I wrote last week about My Promised Land by Ari Shavit, a powerful, emotive history of modern Israel. What struck me most was the recording of Israel’s founding—the evocation of a people on the brink of an abyss, about to be exterminated in eastern countries and assimilated in western countries. The idea of the nation of Israel—Zionism—was anathema to many Jews who saw their salvation in religious identity, not in establishing a state after more than 2,000 years without one. Even if you believed the premise that a Jewish state would transform their situation, was the idea practical? Shavit shows that it was made practical only through a remarkable combination of zealous idealism and ardent pragmatism. He dramatizes real people and real places where extraordinary determination, skill, chutzpah, smarts and risk-taking created a desert miracle, a vital, successful, creative and sometimes joyful country. If a degree of cold cruelty was unavoidably at its heart, Israel was still a remarkable accomplishment.
Shavit mourns this Israeli history—sees it as tragic as well as triumphant—because he thinks the tough and practical unity that built Israel has been splintered, its idealism gone down the drain, its smarts smothered in a senseless macho that is its own enemy. I don’t know much about today’s Israel, so I can’t agree or disagree with Shavit’s analysis. I do know that it struck me as having a parallel in my own country. During much of our history the USA has been highly pragmatic and determined when it faced large national problems. We have been a can-do nation. That has meant facing and solving problems, doing whatever it takes, regardless of our ideological presuppositions and differences. The Depression is a good example. Franklin Roosevelt found traction with approaches that violated many well-established principles of government. The nation—not all the nation, but most of it—threw itself behind what he wanted to do. It’s not clear that people were converted to his ideas about activist government. But they knew they had a problem, and they were willing to put their ideas to one side while they solved it.
I can’t imagine us having the toughness to do that today. We can’t even fix our bridges. Maybe it’s just that we haven’t faced a great enough problem, one that shows us we have no choice but to respond.
Shavit’s description of Jewish desperation also reminded me of a much earlier time: the 1st century AD. Then too Israel faced a double threat: assimilation into prosperous Greco-Roman culture, and annihilation by the military power of Rome. Revolutionaries and terrorists—zealots–led a violent response. Other Jews saw their survival in assiduous law-keeping, which would preserve their identity as a separate people. Jesus offered a different solution. He proposed love for enemies and neighbors alike. He insisted on forgiveness seventy times seven. He and his disciples would enter Gentile homes to bless them. Law-keeping would promote love and sacrifice, not separation. They would heal and cast out demons, but never take up a sword. They would willingly give their lives.
If you see this through the lens of private religion, as Protestants (and a good many Catholics) have been eager to do, it’s not so offensive. A few nice and harmless individuals don’t rock the boat much. But Jesus addressed not a collection of individuals, but the nation of Israel. He came to be King. What he proposed dealt with personal sin, but also Israel’s sin, which according to all the prophets had led to its loss of identity and its subjugation by foreign powers. Jesus proposed his way as the nation’s way—and as the nation’s salvation.
Most of the Jews of that day couldn’t see it. It was too radical, too dependent on miracle. They chose either law-keeping separatism or war-making—much as did Jews in the 20th century. In the first century, the war-making led to national catastrophe. Modern Israel seeks to undo that catastrophe.
I don’t know whether that second attempt will succeed. It’s early: the nation of Israel has been with us less than threescore years and ten. Thinking about it, however, sharpens my awareness of how radical a course Jesus followed and bids me follow. It goes against our most basic instincts to choose the cross. Think of offering that pathway to Israel today. They are not much more likely to accept it than they were the first time.
Two thousand years later, it’s still too soon to say whether Jesus’ movement will succeed. That’s where faith comes in.