Hamas’ October 7 attack was monstrous. Hundreds killed at a music festival along with hundreds more in their homes or on the streets. Women and children butchered on a kibbutz in the south. In response Israel launched a massive aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip, cutting off food, water and electricity to the region. The rhetoric coming out of the Israeli government has raised fears of genocide, with 2.3 million civilians trapped in a tiny strip of land without any real hope of fleeing, essentially held hostage by Israel’s military.
All of this—real lives taken, real worlds shattered, real threats of ongoing mass murder and death—is part of an incredibly complex geopolitical reality; of settler colonialism, land occupation, political pressures, and a long history of violence.
What it is not is a holy war, a crusade, or a Christian eschatological event. And yet a good portion of the Christian Right in the U.S. cannot help but make the murder of Israelis and Palestinians—including children—about them and their religious ideas.
Some of it is minor, but nonetheless revealing. Following the October 7 attack former Republican Ohio State Representative Candice Keller spent days posting about the Rapture on her Facebook page, championing the violence in Israel because of what she thinks it represents for her ideas of the apocalypse.
The comments on these posts are all excited, talking about how soon they will meet “The King,” how the end is nigh, how the Rapture has arrived and will be here any minute. The context is clear—she also intermittently posts messages of support for Israel’s assault on Gaza (alongside posts about anti-abortion protests she’s participating in).
Now, a former state representative and a handful of supporters on Facebook is not enough of a reason to worry, except she’s merely the most vocal (or least subtle) member of a much broader movement of evangelical Christians, many of whom support Israel for exactly this reason: that their interpretation of Scripture requires Israel, a war, and a Temple, before the conversion or destruction of the Jewish people. It should be noted that, as Aidan Orly has written here at RD, “some scholars have challenged the notion that End-Times theology is a significant factor for many Christian Zionists,” but widespread uncritical support for Israel among White evangelicals in particular is undisputed.
Christian Zionism in America has a long history of pushing for U.S. political and military support for Israel, spanning decades and different organizations in the U.S. Many of them push the Dispensationalist theology popularized by Hal Lindsey’s 1970 bestseller, The Late Great Planet Earth (and its many and varied intellectual spinoffs) that the Antichrist is coming and that Jewish control of Israel and the rapture of Christians will lead to the return of Christ, who will defeat evil and reign for a thousand years—something that’s been written about over and over again in the 21st century.
The Christian Zionist crossover to Islamophobic violence is unsurprising. In the aftermath of 9/11 it simply became more politically acceptable for pastors and politicians to voice it in the most aggressive and open way possible. One of the more prominent right-wing pastors in the movement, Pastor John Hagee of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, has a history of inflammatory statements on multiple topics. In a 2006 NPR interview with Terry Gross, he said, “those who live by the Koran have a scriptural mandate to kill Christians and Jews.” That rhetoric continues, both from Hagee, who was one of the pastors who spoke at the embassy christening in May 2018, and others—it is not limited to a handful of pulpits.
Last week, Hagee gave a short talk, “Israel Is At War,” in which he pushes a narrative of good and evil, urges America into the conflict, and supports now-debunked allegations, including that Iran had actually planned the attack. Hagee also advocated that the war be spread to all neighboring countries. David Jeremiah—founder of Turning Point Radio and Television Ministries and pusher of imminent Rapture theology—spent time this week taking advantage of the moment to talk about his visions of Antichrist and the contemporary world, specifically in relation to Israel. Included in a statement he offered a prayer for Israel which pleads for the conversion of Jews:
“While You watch over Your people, may Your Spirit awaken in them a hunger to embrace their Messiah—the One who died for them—until they see Him face to face. We pray this in His name, Amen.”
He’s not the only influential evangelical who believes that, not only should Israel be supported, but also that Jews should convert. And this line has other devotees, like Greg Laurie, senior pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship, who preached about “What the Terror Attacks on Israel Mean for End Times Prophecy” and issued a statement on Israel that concludes:
“Scripture tells us to ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ (Psalm 122:6). Let’s do that together. I also pray that a great spiritual awakening will sweep the Holy Land and that many—both Jews and Palestinians caught up in this conflict—will turn to God and His Son, Jesus Christ.”
This is all about making events in Israel and Palestine really be about us—that is, evangelical Christians in America. And while it’s bad enough from the pulpit and the increasingly vile heart of social media, it’s also coming from the halls of power. On Fox News, Republican Lindsey Graham declared, “We’re in a religious war here and I am with Israel. Do whatever the hell you have to do to defend yourself. Level the place.” This isn’t limited to Graham or to the genocidal rhetoric of “level the place;” according to TNR, Marco Rubio said in an interview with Jake Tapper:
“I don’t think there’s any way Israel can be expected to coexist or find some diplomatic off-ramp with these savages,” Rubio replied. “These are people, as you’ve been reporting and others have seen, that deliberately targeted teenage girls, women, and children, and the elderly.… Just horrifying things. And I don’t think we know the full extent of it yet. I mean, there’s more to come in the days and weeks ahead. You can’t coexist. They have to be eradicated.”
And worries about genocide are far from idle, given the rhetoric, the bombardment of Gaza already taking place, and the worries of experts, Israelis among them. But Lindsey Graham’s specific call reveals why some factions in the U.S. are so intent on pushing for it: they do not view this as dealing with a terrorist organization, or dealing with a long running political problem—they want a holy war. Spoken out of pulpits across America and into the halls of power, they want their version of apocalypse, and they want it now.
Lindsey Graham has been calling for this for years, openly, overtly and without shame—in 2015, notably, and 2017, but also in January of 2022. Graham is chomping at the bit to make wars and attacks against Muslims a war about religion—because all of it serves a particular end (even if, in some cases, cynical politicians are merely playing to the theological frameworks of constituents). The push by evangelical Christian leaders to make this part of their apocalypse is not about loving Israel or mourning the dead—it’s about calling forth their own religious desires into being, desires that demand violence and blood and sacrifice of others, so that they, from the comfort of their homes, can achieve their vision of a happy ending.
As the Israeli military moves into the Gaza Strip, those calls from the United States get ever more explicit, taking the general calls for Christian-themed violence and making them more specific. The Gospel Coalition’s Peter Leithart, for example, likens Hamas to the biblical Amalekites, and compares the Palestinian people to their hostages. But the bottom half of that tweet, “Yahweh vows to fight until the memory of Amalek is blotted out from under heaven,” is not a subtle message.
Hamas isn’t the only terrorist group to fight like Amalekites. For decades, terror groups have used women and children as shields.
Yahweh vows to fight until the memory of Amalek is blotted out from under heaven.https://t.co/wJvipvABdE
— The Gospel Coalition (@TGC) October 13, 2023
The article itself makes for complicated reading. In one section, it reads:
Amalekites don’t just happen to harm women and children as “collateral damage.” Amalekites don’t carry out the ban, as Israel did, destroying men, women, children, and animals in select Canaanite cities, on Yahweh’s orders. Israel didn’t attack Jericho, Ai, or Hormah when all the men were gone. They attacked fortified and guarded cities, conquered them, and offered them in smoke and fire to Yahweh. Amalekites specifically target women and children and the weak. Amalek is the anti-Israel, a people whose way of life, values, and military tactics are set in direct opposition to Yahweh’s purposes for humanity.
Setting aside the patriarchal overtone, glorifying the massacre of Jericho and framing it as the opposition to Amalek is an interesting maneuver, one that argues for Israeli violence as godly in contrast to the “anti-Israel” of Hamas. The Israeli army gave over a million Palestinians 24 hours to evacuate the northern half of the Gaza Strip. Journalists were shelled on the Lebanese border, UN workers killed, hospitals incapacitated. The Gospel Coalition finds all of this normal, even laudable, because it fits their theological framework.
But give the article its due. Immediately after glorifying anti-Amalekite (i.e. anti-Hamas) violence, it says:
Hamas isn’t Amalek. Hamas isn’t literally under Yahweh’s ban and curse. And Hamas certainly isn’t the same as the Palestinian people. Thousands of Palestinians are Christians, and many Muslim Palestinians oppose Hamas and its violence. To compare Hamas to Amalek isn’t to justify or even suggest genocide.
Isn’t it wonderful that just before the end he declares that he isn’t justifying or suggesting genocide. But the biblical rhetoric does, even if Leithart wants to take a step back. Jericho Marches are a call for violence in the same way calling a group the Amalekites is a call for violence in the same way that saying it’s a religious war is a call for violence in the same way that championing the imminent arrival of the Rapture is a cheer of support for that violence.
All of this rhetoric comes from the comfort and safety of great distances, across the seas. The violence, the brutality—that’s happening in the real world, to real people. But the forces in the United States who champion that violence want the cycle to continue or to even get worse. And their wealth, power and political influence may very well help make it happen.