Friday, March 4, 2016

The Identity Christian Movement of the 1970s: Reviving?

(Blogjob tags: Anglo-Israelite theoryChristian attitudes toward Jews and MuslimsCold War Era 1950’s-1980’shate groupsHerbert W. Armstronginterpretations of Bible prophecyLord’s Covenant Churchlost Khazar tribemedieval history and legendSheldon Emrywhole-Bible ChristiansWorldwide Church of God.)

(This is a long post and, although I've pre-scheduled one for Sunday, it may be chronologically the last post.)
Y'know, I'm ready to let the twentieth century be history, but...old-school socialism is back, full force, just as if the Soviet Union were still a viable experiment rather than an Epic Fail. Some people keep trying to revive other things that, as far as I'm concerned, belonged to the Cold War years.
This unsympathetic commentary was the first I'd heard of this "Sabeel" business. I remember an "Anglo-Israelite Identity" movement in American Protestantism. The movement traced itself tenuously back through history--those who took it literally relied on interpretations of history that were incapable of being proved or disproved. As it existed in the 1970s it seemed to have been a reaction to fear of the Soviet Union and disappointment with "conservatives" who didn't go far enough. That seems almost the polar opposite to what the "Sabeel" people seem to be preaching. Still, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that, as Old Soviet ideals resurface, old fears of the threat to the Anglo-Christian world are likewise resurfacing.
Even for Identity Christians, a sticking point has always been that nobody can be certain who his remote ancestors were--even in the female line. Nevertheless, the study (and confusion) of history and genealogy were popular pastimes in medieval Europe. British (and other) aristocrats traced their history back through legend to Troy and, before that, to the "lost" northern tribes of Israel, all the way back to "Adam, which was the son of God." Some Identity Christians used to take this literally and seriously. More, I think, did not. The important thing for the larger Identity groups was that all Christians are adoptive heirs of Abraham, according to Galatians 3:29.
It annoyed me even as a child, and it annoys me still, when people equate Identity Christians with haters. When I read back through some of the things my parents' pen friends wrote, I do see how this misinterpretation was possible. People like Sheldon Emry and Herbert Armstrong belonged to a more judgmental generation and used harsher terms than people of good will do now. They expected readers to understand that when they were bashing "the Jews" in certain organizations, they were talking about a specific set of Christian-phobic people, mostly men, mostly not religious, mostly "Communists" or at least very liberal toward the Communists--as distinct from religious Jews, or even an "honest Jewish scholar" like (non-religious) Arthur Koestler, whose book The Thirteenth Tribe summarized the evidence that the "lost" Eurasian Khazar tribe converted to (a form of) Judaism. They hated Christian-phobia and Communism. Those of them who spoke about foreign policy were not supportive of the Israeli government. They did not, however, hate entire groups of people, or endorse hate or violence.
Herbert Armstrong intended the name of his "Worldwide Church of God" to be understood literally, and baptized and ordained "adoptive Israelites" in every country he was able to visit. Sheldon Emry had a narrower vision, and said some harsh things about "alien races." My biracial father and brother and I were not the only "non-Aryan" types in that group. Sheldon Emry personally baptized a Black couple. I doubt that Pastor Emry would have been comfortable with a Black-White marriage--most people wouldn't, back then--but he mentored and ordained junior ministers who didn't have a "Nordic" or "Aryan" look. I suspect that, if most of the "Identity" people had met a serious whole-Bible Christian whose ancestors were Russian Jews, they would have accepted that person as an Israelite too.
What the "Identity movement" was really about was whole-Bible Christianity. As heirs (by birth or adoption) of Abraham, Christians were not "saved by" adherence to the Old Testament law, but were entitled to claim "blessings" through adherence to that law.
This I was taught, believed as a child, and believe still. When the Bible writers said "Thus saith the Lord," they were leading into one of five kinds of instruction:
  1. Personal advice to an individual: "Rejoice." "Arise and go unto..."
  2. Moral precepts for all of humankind: "Thou shalt not kill."
  3. Health, diet, and sanitary laws for ancient Israelites, reflecting the circumstances in which they lived: "He shall be unclean until evening."
  4. The civil law for the nation of Israel: "Ye shall not respect persons in judgment; ye shall hear the small as well as the great."
  5. The rules for the ritual sacrifices in the Tabernacle and Temple. These are the "old laws" that were "contrary to us" (Colossians 2:14).
Only the last category was affected by the sacrifice of Christ. Even the first and third categories are worth study. The second category, the laws individuals can observe regardless of their circumstances, are binding on us. The fourth category, the laws that need to be enforced by a society as a whole, are a good example for us. "Christian nations" have tried changing the laws Moses laid down to ancient Israel; the results of these efforts have not been an improvement.
Identity Christians are best summarized as people who think that, individually and collectively, we would do best to adhere to biblical law. This definitely does shape our politics--I say "we," not because I've stayed in touch with any of the "Identity" churches since the Reagan years, but because I'm still a whole-Bible Christian. The biblical "law and prophets" commend elective democracy over monarchy, uphold the rights to private property and inheritance, demand personal responsibility, are not nearly as sexist or ageist or otherwise oppressive as some later interpretations suggest, and support a very "Middle Eastern" or "Semitic" idea of gaining status through generosity and hospitality rather than hoarding valuable objects.
How this view of the Bible shaped individual views on foreign policy varied considerably. Some Identity preachers accepted enough historical legends to identify modern nations with ancient nations and interpret Bible prophecies as dictating foreign policy. That was where the "anti-Israeli" notion came in--if it did. If you believed literally that Arabs are descendants of Ishmael, that most Israelis (immigrants from Soviet countries, at that time) are descendants of Esau, and that nearly all the descendants of Jacob Israel could be found in western Europe before they reached the Promised Lands of North America and Australia, then you probably felt that the U.S. and Canada should not feel obligated to support Israel at the expense of the possibly more profitable loyalty of the Arab countries. (I recently reread a newsletter in which Pastor Emry affirmed that the Arabs had "done us no harm." He meant, of course, as of 1979. I don't know what he would have said about the Arabs by now.)
My views on foreign policy are familiar to regular readers. I don't have any. Not all Identity Christians had any views on foreign policy, either, other than fear of the then-looming Soviet threat and distaste for a "Thermonuclear World War III."
What the Identity movement really taught about groups of people who weren't Christians, weren't even adoptive "Israelites"--whether they called themselves "Israelis" or anything else--was that, if Christians would practice whole-Bible Christianity and claim the blessings that were our birthright, then God would heal and bless our land. Then "all the nations of the Earth" that had never seen Abraham's vision of God would see our prosperity, learn our ways, become Christians, and be equally blessed and healed.
Sheldon Emry was the most radical, literal-thinking "Identity" preacher my parents knew. He was also the one whose published newsletters explained that Israelites were not and wouldn't be "better" than the other nations, but had been chosen to be first because Abraham was the first prophet of the One God Who "will have mercy and not sacrifice."
My parents and I heard less from the "Identity" people in the 1980s, as the alarm and despondency of the 1970s abated. Pastors Emry and Armstrong died, leaving their churches to younger men. The Worldwide Church of God still exists; the Lord's Covenant Church apparently does not; I don't know what became of some other Identity churches.
I can easily imagine a church, beset by the alarm and despondency of our times, digging up old tracts and restoring the mid-twentieth century emphasis on the Identity message. I can even imagine people confused enough to try to meld some version of the Identity theory together with the old Communist moral ideals that substituted altruism for honesty and self-destruction for generosity.
To them I'll say this much, as the Bible Maven who has read the Bible from cover to cover several times. There is room for plenty of honest disagreement among whole-Bible Christians, but for some things there is no room. There is no biblical support for socialism. There is no biblical support for hate.