Why would Israeli Jews welcome aid from Christians whose support of their country is predicated on their stated desire for all Jews to convert to Christianity?
And why would some American Christian evangelicals highlight passages from the Hebrew Scriptures to support President Donald Trump’s stance on Israel, while downplaying passages from the Gospels that do not support Mr. Trump’s policies?
I don’t have a complete answer to either of those questions. Nor am I an expert on either U.S. or Israeli politics. But I do have answers about the selective use of the Bible by Christians seeking to support President Donald Trump and, in turn, Israel’s current government.
And the key word is “selective.”
It’s become common in some Christian evangelical circles to paint Donald Trump as an instrument of God’s desires. Some American Christians (and even some Jews) have even likened him to King Cyrus, the Persian King who conquered Babylon in 539 BCE, freed the Jewish people and returned them to Jerusalem where they would rebuild the Temple. Much of his story described in the Second Book of Chronicles and Book of Ezra.
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The thinking is that even if Donald Trump is not a perfect Christian (as Cyrus was not Jewish) he can still be used as part of God’s divine plan. One can use this interpretation to justify either voting for Donald Trump (i.e., he will restore the U.S. to power) or supporting his move of the U.S. Embassy to from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (i.e., he is helping to restore Israel to power).
Another popular use of the Bible, or at least broadly biblical themes, touted by some evangelicals of the religious right who support the State of Israel, is known as “dispensationalism.”
The Protestant writer Jonathan Merritt summarizes this belief as follows: "When the last days arrive, God will draw the Jewish people back to Israel where they will rebuild the temple and eventually accept Jesus as the rightful Messiah. This will trigger the return and reign of Jesus."
Thus, the Bible is read not simply as a record of God’s activity in the past, but as an accurate predictor of the future, in this case the “End Times.” Dispensationalists point to, among other texts, the Books of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Revelation to support their beliefs.
Needless to say, the idea that all Jews are destined for a willing conversion to Christianity is not what most Jews believe. At least none I know.
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Such beliefs set these evangelicals at odds with the many American Christians who do not see Donald Trump as God’s chosen instrument, do not expect the Jewish people to convert to Christianity, who support the human rights of the Palestinian people (and simultaneously back Israel’s right to exist) and who do not support the recent transfer of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
Likewise, these evangelical beliefs may influence one’s appreciation of Jerusalem specifically, by the use of biblical passages that don't promote an inclusivist approach, but an exclusivist one. That may lead to conceptions conflicting with, for example, St. John Paul II’s vision of Jerusalem as the locus of divine encounter not just for some, but for all humanity, as articulated in his 1984 letter Redemptionis anno.
How could Christians be so at odds?
One answer is that most of these evangelical beliefs depend on a highly selective use of Bible passages, used in some cases sincerely, in other cases merely to justify one’s own political beliefs. For one could just as easily point to other passages from the Old and New Testaments that Donald Trump has clearly not "fulfilled."
Perhaps the most obvious are the many passages from the Hebrew Scriptures commanding God’s people to care for not only the poor, but also the stranger: migrants, refugees and aliens. "You must not oppress the resident alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the Land of Egypt," says the Book of Exodus.
In the New Testament, Jesus repeatedly tells his followers to care, again, for not only the poor but the stranger. The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel is offered, at least in part, to encourage his disciples to care for the "stranger." And in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that caring for the “least” among us, including the stranger, is equivalent to caring for Jesus himself: "I was a stranger and you did not welcome me."
There is not much need for interpretation here. And not much chance that Mr. Trump, no matter what your political or theological leanings, could be seen as hewing to these verses.
Beyond the highly selective use of Scripture is the problem of literalism. Some Christians take the Bible literally. (Catholics do not.) The problem with a strictly literal reading is twofold.
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To begin with, some parts of the Bible were written in highly poetic and metaphorical styles, referring to people, places and events of the writers’ times, not our own.
Also, the Bible isn’t consistent on certain things. There are two creation narratives in the Book of Genesis, which differ significantly. The most obvious examples in the New Testament are the stories of Jesus’s birth: they differ considerably in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and in the Gospel of Mark and John they simply do not exist. Even some of the names of the Twelve Apostles don’t match from Gospel to Gospel. And efforts to "harmonize" these varying passages usually fall short.
The key to an intelligent use of the Bible for believers is, first, to read the Scriptures with an appreciation for the historical context in which they were written. And, second, to have an appreciation for the overall themes and values consistently repeated in the Bible.
And what are these themes? Among them: God loves each of us, desires the well-being of each person, and asks us to care for the poor, the sick, and the stranger. A few of the overarching values of the Bible are faith, love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness and care for the poor and marginalized.
Any use of the Bible that does not incorporate these themes should be suspect, as is any obvious "cherry picking" of Bible verses that does not take into account those values.
Christians might add a third key for using the Bible: avoiding the temptation to deploy the Bible to support your own preconceived political ideas.
The Bible should not be weaponized. It is not a book, or series of books, from which one should select verses to exclude or marginalize anyone, much less promote violence against any person or group of people. Some of the worst sins of religious believers, especially Christians, have been the result of a selective and literalist use of Bible passages.
The Bible is also not a political cudgel. Rather, it is a divinely inspired text, and an inspiration for Christians and Jews to work together for another of the great themes of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures: shalom. And nowhere should that awareness be higher than when dealing with Jerusalem, the source of whose name is Ir Shalom, the City of Peace.
James Martin is a Jesuit priest, editor-at-large of America magazine, consultor to the Vatican’s Secretariat of Communication, and author of several books including Jesus: A Pilgrimage and The Jesuit Guide. Twitter: @JamesMartinSJ