Although we had only met each other a few days before, my friend looked at me with tears welling up in his eyes and said, “I am a Christian. I believe in Jesus the Messiah. Why do people in your country think I am a terrorist?” I was left speechless, confused and sad.
Milad is an Arab Palestinian Christian who now lives in a small village outside of Bethlehem – in the West Bank – with his wife and young son. While his wives’ parents live in a refugee camp in Bethlehem, his family lives in nearby Bethany. His parents, grandparents and great grandparents lived in the Old City of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is their home and Milad considers it his home. Why wouldn’t he? His family had lived there as long as he could remember and they would still be living there if they hadn’t been pushed back into the West Bank after the Six Day War in 1967.
My friend was lucky enough to find work in Jerusalem so he is able to enter the city, but his wife is not. She has never seen the workplace that her husband travels to nearly everyday or walked the streets of the city that is home to much of her religious and family history. What used to be a 10 minute car ride from Bethany to Jerusalem now takes up to three hours as Milad is forced to cross through Israeli governed check points. Like navigating cattle stalls, I have walked through these checkpoints with Milad. After setting off the alarm, I simply showed my U.S. passport and was waved through. Milad followed behind me and was forced to go through the scanner 5 times, while the soldiers hurled condescending comments he had no choice but to accept. After getting through the checkpoint, he looked up at me and said, “They are idiots, but I forgive them.”
During one of our many conversations, I learned that he and his wife run a non-profit for Palestinian kids in the West Bank that promotes peace and reconciliation through the arts. He works in Jerusalem cleaning hotel rooms so he can earn enough money to provide for his family and his organization. Milad said, “As followers of Jesus, my wife and I feel that this is something we have been called to do. The kids of Palestine have no hope and we must teach them how to find some.”
My wife and I sat in this families’ home, which is in the center of a refugee camp in Bethlehem, as they showered hospitality on us like a divine thunderstorm. Although surrounding hilltops are covered by elaborate Israeli Settlements, their water is rationed by Israel and they hadn’t had clean water for 12 days. Opening their small reserve tank, they invited us to use the bathroom and wash our hands. Sitting over a feast they had spent a day and half preparing for our arrival, they unanimously shared their love for the Israeli people despite their adamant disagreement with their government’s policies.
While I was confused and saddened by the story of my new friend, I was compelled to uncover the truth that I had intentionally or unintentionally evaded about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. As followers of Jesus, we are called to not only love our friends, but to love our enemies. Milad and his family are Christians, but they are perceived and treated as our enemies because they are Arab Palestinians who pose a “threat” to Israel.
Watching a group of American Christians pray for their breakfast before beginning their day of touring the Holy Lands, Milad asked me, “How can Christians pray for their breakfast, while completely ignoring the oppression of their brothers and sisters just minutes away on the other side of the Separation Wall?” Milad’s story is the embodiment of the tragic theological and socio-political consequences of Christian Zionism. Worst of all, my complicity with Christian Zionism continued the cycle of violence and oppression directed towards my friend and Christian brother.
This is the story of many Palestinians. In fact, in my recent travels with a Just Peacemaking team, we heard numerous stories of families that had been exiled from their homes in Israel after the 1967 war who were told that they would be able to return within 10 days. 44 years later, most of these same families are living in subhuman conditions in the West Bank while still clasping on to their physical house key as a symbol of hope in their quest to simply return home.
In Jesus life, death and resurrection, he brought in a new kingdom that put to death the cycle of violence through his selfless suffering and sacrifice. A Zionist theology that is contingent on a pessimistic eschatology (theology of the “final things”) and culminates in violence runs counter to the ethics of Jesus as were articulated in the Sermon on the Mount and embodied in his life. In Jesus’ resurrection, he is enthroned as King of the Kingdom and he invites all people from all nations to live as participants in the new kingdom while anticipating his final restoration. In short, a theology that holds Israel as the key to redemption and restoration for humanity undermines the atoning work that Jesus did on the cross for all people of all nations (Eph. 2:14-18).
Another consequence of Christian Zionist theology is its justification of violence and imperialism in the name of prophecy fulfillment. While covenantal theology views the global Church as “Israel” and embraces Jesus reign of peace and restoration as the framing narrative, Christian Zionists view the Jews (and the State of Israel) as being “Israel, ” while adhering to eschatological pessimism. Bethlehem Bible College Professor Dr. Salim Munayer said, “When we view the Jewish nation only as eschatological, then we leave no room for values and justice.”
Finally, many Christian Zionists believe that the Jews must inhabit the land of Israel at any cost. Such a theology has led to the violent oppression of countless Palestinians who had inhabited the land prior to the relatively recent Jewish return. This theology is based on a selective reading of the Bible that ignores prophetic calls for justice and Jesus’ tears for peace (Jer. 7:3-7 & Luke 19:41-42). The prophet Jeremiah repeatedly warned Israel of pending destruction and judgment if they did not embrace a way of justice and peace (Jer. 5:5-7 & 6:6-8). Jesus weeps over Jerusalem because they don’t know and embrace the actions that lead to peace. When we embrace a fatalistic mentality that believes there will be no peace in the Middle East until the second coming of Christ, we are simply justifying our complacency, believing that evil is stronger than the work of the Spirit and ignoring our Christian vocation as peacemakers.
My complicity with Christian Zionist theology and politics indicts me as one of the oppressors. Christian theology matters as it has the potential to promote systems of oppression or ignite Kingdom imagination that initiates movements of liberation. Dr. Salim Munayer said, “The majority of Christians are Zionists even if they are not aware of it.” May God and my Palestinian friends forgive us as we re-awaken our moral imagination for what God desires for humanity.
The conversation will continue in Part 3 as I share stories of hope that are multiplying like mustard seeds among Jews, Muslims and Christians on both sides of the Separation Wall.
Series Note: There are few topics more hotly debated both in the Church and around the globe. Lines have been drawn both ideologically and theologically to the point that many aren’t willing to rethink their paradigms, which has led to divisive rhetoric and hostility. Israel’s security is a real issue and I care deeply about it. I want Israel to exist and disagree vehemently with anyone or any country that does not want the State of Israel to exist. I want Israel to be secure. But I disagree vehemently with the policies Israel is pursuing in order to achieve that security and believe firmly that the hard-line positions and continued settlement developments are exactly what is threatening Israel’s security. If they continue to take Palestinian’s homes and lands, if they continue to fence them off from their families, neighbors, grazing lands, hospitals and jobs, if they continue to humiliate and oppress Palestinians at checkpoints, if they continue to deny funding to Palestinians’ education, etc…then history tells us that they will eventually push the Palestinian humanity to a point where non-violent resistance will no longer be pursued. With that being said, this is a topic too important not to discuss and corporately seek discernment on as we seek to faithfully follow the Prince of Peace. Please see this as an invitation to enter a conversation of mutual respect that leads to actions that better represent the Kingdom Jesus came to proclaim through word and deed.
Resources: This recent article written by leading Christian Ethicists, Dr. Glen Stassen and Dr. David Gushee, is extremely insightful in articulating an Evangelical way forward in Israel and Palestine. “An Open Letter to America’s Christian Zionists”
For further explanation, see this video blog series I posted while on the ground in Israel/Palestine with a Just Peacemaking delegation this past summer.
I will be giving an extended presentation on this topic at Soularize in San Diego, October 18-20, 2011.
Jon Huckins is a veteran youth pastor and public school teacher who is now on staff with NieuCommunities, a collective of missional church communities who foster leadership and community development. After much international travel and study in the Middle East, Jon focuses much of his writing and graduate studies at Fuller Seminary on ethics and social advocacy. Further, Jon writes for Youth Specialties and loves to tell and live out new stories with teenagers. His book Teaching Through the Art of Storytelling released in December ’10. He lives in San Diego with his wife Jan, daughter Ruby and three legged dog named Harry. Jon blogs here:http://jonhuckins.net/. You can also follow Jon on Twitter and Facebook.