May 24, 2007
Evangelical prayer banquet promotes love for Israel
They poured into the Beverly Hilton like young politicos at a national convention, in awe at the feet of religious icons and ready to go forth from the Jerusalem Prayer Banquet to promote the gospel of God's love for Israel. |
Talking last Thursday about God's chosen people, comparing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler and lamenting the indifference others express about Israel, these 300-plus Christians each spent at least $125 to pray for peace in the Holy Land and commiserate with Jews about the seemingly never-ending threats to Israel's existence.
This was no fringe gathering. The Rev. Jack Hayford and the Rev. Robert Stearns -- co-chairman of the Day of Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem, a worldwide effort among some evangelicals on the first Sunday of October -- were joined by Consul General Ehud Danoch and Knesset member Gilad Erdan, among other members of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
"God has ordained Israel as a favored nation, and it is important for us to support it," said Fred Broling, a 72-year-old evangelical Christian who flew with his wife from Chicago for the dinner and donated $5,000 to Eagles' Wings Ministries, the organization that hosted the event, placing the couple in the Guardian circle, alongside televangelist Pat Robertson. "God has told us we will be blessed by the fact that we support his people."
Where do the Christian Scriptures say that?
"I don't know," Broling replied. "Somewhere, I'm sure."
It's not just "somewhere," said Stearns, executive director of Clarence, N.Y.-based Eagles' Wings, but "the entire Bible -- cover to cover."
"There is a generation of Christians arising who understand we have a spiritual birthplace, and that place is Jerusalem," he said.
"Philo-Semitism" has been in North America as long as European Christians have, Zev Chafets writes in "A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists and One Man's Exploration for the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance" (HarperCollins, 2007).
"The Pilgrims saw their voyage to the New World as a reprise of the exodus from Egypt. They adopted Old Testament laws, gave their children and their settlements Hebrew names and taught the Bible in their schools and universities," Chafets writes. "For a wild moment they even considered making Hebrew the language of the New World."
In the past few decades, this affinity for the foundation of Christianity has blossomed into unwavering support for the Jewish state. This has benefited Israel economically in the form of large numbers of Christian tourists motivated to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land and politically through the continued support of the American government.
"I genuinely believe that this may change the course of history, may bring people and political leaders to recognize there is only one way to go forward," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in an interview taped for the banquet. "And it is to turn to Jerusalem and work together."
Many Jews, though, are skeptical, if not a bit cynical, of the evangelical embrace.
"Jews tend to believe if you scratch the surface of a Christian who supports Israel, that you will find a missionary, or scratch the surface and you will find a Christian who wants all the Jews to return to Israel so the End Times can proceed," Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Project Next Step, said at the banquet, adding that such a perception is mistaken. "I've worked with a lot of Christians, and on the top 10 reasons evangelicals support Israel, bringing them back to the true faith ranks No. 11."
History has not helped the Israel-Christian coalition: The Crusades, the repeated expulsion of Jews from European countries, the Spanish Inquisition, the anti-Semitic writings of Protestant reformer Martin Luther, the Holocaust.
But times have changed, and many Christians are now trying to "repent," as Stearns put it, for 2,000 years of persecution.
This sentiment is strongest among evangelical Christians -- typically those conservative theologically, with an emphasis on evangelism and belief in the authority and inerrancy of the Bible. Though Catholics, Orthodox Christians and many mainline Protestants subscribe to replacement theology -- the belief that the Christian covenant supersedes God's covenant with the Israelites -- evangelicals believe God remains faithful to the Jews; that Israel was, is and always will be the Promised Land; and that Jesus will not return until the Jews are back home.
"As an evangelical Christian, I am called at all times and to all people to be a witness to the message of Jesus," Stearns said. "But I am indebted to the Jewish people for three things -- the blessing of monotheism that was purchased with the blood of Jewish martyrdom," guilt over Christian treatment of Jews and unification against a "common enemy."
"One generation after the Shoah, the ghost of Haman is alive in Ahmadenijad," Stearns said. "The sin of silence of the church of the '30s will not be repeated on our watch! The Jewish people are not alone any longer!"
At last Thursday's event, Christians sounded like Jews as they spoke of the looming threats to Israel's security. Religiously committed to the Holy Land and speaking proudly of the Jewish tradition and legacy, many seemed to want to cleave to the once wandering Israelites. And, in a way, they say they already have.
"I deeply believe that according to the New Testament Scriptures that a Jew who receives Jesus as messiah not only does not cease being a Jew, but a gentile who accepts the messiah joins the Jews," said Hayford, founder of one of the country's largest churches, author of more than 50 Christian books and 500 worship songs and legendary for his love of Israel.
At 72, the co-chairman of the Israel-Christian Nexus and of the banquet has visited Israel 33 times and is going twice in the next two months: "So I see myself as Jewish spiritually. I see myself as a gentile Jew."