Zionism, most of them featured in his academic journal, Christianity and Crisis. One of his most influential articles, titled “Our Stake in the State of Israel,” chastised the Western powers for their ambivalence toward Israel during the Suez Canal crisis in October, 1956. Niebuhr remained “a friend to the Jewish people” and “favorable to the state of Israel” until his death in 1971.
Rather than idealizing or rationalizing politics, Niebuhr’s approach to politics was realistic. His political realism “recognizes what is, not what ought to be or what might have been.” Niebuhr understood that “large powers will use all sorts of powers—economic, technical, political and military— to press their interests forward.” As such, there must be a “balance of power that includes military force” that accomplishes each nation’s goals, but competing powers must use equal force to accomplish their goals, thus creating a balance in and of powers.
Through this realistic lens, Niebuhr’s political argument for the State of Israel is summed up in the following five points:
- The existence of Israel is a basic fact.
- A stable and strong Israel was important to American national interest in order to counterbalance Soviet influence in the Middle East.
- The continued stability of Israel in a volatile area of the world was in the national interest.
- The support of Israel contributed to national interest in the form of oil.
- Finally, Niebuhr’s realism involved the affirmation of Israel’s use of military force to defend itself against the intent and effort of her enemies to annihilate her.
Niebuhr understood that the State of Israel existed and, therefore, must be dealt with. Not only did Niebuhr believe Israel was here to stay, he believed Israel could be a force for good in the world, particularly when it came to preventing the Soviet Union from having significant influence in the Middle East.
Though many years have passed since Niebuhr argued these specific points, they all still ring true today. Israel is a strong ally of the United States, as well as a stabilizing force in the Middle East. Israel has made peace with Egypt, Jordan, and most recently, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Israel also provides aid to surrounding countries in numerous ways, including caring for Syrian refugees and sending aid to Gaza. Israel is a force for good in the world.
Christian Realism and Agape Love
As a Christian, Niebuhr’s political realism was informed by his faith. Benne writes,
“Already by 1934 Niebuhr had developed a Christian moral vision in which love plays an
indirect but relevant role in political affairs. The ideal of agape love is articulated and
realized most clearly in the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth.”
Niebuhr believed the love Jesus demonstrated in his life—a sacrificial, selfless, long-suffering love—could inform politics. And although it is impossible for sinful humanity to demonstrate agape love perfectly, Jesus’ perfect life of love, and His death and resurrection, made it possible for this love to be present in human history. Niebuhr believed agape love was indirectly related to politics, but was relevant in that perfect love allows for visionary ideas of human justice, the elevation of human rights, and the ability for people to be aware of the “ambiguity in even the best of human actions.”
Christian Realism and Zionism
Niebuhr’s Christian realism allowed him to understand the utter importance of a Jewish homeland. Benne notes that Niebuhr had “an extraordinary sensitivity to and compassion for the suffering of the Jews across the world from the beginning of his ministry in the late 1920s.” After suffering for centuries at the hands of various European nations, the Jewish people “should be allowed to immigrate freely to Palestine,” and “strongly opposed” the British government’s attempts to limit immigration to Palestine in 1930s. In Niebuhr’s view, Christian realism “leads to establishing a homeland for the Jews,” in the land God promised to the Jewish people.
The Jewish people were also strong candidates for a state. They survived as a people in other countries, often under intense persecution, for thousands of years, all the while maintaining some degree of integrity as a nation. They have a distinct ethnicity, culture, and religion, with the inevitable variations within each category. However, Niebuhr believed it is their religion which helped them survive as a nation: “their persistence as a nationality gives strength to their claim for…a state.”
Niebuhr saw no problem with the State of Israel having the military capacity to defend itself. In fact, the state of Israel would defend the Jewish people better than many other nations could. Niebuhr also believed Israel should be a democracy rather than a theocracy, as he was “extremely wary” of “religionized politics and politicized religion.” As a democracy, however, Israel’s government could make laws and policies that address imbalances of power in the parts of society that are oppressed, while also balancing centers of power, like culture, politics, and religion.
Sympathetic to the plight of the Arabs after the creation of the State of Israel, Niebuhr knew a democratic Israel would allow non-Jewish minorities, such as Arabs, to gain economic and political power. This is true in Israel today: many Arab-Israelis, among other minorities, enjoy successful careers and political power in Israel. A democratic State of Israel, then, is necessary for the Jewish people and for the minorities living within her borders.
Generally speaking, Reinhold Niebuhr stayed away from theological arguments for Christian Zionism, though many theological arguments can be made. Niebuhr wanted to avoid both postmillennialist Social Gospel, Kingdom-Now theology, and dispensational, premillennialist theology regarding Israel. He believed politics was about “limited earthly possibilities, not about heavenly utopias” and didn’t want to see Israel fall prey to “messianic politics.” Furthermore, Niebuhr’s ambivalence regarding Israel was a result of his being unable to connect the fact that “the faith of Israel is sheltered by the state of Israel in Palestine” with “the promises of God in the everlasting and continuing covenant with the Jews.” In short, Niebuhr was something of a Supersessionist theologian: he was not fully convinced of Israel’s eternal place as God’s chosen people.
Even still, Niebuhr knew a State of Israel, despite its inevitable flaws as a sinful nation in a fallen world, would be a force for good in the world. As Christians, we can be confident of the same thing. No, the State of Israel is not perfect; it will remain imperfect until Jesus the Messiah returns and renews the heavens and the earth (Revelation 21) but, even though Israel is imperfect, it is a good place. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, affording equal rights to Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Israel actively seeks to make peace with her neighbors, and gives aid to those in need. Moreover, Israel is a safe haven for the Jewish people, who were for so long without a homeland to call their own, and suffered greatly as a result.
One does not need a premillennial, dispensational theological perspective to support the State of Israel. To support the State of Israel is to follow the promises of Scripture, the tradition of church fathers and faithful theologians, and to put Christian love into practice. Christians, no matter what their theological persuasion, should feel comfortable supporting the State of Israel: they are in good company!
Robert Benne, “Theology and Politics,” in The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land, ed. Gerald McDermott (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 224-225.
 Ibid., 227.
 Ibid., 227–228.
 Ibid., 230.
 Ibid., 230.
 Ibid., 231.
 Ibid., 232.
 Ibid., 233–234.
 Ibid., 233.
 Ibid., 235.
 Ibid., 236.
 Ibid., 236, 238.
 Ibid., 241–242.