Dr. Bob Jones or: How I Learned to Stop Zionizing and Love the Palestinians
In the late summer of 1990 Saddam Hussein ordered his Iraqi forces to invade and conquer the small country of Kuwait. This initiated a crisis that led to a coalition of nations coming together under American leadership to drive Hussein back into Iraq. The campaign, “Operation Desert Storm”, began in the middle of January 1991 and was over by the end of February.
One nation that very much wanted to participate in the coalition but was actively and intensely persuaded not to do so by US President George H. W. Bush was Israel. Bush’s reasons for not wanting Israel to actively participate were simple and sound – her presence would break the coalition, as all of America’s other allies in the region would desert her and possibly align themselves with Hussein. Saddam Hussein, knowing this, launched Scud missiles in the direction of Israel, hoping to provoke an attack from the Israeli government, then headed by the belligerent Yitzhak Shamir.
Shamir resented Bush’s insistence that the coalition’s operation against Hussein ought to take precedence over Israel’s immediate right of retaliation and I remember sympathizing with him. I was a fourteen year old teenager at the time and, although not yet a Christian believer – I would place my faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour later that summer – I was a firm Zionist, on what I thought were Scriptural grounds. My Zionist would intensify after I accepted Christ and remained strong through high school and my first three years at Providence College in Otterburne. Indeed, I remember a heated debate at Saturday morning brunch one morning, early in my first semester at Providence, in which a friend who was in his last semester and I, both argued for Israel and the Jews, against another friend, a student in the seminary with whom we were sitting.
My main theological influences in the early years of my Christian walk had come from fundamentalism, a form of conservative Protestantism that had admirably fought for Scriptural authority and the historic teachings of Christianity on matters such as the Trinity, deity, virgin birth, miracles and literal bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ, against the unbelief that had swept the churches in the form of liberalism or modernism. Fundamentalism itself, however, had been largely influenced by a system of Scriptural interpretation called dispensationalism that had started with the Plymouth Brethren in England in the nineteenth century, and through the influence of the Scofield Reference Bible had spread throughout other Protestant denominations. Purporting to be more literal than other systems that relied upon historical exegetical traditions, dispensationalism divided Scriptural history into a series of ages, in which man was tested by God under a particular arrangement, each time failing and being judged. We are living in the Age of Grace,
dispensationalists taught, that is a parenthesis in the Age of Law. The Age of Grace will end with the church being removed from earth in the rapture, after which God will finish His dealings with national Israel, pour out His wrath upon the world in the judgement of the Great Tribulation, which will end with Christ returning to establish His kingdom of earth, which He will rule from Jerusalem for a thousand years.
While still a “fundamentalist” in the sense of having a high view of Scriptural authority and no use for the apostasy and unbelief that is liberalism or modernism my theology has grown much more “high church” as I have developed a greater appreciation for the importance of church tradition in interpretation of Scripture. I am no longer a dispensationalist. Yet oddly enough, it was from a man who was an uncompromising adherent of the form of theology I described in the previous paragraph, that I first learned to question the Christian ultra-Zionism that so frequently appeals to this form of interpreting the Scriptures for support.
Dr. Bob Jones Jr. was the son of the famous Methodist evangelist who founded a fundamentalist Christian college that later grew into the institution that well deserves its reputation as the “World’s Most Unusual University”. When it evolved into a university upon moving to its current campus in Greenville, South Carolina, the second Dr. Bob Jones took over the presidency from his father, and under his administration it gained an emphasis on fine arts and high culture that is itself unusual for the type of fundamentalism it espouses. He was himself a Shakespearean scholar and actor, talents which he put to use in developing the university’s fine arts department, which also includes a professional opera association, and after the Second World War he started the collection of Baroque and other religious art now housed in the university’s renowned art gallery.
When I was in my third year of studies at Providence College, I read his memoirs entitled Cornbread and Caviar, which had been published in 1985 by the publishing arm of Bob Jones University. I love reading autobiographies, a genre which fundamentalists excel in, and of fundamentalist autobiographies, Cornbread and Caviar was the crème de la crème. From cover to cover it is filled with fascinating and amusing anecdotes as well as uncompromising, straightforward, commentary on the political and religious issues of the day, backed with the wisdom of the ages and old-fashioned common sense.
The thirteenth chapter is entitled “The Middle East”, in which Dr. Jones tells stories about his many visits to the region, and the interesting people, Jewish, Muslim and Christian, that he had encountered there. In the course of doing so he comments on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Theologically, he was an uncompromising dispensationalist, and he relates a conversation with former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, in which he compared Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War to Gideon’s victory in the book of Judges, and “pointed out to him that some day when they recognize the Messiah, they will have all the land from ‘the river of Egypt’ to the Euphrates”. (p.139) Nevertheless, he displayed an even-handed fairness towards both sides in the conflict, that I had never before seen encountered in the writings of someone from his theological perspective.
After praising the Jordanians (under which term he seems to include the Palestinians) as “the most gentle of people and most faithful of friends” he wrote:
I know God’s promise to Abraham still holds good, and there is blessing for those who bless his descendants and curses for those who curse them. I know too, however, that they are back in the land today, many of them in unbelief and agnosticism, some in atheism, and almost all in rebellion against God’s law. I do not know a more ungodly nation than Israel…I admire the wonderful development, the rich farms, the towering forests, and the sturdy cities which have sprung up since the beginning of the Jewish state of Israel. At the same time, I lament the fact that they are so hostile to Christian missions and so intolerant of Israeli Jews who are converted to Christ. I lament the unkind treatment and arrogance which they have so often shown to the Arabs. I can well understand the resentment of the Jordanians and certainly cannot blame them for it. If you talk to any well-educated Arab and to any honest Jew, you will hear tales of atrocity and cruelty perpetrated upon the Arabs in the land of Israel. It is hard to realize how a people who have been so persecuted and cruelly treated themselves through the years can show so little kindness and gentleness towards those whose lands they have overrun. (pp. 138-139)
He spoke well of Teddy Kollek, King Hussein of Jordan, David Ben Gurion, and Moshe Dayan, his encounters with each of whom he recollected, before going on to blast “a group of self-styled Fundamentalists” (Jerry Falwell was the leader of this group, although his name is not mentioned) for telling Menachem Begin “that the Fundamentalists of America stood behind him in all of his policies and unqualifiedly supported him”. (p. 140) He wrote:
At the same time these men slobbered over Begin and his government, that government was persecuting Christian Arabs and Jews who had been won to Christ. A godly Arab on the West Bank, married to an American missionary and the only man on the city council of Ramallah who was not a Socialist or a Communist, was picked up in the middle of the night and tortured by Begin’s government. That man is now facing a hip operation necessitated very largely by his treatment by the Israeli government. People who are interested in the gospel and welfare of their Christian brethren in Israel might well rejoice in the fact that Menachem Begin is no longer in power, though his successor is as vile a man as Begin. (p. 141)
He then revealed just what sort of a man Begin was – as was Yitzhak Shamir, clearly whom he had in mind when he wrote “some of the men still in power”:
What the press does not tell you very often is that Begin and some of the men still in power were terrorists; that they murdered British soldiers during the time of the British occupation of Palestine; that Begin blew up the King David Hotel, killing the British soldiers whose headquarters was there; and that he and his companions in Irgun (a terrorist organization) slaughtered in one night a whole Arab village of some 200 to 300 people, including infants, pregnant women, and crippled old people.
I had not heard of any of this before, but I later confirmed that everything he said here was in fact the case.
He then told where the bottom line was for him “I have a great love for both Jews and Arabs, but I hate tyranny, terrorism, and violence just as much on the part of Jewish government as I do on the part of an Arab government”.
In the concluding paragraphs of the section from the chapter that I have been quoting, he ridicules as folly the idea that we should not rebuke the Israeli government for its wickedness when the prophets were sent to the kings of Israel and Judah to do just that, the silliness of American ambassadors who think they can bring peace to the region, and the arrogance of Israeli rabbis “and their rabble followers” who hate Christianity and Christian missions, but:
demand from this country [The United States] financial and military support. They want us to supply them arms, munitions, and aircraft while they would deny us the right to send missionaries to Israel to win Jews for Christ. (p. 142)
This was very different from the moral Manichaeism that I had previously encountered in dispensationalist writings about Israel. I recognized immediately that it was a more balanced, common-sensical, and Scriptural approach and once I confirmed that everything he had said about Israel’s persecution of Christians and Begin and Shamir’s terrorist origins was factual – and it was – I became far less willing to automatically excuse everything Israel did, and far more sympathetic to the sufferings of the Arabs. Since then, my theology has moved away from dispensationalism and towards church tradition (although hopefully not away from Scriptures in the process) but I continue to be grateful to Dr. Jones for opening my eyes on this issue, particularly in the present crisis when it has become clear to me that some of Israel’s “Christian” supporters would continue to support and justify Israel in anything she does up to and including the point of genocide against the Palestinian Arabs.
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca