For a while, it looked like Gary Burge’s career as a prominent anti-Zionist in the United States had come to an end and that he was going to suffer a fate similar to his theological twin across the pond in England, Anglican Priest Stephen Sizer.
This past Easter, Sizer retired. His long career in the pulpit was marred by a number of unforced errors, such as promoting the notion that Israel was responsible for 9/11 and participating in a Holocaust-denial conference organized by, of all countries, Iran. After these debacles, his superiors in the Anglican Church finally told him to stop talking about the Arab-Israeli conflict altogether. They had had enough.
To add insult to injury, the folks at InterVarsity Press in both the United Kingdom and the United States decided that they too had enough and stopped printing his books which promoted the notion that God had abandoned the Jewish people and therefore no longer had any right to live in the Holy Land. For his Anglican superiors, Sizer’s retirement must have been a relief.
For a while it looked like Burge, who made similar arguments about the illegitimacy of Jewish claims to the land in his notoriously counter-factual book, Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told about Israel and the Palestinians, might suffer a similar fate to Sizer.
Instead, Burge, who retired from Wheaton College, an Evangelical school in Illinois in 2016, is enjoying a boomlet of sorts. Recent thrust for his reignited star include an article in The Atlantic and an appearance on National Public Radio. Burge, now teaching at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was given a platform by these outlets to articulate his response to the controversy surrounding President Donald Trump’s December 6, 2017 acknowledgement that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and that the U.S. will eventually move its embassy to the Holy City.
Predictably enough, Burge expressed concerns about the action, telling folks that not every Evangelical supports Trump’s decision and that the Evangelicals who do are making a mistake if they root their support in their reading of the Bible.
In The Atlantic article, Burge argues that Jews who live in Israel really have no connection to the Israelites in the Bible and therefore, really don’t have any claim to the land of Israel. Moreover, he says, conservative Evangelicals who support Israel may not understand that the modern state of Israel isn’t anything like biblical Israel. After all, he asserts, “[W]hen you build a bridge from biblical Israel to modern Israel, there is an enormous gap in history and theology.”
These are interesting arguments for an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA to be making. Given the enormous gap of history and theology between Christ’s declaration that Peter was the rock upon which he would build his church and the founding of the PCUSA in 1983, one could just as easily argue that his denomination’s claim to salvation is as broken and attenuated as Burge says the Jewish claim is to Jerusalem.
A lot has happened over the past 2,000 years.
But God is free and sovereign.
If he can find a way to grant salvation to Presbyterians despite what has happened in the realm of Christianity over the past 2,000 years, maybe he can also use the modern secular state of Israel to demonstrate the firmness of His Promises to Jews in the 21st Century.
If he can extend his promise of salvation to Christians in spite of all that has happened since the anointing of St. Peter as the leader of his church 2,000 years ago, maybe he still has a place in his heart for the Jews.
Clearly the notion that Judaism, Jews and Israel have a continuing role to play in God’s green earth is a tough one for Burge to accept. Accompanying Burge’s faith in Christ are unmistakable stains of anti-Judaism that show up in his commentary about the modern state of Israel.
Burge’s anti-Judaic teaching is particularly evident in the 2003 edition of Whose Land? Whose Promise?
To prove that Christian Zionists are wrong to support the modern state of Israel on religious grounds, Burge invokes John 15:6 which quotes Jesus as declaring: “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch and is withered: and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.” How does Burge apply this text to the modern state of Israel? Here’s what he writes:
"God’s vineyard, the land of Israel, now only has one vine, Jesus. The people of Israel cannot claim to be planted as vines in the land; they cannot be rooted in the vineyard unless first they are grafted into Jesus. Branches that attempt living in the land, the vineyard, which refused to be attached to Jesus will be cast out and burned." (Whose Land? Whose Promise? First edition, page 176)
So what is Burge saying? That Jews who try to live in Israel—without accepting Jesus as their Messiah—will be cast out and burned!
That’s redolent of Luther’s statements about the Jews in the 1500s. When I first showed this passage to my colleagues at CAMERA in 2007, they were shocked that something like this was published in the 21st century. I would hand them Burge’s book, point to the paragraph in question and tell them to read until something jumped out at them. I could always tell when they got to the “cast out and burned” passage. My colleagues would put the book down like it was poison and look at me with eyes wide open and say things like, “Are you kidding me?” or “Someone actually wrote this?” or “Who printed this?”
The answer to that last question is Pilgrim Press, a publishing house owned by the United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination whose General Synod condemned superssessionism (sometimes called replacement theology) in a 1987 resolution. But that did not stop them from publishing Burge's book with the explicit thesis that Christianity has replaced or superseded the Jews in God’s economy of salvation.
To make matters worse, the 2003 edition Burge’s book was also filled with a number of factual misstatements that invariably portrayed the Jewish state in an unfair light. He falsely reported that Israeli Arabs living in Israel were barred from serving in the IDF (they aren’t), and that they could not achieve positions of prominence in Israeli labor unions (yes, they can) and that they were prohibited from belonging to prominent political parties in the country (again, wrong). And he described the PLO as if it was founded to redress the Palestinian refugee problem caused by the 1948 War, when in fact, it was founded with the explicit purpose of destroying the Jewish state.
After a fair amount of controversy over these and other factual problems in his book (generated in part by articles I wrote), Professor Burge announced in 2012 that Pilgrim Press had agreed to publish a new and updated version of his 2003 text. The second edition, which came out in 2013, included some corrections, but still had some real howlers, such as the false claim that Israeli Jews and Arabs renewed their licenses on different days of the month. (Burge promoted that falsehood to demonstrate that Israel was an apartheid state.) He also falsely reported that Israel did not allow new water wells to be dug in the West Bank, when in fact more than 70 wells had been dug in the West Bank in the years prior to the publication of his text.
Burge also stated that “in polling, Israelis consistently reject” a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He provided no data to back up his claim, probably because he couldn’t. Surveys conducted in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 by the Harry S. Truman Research Institute For the Advancement of Peace and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research all reported that a majority of Israelis support a two-state solution.
When I contacted Pilgrim Press about these and other errors in the 2013 edition, the publishing house initially agreed to allow me to produce a 6-inch by 9-inch errata sheet calling attention to Burge’s mistakes. The sheet would be shipped out with copies of the book. This unprecedented offer was a welcome expression of responsibility on the part of Pilgrim Press for its role in broadcasting ugly misinformation about the Jewish state. Sadly it was withdrawn on the grounds that Burge held the copyright to the text and would probably not agree to having such a sheet shipped out along with his book.
Operating on the assumption that the errors in Burge’s text violated the standards of scholarship upheld at Wheaton College, I wrote a letter to the provost at the school drawing attention to the problems with Whose Land? Whose Promise? The response I received was that the issues I raised were “extraordinarily complex” and that I hadn’t documented any instances of dishonesty, plagiarism or unethical behavior that required administrative action by Wheaton. Two years later, Burge retired from Wheaton College and began a new career at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Given the controversy surrounding Burge’s writings, it hard not to think that the folks at Wheaton College are enjoying a well-deserved respite in light of his departure for greener pastures.
I recently found a daily devotional based on the writings of the early church fathers. To my chagrin, some of the most inspiring entries are based on the writings of St. John Chrysostom, one of the people most responsible for establishing the tradition of anti-Judaism that Burge traffics today. Writing in the 1930s, Anglican historian James Parks wrote that Chrysostom’s “commentaries on the gospels are still read and studied in in the Orthodox Church because of their deep spiritual beauty. But when it comes to his sermons on the Jews, “there is no sneer too mean, no gibe, too bitter for him to fling at the Jewish people.”
Burge is no Chrysostom but a similar dichotomy is present in his writings.
You can see a number of Burge’s sermons on the website of the Willow Creek Church in Illinois, where he preached regularly prior to his departure to Grand Rapids. If you watch the videos, you’ll see that his preaching and homiletics are top-notch and inspiring. When Burge talks about Jesus and about how his message should reverberate in our lives, he is inspiring, if a bit pedantic. But once he starts writing or talking about issues related to the Jewish people, Israel especially, he makes the type of mistakes found in his book, Whose Land? Whose Promise?
Worse, a shadow falls across his countenance and a sneering, contemptuous tone creeps into his voice indicating that his message about the modern state of Israel is motivated by the same anti-Judaic impulse that motivated St. John Chyrsostom. Appearing now in The Atlantic and on NPR, Gary Burge and his spirit of Chrysostom have returned.
Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). His opinions are his own.