From Naïve Christian Zionism to Just Peace in the Holy Land
by Andrew Bolton, Community of Christ
Community of Christ began on the US frontier in the late 1820s with a heart for both Jews and Native Americans, two despised groups by many American Christians of European descent at that time. An early church missionary, Orson Hyde, was influenced by early ideals for the return of the Jews to Palestine swirling in both the USA and in the British Isles. In October 1841 he arrived in Jerusalem and wrote a prayer from his heart on the Mount of Olives. It includes these words:
Let [kings and the powers of the earth] know that it is
Thy good pleasure to restore the kingdom unto Israel,
raise up Jerusalem as its capital,
and constitute her people a distinct nation and government…
Historically, many members were on the path toward Christian Zionism long before Theodore Herzl and the establishment of Jewish political zionism. A friend of Orson Hyde, G. J. Adams, later led a group from Maine to Palestine in 1866 to found a colony near Jaffa to help Jews return to Palestine. The venture was a tragic failure, but the attempt reinforced our belief that Jews had to be restored to their historic homeland.
My father-in-law, Reed M Holmes, also represented this Christian Zionism movement within Community of Christ. A gentle, loving minister, he first heard stories about G. J. Adams while working as a young missionary in Maine in the 1940s, including meeting a woman who was a child in the ill-fated Maine colony near Jaffa. He later wrote a biography about G. J. Adams, did his Ph.D. at Haifa University, and promoted these stories of helping Jews to return to the Holy Land with tours and writings. His daughter Jewell and I were engaged on one of his Holy Land tours in 1977. At that time I became thoroughly Christian Zionist, but naively, so like my loving father-in-law.
Gradually, I became aware of the Palestinian story. To begin with, I resisted but as my awareness of their story reluctantly grew I began to alter my position. From about 2010, I began attending the annual conferences of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) in Washington DC, which were very helpful. In 2014, Jewell and I, and a French church member – Chrystal Vanel – participated in a dual narrative study tour of Palestine/Israel organized by Churches for Middle East Peace. Those eight superbly planned days enabled us to meet both Israelis and Palestinians working for a just peace. This study tour was really helpful.
Chrystal Vanel was able to get a resolution to the 2016 World Conference for Community of Christ that evenly denounced anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and supported a just peace between Palestinians and Israelis, with support for a two-state solution. The resolution generated the longest debate of the week-long conference but in the end, comfortably passed.
Since 2016, I have chaired the Palestine/Israel sub-team of a larger Peace and Justice team for the Community of Christ denomination. We talked with eight different people working on Israel/Palestine issues in our meetings between 2016 and 2019. We concluded that our first priority was to educate our church members and friends about the realities of the occupation, its crushing burden on Palestinians, and finding out what would make for a just peace in the Holy Land. So, we ran two sessions at the 2019 World Conference. Now in 2022, we are doing a series of three ‘Grounds for Peace’ podcasts, one released on Holocaust Remembrance Day 27 April, another on Nakba Day 15 May, and a third UN International Day of Peace released in September 2022.
In 2022 Community of Christ also became a member of Churches for Middle East Peace – a very encouraging and helpful step forward. Our next World Conference will be in April 2023. We will be considering a resolution opposing Christian Zionism and are planning a further podcast specifically on Christian Zionism to help that conference debate.
So, in outline, I describe our struggling journey towards a more informed understanding of Palestine/Israel. The good news is that a denomination naively caught up by Christian Zionism may be on the road to repentance. My journey means that I now see Christian Zionists, particularly in the USA, as part of the problem, part of why the unjust occupation of Palestinians continues. Christian Zionists unhelpfully and unjustly skew USA Middle East policy, whether the administration is Republican or Democrat. I see Christian Zionism as a sinful, violent theology that leads to the oppression of Palestinians, endangers Israeli security in the long term, and greatly hinders a just peace for all.
My loving father-in-law introduced me to these words:
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.
(Psalm 122:6 NRSV Anglicised)
Join us in prayer for the peace of Jerusalem, that it may be a city where every Jew, Christian, and Muslim can enjoy full human dignity and experience peace, shalom, and salaam. Jewell and I live in Leicester, England a city of 350,000+ people with 70+ languages, 14+ world religions, and a non-white majority. There are of course tensions at times, but the city peacefully flourishes and continues to welcome refugees and immigrants. May the peace of Jerusalem also flourish and become a beacon for human dignity for all throughout the Middle East.
Andrew Bolton is a former British teacher of multi-faith Religious Education in Leicester, UK, a teacher trainer at Westminster College, Oxford, and a school inspector. For 18 years he worked for Community of Christ in Independence, Missouri, coordinating Peace and Justice Ministries internationally, and then was the pastoral and mission coordinator for 220 congregations in 10 countries in Asia. The views expressed here are his own and not necessarily Churches for Middle East Peace or Community of Christ.
Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).