If you think “standing with Israel” means never criticizing them, you’re going to have to get a new Bible

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Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that from a biblical perspective the modern state of Israel and the Old Testament nation are one and the same. Let’s say the old covenant is still in force, that the founding of modern-day Israel in 1948 fulfilled biblical prophecy.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Paul’s assertion that “all Israel will be saved” was a political statement rather than an expression of his belief that Jesus would rescue his own people from sin and death, along with Gentiles.

Many evangelicals take some or all of these assumptions to be indisputable fact (though evangelical support for Israel may not be as unanimous or unilateral as commonly thought). A plurality of evangelical leaders believe the founding of modern Israel fulfilled biblical prophecy. White evangelicals overwhelmingly sympathize with Israel in their conflict with the Palestinians. Half of evangelicals reject any possibility of peace between Israel and Palestine. Only 12% of white evangelicals believe the US should scale back its support for Israel.

The belief that the modern state of Israel is entitled to the blessings and benefits of what Christians regard as the “old covenant” gives way to yet another evangelical sentiment: namely, that it’s never OK to criticize the Israeli government. That “standing with Israel” means supporting them no matter what they do.

No matter how many Palestinian children are killed in the crossfire.

No matter how many homes and farms they bulldoze.

No matter how many walls they build.

No matter how many settlements they establish on Palestinian land, knowing full well that each one makes a viable Palestinian state more unlikely.

This sentiment was on full display in the aftermath of the reprehensible kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers and the subsequent retaliation by Israeli extremists. As Benjamin Corey wrote:

What bothers me most is that when news broke of the death of the Israeli teenagers, the internet lit up with your standard “stand with Israel” cheers, yet whenever Israel is the agent of aggression or retaliation, things go silent. The only voices who speak up are a few brave souls who are willing to be castigated by other Christians for having the courage to stand up against the violence and oppression of the nation state of Israel.

Why do we do this? Why does Israel get a free pass in doing whatever they want? They bulldoze communities so they can build illegal settlements, and we say and do nothing. They systematically use violence and oppression over their neighbors, and yet we say and do nothing. When things over heat, they retaliate—burning children alive, and we say and do nothing.

Why? Why would we be so foolish as to completely ignore behavior on the part of Israel that would in any other circumstance result in international sanctions or worse?

Let’s say modern Israel IS a continuation of the Old Testament kingdom (with the noticeable absence of a king or a temple). Let’s say the new covenant promised by Jeremiah and inaugurated by Jesus didn’t bring the old covenant to completion. Let’s say God didn’t expand the definition of Israel (in a spiritual sense—that is, his chosen people) to include Gentiles alongside Jews. Let’s say the dispensationalists are right.

Or, to put it as Benjamin Corey did, let’s say the “stand with Israel” folks are right.

How do we conclude from any of this that it’s not OK to criticize the Israeli state—especially when so much of the Hebrew Scriptures are themselves a prophetic critique of Israel? 

If “standing with Israel” means never saying anything negative about the Israeli government and berating anyone who does, then we should have nothing but contempt for the biblical prophets. We should cut them out of our Bibles. They should be condemned for treason against Israel.

In fact, they were. Amos was accused of conspiring against the government and was driven out of town. Jeremiah was thrown in prison by the king of Judah for predicting Jerusalem’s downfall.

The prophets routinely condemned Israel and its leaders for wishing destruction rather than mercy on their enemies (Jonah); for wrongly assuming that their military advances and territorial expansion were signs of God’s favor (Amos); for murder, theft, and adultery (Hosea); for coveting and seizing other people’s fields and houses (Micah); and for relying on military power instead of trusting God to protect them (Isaiah).

The prophets did not hold back. For them, “standing with Israel” meant speaking out whenever the nation fell into idolatry and injustice. Being God’s chosen people didn’t mean they got a free pass. If anything, they answered to an even higher expectation of integrity.

The prophets understood what Benjamin Corey states so well:

The best way to bless someone who is caught up in destructive behavior is not to condone or to support the behavior, but to lovingly confront the behavior and show them a better way.

Believing that the Israeli state is synonymous with the Old Testament kingdom shouldn’t change how we respond when it acts unjustly toward its Palestinian neighbors. Nor should our response be different when Palestinians perpetuate the cycle of violence in their own ways—though, as Benjamin Corey argues, those with greater power should be held to a higher standard.

It would be disingenuous to read the prophets as divinely inspired Scripture yet condemn others for doing and saying what they did. The best way to truly stand with Israel is to follow the prophets’ example, to lovingly but firmly confront evil and injustice, whoever the perpetrators might be.

Image credit: Zach Evener on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

How we sanitize the prophets

On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus broke out in lament for the prophets who preceded him. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you…”

In Luke’s gospel, this particular rant follows a warning from some of the religious leaders. They wanted Jesus to know Herod was after him. “We’re trying to help,” they might well have protested at Jesus’ angry reaction. But Jesus knew better.

He knew that most of us are happy to welcome prophets who announce the renewal of our fortunes or the demise of our enemies. The welcome is somewhat lessened when the prophetic gaze turns to our own corruption. Which is why prophets have a way of getting killed.

But you don’t have to kill a prophet to stifle their voice. You just have to wait till they’re gone… then memorialize them. Sanitize them. Spin their message into something more palatable. Which usually means overlooking oracles that were aimed at us, so we can claim the prophet’s legacy as our own.

It’s no wonder Jesus railed against those who built tombs for the prophets their ancestors had murdered.

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Within hours of Nelson Mandela’s death, people were lining up to eulogize him, to claim a piece of his prophetic legacy. One US politician compared Mandela’s fight against apartheid to his own fight against the Affordable Care Act. (Never mind that Mandela made healthcare a universal right in South Africa.)

Others praised Mandela for leading a peaceful transition from apartheid—even though they once branded him a “terrorist” and gave their tacit support to the regime he sought to topple.

We like Mandela’s words of reconciliation and unity. But we shifted uncomfortably in our seats when he called  poverty a “social evil” or when he railed against atrocities we’ve committed in our “war on terror.”

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We’ve done the same to Martin Luther King, Jr., sanitizing America’s greatest prophetic voice.

These days, we celebrate King as a voice against segregation and discrimination, and rightly so. We happily quote the line about all God’s children joining hands, but how many of us have read his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”?

How many of us have taken to heart some of his more radical ideas, like his call for civil disobedience in the face of economic injustice? Or his critique of capitalism? Or his denunciation of violence and war?

Those in power have ways of dealing with prophets like King. Memorialize them. Give them a national holiday. Eulogize them. Take the oath of office on one of their Bibles. And for God’s sake, don’t trouble yourself with what they might’ve said about us if they were alive today.

We love to claim the popular bits of King’s prophetic legacy as our own… and sweep the rest under the rug.

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The church has not escaped this tendency to sanitize the prophetic voice. We feel it at Christmastime, surrounded by placid nativity scenes and plush Santas. We recite scriptures about “peace on earth.” But do we pause long enough to consider what that really means—or what it requires? Was it merely a vague expression of goodwill? Or was it something more incendiary—say, a direct challenge to Rome’s status as the guardian of peace on earth?

Christmas is the one time of year even most Protestants pay tribute to the Virgin Mary, but have we listened—really listened—to her song about reversing the fortunes of the rich and the hungry?

We repeat Isaiah’s proclamation that “unto us a child is born” and that the “government will be upon his shoulders.” But do we listen when he the policies of this child’s government, when he reveals what membership in his kingdom requires?

We mustn’t settle for the sanitized version of the prophets, ancient or modern. Their real message is harder for us to hear—but so much more important, too.