The “Zion theology” we see reflected in this psalm praising Israel’s capital city began as an injection of patriotism into the faith of Israel. It is where we get our calls to pray that “God bless” the country we call home and our connection between faith and patriotism. Thus Zion theology is also the source of Zionism in Judaism and the calls for a Christian nation or a Muslim nation in certain parts of the world.
There are aspects of this Zion theology that I find helpful. We should pray for our leaders, for the peace of our nation, and work toward seeing the values of justice, care for the least of these, and love of neighbor which are at the heart of our faith (and truly all paths of good will) to triumph in the affairs of our nation, our community, and our city.
Yet there are also horrible abuses of this Zion theology. There is a tendency to view our country – whether the British empire, the American empire, the state of Israel, or a Muslim state somewhere – as “God’s nation”, “God’s people”, and thus not subject to criticism. In this approach we can view the actions of the state as God-ordained whether or not they live up to the demands of justice. It is against just such a theology that the Biblical prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah railed. Jesus, too, modeled resistance to such Zion theology in his Palm Sunday cleansing of the temple and warnings of disaster ahead for his nation if Jerusalem chose the path either of acquiescence to Rome in crushing the poor or armed terrorism against Rome. In our day reformers in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions all are raising their voices about the ways in which misuse of this Zion theology is leading toward increased militarism, increased prejudice and discrimination against members of minority religions, and increased crushing under feet of the least of these in the Americas and Europe, in Israel, and in the wider Middle East.
But a positive message flows from Zion theology. The critics of the abuse of empire which centers on the city can go too far. They do so when they call for tearing down the whole edifice, as if all its institutions as evil. These can see no redemption for the city, for the nation. Yet the prophetic vision is not a destroying of Zion but instead a redeeming of its resources and structures to ends that lift up the least of these, promote peace rather than violence, education and wisdom rather than ignorance, health rather than disease and death. The call as people of God is to stand against the abuses of empire and extremism but also not to embrace the cynicism that gives up hope for transformation.
I think a part of the reason for this vision of a holy city is that we are designed by our Creator not to live in isolation but to forge communities. There is a power to working together for the healing of others, healing of the earth, and renewal of all things. There is a hope for us as we learn both to resist the abuses of the city while also remembering to light a candle of hope for our cities, communities, and lands.