When my wife and I visited Israel and the Palestinian Territories last year as part of a study tour run by a leading seminary from the United States, I was shocked. No, it was more than that, I was totally dismayed and my heart deeply grieved. We were here to learn about the one who taught love for the enemy, justice for the oppressed, healing for the sick and the need for peace and goodwill between all men. And yet when it came to the very real crisis playing out right before us, it was as if this man’s teachings were like the ancient ruins that we would drive from place to place to visit – admired, appreciated, even treated with a sense of awe but ultimately left behind as something belonging to another time, with little or no relevance to the conflict that now raged around them.
Right now the world’s press, social-media, Christian circles and church halls around the world are buzzing with the dangerous claims and accusations of influential pastors, politicians, leaders and lay-people, who each insist that there is a ‘side to pick’ in the current conflict between Israel and Palestine.
But what side would Jesus take?
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During that trip, the first time we drove in sight of the separation wall that separates Israel from the West Bank, we were peppered rapid fire with the passionate but heavily biased opinions of our onboard mandatory Israeli tour guide (whose comments were met to my disbelief by the quiet nods and tacit approval of the other lovely, but in my opinion, rather uncritical passengers).
It wasn’t that there was no merit to some of what our Israeli guide was saying (who was otherwise a decent guy who I got along with quite well), it’s just that we were being given no opportunity to hear from the other side as well. Not once did we get to speak to a Palestinian, not even to one of tens of thousands of Palestinian Christians.
So, desperate to hear both sides of the conflict, we stayed on in Israel and organised for ourselves to enter the West Bank in the search for our own answers.
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Let me just stop now and explain why this is for me personally, such a difficult and complex issue to begin to address, and why it is one that I approach with the upmost sensitivity, respect, and if I’m honest, a fair bit of fear too.
Firstly, my addressing this topic has the very real potential to offend and be misunderstood by those closest to me, my family.
My Father’s parents are both ethnically Jewish and amongst the tiny few from their own families that escaped the horrors of the Holocaust and its concentration camps. That makes my Dad Jewish. On my wife’s side are stories of suffering too. Her Jewish Grandparents fled as refugees from Egypt, which means that my mother-in-law is proudly Jewish (and rightfully so). And finally – since Jewish culture determines that one’s ethnicity runs through the mother’s blood line when both parents are not Jewish – my wife is Jewish despite her father hailing from the UK. Therefore, our future children will also be by birth, ethnically Jewish too (a fact which I am proud of).
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Secondly, I claim no ‘expertise’ in the region with only a basic understanding of the complex historical, religious and geopolitical factors that fuel the current conflict.
However, it has reached the point where I am so deeply grieved by what so many Christians and prominent leaders think they can say on this subject of ‘whose side’ we should be taking (the very worst instances being those argued and defended on the grounds of scripture that has often been terribly mishandled and torn from it’s original meaning and context) that I felt I needed to share my thoughts, if only just to find some clarity for myself.
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So, having hopefully clearly and humbly stated my position, here are my;
3 reasons why there is only ONE side Christians can take in the Israel vs. Palestine conflict:
1.) Both sides are suffering terribly and both are guilty of harming one-another
I believe that every man, woman and child is made in the image of God. Therefore, the loss of any life, be it Palestinian or Jewish, grieves the heart of God immeasurably and should grieve us similarly. Death counts should not be used to ‘pick sides’. The media has focused a great deal on the loss of lives in Palestine, which has included an appallingly high number of children. Yet what often gets left behind is the death toll that would be if Israel’s Iron Dome System were not in place. Make no mistake both sides are guilty of seeking to inflict heavy casualties on each other.
I also don’t believe there is grounds for taking sides based on the events of history both recent and past. The Jewish people’s suffering is plain to see. As a result of both having experienced the holocaust, and their current vulnerability in a region where some of their closest neighbours have made it very clear that they would prefer the state of Israel’s non-existence, it is right for us to sympathise with the people of Israel, and it is essential that we do what we can to protect their right to existence. Family members have told me of the constant state of fear and anxiety that grips friends and relatives living in Israel. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live with this on a daily basis.
However, though the hardships of Palestinians are often far ‘less’ seen by the mainstream evangelical Church, they are still incredibly real and present. They include the destruction of traditional family homes, the loss of livelihoods and the sense of humiliation they feel at the many mandatory check-points. This leads many Palestinians to talk of constantly feeling like ‘second class citizens’.
(The photos below were taken during our time in the West Bank – the first is of a school in a Palestinian refugee camp riddled with tank artillery rounds, the windows long ago concreted over to protect the children. The second is of one such check-point in Hebron – courtesy of Jesse Bacon – where locals filed through one by one according to ‘stop’ and ‘go’ signs)
2.) If there are Palestinians and Israelis who can work together for peace, what excuse do the rest of us have?
Again often ignored by the media are the proliferation of organisations and campaigns being led by everyday Palestinians and Israelis ‘on the ground’ who are desperately reaching out to each other in the hope of fostering peace in order to create a future of mutual co-existence. Their stories are both incredible and inspiring. A few of note include:
- The Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF): Made up of 600 families from both Palestinian and Israeli backgrounds that have lost children in the conflict, who believe that speaking together and practicing reconciliation are the only options if there is to be peace.
- The Tent of Nations: Situated near Bethlehem on the historical land of Bishara Nassar, a Palestinian Christian who lived on the land his entire life. Today it is a place where youth from around the world are invited to come together to ‘build bridges’ whilst farming the land in order to stop its confiscation by Israeli forces.
- Breaking the Silence: Is run by veteran combatants of the Israeli military who, “Have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories…. and the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life.”
- Christian Peacemaker Teams: Bring together Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers to resist injustice through nonviolent protest, education and the creation of spaces for reconciliation and peace.
3.) Jesus gives us only ONE side to ‘pick’
And He says,
Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.
I don’t know of any other way that this statement can possibly be interpreted other than in its most literal form, which is that Jesus really wanted us to take no other side than that of peace.
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And furthermore, with his command to,
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
Every single justification for retribution, the use of violence and the practice of Christians taking sides in any conflict, must surely come crashing down.
It was as if Jesus knew that violence would only deliver more violence, and hatred only produce more hatred…
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If we who are called to be ‘children of the light’ insist only on fuelling the darkness by propagating the rhetoric of one side over another, then sadly darkness is all we will ever get. And yet the Kingdom is coming, hope is on the way. Let us Christians, of all people, not be the ones to stand in its way.
Question: It’s time to share your thoughts. Do you think Christians are justified in picking a side in this conflict?
(Please keep comments in line with the spirit of 1 Peter 3:8 – Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.)
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UPDATE: Thousands of people have read this article since it was originally posted. I have made this short video in response to the many (great) questions, comments and concerns that have been raised. I don’t claim any ‘expertise’ on this difficult topic, nor am I seeking to be ‘right’, I simply want to start a conversation on what Jesus’ command ‘to be peacemakers’ might look like in all of this. Matt