Opinion | Black Zionists have a complicated view of Israel

In January 2019, I made a trip to Accra, Ghana, for what would be my last visit to my grandmother. She was 84 at the time and had broken her hip in a fall the previous December. I had a feeling I should go and spend time with her.

We were watching TV in her small living room, the fans on in the harmattan heat. A news report came on about then-President Donald Trump. “That man, I like him!” my grandmother said, chuckling. Her laugh was such that it was hard to resist cracking a smile. “Mama, why?” I asked. She had never traveled to the United States.

She said she liked his decisions on Israel, specifically the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which I saw as a setback for Palestinians. Grandmother said America would be blessed by God for standing with Israel.

I thought about that last week, when more than 1,000 Black Christian pastors sent a letter to the Biden administration urging a cease-fire in Israel’s war on Gaza, release of hostages and an end to Israeli occupation in the West Bank. The pastors cited their congregants’ disenchantment. As Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-convener of the National African American Clergy Network, told the New York Times, “the Israel-Gaza war … has evoked the kind of deep-seated angst among Black people that I have not seen since the civil rights movement.”

My grandmother was part of another current among Black Christians. Despite the tendency — especially during election time — to paint Black voters of faith as monolithic, many Black people and Africans are Israel defenders, thanks to the significant influence of Christian Zionism in Black and African life both here and on the continent. Ignoring this influence results in an incomplete picture of the Black world’s complex spiritual relationship not only to Israel and Palestinians but also to the idea of liberation itself.

In his paper “Political Engagement Meets the Prosperity Gospel: African American Christian Zionism and Black Church Politics,” Yale sociologist Roger Baumann considers two dramatically different theological stances among Black churches. The one that produced the letter to Biden embraces the social gospel and preaches about the need for racial and collective emancipation. The other promotes the “prosperity gospel.” Writes Baumann: “Black churches that emphasize a prosperity gospel have largely been left out of considerations of so-called ‘political churches.’”

I grew up in the prosperity gospel tradition in the 1990s in a mostly White evangelical church. My Sunday exposures to the theology were backed up by the televangelists that were on TV daily, including the influential Pastor John Hagee. We would often hear the Old Testament scripture, “Whoever blesses Israel will be blessed, And whoever curses Israel will be cursed.” We were told that tithes and offerings in support of missions to Israel would produce material blessings and other signs of God’s favor in our lives.

Not infrequently, we would take up offerings to send Christian missionaries to Israel, with the conviction that, although Jewish people were the chosen ones, Christ’s return depended on acceptance by significant numbers of Jewish people that he was their promised Messiah, king and savior. Per the prosperity gospel tradition, we were promised rewards for our participation in this project — usually financial blessings, opportunities, favors, good health and better jobs. With its tantalizing prospect of prompt payoffs, it’s no surprise that prosperity gospel churches, often infused with Pentecostal fervor, have been growing like wildfire across the African continent and growing in political power.

Hagee himself founded Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States, boasting some 10 million members. CUFI has actively recruited Black and African pastors to spread its message.

I spoke with Pastor Dumisani Washington, the former diversity and outreach chair for CUFI and founder of the Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel. He said that CUFI did not keep records of its Black membership. “But there are probably many more black American supporters of Israel than detractors, depending on how you would define that meaning,” he said.

The point of noticing this diversity is not to dispute or diminish the many Black and African faith communities that are calling for a cease-fire after standing for the rights of Palestinians to be free long before Oct. 7.

My point is that many of us, liberals especially, see Black churches through an overly nostalgic lens in which all congregations pursue some Hollywood civil rights era version of the social struggle for racial emancipation. We miss the rise of conservative, individualistic spirituality rooted in prosperity gospel preaching. And we miss the larger fact that young Blacks — like their White peers — are leaving church altogether. Both trends call into question whether the progressive Black church can remain the same powerful political organizing force it has been.

This complexity of Black Christianity pushes back against the argument that all Black views on the conflict, are reflexive, ignorant and antisemitic.

And understanding the whole story casts a sharp light on the troubling theology that lurks beneath the surface support for Israel among evangelicals — Black and White alike. Their mission is not to make Israel safe for Jewish people. It is to overturn the Jewish faith in pursuit of Christian purposes.

Though I am no longer evangelical, and have been critical of the Israeli state, I believe the reality of Black Christian Zionism deserves more attention. It contributes to a full and sophisticated appreciation of the complexity of our communities — and the world.

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