(Note: this is Scott Harrop writing.)
Four years ago this past week, 23 March 2003 to be exact, I heard what for me then was the “mother of all sermons.” Yet until now, I have resisted writing about it:
*First, I am not inclined to be too autobiographical in the blogosphere.
*Second, when I finally forced myself to re-listen to the digital recording of “the sermon,” it dawned on me that I’ve heard far worse since. (See John Hagee section below)
*Third, I have long resisted returning to the subject of “Christian Zionism.” Where I was raised in Pennsylvania, Hal Lindsey and his 1970’s bestseller “The Late Great Planet Earth” was widely read at churches my family attended. A bit later at a “Christian University,” I once wrote a paper on “Peace and Prophecy” with the edgy subtitle, “Are they Compatible?” I had the “nerve” to think they were. Still do.
*Lastly, I am also not too inclined to ridicule ministers in public, even when well “earned.“
But then I saw a bumper sticker on the family van of one of my daughter’s friends that proclaimed, “No Jesus, No Peace.” It convinced me that I needed to go back and “unpack” four years of pent-up angst over what “the sermon” signifies for me, then and now.
Besides, I have analyzed the Friday political sermons of Shia clerics for over two decades, so I shouldn’t be so abstemious about assessing what presumed “Gospel” ministers have to say on Middle East matters. I also lamely take some courage from how George Fox challenged ministers of his day.
The context of “the sermon” was just days after the US “shock and awe” bombs began raining down on Saddam’s Iraq in 2003, as the first stages of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The setting was one of the larger “evangelical” churches here in Charlottesville, Virginia. We had been “visiting” this church, in part as the Pastor had assured us that his “new covenant” church didn’t preach “Christian Zionism.”
The sermon that day four years ago was delivered by a visiting older minister, long a mentor, an “Apostle” to the local pastor, and now involved primarily in outreach efforts to drug-infested communities. Jesse Owens was his name – not to be confused with the famous Olympian.
Much of “the Apostle’s” sermon tone was blistering high-volume, classic fire-and-brimstone, text-less, “holy spirit” fury. At early points, Owens was nearly apoplectic, as his face turned deep red and purple and his neck veins bulged.
But his subject that day wasn’t about heaven or hell, sin, eternal damnation, or any of that.
Ostensibly, he was speaking about “strength for the weak.” His biblical reference was Nehemiah, the Jew who was permitted by the Persian King Artaxerxes to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city walls.
Owens did start with a calm word about peace, vaguely referencing, “those who wait upon the Lord will live in peace and not be afraid.” (Ps. 27 or Is. 12:2?) But he was soon proclaiming how he
“felt sorry for the terrorists. The Bible says the curse of the Lord is on the house of the wicked.”
Why? Well, because they’re against God. “Jesus confirmed this passage when he said, “Those who live by the sword will die by it.”
No, this wasn’t going to be a sermon for pacifism. For Owens, that verse (Mt 26:52) refers to the “bad guys” not to “good guys” out then doing the “Lord’s work.”
Yet Owens did lament that,
“Judgment comes in some form to all people, including even God’s covenant people. And when He made the covenant, God, who has foreknowledge, knew that the other side of those who went into the Covenant with him would not honor the Covenant fully.”
As for Nehemiah, Owens depicted him as a man of “great character” who was born into difficult times under King Nebuchadnezzar. At the top of his lungs, “the Apostle” wailed about Nebuchadnezzar being one of “the world’s greatest terrorists, maybe even higher than Bin Laden, or Hitler….”
So what in particular made him a terrorist? — Because “he destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple and took elite Jews back to live as slaves under the Persian Empire.” ( ! sic) Never mind that Nebuchadnezzar was King of Babylon, an empire not conquered by Cyrus of Persia until over two decades after Nebuchadnezzar’s death.
Still referencing “history,” Owens then contended that the difficulties endured by Jews who remained in Jerusalem were the fruit of “terrorism” – of the “evil in the world.”
My astonishment turned to horror when Owens jumped back to the then current looming invasion of Iraq. (at mark 9:58 of the recording)
“[K]eep in mind that this whole thing going on today is really a spiritual matter… It’s a contest between good and evil, and it’s a moral thing…. “
That hit me personally. I had been opposed firmly to the rush to invade Iraq, not on theological grounds, but based on years of study and teaching about the region’s history and politics.
To me, I was being branded from the pulpit as siding with “evil” – that I was “against God.” I didn’t hear much of his “sermon” after that.
Owens depicted events then in Iraq as “a wake-up call, a means to get us to a place to fast and separate ourselves,, like Nehemiah did in captivity…” after learning of the conditions in Jerusalem.
The final straw for me came (at recording mark 17:26) when Owens approvingly cited broadcast comments by columnist Charles Krauthammer that, “If this isn’t the holocaust, it’s the prelude to it.” To Owens,” this meant that,
“people out there know that things are moving rapidly.. It is people who absolutely hate Jesus… who are intent to exterminate another people.”
Owens was waving the bloody cross and wildly conflating it with America’s fight against terrorism, of which Saddam’s Iraq was but another face. Any Muslim out there who resisted Israel was siding with “evil.” Bin Laden, Saddam, Iran — all the same to Owens.
I later challenged the local church’s regular Pastor about whether he had any problem with the characterization of the “choice” to invade Iraq as a simple matter of “good vs. evil” and the call for “God’s people” to get on board the war train.
Alas, the Pastor wasn’t about to countenance any criticism of “his Apostle” or comprehend my “concern” at being branded by the same as “evil.”
While I have since avoided that church, I realize that such fulminations are hardly unique in “conservative Christian” circles. A “people” pre-disposed to find “evil” under every Arab rock will surely find it.
Iraqi Christians Today:
I rather doubt that Jesse Owens had a clue of the million or so Iraqis who happen to be Christian or what happened to them since they were “liberated” four years ago from Saddam Hussein’s regime. He probably also had no idea that Iraq’s Christians (many of whom still speak the same language spoken by Jesus – Aramaic) had lived relatively well under “secular” Saddam, or that one their own, Tariq Aziz, had risen to the posts of Foreign Minister and then Vice President. To be sure, the toll of wars since 1979 and economic sanctions after 1991 did cause many of Iraq’s relatively affluent and better educated Christian Community to leave Iraq well before 2003. But for the most part, they weren’t then leaving due to overt persecution for their religious identity, per se.
Matters are far worse today. I wonder what Jesse Owens would think of the recent headline in USA Today: “Christians, targeted and suffering, Flee Iraq.” The story cites the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to assert that even though they comprise 5% of Iraq’s population, they “make up nearly 40% of the refugees fleeing Iraq.”
Juan Cole onFriday cast doubt on such percentages, even as he understood that of the “800,000 or so of them before the war… they may be down to 500,000.” Cole over the past four years has provided numerous horendous reports of the plight of Iraq’s Christians. Last May 15h, he appropriately observed that,
“The ancient Iraqi Christian community is shrinking with alarming rapidity, given Iraq’s insecurity and the targeting of Christians by guerrilla fighters. Many evangelicals in the US had hoped to use the Iraq War as leverage to convert large numbers of Iraqis to Protestant Christianity. Ironically, what they may have accomplished is instead a massive drop in the number of Iraqi Christians resident in the country.”
Getting solid numbers on the Iraqi Christians is not easy. Accounts of Iraqi refugees being disproportionately Christian often cite UNHCR statements, but spokesman at UNHCR also indicate that their recorded percentages have fluctuated — and that most Iraqi refugees don’t even register with UNHCR.
One disturbing report, published last October 6th in The Guardian,surveyed many of the reasons why Iraqi Christians feel particularly vulnerable, unprotected, and bitter. It also recalled President Bush “mission accomplished” speech nearly four years ago from the Aircraft Carrier Lincoln, with its less remembered closing invocation of the prophet Isaiah (61:1): “To the captives, ‘Come out!’ and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!’” I double checked; that scriptural reference really is in the original.
But to Iraqi Christians, Bush’s “liberation” to the “light” set in motion a grim downward spiral to a hellish existence, where Iraqi Christians feel under siege from all directions. Lest readers think I’m overstating the case, consider scanning the archive of reports filed at www.christiansofiraq.com, or read the latest Iraq section of the US State Department annual report on religious minorities.
Or look at last year’s documentary report on all of Iraq’s minorities by the respected Minority Rights Group. Or consider the core observation last December by Mark Hetfield, Senior V.P. of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society:
“There are few religious minorities in the world today as persecuted as the Iraqi Christian population, so we naturally identify with them based on our own history.”
Even Daniel Pipes and al-Jazeera, sources not know to agree on anything, have published columns citing the grave situation facing Iraqi Christians.
While violence today afflicts all Iraqi communities, Iraqi Christians feel particularly exposed – as Christians. “Operation Iraqi Freedom” opened a pandora’s box of trouble for Iraqi Christians.
Explanations for the violence, intimidation, and discriminations against Iraqi Christians – including bombings of major churches and schools, murders of priests, kidnappings, and forced conversions, marriages, and rapes – are diverse. It could be resentment of Christians for past “deals” with Saddam (like concessions for selling alcohol); or jealousy of their relative affluence in some areas; or more ominously, blame cast on Iraqi Christians for Western “sins” (the Danish Cartoons, the Pope comments, or Bush’s “crusade” reference).
As a relatively mundane, narrow example, Assyrian Christians in Kurdish areas recently accused local Kurdish authorities of a “racist” ban against Assyrians using their language for their business names and signs. More broadly, the creeping Islamization of Iraqi society since Saddam’s outster has been an ongoing shock for non-Muslims in Iraq.
Iraq’s Christians, who as yet have no militia of their own, understandably wonder why “Christian” America has done little or nothing, even discretely, to protect them. Faced all too often with violence and death, Iraq’s Christians despair of having been “freed” merely to leave.
Particularly striking in the recent Guardian report are comments by Iraq’s Wijdan Mikha’il, Iraq’s new “Minister of Human Rights” and a Christian herself:
“I have always seen myself as an Iraqi first, and then a Christian. Before, we all lived together, we never thought that someone was a Sunni and the other was a Shia, or a Christian, but now it is different.”
When asked about how many Christians were leaving, she was quite pessimistic:
“The process started before the war but it has accelerated. In the schools the children now say that a Christian is a kaffir, that he is different from the Muslims. And that means he can be treated differently. In 20 years there will be no more Christians in Iraq.“
Would she herself, a ranking official in the Iraqi government, still be in Iraq then?
“I don’t think so. I love Iraq. I had so many opportunities to leave, but I always stayed. But I don’t want my children to live here.”
But where are Iraq’s Christians to go? The Bush Administration has, until recently, avoided the subject, with the implied assumption being that the (nearly two million) Iraqis now in Syria and Jordan will eventually go back to Iraq. But where in Iraq?
Some Iraqi Christians have been calling for the establishment of a “protected” autonomous zone for Iraqi Christians on the “Nineveh plain.” (think Jonah) On October 30th, 2006, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops backed the (fanciful?) Nineveh plan, a plan that apparently relies on the good graces of the Iraqi Kurds. One report last week vaguely claimed that the Bush Administration is considering it.
But many, like the expatriate Chaldean Federation of America, deem the bridge back to Iraq burned for too many Iraqi Christians and press for more asylum slots in the United States. As their executive director Joseph Kassam reasoned to the Boston Globe, “We are the byproduct of the action that was taken in Iraq, the bad part of it.”
I wonder what Jesse Owens and others like him now think of the “good” war and its “evil” consequences for fellow Christians fleeing from Iraq?
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury stands as one western Christian leader who had warned of such consequences and has spoken out candidly about the present dire manifestations. From Bethlehem last Christmas, Williams wrote:
“In the hectic days just before the Iraq War, one prediction often made and systematically ignored was the warning that Western military action… would put Christian populations in the whole Middle East at risk. They would be seen as supporters of the crusading West….
[T]he results are now painfully adding to what was already a difficult situation for Christian communities across the region. Iraq’s own Christian population is dropping by thousands every couple of months and some of its most effective leaders have been forced to emigrate….
It’s a very sobering thought that we might live to see the last native Christian believers in the region. It’s not a problem we can go on ignoring if we care about the health and stability of the Middle East in general; we need to try and confront it, not by weighing in with Western firepower but by making real relationships with the communities there and working at trustful contacts with those Muslims who understand their own history and want to live in a lively and varied culture.”
The Godfather of all Sermons: John Hagee
Alas, sober reflection is not what I’m hearing from famous “Christian Zionists” today, most notably as exhibited by the “Reverend” John Hagee and his “Christians United for Israel” (CUFI) – a new lobbying organization that reportedly already has the ear, if not the soul, of President Bush – the same man who told Bob Woodward that he consulted his “heavenly father” rather than his earthly father about going to war with Iraq.
In the view of Hagee’s organization (CUFI), “supporting Israel is God’s foreign policy.” In Hagee’s March 11, 2007 speech before the annual American-Israel Public Affairs (AIPAC) convention, Hagee was “clear” in where he thought the loyalties of “evangelical” Christians must be:
Ladies and gentlemen of AIPAC it’s a new day in America. The sleeping giant of Christian Zionism has awakened; there are 50 million Christians standing up and applauding the State of Israel.
If a line has to be drawn, draw the line around both Christians and Jews; we are united; we are indivisible.
How ironic that just as evidence is emerging that many, if not a majority of American Jews are displeased with AIPAC and its tactics, Christian Zionists are stepping in to fortify the cause. And the top bette noire on today’s AIPAC agenda is Iran; so it must be for Hagee:
As you know, Iran poses a threat to the State of Israel that promises nothing less than a nuclear holocaust…. [I]t is 1938; Iran is Germany and Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler. Ladies and gentlemen we must stop Iran’s nuclear threat and stop it now and stand boldly with Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East….
No grey in Hagee’s understanding of the “evil” Iranians; no factions, no elections, no need to try that nefarious old State Department trick of “diplomacy.” Hagee is intoxicated with the most extreme depictions about Iran and its nuclear plans, even insisting that Iran has suitcase nuclear bombs.
Hagee yearns, as he wrote a year ago in the Pentecostal magazine Charisma, for the “The Coming Holy War” (sic) against Iran.
Hagee repeatedly has counselled even the use of nuclear weapons to destroy Iran: “Israel and America must confront Iran’s nuclear ability and willingness to destroy Israel with nuclear weapons.”
Apart from Iran, Hagee’s recent AIPAC “sermon” repeats neoconservative mantra on why there is no peace in the region:
Scapegoating Israel will not solve the problem; the problem is the Arab rejection of Israel’s right to exist…. The problem is that Israel has no partner for peace; the problem is radical Islam’s blood-thirsty embrace of a theocratic dictatorship that believes they have a mandate from God to kill Christians and Jews.
On his CUFI web site, Hagee’s contends that “Arabs” have no claim to “Israel’s” land: “Arabs began to repopulate the land only after the Jews reclaimed it and the land had begun to prosper.”
Oh my. Woe then to the “appeasers!” Hagee even invokes William Wilberforce (e.g. the abolitionist depicted in “Amazing Grace”) to buttress his case against “appeasement” as “nothing more than surrender on the installment plan.”
Hagee’s unswerving devotion to backing Israel unconditionally (provided that it doesn’t give an inch) goes far deeper than a political judgment; it’s rooted in Hagee’s reading of “prophecy.”
“Why do Christians support Israel? Truth is not what I say it is. Truth is not what you think it is. Truth is what the Torah says it is; there’s the Torah way and the wrong way. Genesis 12 and 3 says I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. We believe those blessings are very real and those judgments are very real…..”
And for Hagee and fellow “dispensationalists,” that “covenant” with Abraham and his offspring [e.g. Ge 12:3] only applies to the Isaac line.
As such, even if Hagee had a clue of the 300,000 or so Christians living in Iran, I doubt it would matter to Hagee in the least. If their deaths would bless Israel, who cares?
I have read several critical commentaries about Hagee, many of which see him as “anti-Semetic.” They particularly quote his depictions of past sufferings of Jewish people as a “divine judgment” upon a disobedient people.
Jews will also suffer dramatically in Hagee’s “prophetic” visions of the future. In Hagee’s eschatology (end times outlook), Armageddon, like the modern establishment of Israel, is a necessary stepping stone towards the “Rapture” of Christians into Heaven and the second coming of Jesus. In the process, most of the Jewish remnant will be killed.
The “logic” was on display in his speech before the first CUFI gathering in Washington:
“The United States must join Israel in a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God’s plan for both Israel and the West… a biblically prophesied end-time confrontation with Iran, which will lead to the Rapture, Tribulation […] and [the] Second Coming of Christ.”
Gershom Gorenberg, in a recent interview with National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air,” deemed it “strange” that American Jews should ally themselves to Hagee:
“Part of the end of days vision of the Christian Zionists is that the Jews will die or convert to Christianity. So what they’re saying about the world today is they don’t see Judaism as a legitimate religion, and I think it’s strange for Jewish groups to align themselves with people who show, shall I say, a theological hostility for Judaism.”
Yet Christian-Zionists, as I understand them, passionately deny hostility to Jews. In his public speeches, including before AIPAC, Hagee certainly bends over backwards to apologize for past anti-semitism by Christians. And whatever past sins, Hagee emphasizes bonds today against a common perceived foe, as in his AIPAC closing :
“I believe 2007 is the year of destiny. America and Israel are at war with a common enemy. It is a war of good versus evil. It is a war of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness versus the culture of death.”
Now where have I heard that before?
“Ladies and gentlemen, as Christians and Jews, our aim is victory – victory for Israel and victory in our time.”
So whatever happened to “Blessed are the peacemakers?” (Matthew 5:9)
Salt of the Earth
Perhaps I should thank John Hagee, Hal Lindsey, and especiallyJesse Owens for compelling me to go on a “sojourn” of my own. Shaking off certain shackles of the past, I’ve been “seeking” to find a church, a faith, that still knows why it is a church – and yet can constructively confront “evils” in our lives and communities, promote justice, and at least once in a while, talk about “the Prince of Peace” [Is 9:6] and earthly peace.
Along my path, I had a pleasant chat with a local minister of a very large Baptist church. It happens to have a Palestinian-American as its leading Deacon. While that Reverend impressed me in many respects, he “lost” me when he let loose the “finger in the dike” theory: “If it weren’t for Israel, we’d have terrorism here on our streets everyday.” That Minister, an Army Reserve officer, is now a Chaplain in Iraq.
I’ve visited local “mainline” churches too, including a large Methodist Church. But for one July 4th service, they lost me too when their choir sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” — astonishing for a church in Dixie. When I gently asked a “friend” there about those selections, the snarling response sadly told me that my concerns and presence were less than welcome.
At one leading local Presbyterian (PCA) Church, I recall that the former senior Pastor there, whom I knew had a heart for understanding modern Middle East conflicts, often would urge his flock “not to demonize Muslims.” But I don’t recall him ever explaining why.
I’ve tried local “high church” forms too. But perhaps I am so far “lost” that I flinch from churches with weekly ritual prayers for the President, but rarely, or so it seemed to me, to bother to pray for peace.
And that brings me back to that bumper sticker – “No Jesus, No Peace.”
Perhaps it was meant, like the book, as a statement of inner spirituality or Christian service. But I also suspect, at least for many buying it, that it carries an anti-peaemaking political tinge.
Consider an encounter I had a few years ago with a new Wesleyan minister in Charlottesville, freshly minted from Indiana Wesleyan U. When he discerned my Christian heritage and Middle East interests, he was all too zealous to test my credentials (as both). Near the outset, he demanded to know where in the Bible it said that God should give any part of “Judea and Samaria” to the “Muslim Arabs.”
Not then wanting a fruitless argument, I merely said I lately had become rather partial to the Sermon on the Mount verse about “Blessed are the Peacemakers.” [Mt 5:9]
With a straight face, this young pastor earnestly retorted, “Well, that verse was only meant to apply to believers and making peace among them.”
I only wish I was making this up.
Blessed then are the true Christain-Likudist believers, for they shall make “holy war” without any qualms of conscience. For them, praying for the peace of Jerusalem (Ps 122:6) means smiting Israel’s foes of any stripe.
Remember them too next time you hear somebody reference Islam as uniquely predisposed to “Jihad.”
I of course should not leave the impression that all of “evangelical” Christianity sees “peacemaking” as synonymous with “appeasing the devil.” For starters, I am impressed by the recent Christian delegation, Quakers, Mennonites, and others, who went to Iran. And how about that famous Baptist Sunday School teacher, Jimmy Carter? For all its presumed flaws, his much reviled, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” draws from his own conviction that Christians are called not be be agents of Armageddon, but of reconciliation among all of Abraham’s children.
There’s even a new evangelical web site that serves as a clearinghouse of materials and daring speakers Challenging Christian Zionism.”
I may yet find felow travellers therein, Christians who believe that their savior’s mandate to be the “light” and “salt of the earth” includes “good deeds” to insure that the salt doesn’t lose its savor. [Mt 5:13-18]