One of my favorite podcasts is Phil Vischer’s rollicking foray into pop culture and the state of affairs in the Evangelical church. Regular cohosts actress Christian Taylor and pastor/author Skye Jethani are joined (and sometimes replaced) by a variety of interesting guests. This week’s guest, Dr. Gary Burge, tackled the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which can be summed up in the question, “Whose land is it anyway?”.
I was tempted to skip this week’s podcast, as I am familiar with Burge’s point of view. But in the name of education (which means exposing myself to ideas opposite from those I may hold), I sat through it. I’m glad I did, because it left me with a couple of questions I’ll be throwing out there at the end of this post.
Theologian Burge has spoken and written extensively for both academic and popular audiences about how he would frame the question. For the purposes of this blog post I’d summarize his position as the belief that the modern state of Israel is a bullying occupying force that kicked out the rightful occupants of the land in 1948, uprooting innocent Arab (both Muslim and Christian communities) who’d lived there for generations. In the podcast, Burge noted that any claim Israel might have for the land based on the Bible is a stretch at best, since the modern State of Israel has a secular, democratic form of government.
I appreciate a loving skewering of the unhealthy fetishism that certain theological camps have for the idea of Israel (my Dispensationalist brothers and sisters, I’m looking at you) as a trigger that will hasten the Second Coming and create a knowable schedule for the End of Days. Burge, Vischer and Taylor provided some fun moments addressing some of our Christian pop culture fascination with this particular eschatological scheme.
What I didn’t appreciate was what Burge presented as the only intelligent and sane opposing viewpoint. If you’re not imbibing the Late, Great Planet Earth/Left Behind view of Israel, then according to Burge and many other theologians in his camp the only logical way to go is to recognize that the covenant promises God made to the Chosen People of a King, Land, Temple and God’s Presence are fulfilled in Jesus Christ for the whole world, not the chosen few – which means that the Jewish People have no more right to the land than anyone else does. According to Burge, Israel is really the result of a European “problem” (a problem we like to call the Holocaust), and this sense of Jewish “exceptionalism”, and Evangelical populist belief in it, is the cause of the conflict in Israel.
Burge was espousing the sentiments of the supercessionist camp regarding the Land promises of the Old Testament. Though I’ve only dipped my toe in New Perspective waters, what I have read has been crickets-silent about the issue of covenantal real estate claims.
I agree with Burge that Jesus fulfills the intent of those covenant promises, and mediates God’s presence to the world he loves. No debate there. Where I disagree (vehemently!) is that I do not believe God’s eternal covenant promises to his people become null and void as a result of the finished work of a perfect Jewish high priest become perfect Jewish sacrifice. By “spiritualizing” the notion of covenant, Burge diminishes what a covenant is for all of us, Jew and Gentile alike. Because alike, in Jesus, we become one new community. That one new community is not marked by uniformity but diversity. “Every tongue, tribe, and nation” language in the book of Revelation tells me that even in eternity, those identifiers play a role. And that includes the role of the Jews, and the specific promises God made to them – promises that even their disobedience and dispersion could not invalidate.
Thanks be to God.
Because I am a Jewish follower of the Jewish Messiah, I will end not with a statement, but with a couple of questions.
For Phil Vischer: Wouldn’t it be great if you could have on someone who takes a reasoned and intelligent opposing viewpoint on Burge’s contentions? Dude, just know it wouldn’t be me! I’m not a great debater. But I do know a couple of thoughtful scholars and speakers who could do a bang-up job for you.
For Gary Burge: I appreciate your care for the Israeli Arab community and your willingness to highlight the day-t0-day struggles in places like Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah. Your point at the end of the podcast about traveling to Israel not as tourists, but as human beings, was a wise one. You made a single nod toward the suffering, past and present, of the Jewish people in Israel in those words. But I would like to ask you if you have fully considered the consequences your theology has for the Jewish people living in Israel and still dispersed in communities around the world.