Donald E. Wagner. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1995. xii, 253 pages. $14.95, paper.
Reviewed by Jim Eriksen
I first met Don Wagner at a 1991 Conference in Cyprus sponsored by Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding. It was at that conference and on a subsequent tour of Syria, Jordan and Israel that I was introduced to some of the concerns that Wagner expresses in his work. It was therefore with a great deal of interest that I picked up his recent book Anxious for Armageddon.
Wagner is the director of Mercy Corps International’s Middle East Program. His book raises some significant issues that cannot be overlooked by Christians who attempt to understand the complexity surrounding the Middle East. For example, he writes about the Jewish occupation in the British Territory of Palestine from 1948 to 1949. He interviews Palestinian Arabs who give firsthand accounts of the depopulation of Palestinian villages and, in at least one case (Deir Yassin), the extermination of the entire village population. Wagner quotes several Israeli sources to support the assertion that most Palestinians fled neither of their own volition nor in response to appeals by Arab leaders but due to Zionist terrorist tactics” (p. 128). Although Wagner would assign the motive for leaving to a sinister plot, it cannot be doubted that some 660,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes and villages, in almost every instance without compensation, during this period.
Wagner also addresses the issue of human rights abuses during the military rule of the occupied territories and talks about the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ). His criticisms of the ICEJ are warranted. He correctly notes that the ICEJ has taken a political position, abandoning the Christian gospel (the ICEJ has agreed not to engage in “proselytism”).
However, it is just at this point that Wagner’s work suffers. For despite his just criticism of the ICEJ, Wagner’s alternative approach suggests an equally untenable position, though for different reasons.
Wagner’s work is problematic in several respects. First, he selectively includes certain historical events while omitting others. For example, Wagner states that “in 1936 the Palestinians launched a series of boycotts, strikes, and demonstrations” (p. 142). The preceding sentence seems to indicate that this was a result of frustration over a “British-Zionist alliance.” However, what Wagner fails to include is the events that led to the “boycotts, strikes, and demonstrations.” Specifically, in April of 1936, Qassamite groups (religiously and nationalistically motivated groups inspired by Sheikh Izz ad-Din al-Qassam) robbed and murdered three Jews. This was followed by retaliation against two Arabs that resulted in a widespread Arab boycott. Thus, in Wagner’s attempt to weave a great conspiracy between Christian Zionists, British authorities and Jewish Zionists, he omits vast amounts of historically relevant material. He simplifies matters to the point of historical distortion.
Second, just as Wagner engages in poor history, he suffers the same weakness in his theology. The first several chapters of Wagner’s work contain a series of autobiographical events. By chapter two, the reader discovers that Wagner has abandoned his “futurist pre-millennialist” upbringing; he has “changed politically and theologically” into a different person. He then uses this autobiographical journey to demonstrate to the reader the “virtues” of abandoning a “pre-millennialist” view.
Wagner never states what theological view one ought to adopt; however, he does advocate replacement theology (that is, the Church replaces Israel as the true people of God). In chapter seven, he quotes from the well-known British evangelical churchman John R. W. Stott who thinks “political Zionism and Christian Zionism are biblically anathema to Christian faith” (p. 80). Although Wagner follows Stott’s bold assertion with a quote from one of his sermons, Wagner does not offer a justification for adopting this view. Rather, he simply appeals to the purported ends of adopting such a view, a greater love and concern for the plight of Palestinian Arabs.
The third and perhaps greatest weakness can be found in Wagner’s call for ecumenicism. He urges evangelicals to understand the complex missiological and ecclesiological issues and join in cooperation with such organizations as the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). By pursuing this goal, Wagner displays a willingness to overlook central issues (e.g., the imperative to evangelize). Although dialogue should take place, the evangelical community cannot work with the MECC when it opposes direct evangelism of Muslims or Jews.
Wagner virtually ignores the Messianic believers in Israel as part of the “Church” in the Middle East. He makes a passing reference to them but dismisses Jewish believers as not a topic for his work. Apparently, Wagner does not see the importance of supporting the entire (Palestinian and Jewish) Christian community. Works like Musalaha (a ministry of reconciliation that arranges gatherings of Jewish and Palestinian believers) are completely overlooked.
In conclusion, although Wagner’s work contains some legitimate points, those become obscured by the clearly biased historical and theological treatment of the issue. One wonders if a “futurist pre-millennialist” can be anything but a member of the ICEJ. Of course, the fundamental concern does not lie in the titles used but in the treatment of the core issue, evangelism. Wagner notes the Coptic-Evangelical alliance as an example of evangelicals in partnerhip with the ancient Christian community in Egypt, an example I wholeheartedly agree with. The Coptic church has undergone a revival and evangelical Christians are partnering with the Coptic church for the primary purpose of evangelism, not social change!
Perhaps Wagner would have been better off entitling his work The Memoirs of Don Wagner; by doing this, he could have avoided some of the above criticism, and he might have realized that the work was not yet complete.
Jim Ericksen has served as general counsel for Jews for Jesus.