May 12, 2005
Jews, Israel, and the Rapture
As pointed out earlier, believers in the Rapture are convinced that at the end of the world (which they think is imminent) all those people who are not Christians, or are even just nominal Christians and not the full-throttle version, are going to meet an extraordinarily sticky end, too gruesome for even a Quentin Tarantino or Mel Gibson film. But the role that Jews play in the rapture drama is curious and worth examining.
As Chris Hedges points out in his essay in the May 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine, the Dominionist belief in the Rapture has a role for Jews that is not very appealing. They believe that "Israel must rule the Biblical land in order for Christ to return, though when he does, all Jews who do not convert to Christianity supposedly will be incinerated as the believers are lifted into heaven."
Gene Lyons, in his November 2004 Harper's Magazine review of the Left Behind novels points out that "Israeli Jews play a strange role in the Left Behind series, existing to be converted or slaughtered. As God's chosen, they are to be protected from harm until the battle of Armageddon, at which point they must accept Jesus as the Messiah or die."
So while many fundamentalist Christians speak of their "Judeo-Christian heritage," one suspects that what they mean by that is not that Jews and Christians are equal partners but merely that the Old Testament is an important part of their religious framework.
One might think that all Jews would recoil from being placed in this role and give a wide berth to Christian organizations that promulgate it. So then why was the Israeli Ministry of Tourism hosting a breakfast at the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters association, a stronghold of Dominionist thinking? And why were Avraham Hirschohn (the Israeli Minister of Tourism) and Michael Medved (a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host) featured speakers at an event where everyone sees only two options for them â€“ conversion to Christianity or a gruesome death?
Both Chris Hedges and Gene Lyons suggest reasons for this seemingly bizarre alliance.
Once again, it is the End Times beliefs that provide an explanation, at least for the Dominionist partners.
The book of Revelations refers to "a thousand years" several times, and end-timers have thought that this is a clue that the Rapture will occur around the time of the millennium. Revelations also gives a special role for the city of Jerusalem and these two things help bring about this alliance, overcoming what one might think is an unbridgeable chasm. As Lyons says "Ironically, given American fundamentalism's historic ambivalence about Jews, it was the 1948 founding of Israel, coming as it did near the end of the millennium, that gave the End Times prophecy industry a boost." The true believers see this conjunction of events as a sign of the beginning of the end.
As a result, Christian fundamentalists have become some of the strongest boosters of Israel and the most implacable foes of Islam, supporting even Israel's most hard-line policies on settlement expansion, seeing all these things as fulfillment of Biblical prophecy that the end times are near. Belief in the rapture and seeking to hasten its arrival trumps everything else. At the broadcaster's convention, Hedges says that:
The [American] Christian writer Kay Arthur, who can barely contain her tears when speaking of Israel, professes that although she loves America, if she had to choose between America and Israel, "I would stand with Israel, stand with Israel as a daughter of the King of Kings, stand according to the word of God." She goes on to quote at length from Revelation, speaking of Jesus seated on a throne floating about Jerusalem as believers are raptured up towards him into the sky."
From the Israeli point of view, they obtain economic and political benefits from this alliance with a grouping that one might think they would otherwise recoil from. The immediate economic benefit is from tourism, thus explaining the Israeli tourism minister's presence at the convention and his announcement that Israel will build a Pilgrim Center for visiting Christian tourists. As Hedges says: "Some 400,000 Christian tourists visit Israel each year, and, what with the precipitous decline in Israel's tourism industry in recent years, these people have become a valuable source of revenue."
The more strategic benefit for Israel is that fundamentalist Christians now have a lot of clout with the American government and thus are likely to exert pressure to provide unqualified political support for Israeli policies, including economic and military aid. Hedges quotes Michael Medved (who was one of the most passionate Jewish defenders of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ) as saying: " Take a look at this support for Israel. A more Christian America is good for the Jews, something Jewish people need to be more cognizant about and acknowledge. A more Jewish community is good for Christians, not just because of the existence of allies but because a more Jewish community is less seduced by secularism."
One might wonder if the benefits of political, military, and economic support is sufficient to cozy up with people who think that the end of time is about to occur and that your only choice is to convert or die. It may well be that the Jews who are allied with the Dominionists think that this whole rapture thing is sheer nonsense and that they are willing to pander to it, knowing it will never occur, all the while benefiting from the existence of this belief. Basically, they may think they are playing the Dominionists for suckers.
I am not so convinced that this is a good strategy, even assuming that it is true. The trouble with rapture theology predictions (indeed with all predictions based on religious texts) are that they are so malleable. The Book of Revelations is graphic in its imagery but pretty opaque on what it all means and hardly an unambiguous blueprint for the future. People who devoutly believe that the rapture is imminent may grow impatient when it does not occur soon and start reinterpreting Revelations to explain the delay. What if the new message that emerges is that it is the existence of Israel that is holding up the rapture? Or that the present Israel is the "wrong" Israel (in whatever sense) and the "new" Jerusalem described in Revelations means new in terms very different from the way is conceived? Suppose that it is decided that the reason the new Jerusalem has not "descended" (another signal of the rapture) is because the old Jerusalem needs to be first obliterated to make way for it?
When you start basing public policy on Biblical interpretations, one is going down a very dangerous road. The secularism scorned by Medved may, in the long run, be what saves us all (in all countries) from governmental policies that are disastrous. Secularism leads to a reality-based world-view that is less likely to confuse wishful thinking with reality.
In case regular readers of the blog think that I have forgotten, all this rapture stuff is not a digression but does have relevance to the question of the religious opposition to Darwin. But before I address it directly, in the next posting, we will see another area where Dominionist thinking is affecting public policy, and that is with regard to gays.
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