As a child I knew nothing about Israeli culture, politics or people. But I was a Christian Zionist.
I believed with perfect faith that across the globe, the descendants of ancient Hebrews had been stirred by God to return to the Middle East. I believed Israel was the sole inheritance of the Jews. I imagined most Jews were Hasidic or Modern Orthodox, with the rare exception of a hopelessly secular Jerry Seinfeld or a Woody Allen. I knew nothing about Palestine. As my father once said to me, “God will not stand with those who will not stand with Israel.” Taking his words to heart, I stood.
I didn’t meet a Jewish person until I was nearly 15. My rural Georgia town had a population in the hundreds, and most everyone I knew was Pentecostal, Baptist or something like it. Religion was the connecting tissue of all our lives. The Jewish kid in my high school debate class seemed as aware of this as I was. He often drew lines between him and us, making jokes about how the Jews are greedy and how they killed Jesus. Though I didn’t understand him at the time, I know now that he was effectively stopping any bullying before it could start.
September 11 changed things, even in my tucked-away corner of Northern Georgia. We felt encroached upon by violent forces. The evening of the attacks, my family gathered in our close-knit country church. We prayed for the grieving survivors and, of course, for the protection of Israel. I said to my mother that day, “Jesus… he’s coming back soon, isn’t he?” She nodded reassuringly. All this suffering was necessary, I believed with sadness, watching in fear for what Jesus had described as the “birth pains” before the End of Days, when the world would be made new.
The days following 9/11 turned our attention to Israel and its position in the Middle East. As evangelical supporters of the Jewish state and believers in the coming apocalypse, we frequently begged for God’s protection over the country and her people.
We did this in shouted prayers. We spoke in tongues. Some who prayed would fall to the ground, slumping under what was believed to be the influence of God’s overwhelming power. We prayed that the Jewish homecoming to Israel would inspire willing Jews to abandon their faith and accept Jesus Christ as their savior before the Rapture.
At the same time, the evangelical world was being shaped by forces other than those on 9/11. One was the gathering Republican platform designed to give political voice to our beliefs and concerns; another was the massive popularity of the “Left Behind” series of Christian thrillers, which described apocalyptic world politics and the salvation of the Jews.
My father and I often discussed the end of time. We read religious tracts such as “The Order of Future Events,” which outlined one leading Pentecostal theologian’s take on Earth’s final days. At one point, using what we felt were cryptic clues in the books of Daniel, Isaiah and Revelation, I believed we had successfully pinpointed the Antichrist’s potential country of origin. We did all this in preparation of Jesus’ return, which every pastor, evangelist and theologian reminded us could happen any day.