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Ethnocentrism is the snake in Christianity’s garden, and last week it slithered into the Church of Scotland. It took the form of a screed denying the special claim of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.
By no coincidence, the most successful Christian communities embrace the State of Israel, while the least successful ones abhor it. Almost four-fifths of Americans identify themselves as Christians, for example and two out of five worship every week. Less than two-fifths of Britons say they believe in God, by contrast, and only one out of eight attends weekly services. More than half of Britons never go to church, against only 18% of Americans.
This division is mirrored in attitudes towards the State of Israel. By a margin of nearly five to one, Americans say their sympathies are more with Israel than with the Palestinians, and the proportion is at an all-time high. Britons view Israel negatively by a margin of 65 to 17, and the numbers are similar across the European continent, according to a BBC poll.
We observe eruptions of unabashed Jew-hatred in the European nations most likely to become extinct, notably in Hungary, where the ethnic Hungarian total fertility rate is just 0.83 per female, barely a third of the replacement rate. The third-largest party in the Hungarian parliament, Jobbik, wants to list all Jewish officials of Jewish origin as a national security risk and blames the country’s economic problems on a “Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy.” The party demonstrated on May 5 in Budapest to denounce the World Jewish Congress, which held its annual meeting in the Hungarian capital.
Hungary’s demographic disaster and Jobbik’s Jew-hatred are extreme cases, to be sure, but existentially challenged nationalities elsewhere in Europe evince a special animus against Jews and the Jewish State. Last week the Church of Scotland issued a report rejecting the notion that the Jewish people had any special claim on the Land of Israel, excoriating Zionism in general and the actions of past and present Israeli governments.
Both the Church of Scotland, the bearer of the Scots Calvinist tradition, and the country itself are a shadow of their former selves. The number of births per year has fallen by half since 1950 (and the number of births to married couples has fallen by four-fifths).
The Church of Scotland is shrinking; it had just 446,000 members in 2010, down from 1,319,000 in 1956. Its numbers shrunk by a quarter between 2001 and 2010, and are now shrinking even faster, by about 5% a year. At this rate its membership will fall by three-quarters in a generation.
Live Births Per Year in Scotland
UK Statistics Office
If we had some Scots, we would still have Scots Presbyterians, if we had some Presbyterians. That is a sad end to a great religious tradition that, among other things, fostered Christian Zionism. It may well have been a Kirk minister, notes the Church of Scotland report, who coined the phrase “a land without people, for a people without land,” referring to Jewish settlement of the then-sparsely populated Land of Israel at the end of the 19th century.
With the specter of disappearance visible at the horizon of a single generation, why is the Church of Scotland so concerned about the Jews’ claim on their historic homeland? One would think it had more urgent concerns. Its report, “The Inheritance of Abraham?,” is a junkyard dog’s assemblage of arguments against a special Jewish claim to the land.
The borders specified by the Bible are not the exact borders of the present state; even if they were, “The lack of detailed archaeological evidence supports the view that the range of scriptural material makes it inappropriate to try to use the Hebrew scriptures to determine an area of land meant exclusively for the Jewish people”; even if there were such evidence, the biblical grant of the land is conditional on a standard of behavior which the Church of Scotland doesn’t think Israel meets; even if the original Zionist concept was valid, it called for equal treatment of all of Israel’s citizens, and the Church of Scotland thinks Palestinian Arabs are badly treated, and so forth. It reads as if the presbyters had conducted a contest for the best excuse to turn the Jews out of Israel, and printed all the responses.
Christian friends from the Reformed tradition in America point to a specific bee in the Church of Scotland’s bonnet, namely the autumnal resurgence of Scots nationalism. The Scottish National Party, the region’s largest, launched a campaign for Scots independence from the United Kingdom in May 2012, with prominent support from Sean Connery and other celebrities. Patriotism might not be the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Dr Johnson said, but tribalism surely is the last refuge of an existentially challenged ethnicity.
As a regional entity clamoring for national status, Scotland imagines itself in a position similar to the Palestinian Arabs and identifies with them. The Irish tend to sympathize with the Palestinians out of the same misplaced nostalgia. Some Catholics conflate the problems of the poor with the misery of the Palestinians, for example Honduras’ Cardinal Andres Rodriguez Murcielago.
There is a great deal of wisdom in this observation: each nation views the other nations through the carnival-mirror of its own preoccupations. But there may be something deeper to the Church of Scotland’s newfound obsession with repudiating the Jews’ claim to the Land of Israel. It denounces Christian Zionism, which it defines (quoting an Arab Christian) as “a movement within Protestant fundamentalism that understands the modern state of Israel as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and thus deserving of political, financial and religious support.”
That is a canard, for many Christians who could not possibly be characterized as fundamentalists understand Israel in biblical terms.
“Hardly anybody will dispute that the foundation of this state had something to do with the biblical prophecy,” the principal author of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Christoph Cardinal Schonborn said in 1996. No-one would characterize Cardinal Schonborn as a Protestant fundamentalist.
Like so many other European nations, the Scots are failing as Christians while they fail as a people. Failing Christians cling all the more passionately to their national identity. Writing at the end of World War I, the great German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig depicted this tragic frame of mind as follows:
Just as every individual must reckon with his eventual death, the peoples of the world foresee their eventual extinction, be it however distant in time. Indeed, the love of the peoples for their own peoplehood is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death. Love is only surpassing sweet when it is directed toward a mortal object, and the secret of this ultimate sweetness only is defined by the bitterness of death. Thus the peoples of the world foresee a time when their land with its rivers and mountains still lies under heaven as it does today, but other people dwell there; when their language is entombed in books, and their laws and customers have lost their living power.
Nationalism is the mortal enemy of Christian faith. Michael Wyschogrod, one of Orthodox Judaism’s great theologians, explained it as follows:
As understood by Christianity, a model of dual loyalty develops. The individual belongs both to a nation and to a religion. He is a Frenchman and a Christian or a German and a Christian. As Frenchman or German, he is a member of a national community with territorial and linguistic boundaries. But he is also a member of the supra-national church which has no national boundaries. … The church is a spiritual fellowship into which men bring their national identities because they possess these identities but not because such identities play a role in the church. The church thus understands itself as having universalized the national election of Israel by opening it to all men who, in entering the church, enter a spiritualized, universalized new Israel.
In one sense, Israel is beyond the “laws” of history. It is not subject to the rise and fall of all other peoples and empires, a fact which causes angry philosophers of history whose schemes Israel undermines to refer to it as a fossil not subject to historic destruction.
But at the same time, Israel does not abandon the domain of history. It refuses to exchange its historical and national messianism for a doctrine of individual salvation. Israel refuses to invent the idea of a church which forces men to live in two jurisdictions and to assume two identities: a member of a nation and a member of a church. When such a bifurcated existence is decreed for human life, European wars in which Christian fights Christian, not as Christian but as German, Frenchman or Pole, become possible. That such a church-sanctioned conflict was the rule rather than the exception in the history of Europe was not simply the result of a failure of Christianity. Once religion and nationality are separated, the historical order in which national destinies are realized is almost inevitably de-Christianized.
The nations of Europe stopped having children because they lost their Christian faith (as Mary Eberstadt argues in a brilliant new book, How the West Really Lost God, they also lost their faith because they stopped having children). As Christianity sloughs off the declining peoples of the West, some of them cling instead to ethnic identity. Rosenzweig wrote that once Christianity taught the Gentiles the Hebrew promise of eternal life, they abandoned their ancient fatalism about their inevitable extinction of their tribe.
“Salvation is of the Jews,” said St John: the God of Israel first offers eternal life to humankind. But the newly converted never abandoned their predilection for their own ethnicity. After Christianity taught them about the election of Israel, the Gentiles wanted the same kind election for themselves. In some cases that can lead to philo-Semitism – for example, among the Scots Calvinists of the past century. In other cases it leads to what one might call Election envy, Jew-hatred inspired by jealousy.
What makes America unique, an “almost-chosen people” in Abraham Lincoln’s quip, is the absence of ethnicity. As a nation founded on a covenant rather than an ethnicity it absorbs folk from every ethnicity, and despite the sin of slavery and ugly episodes of racism and xenophobia, America remains less polluted by the original sin of ethnic hatred than any land on earth. That helps explain why Americans instinctively sympathize with the State of Israel.
Asked why they support Israel, most devout American Christians will cite Genesis 12:3: “And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” Many will add that the perseverance of the Jewish people despite persecution and hardship shows that the God of the Bible is a God of kept promises, and that God’s faithfulness to the Jews stands surety for His promises to the Christians as well.
As a Jew, I do not tell my Christian friends how to read the Bible (although it is always instructive to compare notes). But there is something else on which we can agree. Every Christian knows that each day, battle is joined afresh against an inner pagan. That is what Christians mean when they say that they must renew their conversion each day.
The inner pagan is not an abstract entity: it is the residual of the nation out of which the Christians believe they were called to the Ekklesia/I>, what Eusebius (quoted by Henri de Lubac) called “the tribe of Christians.”
For Christians to acknowledge the special status of the Jewish people is to attest that no other nation may be chosen in the flesh, for God did that at Mount Sinai once and never again. Other nations can aspire to be Children of Abraham of the spirit, as Paul wrote, but not children of the flesh. I elaborated on this in a 2008 essay for the monthly First Things.
The national life of the Jewish people in its historic homeland stands guard as it were on the flanks of Christianity. The Election of Israel keeps the snake out of Christianity’s garden. Christians who tire of the demands of Christianity and prefer to worship their own ethnicity will rage against the Jewish people as an obstacle to idolatry, while the most devout and self-confident Christians view the continued presence of God’s people as a blessing.