Israel always matters. Biblical scholars have devoted endless pages to ancient Israel as a religious idea, and pundits have penned endless newspaper columns about modern Israel as a geopolitical entity. The deeper implications, however, have received less attention than they deserve in recent years, overshadowed by the exigencies of Middle Eastern politics. Indeed, real questions remain: What does the sheer existence of the modern state of Israel mean for theology--particularly for Christian theology? And what does that theology mean for the continuing existence of Israel?
"Hardly anybody will dispute that the foundation of this state had something to do with the biblical prophecy," Christoph Cardinal Schonborn said in 1996, "even if that something is hard to define." At present, the major Christian denominations are kindly disposed toward Judaism, and many Christians--especially American evangelicals--strongly support the State of Israel. And yet not all Christians agree with the mainstream Jewish view that modern Jewish life requires the existence of a Jewish state. Indeed, it seems counterintuitive to expect Christians to support an explicitly Jewish state in an age in which Christians have mostly abandoned the idea of explicitly Christian states.
There may be good theological reasons for this general Christian retreat from the notion of religious governments and national churches. The Christian concept of the People of God is supranational by nature, for Christians are called out of their respective nations to become a new people. The Jews, however, understand themselves to be a unique nation formed by God for his service, and they can be the People of God only as a nation.
Jewish leaders tend to view Christian relations with the State of Israel through the prism of Jewish security after the Holocaust. That is understandable, but it does not address the issue of what Israel represents for Christian life. A sad measure of Jewish insularity is the fact that evangelical Christians seeking to help the State of Israel have encountered suspicion and hostility from many Jewish organizations. Nor is the Holocaust exclusively a Jewish concern. The Second World War taught parallel, if opposite, lessons to Jews and Catholics. Many Jews--observant Jews, most of all--opposed Zionism before the rise of the Nazis, but later they learned that the continuation of Jewish life requires full national existence. Catholics, who had tolerated a degree of ethnocentrism within the Church, learned from Hitler that national idolatry was Christendom's deadliest foe.
Perhaps, these two lessons in fact are the same: Ethnocentric perversion of the concept of divine election destroyed both the Jewish communities of Europe and the influence of the Church. Think of it this way: Ultimately, Jews and Christians must remain a mystery to each other. Christians cannot help but recognize that Providence has sustained the Jews through their long exile, yet they cannot explain why Jews do not recognize Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of their prophecy. Jews cannot help but recognize that Christians are inspired by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, yet they cannot explain Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus, except to dismiss it as a "worldhistorical fiction" (in Franz Rosenzweig's words).
Nonetheless, their respective concepts of what it means to be the People of God are mutually supportive. For Christians, the Jewish nation stands as a living
reproach to Gentile nations: They reject Christian universality by desiring election in their own flesh. For the Jews, Christianity signifies that only as individuals can Gentiles enter the people of God, and that no other ethnicity may covet their election in the flesh. Jews cannot affirm salvation through Christ, and Christians cannot affirm salvation without Christ. But the mystery of enduring Jewish election negates the ethnocentrism that poses an existential threat to both Judaism and Christianity. Jews have little to fear from Christian universality; the mortal danger to their existence stems rather from the jealousy of Gentile nations who covet election.
This reading of Israel differs from the secular Zionism of Theodor Herzl, who believed that the need for a Jewish state arose from the hostility of Christian nations to Jewish communities. Just the opposite is true today: Israel's prospects for survival against neighbors committed to her destruction depends in part on the Christian sympathy for the Jewish people, whether they live in Israel or in the Diaspora. The most Christian among the industrial nations, the United States, evinces the greatest sympathy for Israel as well as the greatest security for its own Jewish population.
Moreover, this reading differs just as strongly from Franz Rosenzweig's vision of an encysted, quietist Jewish community existing as an inspiration to the Gentile world. As it happens, the Catholic Church has sometimes drawn close to Rosenzweig's view. No Catholic leader today doubts that the continued existence of the Jewish people and the observance of the Jewish religion is a blessing for Christians. But the foundation of the State of Israel--a state with a specifically Jewish and to some extent theocratic character--presents a problem of a different order.
Officially, the Catholic Church instructs, "The existence of the State of Israel and its political options should be envisaged...