Monday, March 12, 2007

Dispensationalism and AIPAC - Strange Bedfellows Indeed

Thanks to, I managed to read this article at the American Prospect's online edition. The piece is a great criticism of AIPAC's flirtation with some of the more ludicrous parts of the American polity. The invitation to John Hagee is both unsurprising and, to those who may not understand some of the distinctions in American religious history, a bit shocking. Hagee, along with other more prominent religious conservatives such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are certainly supporters of the state of Israel. The problem is, they do not support it because it is "the only democracy in the Middle East", or "our only friend in a sea of enemies", or any of the other nonsense they may spout. They support Israel as an historical means to an eschatological end - the second coming. They thoroughly believe, and show their ignorance of the history of Zionism by doing so, that the creation of the modern nation-state of Israel, combined with the hoped-for rebuilding of the Temple, are all divinely ordained signs of the imminent return of Jesus Christ.

Hagee, unlike the Baptist Falwell or Assembly of God Robertson, is a very special kind of Christian. He is a dispensationalist. Dispensationalism in not new, but its development in the United States has been more thorough, and mainstreamed more readily, than in earlier periods of church history. Most can date the idea of dispensationalism to the late-medieval mystic Joachim of Fiore, who wrote of the different ages, or dispensations, of the Triune God. First was the Old Testament, which was the dispensation of the Father; then came the age of the Son, from the resurrection until the present moment. Joachim believed that soon, with the coming of anti-Christ and the tribulation of the faithful, would dawn the age of the Spirit, in which, after the struggle, human beings would live in direct communion with God, who would rule the world in peace.

Living in an ahistorical age (at least as we would understand the term) Fiore did not have access to certain understandings that dispensationalists have. Also, his reading of Scripture, while odd, was never considered heretical. Joachim inspired many Christians and non through the ages (read Norman Cohn's The Pursuit of the Millennium for a good introduction, plus essays by Ernst Bloch and Jurgen Moltmann), not least of whom included Karl Marx. Only with American Christianity, with its deep fervor, its pretension to serious enquiry, and its fervent spirituality (combined with our native prejudice, still with us in a variety of forms even now that we are in fact the New Israel) did it really take hold.

One of the first tenets of this idea is that the entire Bible is prophetic, not just certain books or types of writings. "Prophecy" here is not understood as the Israelites or early church understood it, as a communication from the LORD concerning justice and grace, but rather in the popular way as "prediction". Dispensationalists, then, do not read the Bible literally; they could hardly be fundamentalists, because they are constantly scouring the Bible for ways of interpreting scripture in light of their belief that the entire collection of writings is an encoded message concerning the Second Coming of Christ.

John Hagee is typical of dispensationalists, with his charts and graphs, his dire predictions of megadeaths and glorious returns - what any of this has to do with Christianity I am not sure, and even less with "supporting Israel". That AIPAC would allow someone like him in the room shows they have neither scruples nor moral sense; they don't even recognize an enemy in the gates when they see it. Let me be clear. Hagee does not support Israel qua Israel, but rather as the historic means to the theological end of the world, and most of the human race, including Jews. One of the hallmarks of dispensationalists is their firm belief that the author of the apocalypse was right on target when he said that the number of the saved from the final tribulation would be 144,000; that's a whole lot of dead bodies, cast into the fiery pit and locked away for all eternity. There is little of grace and much desire and blood lust here.

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