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Religion & Spirituality

BLOG—Poor Jerusalem

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Yesterday, our president announced that he would not continue signing waivers to the Jerusalem Embassy Act, a 1995 action of Congress urging a relocation of the United States’ embassy from Tel Aviv to the City of David. In so doing, Trump has unilaterally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This could potentially be the preamble to another disaster for the most hotly contested piece of real estate in the world.

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In 587 BCE, Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, tired of the various political machinations of Zedekiah, a Jewish puppet-ruler he’d installed overJudah, sent in his armies and the Temple of Solomon was destroyed. The Psalter, the Book of Psalms, are filled with laments over the loss of Jerusalem. There is no greater example than that of Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon—there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there, we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 

**

Jerusalem was a backwater town controlled by a Semitic tribe called the Jebusites before King David cast his eyes upon it around 1000 BCE. He saw Jerusalem’s location and natural fortifications as being perfect for a great capital city that could transcended tribal identification and unite the people. It was perhaps the most ancient form of the “strong centralized government” versus “state’s rights” argument. David aimed to make his city the civil and religious capital for all of God’s followers, a place to put the Israelites on the map, literally and figuratively. It would either replace or encompass the particular traditions, identifications, and religious sites of the individual tribes in favor of a nationalist theocracy. 

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land? 
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, 
let my right hand wither! 
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, 
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest you.

We tend to romanticize things in our memories. Or to discount the viewpoints of others. Jerusalem was a great city abstractly, but like most great cities there is unjust suffering in its cornerstones. David and Solomon both practiced slavery, including over their own people.* When Solomon died, the tribes of the north, who had suffered great hardships to the benefit of the royal court—comprised of all southern tribes—went to Solomon’s son and asked for a lessened yoke. He declined, and the kingdoms split, never to be united again. 

What arose was a symbolic Jerusalem, the dominion over which came to represent the fullness of God’s favor. All three Abrahamic faiths stake a claim, the validity of which depends on one’s point of view. Lest we forget, the Crusades were launched over Jerusalem. Theologically, a peaceful Jerusalem signifies a peaceful world brought about by following God. And we should never diminish how important is Jerusalem to the Jewish people. Sadly, though, the idealized Jerusalem is too often the enemy of the actual Jerusalem, in which people die because complexities are boorishly swept aside by simplistic thinking.

                                                                       **

I am not an expert on Middle East politics. While I know a good deal about the history of Jerusalem and was there once as a biblical scholar for a Channel Four UK documentary film shoot, I do not write with an authority on policy. I don’t understand the nuances that can be achieved only through lived experience. I write as a pastor and scholar who sees the president’s actions as a deeply cynical ploy to pander to a segment of his base. 

Evangelicals** in the United States are among the most strident and ardent supporters of the State of Israel. On its face, this seems reasonable. We Christians claim a Jewish messiah. Support of the mother religion would appear to be a commandment. Sadly, across history we Christians have often been the most virulently anti-Semitic perpetuators of violence and oppression. One need only think of Charlottesville and the image of torch-bearing figures chanting “Jews will not replace us,” to know that anti-Semitism continues. The over-riding reason that a vast majority of American Evangelicals want to see Jerusalem under Jewish control is because of two nineteenth-century clergymen, one Irish and the other Scottish. 

John Nelson Darby and Edward Irving combed through the scriptures and identified passages they regarded as essential to understanding how and when Jesus would return, an event sometimes called the Parousia but more commonly known as the Second Coming. Needed were the rise of the antichrist and the apocalyptic battle between good and evil, often called Armageddon. Perhaps most important of all was reunification of biblical Israel before Christ would return. These beliefs were spread to the United States and expounded upon by Cyrus I. Scofield, who in 1909 produced the Scofield Bible. It contained commentary on passages aimed at “proving” the existence of a biblical code played out in history. This was the preferred Bible of Christian Zionists, as they became known, and made premillennial dispensationalism their preferred theology.  

Also part of this theology is the idea that, when Jesus returns, Jews will have two choices: die or convert. This colonialist supersessionism is a barely contained secret, and some Jewish Zionists have no problem taking Evangelical dollars and support. It is a mutually beneficial using of one another. Even more curious is the fact that, according to dispensationalist theology, Jerusalem and all of biblical Israel must be united under a theocracy. The State of Israel is secular.    

**

Evangelical Christianity has been overtly political for decades—I’m currently finishing up a book about how to reclaim the faith from partisan politics called Jesus Without the Jackassery—and given the overwhelming Evangelical support for Alabama Senate-candidate Roy Moore, it still is. It can seem baffling why any Christian would support him, and believe me I spend a lot of time thinking about issues like this as people flee in horror from Christianity. Our rank hypocrisy on the issues we do and don’t support cannot ignored, and we in the Church do so at our own peril.

In my view, the reason Evangelicals support Moore is simple: abortion. For them, abortion is a tool of the antichrist, and everyone who disagrees with all but a complete outlawing of abortion are themselves tools of the antichrist. In oder for the antichrist to be defeated, Christ must return (or initiate a one-thousand year period of tribulation), and that cannot happen until Jerusalem is once again under the exclusive control of Israel. This is the theology that undergirds the Christian Zionist movement.   

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
    the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
    Down to its foundations!”
 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
    Happy shall they be who pay you back
    what you have done to us!
 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
    and dash them against the rock!

Not very pro-life, is it? This bashing of babies against rocks. We should not try to hide from this passage or explain it away. I admit that I have felt this rage, this desire for bloody recompense, so sure was I in my righteous indignation, so short-sighted in my grasping for straws. Ever felt this depth of hatred and vengeance? Here, in the closing verses of Psalm 137, the voices are of those removed from their homeland, severed from their God, and shipped off to a foreign land in order to be eliminated via slavery or assimilation or the passing of generations. Jerusalem represents all their hopes and dreams, their connection to history, their once and future identity. It is a symbol of once again being right with God. 

What Donald Trump has done to the Palestinian people specifically and Muslims generally with his unilateral decree is metaphorically bashed their babies against the rocks. He has thrown to the wolves the inhabitants of East Jerusalem, perhaps has taken away the last vestige of hope for those who still believed in the peace process. This act is emblematic of what upsets so many in the Middle East: with no thought to how actions impact those on the ground, the U.S. government acts with impunity while speaking of peace and freedom. That is how terrorists are made.   

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*The accounts are contained in what scholars refer to as the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua–II Kings), but click here for a great summary by a renowned expert.  

**Evangelicals is a nebulous term; I have very conservative and left-leaning colleagues who fall under the umbrella term “evangelical.” For our purposes, it refers to the Evangelical Christianity of Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, Ted Haggard, etc.  

 

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BLOG—Poor Jerusalem

by Aaron Maurice Saari