In His Broadside Against Israel and American ‘Empire,’ Brian Zahnd Misses Key Details
Christ at the Checkpoint (CATC) is a biennial anti-Zionist conference convened by Bethlehem Bible College in Jerusalem. It targets mostly American evangelicals. Among the most prominent speakers at this year’s event was Missouri pastor and writer Brian Zahnd, a prominent evangelical pacifist and critic of “empire.”
Pro-Israel Christians in America are rightly seen as vital for sustaining America’s special friendship with Israel. So CATC has, since 2010, aimed to shift evangelicals to pro-Palestinian or at least neutralist. Zahnd pastors Word of Life Church in a Kansas City suburb. He advocates a neo-Anabaptist theology as made popular by the late John Howard Yoder and very much alive Stanley Hauerwas. Demonizing America and Israel are often key to this school of thought that’s popular among many Evangelical elites.
In his preoccupation with the evils of “empire,” Zahnd almost certainly sees Israel as an extension of American empire, which is the worst kind. At his Bethlehem CATC speech, Zahnd defined empires as “rich, powerful nations that believe they have a divine right to rule other nations and a manifest destiny to shape history.” He says the Bible repeatedly condemns such empires. Per Zahnd, “Empires are an enemy of God’s purposes because what they claim for themselves — a manifest destiny to shape history and a divine right to rule other nations — is the very thing God has promised to his Son.” So for Zahnd, opposing “empire” is a spiritual imperative.
Nullifying vengeance is also important to Zahnd. In his CATC speech, he recalls Old Testament stories in which “‘enemies of God’ are no longer viewed as enemies,” with enemies defined as “someone whose story you haven’t heard.” He cites the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the leper as Old Testament enemies of Israel to whom God showed grace. And Zahnd said crowds rejected Jesus because He proclaimed divine mercy not vengeance.
Changing the Minds of American Christians
According to Zahnd, humanity desires catharsis through scapegoating. For centuries, Christians scapegoated Jews. American Evangelicals after the Holocaust repented of anti-Semitism, “but instead of repenting of scapegoating altogether, too often American evangelicals simply found new scapegoats — and repeatedly it’s been Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular.”
Zahnd said that as he’s led pilgrims to the Holy Land he has introduced them to the “historic Christian communities that have been in the land since the day of Pentecost.” In this way, pilgrims encounter not just “archeological stones” but also “the living stones — Palestinian Christians.”
Most Evangelicals in the US assume Israel has a “divine right to all the land and that Palestinians have little or no legitimate grievances,” Zahnd lamented. He faulted “Christian talk radio, Christian television, and Fox News.” But every time he introduced them to Palestinians, “they change their mind in less than an hour.” One recent pilgrim exclaimed, “I always thought Palestinians were the bad guys — terrorists. Now I’m going to have to rethink some things. It’s a whole lot more complicated than I thought.”
Zahnd seems to ignore, or at least minimize, that in Jewish and Christian teaching, God summons particular persons and peoples to His special service.
Zahnd appealed for American Evangelicals to consider that “Christians are not called to take Israel’s side.” And if they “vilify” Palestinians, they are “driving the spirit of Christ out of your midst and your movement is being animated by an unholy spirit.” Even then, if they persist in demonizing Palestinians, they should consider Christ’s example of loving and blessing enemies. He also insisted that “in Christ, the chosen people is the human race and the holy land is the whole earth.”
What Zahnd Misses
There are several aspects of the Israel-Palestinian conflict that Zahnd seems to miss. He seems to endorse Palestinian nationalism, which has rejected Israel’s right to exist — even though he is hostile to American and Israeli nationalism. It has kept Palestinians frozen in 70 years of rage and resentment . Decades of peace overtures from Israel, mediated by the U.S., have not softened their implausible and self-destructive dream of a unified Palestine without Israel and Jews.
Zahnd focuses on Palestinian Christians as victims of Israel to whom American Evangelicals should listen. But Christians are only 2 percent, and perhaps less, of Palestinians. Their influence is minimal. They survive carefully, only by acceding to the Palestinian political narrative. And they live under the threat of Islamist rage, as do most other dwindling Mideast Christian populations. Zahnd never addresses this threat of Islamist violence to Christians and others. It conflicts with his preferred focus on America, and especially its Christians, as evil “empire.”
What about Zahnd’s claim that the whole human race is “chosen” and the whole earth is “holy land”? Here, he seems to ignore, or at least minimize, that in Jewish and Christian teaching, God summons specific persons and peoples to His special service. The Jews have had a special covenant attaching them to a particular land. And Christians believe the Church is the special, called-out Body of Christ. The Scriptures tell of God’s love for all humanity and the whole earth, which He reveals in and through specific people and places.
Should ‘Empires’ Accept Evil?
Zahnd said he doesn’t blame American Christian Zionists for believing what they do about Israel. After all, it’s only what they’ve been taught through “American Christian mass media — the internet echo-chambers, Christian talk radio, Christian television, and Fox News.” Likewise, perhaps Palestinian Christians, as found at Bethlehem Bible College and CATC, cannot be faulted for largely parroting the Palestinian nationalist narrative to against American pro-Israel sentiment. They’re trying to survive. But American Christians, before swallowing their appeals, or succumbing to Zahnd’s anti-empire rhetoric, should be more discerning.
Finally, what about Zahnd’s clam that enemies are just “someone whose story you haven’t heard”? The Bible and Christian tradition offer a more complex view. Enemies can be quite real and deadly, per the Psalms’ repeated appeals for deliverance from them. And Christians are called to forgive enemies. But they are not, as pacifism suggests, required in their political duties to accommodate aggression and evil. Zahnd dismisses nations and governments as “empire.” But they are divinely ordained to wield the sword in pursuit of justice and in defense of the innocent. That includes Israel and the United States.