On December 7, 2017, President Donald Trump made the momentous decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu warmly embraced the president's action, thereby radically changing life for people in the Middle East and around the world. The consequences of this action will be far reaching. My limited theme is the spirit of entitlement that allowed these political leaders to circumvent the constraints of history that prevented previous political leaders from taking this action. I am particularly interested in thinking about this theme of entitlement from a theological perspective.
A standard dictionary definition tells us that entitlement refers to the right to be entitled to specific rights. Mark Lewis Taylor, a professor of theology and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, refines this generic definition and adds that people who are entitled, "have access to an enabling power that others do not" (reference below).
What is this "enabling power?" I suggest that the naming of Jerusalem as Israel's capital was enabled by the Judeo-Christian Nations Theory and the tenet of the divine right of property. Those who hold to this theory have access to an enabling power that others do not. It is this theory and tenet that enabled Trump and Netanyahu to circumvent history and declare Jerusalem to be Israel's capital.
Legal scholar Steven T. Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) introduced me to the concept of the Christian Nations Theory in Pagans in the Promised Land (reference below). In this book Newcomb argues that the Christian Nations Theory is "hidden in plain sight." He contends that it is the foundation of US property law. Accordingly, Euro-American settlers and most notably US Supreme Court Justice John Marshall believed the Indigenous Peoples appeared to be human beings but since they were not baptized Christians, and therefore were uncivilized, they did not have the rights of human beings. Marshall famously decreed that Indians could occupy the land, but they could not own it. The settler mentality proclaimed that the land was empty. Because the land was empty, the settlers were entitled to claim it. The Christian Nations Theory is more encompassing, but at its core it is a theory constructed to justify what I call the divine right of property and the taking of Indian land.
I liken the divine right of property to the divine right of kings and queens, which in sixteenth and seventeenth century England allowed monarchs to claim that they received their authority from God, and therefore they were not accountable to mere mortals. King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I, King James I, and King Charles I each in turn asserted this claim and ruled accordingly, for good and for ill. Each employed the religious and political doctrine of royal absolutism to successfully impose their will upon the nation and eventually, to a remarkable extent, upon the world. Henry VIII employed this right when he became the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Queen Elizabeth relied on this doctrine to defend her claim to the throne against her half-sister Queen Mary. James I invoked this right when he chartered the Jamestown Colony and sent missionaries to civilize and Christianize the pagans. Charles I so abused his divine right that Parliament finally revolted, leading to England's Civil War. If we hope for a better outcome, we need a better theory.
On numerous occasions the Prime Minister of Israel has declared without equivocation that Jerusalem has been Israel's capital for 3,000 years, since the reign of King David. Other nations have occupied Jerusalem, but, according to the Prime Minister, only Israel has made Jerusalem its capital. This statement ignores Palestinian claims to the contrary and UN resolutions. The Prime Minister is asserting that only Israel has access to the enabling power that allows Jewish people to name Jerusalem as the capital city. Moreover, this right cannot be subjected to question by temporal powers and principalities. Non-Hebrew people may occupy the land, but they cannot claim it.
In summary, my argument is that the divine right of property and the Judeo-Christian Nations Theory are, as Newcomb said, "hidden in plain sight." These concepts are being used by political leaders to legitimate the pretensions of entitlement and settlement. We will not find our way out of the political quagmires of the twenty-first century unless and until we find alternative ways to make our lives meaningful.
There is wisdom in the traditions of Indigenous Peoples and in the Judeo-Christian tradition that can show us the way to a more humane and peaceful future. We can season our definition of private property with a spirit of human solidarity and ecological sustainability. We can reform our flaccid economic theory of possessive individualism with a more realistic understanding of social reality and the common good. We can embrace an idea of justice that is tightly linked to the elimination of poverty and well-being. We can uproot the Christian Nations Theory and the divine right of property and replace these concepts with a nurturing theory of democracy based on respect for others and for all things. Not only can we do all this, we must do this. This is the new imperative of the twenty-first century.
Mark Lewis Taylor, "Subalternity and Advocacy as Kairos for Theology," Joerg Rieger, ed., Opting for the Margins: Postmodernity and Liberation in Christian Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 23-44, 24.
Steven T. Newcomb, Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Golden, CO.: Fulcrum Publishing, 2008), 115-124.
David Hansen, Ph. D.
Author: Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice