Anxious for Armageddon.
In writing a book, or even an article, about the Middle East, the name, origin or the religious denomination of the author is almost a conviction. The usual temptation is to judge the book according to its writer before opening its cover. The Middle East has two contradictory stories: their advocates claim the truth; an outside reader asks: Where does the truth lie?
In Donald Wagner's book, Anxious for Armageddon, prejudices are out of the question: The author, a Presbyterian pastor, raised in a traditional evangelical milieu in western New York, writes about topics concerning Christians and the Middle East. What does an American cleric have to say about the Middle East?
After a frightening experience, the young Wagner embraced Christianity, in a fundamentalist community, where the equation of the modern state of Israel with the biblical Israel was never questioned or doubted. Christian fundamentalism is marked with futurist premillenialism, described by the author as "a form of Western Protestant evangelical theology that emphasizes the future fulfillment of certain biblical prophecies, and divides history into dispensations (eras) according to God's dealings with the human race" (note 2, p. 231). According to this scenario, the modern state of Israel is the fulfillment of these prophecies and God's chosen instrument to fight the Antichrist in the prelude to Armageddon, the final battle marking the end of the world. This "theology" helps to understand the author's background, the views of fundamentalist Christians in the West, and their representatives in the Middle East, the International Christian Embassy-Jerusalem. The ICEJ believes that its first responsibility is to "comfort and support the modern Jewish state," rather than proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
In the autobiographical part (chapters 1-5), Wagner explains the changes that occurred in his life and his first contacts with the reality of the Middle East. These contacts presented a challenge to reexamine his previous beliefs and support of Israel. One thing remains well founded in Wagner's life: his Christian faith and the development toward a better understanding of the Bible, from an ideology centered on ideas to a faith centered on human and Christian values.
His first visits to the Middle East and contacts with Arab Christians led him to rethink his previous attitude and to ask fresh questions. Exposed to new and shocking realities, such as the refugees' untold story [in the West], Wagner notes "I had never heard of such a thing" (p. 28). As for the ideology of the International Christian Embassy-Jerusalem, and their Christian Zionism, he describes them as "a heretical cult that contradicts the doctrines and ethics of historic Christianity." (p. 104) Thus awakened, Wagner returns to the Bible, Old and New Testaments, to see the real meanings of such topics as land, chosen people, promises, Israel, and eschatology.
Political Zionism, both Jewish and Christian, sees the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the promised land and the gathering of Jews as a "divine legitimation" of the modern state of Israel. Therefore a close examination of these prophecies shows that these promises from God are linked with precise ethical conditions (unlike the $10 billion loan the Bush administration gave to Israel!) Examined in the Old Testament or together with the New Testament, the whole context of biblical promises, not just "selected texts, often out of their context" (p. 82), is a part of a covenant with God, in return for which, the people should practice justice, especially toward the poor, and be faithful to God's commandments. Christian Zionists interpret texts from a political perspective (unconditional possession of the land) rather than in a religious one: the covenant with God. What Wagner says about Christian Zionists' claims can be said about Zionist claims of religious and biblical foundations for the alleged "right" in possessing the Holy Land (the author defines the difference between the Jewish people and the Zionist movement, as too few do). After an "extensive examination of biblical text", the author writes that "Israel cannot have land and oppress the poor, according to the Bible" (p. 71), and declares Christian Zionism as "a heretical cult" (p. 111).
Credit should be given to Wagner for his study of Christian Zionism and especially of the so-called "International Christian Embassy - Jerusalem", since this is the first of its kind. To my knowledge, this is the first study to delve into their history which takes us back to the 16th Century, their doctrines, practices, and influence on Western foreign policies, first British then American. Some information may surprise us, but events in the Middle East during the 20th Century prove the dispersion of these ideas and "theology" in the West. From Lord Balfour's declaration in 1917 until the end of the British mandate in Palestine in 1948, any historian, if unaware of Christian Zionism, would be amazed by the British refusal to acknowledge the very existence of a Palestinian people, worthy of civil and political rights like any other nation.
"There are Arab Christians in the Middle East" was not the only discovery made by Rev. Wagner when he visited the area. He discovered their identity, 2000 years of history, spirituality, problems with their relations with the Muslim majority, with whom they share not only the language, but also the culture, and the national identity and aspirations, pain and sufferings. As a Westerner, Wagner acknowledges the responsibility of his country, the United States, and other Western countries in the current situation of the Palestinians (p. 176).
Speaking of Arab Christians, he draws attention to the alarming problem of emigration In 1922 the number of Christians in Jerusalem was 14,700 (51%) according to British government statistics; in 1978, the Israeli Bureau of Statistics counted only 10,191 (10%); in 1990, Bernard Sabella, of Bethlehem University, claims that the number has dropped to approximately 5,000 (4%). What about ten or twenty years from now?
Emigration, although a serious problem, is not the only one. Christians share with their Muslim brothers and sisters the occupation in Palestine, the results of the civil war in Lebanon, economic problems and uncertainty about the future in the entire Middle East. In spite of all these problems, Arab Christians have a great spiritual heritage and its loss would be a loss for all Christianity. Although local churches have the task of surviving, witnessing their faith and overcoming their divisions, signs of hope emerge, mainly through theological movements and the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), that represents all churches of the Middle East in four families: the Orthodox, the Reformed, the Catholic and the Chalcedonian "families".
Relations between Western and Arab Christians cannot be those of patronage by the West, but those of partnership, because Western Christians have responsibilities toward Arab Christians. "What can we learn from our sisters and brothers in the Middle East about relating to Islam, Judaism, and being faithful witnesses to Jesus Christians in situations of war and conflict?" (p. 175). "We will not only learn from our sisters and brothers in the faith in these lands, but we will find the true meaning of being the church in new ways that will honor our Lord and the Gospel he gave to us" (p. 182). This kind of relationship, proposed by Wagner, calls Western missionaries to review their methods, respecting the cultural sensitivities of the East and avoiding the language and strategy of the Crusaders. The only way Western Christians can preach the Gospel is by supporting the Christian minority and the unity and integrity of local churches. A dialogue forum is needed for this purpose.
As a Presbyterian pastor, Rev. Wagner highlights the presence and work of Reformed Churches and their personnel, depriving other churches of a fair representation in his book. No one denies the genuine work and commitment of evangelical Churches, but this book can give the false impression about this smallest minority within the Christian minority in the Middle East. At least, Wagner could have mentioned that Father Elias Chacour, with a whole chapter devoted to him (chapter 10), is a pastor of a Catholic community. Wagner does not miss any occasions to mention the Reformed Churches (see for example the list of Palestinian Christians, p. 164). Rev. Wagner calls for a fair kind of relationship with Arab Christian Churches. One important Eastern contribution to the Western church is Eastern theology, discovered by the West in the second half of the 20th Century through the ecumenical movement and the study of early Church fathers (patristic studies). This fact is worth mentioning and not difficult to admit.
Anxious for Armageddon is primarily aimed at Western readers. With fourteen chapters, a "call to all Churches" in the epilogue, appendixes and a Chronology of Middle East Christianity, it offers a good presentation of the Middle East, the history of Christian Zionism, its doctrines and practices, of Arab Christians and their tasks and relations with Western Christians. This book could and should be read by Arabs, both Christians and Muslims, the former to learn about Zionist theology and Christian Zionism, the latter to recognize the difference between local Arab Christians and the new Crusaders!
Jamal Khader, a priest of the Latin Patriarchate, is currently working on his master's degree in Dogmatic Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
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|Publication:||Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1996|
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