“With God on our Side” Screens in Manchester

Last night, I attended the Manchester screening of the new 1hr 2omin film With God On Our Side, hosted by the Nazarene Theological College. As film-director Porter Speakman Jr and Anglican vicar Stephen Sizer were presenting the film, I chose to go along and watch.

 

The film introduced the heavy-hitters from the ultra-conservative American Christian Zionist movement, notably John Hagee of Christians United For Israel and the more eloquent Malcolm Hedding of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. There was also an interview with a representative from Christian Friends of Israel Communities, which boasts of being the only Christian organisation exclusively supporting the settlements in Judea and Samaria (sic).

There was footage from a John Hagee conference and other audio clips from Christian Zionists explaining how they thought God had given the land of Israel to the Jewish people, and how they imagined Israel would naturally expand as part of God’s plan for the world. This was interspersed with clips of settler-Jewish nationalism, unjust Israeli policies and notes about past UN resolutions and peace negotiations which many Palestinians considered to be unfair.

The film starred the dubious cast-list of Rev Stephen Sizer, Prof Gary Burge (sounding uncannily like Agent Smith from the Matrix), Middle East “journalist” Ben White, the decidedly questionable historian Ilan Pappe, and the anti-Zionist Jewish critic Norman Finkelstein.

To the extent that the cast criticised unthinking Christian Zionist support for any Israeli policy in order for Israel to expand and develop at any cost, this was a good film. It was an excellent critique of a US-based phenomenon that has perpetuated and aggravated mistrust in the Middle East.

However, the film failed to mention the nuances of Christian support for Israel. Not all Christian supporters of Israel are obsessed with the End Times, or expanding the kingdom of God by enlarging Israel’s borders. Most Christian supporters of Israel are pragmatists. They recognise the unique freedoms that Israel provides in the Middle East, the pragmatic need for a democratic Jewish state following the horrors of the Shoah, and the continuing, menacing presence of antisemitism throughout the world.

These Christians were not deemed worthy of a mention.

There were, clearly, serious problems with the historical narrative offered in the film. There was no mention of Hamas or Hezbollah rocket attacks, very little mention of suicide bombing (and usually, when it was mentioned, as a way of criticising cynical Israeli policies), and little mention of Palestinian Authority or Arab League rejectionism, or indeed the finer points of complex Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Perhaps more worrying than the historical narrative offered was the theology that accompanied it.

Sizer and Burge argued that there is no sense in which Jews can be described as the “Chosen People” if you read the New Testament properly. Sizer and Burge drew a direct line between political Christian Zionism and recognition of the Jews as a Chosen People. I don’t think that is the case at all – there are many non-Zionists who still see Jews as a Chosen People, and many orthodox and mainstream Christian scholars who argue that Jews are still a Chosen People.  Furthermore, there are left-wing Christian Zionists who want a two-state solution, whose theology is by no means extreme.

For the purposes of the film however, all Christian Zionists were reactionary, unthinking, and to the right of Likud. No mention of the more moderate American and British Christian Zionists.

After the film was screened, there was an opportunity for Questions & Answers. Stephen Sizer and Porter Speakman Jr fielded the questions.

A Messianic Jewish member of the audience thanked Porter Speakman for only focusing on the extreme American wing of Christian Zionism, recognising that the situation was far different in UK Christian circles.

A leader from the Zionist Central Council of Greater Manchester who was in attendance mentioned he felt uncomfortable with the right-wing Christian Zionists represented in the video, but wanted to point out to the Christians present that there were different shades of Zionism.

One Christian woman was simply interested in how she could demonstrate Christ’s love and grace to all people in the Middle East, stressing she had no political interest in being pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, and then asked Sizer and Speakman for guidance on this matter.

Richard Gold from Engage – who made clear his opposition to the settlements and the occupation – asked Reverend Sizer that, if he truly believed in Love Thy Neighbour, why had he forwarded emails from Holocaust deniers?

[The emails in question were this one from Holocaust-denier Michael Hoffman, and this one in which conspiracy theorist Mike Collins Piper claims the Zionist lobby had silenced fellow Holocaust-denier Dale Crowley, whom Sizer has also cited]

Sizer responded to Gold that he had never knowingly forwarded emails from Holocaust deniers. Providentially, I had remembered to bring print-outs of the original emails with me and was able to wave them in the air.

At this point Sizer seemed rather anxious. Sizer ignored Gold’s question, preferring to highlight how he felt aggrieved by his critics. I piped up with a lengthy list of controversial figures Sizer had chosen to associate with. Sizer eventually conceded that, if he had cited Dale Crowley in his book, he hadn’t known that Crowley was a Holocaust-denier at the time.

Apparently, neither was he aware of the extreme views of Israel Shamir (whose article he hosted on his website until recently), Collins-Piper, Hoffman, Cassiem, Mostafavi, Sharbaf, Fakhry, Dankof or Tobin either.

Another person then asked Sizer why he had suggested Israeli complicity in 9/11. Sizer’s response was equivocal, mentioning that there were various websites offering different theories about what actually happened on 9/11.

Perhaps wishing to restore a sense of calm to procedures, or perhaps recognising that the Q & A session was not going as he had expected it to, Porter Speakman brought an end to the Q & A session about ten minutes prematurely.

One person called out: “Were the factual errors deliberate?”

Then the dean brought the meeting to a close, stressing that his college would never support any academic boycott of Israel, and had been linked to Israeli academics for 22 years. He left clutching copies of the emails I had brought to the meeting.

The dean’s wife let out a shocked gasp when she heard one lone anti-Zionist activist tell myself and others he wanted to use our faces as a “punchbag.” I said “that’s a bit harsh,” and he promptly moderated his comment,  saying “I meant a verbal punchbag.” Never heard of a face being used as a verbal punchbag, I thought.

After the Q & A, Speakman and Sizer moved to the lobby, whilst myself and others from Engage stayed in the main room where the screening had taken place, enjoying many constructive conversations.

I had the opportunity to chat with various Wesleyan students about the Palestine-Israel conflict, many of whom were confused about what to think and what theology they should apply to the situation.

Most people I chatted to realised the simplest theology is the best, i.e. to show the fruits of the spirit and to be loving and kind and merciful towards Israelis and Palestinians alike. The Wesleyan students didn’t want a complicated approach, and many seemed disturbed both by the ultra-Zionism and the anti-Zionism they had variously observed in Christian circles. They were mature in their conversations and a credit to their college.

I was then introduced to Reverend Sizer by a friend. We shook hands, and then Sizer offered to give me a hug. I said “sorry Sir, I’m not a huggy person”. That isn’t strictly true, but I just didn’t feel comfortable giving him a hug. I think he understood this intuitively, and replied “well at least we’ve shaken hands.” I agreed, and it was nice that we could both approach each other without any sense of bitterness.

But I still had a few questions about Sizer’s modus operandis, especially the Sizergate incident – why? how? for what purpose? motivation? etc. I tried to ask Sizer questions about the claims of Mordechai haCohen, a rather tragic Israeli Messianic Jew who sent me some rather odd messages, claiming to be employed by Sizer. Sizer told me had discovered Mordechai in his church graveyard and had since set him up with a laptop computer.

Truth be told, I found this all slightly bizarre.

As we were talking I also had a chance to shake hands with Porter Speakman, who was a very affable and charming individual in person (although, he is yet to let my comments pass through moderation on his blog, unfortunately).

Having now met both men and seen the film for myself, I think that both Sizer and Speakman clearly have something to contribute to the debate about Christian theology and Israel. It’s certainly right for them to highlight the extremes of Christian theology that depersonalises Israelis and dehumanises Palestinians. They are completely correct to insist upon a more organic, gospel-centred approach to peace-making in the Middle East.

However, when it comes to presenting a full narrative on the Israel/Palestine, I think Speakman and Sizer are out of their depth. Sizer remarked that he had not known about his Holocaust-denying sources.

Richard Gold asked Sizer whether he was concerned that he couldn’t distinguish between Holocaust-denying sources and his own sources when critiquing Israel.

Sizer had no answer.

Earlier in the Q & A, Speakman admitted that he had not presented a full enough picture of the conflict in 82 minutes. Speakman said he wasn’t particularly bothered about whether there was a one state solution or a two state solution, but said he thought that Two State was dead.

I was rather disappointed that a film-maker who had put such energy and effort into making a film about the dangers of extreme ideologies in the Middle East would say such a thing. Speakman couldn’t bring himself to at least acknowledge his desire for a safe and secure Israel alongside a safe and secure Palestine, in-line with the will of the international community.

Perhaps Sizer and Speakman both approached the Christian debate on Israel/Palestine with good intentions, but good intentions are not enough with political presentations. If you are going to hold one political movement up to the light, the chances are you will be scrutinised in much the same way if you make a political comment. I think this is a good thing, indeed necessary for health democracies.

Within Christian circles, Sizer admirably supports Musalaha, a reconciliation ministry between Israeli and Palestinian believers in Christ. If he wishes to extend this approach to wider society, he would do well to support the One Voice movement to bring an end to the conflict via a robust and fair two-state solution.

Before then, I think he has to answer his critics in a mature and reasonable way. Sadly, offering hugs to his critics will not placate people’s concerns about Sizer’s approach to Israel/Palestine.

Sizer is now claiming that he at point #5 of a 7-stage Zionist plot to eliminate him completely, which perhaps says more about his personal paranoia than it does about people who don’t like his film.

Sizer told Jewish participants in the debate that Speakman’s film was made for Christians by Christians, and as such was an internal debate for Christians. On various occasions, Sizer used this line on Gold and other Jewish members of the audience.

But I think you can’t criticise a Jewish political movement that extends far beyond Christians, and then tell Jews who object that their comments are less relevant as they are not Christians themselves.

It would be great also if Sizer would refine his own theology and not use the New Testament as a weapon against Zionism. Rather, he could use a more charitable reading of New Testament to help improve Zionism.

Until he does, I think he’s just going round in circles.

 

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8 Comments

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8 responses to ““With God on our Side” Screens in Manchester

  1. Pingback: A few good links | eChurch Christian Blog

  2. Porter Speakman Jr

    Hi Joseph,

    Thanks again for coming and for sharing your thoughts. I am trying to catch up on as much correspondence as I can while traveling. Concerning your comments not getting through on my blog. I normally don’t do pingbacks and don’t remember any new comments except those about Stephen Sizer which should be addressed to his blog. Any questions relating to me I will gladly address.

    I just wanted to briefly give some feedback / slight correction to some of the things in your recent post that may deal with “motivations” on my part.

    1. We moved into the lobby so we could could say goodbye to people leaving and thank them for coming. I had many good conversations there as I’m sure you did in the main room.

    2. The Q & A session went 5 minutes over, we did not end 10 minutes early. We made it clear at the beginning we would end at 9:00 PM

    3. I do believe and want to see a safe and secure Israel and Palestine – whatever that may look like. I felt I said that, maybe I didn’t. I honestly can’t remember doing this every night, I normally do make that clear. But let me say it now – I am for whatever solution is best for both Israelis and Palestinians and agree how you said it – ” safe and secure Israel alongside a safe and secure Palestine, in-line with the will of the international community.” If that is one state or two – for me the important issue is that everyone is treated equally, which I think we agree.

    My comment that I think the two state solution is dead is based on what I see on the ground, not my desire. Even the self described “center left” Jewish man I was addressing nodded in agreement.

    All the best Joseph.

    • seismicshock

      Hi Porter,

      Thanks again for your comment. I think my point was, if you can criticise John Hagee’s over-simplified theology which distorts politics, it surely shouldn’t be too hard to recognise the very same issue mirrored in Rev Sizer’s political theology.

      Regarding the two-state solution, I’m very encouraged that it is your desire, albeit you don’t consider it to be still “alive.”

      To this, I have to recommend the work of OneVoice, who are very much active in attempting to bring about the two-state solution, and have the support of many grassroot Israelis and Palestinians, the international community and the UN themselves:
      http://www.onevoicemovement.org/

      I think perhaps if yourself and Reverend Sizer would actively support OneVoice, you would be hugely influential in strengthening the two-state movement. If need be, OneVoice could arrange a meeting with yourselves and explain how a safe and secure Israel alongside a prosperous Palestine is realistic and achievable.

      But clearly, for Israel to be safe and secure, it needs to both exist and be called Israel, so I am glad you support this.

      Re. the comments in your blog, I understand how WordPress sometimes throw comments into moderation. All you have to do is click My Blog > Manage Comments > Trash, and fish the comments out of trash (don’t worry about actual spam though). It’s strange my latest comment didn’t get through as my initial comment did. But WordPress can be like that sometimes.

      Certainly the impression we had was that Q & A was slightly cut short but that may be poor timekeeping on my part, although I thought the film ended a few minutes after half past and the Q & A ended around 9. But I’m happy to concede on this point.

      All the best for your future ventures – again I welcome you highlighting the flaws in significant sections of Christian Zionism, as I feel is also necessary with sections of Christian anti-Zionism.

      Regards,

      Joseph

  3. Colin

    Dear Joseph,

    Thanks for a very helpful article!!

    I don’t think Porter knows that Sizer’s comments section is permanently off. Otherwise, I could write something like the following;

    Stephen,

    As a reader of your blog, I thought to share a few thoughts with you. I should state up front, I am not an American, have never attended a CUFI event, and affirm God’s love for the Palestinians. I would also affirm that Israel, like every other nation on earth, and every individual for that matter, are not perfect, and need Jesus. Phew.

    Now, you seem to delight in saying that those Christians who support Israel are in fact not real friends, but only wish to see their strange second coming doctrine worked out, that they want the Jews back in their homeland simply so 2/3s of them can be killed, and the rest converted to Christianity.

    In saying this, you do yourself no favors. I assume you do it to try and drive a wedge between evangelicals and Jews, and to make Jews suspicious of Evangelical support. The charge, however is both false and malicious. Anyone who has attended one of the “we love Israel” functions, or read their literature, or seen what they do, knows that these people have a deep, emotional, genuine and sometimes scary love of the Jewish state. Were they simply “anxious for Armageddon”, then their behavior would be diametrically opposite of what it presently is. Were they wanting nations and people to join together to attack Israel, as you claim, they would be working to delegitimize Israel, filling their blogs with hate propaganda, attacking Christian support for it, campaigning for BDS etc. That is, they would be behaving like you. In fact, for people supposedly wanting everyone to attack Israel, they behave in a very strange fashion. They want, again, sometimes with excessive zeal, to protect and care for Israel at all costs, to neutralize any perceived threat to her, to bless her. By continually claiming that they in fact just want to see 2/3s of her people dead, you completely misunderstand and misrepresent them. Have the honesty to admit that while you disagree, their love for Israel is genuine.

    The second point with this claim is that the claim itself should cause you theological difficulties. The passage usually referred to is Zechariah 12-14. This passage is in the Jewish Old Testament revelation – The idea of Jerusalem being surrounded by all the nations of the world, and 2/3ds of its population being cut off did not originate in John Hagee’s mind. It is found in Scriptures you claim to believe. More than that, these Scriptures clearly see the ingathering of Israel as God’s blessing and mercy to them, as a good thing. The time of Jacob’s trouble is not seen as a judgment on re-gathered Israel, but as the final revelation of wickedness, leading to God’s final judgment on the nations of the world. God intervenes to save Israel, and to destroy those nations. So to claim that Christians see the ingathering of Israel simply as a mechanistic, soulless step towards the second coming is to misrepresent the Scriptures you believe are God’s word. These Scriptures see God’s re-gathering of Israel as evidence that God still loves them, Romans 15:8, 11:28 etc. They were brought back to be blessed and to be a blessing, and yes, God will punish those who come against them. Just as the Bible teaches. That Jesus is returning is something I assume you also believe in, that that he will come to save and bless Israel is hardly an anti-Jewish statement. As it stands, you have taken a prophecy about the restoration of Israel, found in the Jewish Scriptures, and said that anyone who believes it is anti-Jewish!

    Equally, as someone who claims to believe in the Bible, what is your interpretation of these verses? They are part of our Scripture, and we need to deal with them. Clearly, from a Christian perspective, “they shall look upon him whom they have pierced” refers to Jesus (John 19:37 – note that this Scripture sees Jesus as the beginning and end of Israel’s history, going from the Passover Lamb to the Lord’s return). In the passage this is followed by universal Jewish repentance and salvation (so it must refer to events in the future, events constantly referenced throughout the Old and New Testaments).

    The passage itself reads; “And it shall be in that day I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem. And I will pour on the house of David, and on the people of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of prayers. And they shall look on Me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for Him, as one mourns for his only son, and shall be bitter over Him, as the bitterness over the first-born. In that day shall be a great mourning in Jerusalem, like the mourning of Hadad-rimmon in the valley of Megiddo. And the land shall mourn, each family apart; the family of David apart, and their wives apart; the family of the house of Nathan apart, and their wives apart the family of the house of Levi apart, and their wives apart; the family of Shimei apart, and their wives apart; all the families who remain, each family apart and their wives apart. In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David, and to the people of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness.” Zechariah 12:9-13:1

    If you look at the above verses, the Jewish people are saved by conviction of sin (they shall look on him whom they have pierced), repentance (they shall mourn for him) and new birth, which baptism signifies (In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David, and to the people of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness). That is, the Jewish people show the world the way of salvation, just as God originally called them to, for the gifts and call of God are irrevocable.

    Again, clearly, as Christians, we believe that Jews need to be saved, need their Messiah (Romans 10:1). Is wanting them to have the eternal life that Jesus, their Messiah died to give them somehow anti-Jewish? Why would you as a Christian attack them for this belief? The passage also identifies the one whom they have pierced as God himself (14:1-4), and as standing on the Mount of Olives (see Acts 1:11-12). As a Christian, you are required to take these passages seriously, not just to mock and misrepresent those who do. Note also that the nations of the world come against Israel even before they are saved – because Israel as a nation stands for God’s sovereignty in history, and this is something a world in rebellion cannot tolerate.

    What you have done is to attack a belief based in Scripture, rather than to attack the loveless, soulless abuses of it (something we could all support). This makes you, rather than a defender of Christianity, an opponent of the Bible. Not a good idea.

    There is much else that could be said, how God from the beginning intended Israel to be a blessing to the whole world, how his love for them is not separate from his love for all humanity, rather it is the first expression of it. See Genesis 12:3, Isaiah 2:1-5, Zechariah 8:20-23, Acts 15: 16-17 “After this I will return and will build again the tabernacle of David which has fallen down; and I will build again its ruins, and I will set it up, so that those men who are left might seek after the Lord, and all the nations on whom My name has been called, says the Lord, who does all these things.” Romans 15:8-9 And I say, Jesus Christ has become a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers, so that the nations might glorify God for His mercy, as it is written, “For this cause I will confess to You in the nations, and I will praise Your name.” Look at the last 2 passages, in each one God blesses Israel so that gentiles might be blessed! As Romans says, “what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?”

    So, what do we have?

    We have Jesus, who “will reign over the house of Jacob forever; [for God] has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.” Yes, the “Lord God will give him the throne of his father David,” “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us– to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

    And we have Paul; “For this reason I have asked to see you and talk with you. It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain… For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs, those of my own race, the people of Israel… Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised!… For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God… And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable…

    Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed.”

    Stephen, you have immersed yourself in the Palestinian narrative, and fed from the most extreme and bitter examples if it. You see the creation of Israel as an evil act, rather than as the basis for future gentile blessing (“rejoice, O nations with his people”), you see God’s faithfulness to Israel as being in conflict with his justice to all. That is, you see wrongly.

    Stephen, I realize you see yourself in heroic terms, as a cutting edge theologian fighting for justice for the oppressed, as helping produce an edgy and uncomfortable film, as taking us further than we dare to go, but this is false. It feeds your ego, and opposes humility, but right now, you need humility. Because God is not unjust and God is not unfaithful, and all his word is true.

    In Him,

    Colin

    • Dooley

      “I don’t think Porter knows that Sizer’s comments section is permanently off. Otherwise, I could write something like the following”

      To which Sizer would respond by you doubt deleting your comment, evading the issue, accuse you of being a Zionist extremist or, if all else failed, setting the police on you.

  4. rich

    I thought your blog was very fair and well written. I have not seen the film yet so I can not comment on it. I did attend Nazarene Theological College, however and I can concur it is a place of study and learning with the highest academic standards. Unravelling theology and politics is a very difficult job and it’s important we don’t don’t paint caricatures of each other.

  5. Pingback: Reading PSC, Christ Church Virginia Water, Stephen Sizer and Tony Gratrex | Seismic Shock

  6. Pingback: Christ Church Virginia Water helps fund “8 weeks of conferences” for Sizer per year | Seismic Shock

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