Pro-Israeli, Pro-Palestinian, Pro-Jesus

by Ryan Rodrick Beiler | March 2015

Evangelicals are no longer automatically taking a one-sided approach to conflict in the Middle East
STUN GRENADES AND tear gas bombs exploded in the street outside of Bethlehem Bible College, forcing Rev. Alex Awad to end his class early. Down the block, youth threw stones at the Israeli separation wall that cuts deep into Bethlehem. Frequent clashes had erupted in the months since the Israeli offensive known as Operation Protective Edge killed more than 2,200 Palestinians in Gaza, most of them civilians. During that operation, 66 Israeli soldiers and seven civilians were killed by Gaza militants. In the months that followed, Jerusalem became the focal point of further violence.

 “Many people ask, what are signs of hope?” says Awad. While the facts on the ground get worse, he names one encouraging trend: “Many evangelicals are moving from the Israeli side into what I think is the peace and justice side.”

Here are seven signs that he’s right:

  1. Evangelicals are listening to Palestinian Christian voices. Jerusalem-born with a degree from a U.S. Bible college, Awad is uniquely suited to speak to evangelicals—including some unlikely guests. John Hagee, leader of Christians United for Israel, the U.S.’s largest Christian Zionist organization, arranged for five tour groups to visit Bethlehem Bible College. The first group arrived last August.

“When I started speaking, almost every two words I would see 10 hands of people wanting to ask questions,” recalls Awad. “Very patiently, I answered one after the other. Then I would make another statement, and another 15 hands are up.”

Near the end, one man stood up. “I think I am convinced that what Rev. Awad is saying is right. Am I the only one? Could I see hands?” Some 10 to 15 out of about 40 people raised their hands.

“People are definitely changing their minds. Christian leaders who used to visit Israel without being exposed to the other side are now asking to meet Palestinian Christians,” says Munther Isaac, Awad’s colleague at Bethlehem Bible College and director of its biannual Christ at the Checkpoint conferences.

While Palestinian Christian groups such as Sabeel have mobilized mainline churches for decades, Christ at the Checkpoint specifically targets evangelicals. U.S. gatherings such as Impact Holy Land, Q Conference, Empowered21, and Catalyst have also brought Palestinian Christians to evangelical audiences.

Documentary films, such as Porter Speakman’s With God on Our Side and Yasmine Perni’s The Stones Cry Out, are also exposing evangelicals to new perspectives. Says Perni, “By seeing the conflict through Christian eyes, something changes in how people accept the Palestinian story.”

  1. Leaders are getting educated and helping to educate others.“At Willow Creek,” says Lynne Hybels, speaking of the church she and her husband, Bill, started 40 years ago, “we’ve spent the last three years educating our highest levels of leadership, taking them on alternative Holy Land trips to learn from people on all sides of the conflict: Jewish settlers, Palestinians living in refugee camps, Muslim sheiks, Jewish rabbis, Palestinian pastors, human rights activists on both sides, journalists, politicians.”

“In each community there are those who reject peace and those who daily pursue peace,” says Hybels. “We want our people to be so captivated by the peacemakers that they will stand in solidarity with them.”

Other groups organize similar “multi-narrative” pilgrimages. “Our approach is to familiarize Americans with the different historical narratives and to help them build relationships with Israelis and Palestinians,” says Todd Deatherage of The Telos Group. “In this way, we hope that American leaders invest their energies in resolution of the current conflict rather than things that perpetuate it.”

According to a National Association of Evangelicals poll, 40 percent of U.S. evangelical leaders have changed their thinking about Israel and Palestine over the past 15 years, with the most common change being “a greater awareness of the struggles faced by the Palestinian people.”

  1. Young evangelicals are more passionate and less prejudiced. “With younger evangelicals,” says Isaac, “there is an openness because they’re very interested in social justice issues. They want to put their faith into action.”

During Megan Giesecke’s second year at Wheaton College, a friend studied in the Holy Land. His testimony inspired her to attend the Christ at the Checkpoint conference in 2012 with a group from Wheaton.

“Once in Palestine, I was shocked,” says Giesecke, who recalls seeing the separation wall, meeting Israeli activists and settlers, going through a crowded checkpoint at 6 a.m., and hearing about everyday experiences of occupation.

When she decided to volunteer for a year in Jerusalem with Sabeel, her mother objected: “We are supporters of Israel, as Christians and as citizens of the United States!”

But after eight months of emails and Skype calls culminating in their own trip from Dallas to witness firsthand the situation in Palestine, Giesecke’s parents abandoned their unquestioning support for Israel.

In Giesecke’s experience, personal stories are more convincing than political arguments. “You want to shake them with the reality, but many evangelicals can be turned off to that sort of strong approach. They need reassurance that you care for both sides.”

  1. Evangelicals of color know injustice when they see it.While black and Latino Christians see parallels with their own histories of oppression, they’re also demonstrating how a balanced approach need not ignore unbalanced power structures.

Many African-American leaders hesitate to criticize Israel because of the important role that Jews played in the civil rights movement. While acknowledging that legacy, Dennis Edwards, pastor of Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, says, “During our visit, I found the treatment of Palestinians to be reminiscent of the way blacks were discriminated against in the U.S.”

“For me, this looks like apartheid,” says Moss Ntlha, general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance in South Africa, recalling a conversation with Jewish friends. “Between you and me—I am black, you are white South African Jews—who do you think has more credibility in deciding whether or not this is apartheid?”

Ntlha’s honesty comes from respect: “I continue to love and pray for Israel. But it is precisely because we love Israel that we must help Israel recover a sense of the God of justice who they revealed to us.”

“The most inspiring evangelical responses we’re seeing are people doing a power analysis of Palestine and Israel that refracts onto their own lives,” says Sarah Thompson, executive director of Christian Peacemaker Teams. She recently co-led a delegation with Mariano Avila of Hope Equals, which organizes study tours for college and seminary students.

“We take these very privileged kids,” says Avila, “and by the time they come back they understand what it means to be an ally, they understand the power imbalance, and they understand how to have discourse without dehumanizing anybody.”

“Hope Equals is pro-people,” Avila emphasizes. “We stand for human rights and human life. So if Israel bombs Gaza, that’s a problem. If Hamas launches rockets at Israel or threatens human life, we’re not going to stand with them.”

“As a Mexican, I come at it from my own embodiment of oppressor and oppressed,” says Avila. “I have very clear lineage from Spain, but I also have Aztec and Zapatec blood.”

“The colonizer isn’t necessarily always an ideological colonizer, and you shouldn’t demonize that person. But the amount of power that each group has bears on the amount of responsibility that it has,” says Avila. “It’s Israelis who control the freedoms and rights of Palestinians—not the other way around. So of course our actions are more pressuring towards Israelis and more advocating for Palestinians.”

  1. Jewish voices are broadening the boundaries of debate.“There is a push from the Jewish left wing in the U.S.,” observes Avila. “People like Jon Stewart have played an enormous role in opening up the dialogue for Jews in America to talk about it. And if Jews in America are talking about it, then Christians in America are talking about it.”

Strikingly, Christians are often more Zionist than are Jews. A 2013 Pew Research Center poll showed that white evangelicals are twice as likely as Jews to believe that “Israel was given to the Jewish people by God” (82 percent vs. 40 percent).

“Young people tell me that they grow up in churches being told that Jews are God’s chosen people,” says Dale Hanson Bourke, author of The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Tough Questions, Direct Answers. “Then they go to universities where Jewish students laugh at their Christian Zionism and want no part of it.”

“If you go to the campuses today in the U.S., the atmosphere is totally different than it was 10 years ago,” says Yonatan Shapira, a former Israeli Air Force pilot turned solidarity activist. “Many of the activists in the Palestine committees are Jewish students. Their parents were supporting the right-wing Jewish lobbies, but the second generation is with the Palestinians working together side by side.”

Palestinian evangelicals have also built bridges with Israeli Messianic Jews. “We differ when it comes to issues of politics and eschatology,” says Awad. “But through the years we have learned to love them. They have learned to love us. They have been defending us when it comes to attacks by the radical side.”

  1. When governments fail, grassroots movements grow.As talks broke down last year, U.S. officials condemned Israel’s ongoing settlement expansion but did nothing to stop it. The carnage that unfolded in Gaza was similarly met with harsh words but no real action. For its part, Palestinian leadership has shown little strategy beyond seeking symbolic international recognition.

Lacking confidence in politicians, many activists on the ground are now calling for grassroots international pressure, including the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement modeled on campaigns targeting apartheid South Africa. The Kairos Palestine document, signed by some 3,000 Palestinian Christians and the heads of 13 historic denominations, calls for “boycott and disinvestment as tools of nonviolence for justice, peace, and security for all.”

“BDS will save human life,” says Awad, a Kairos signatory. “It will save Jewish life. It will save Palestinian life. Because it will give the international community and Palestinians a way to fight oppression without spilling blood.”

However, even some sympathetic U.S. evangelical leaders argue that BDS is one-sided, counterproductive, and will end conversations before they’ve even started. Instead, evangelicals tend to promote efforts focusing on dialogue and personal reconciliation.

Though none have endorsed full-scale BDS, other churches, including Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church, and several Quaker bodies, have taken various measures to either screen occupation-complicit investments or boycott settlement products.

Responding to PCUSA’s divestment measure, Rabbi Steve Gutow of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs warned that such actions will “have a devastating impact on relations” with mainstream Jewish groups.

At the same time, Jewish groups that support BDS are growing. Jewish Voice for Peace, which lobbies churches to support divestment, reported a jump of 50,000 names on its email list in 2014 and a tripling of Facebook “likes”—which as of this writing stands at 199,384—compared to 93,781 for AIPAC and 25,850 for the more moderate J Street, both of which oppose BDS.

  1. Evangelicals are trading pop-prophecy for prophetic theology. While default Zionism still permeates the subculture, its underlying theology is being left behind by many evangelical scholars.

“I was surprised to learn that dispensationalism is no longer taught in most evangelical seminaries,” says Hanson Bourke. “Since that is the very basis of much of Christian Zionist teaching, it means that most young pastors are not trained in the theological view that gives Jews and Israel a special dispensation.”

Others are taking a more direct approach. “We are challenging evangelicals that rather than looking at the Middle East through the lens of prophecy,” says Isaac, “that they look at it through the teaching of Jesus to be peacemakers.”

Ultimately, better theology will inspire activism, says Isaac. “In the past we used to say there will never be peace in the Middle East until Jesus comes. This is a very typical evangelical response. Now we’re saying rather than waiting for divine intervention—get busy! Listen and respond to God’s call to action!” n

Ryan Rodrick Beiler (ryanrodrickbeiler.com) is a freelance photojournalist in Oslo, Norway, and a member of the Activestills collective (activestills.org). He lived in the occupied Palestinian territories from 2010-14.

Reprinted with permission from Sojourners, (800) 714-7474, www.sojo.net

John Wagner – johnwagnerumkr@gmail.com

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