More than 600 delegates from across the world gathered in Bethlehem in March for Christ at the Checkpoint (CATC) 2014, the third such conference that aims to ask ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bethlehem Bible College organized the conference, inviting speakers from a wide theological and political range to discuss how evangelical Christians should respond to one of the most politicized conflicts of our time:
- What does it mean to seek Christ’s kingdom in a land-driven dispute?
- Does Jesus’ call to love our neighbours demand action in response, and if so, what kind of action?
- How are Christians to make peace?
These questions not only drove the conference but also captured a current shift in evangelical thinking toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Christians have long been among the strongest supporters of Israeli policies, especially in the United States. However, CATC and its attendant controversies highlighted the fact that evangelicals are taking in more and more of the Palestinian narrative and theological perspective, and are seeking a more balanced take on the conflict.
A week before the conference, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor stated that it was an ‘attempt to use religious motifs in order to mobilize political propaganda’. Right-leaning media criticisms also spread before the conference even started, with many articles decrying the decline of support for Israel among evangelicals, especially youth.
Conference director Munther Isaac rejected these accusations in a statement made to Christianity Today. ‘We were saddened by the comments of Mr Palmor . . . It is unfortunate that an Israeli official would consider a conference that aims to provide a platform for international and local evangelical leaders and theologians to discuss the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as “political propaganda”.’ He continued: ‘We are Palestinian evangelicals, and we believe that we have a perspective that needs to be heard’.
The conflict’s realities came through on-field visits to areas in the occupied territories and checkpoints throughout the week, as well as two clashes between Palestinian protestors and Israeli police outside the conference hotel. Heightened violence, with multiple Palestinian deaths that week, as well as increased rocket attacks to and from Gaza, enforced the sense of suffering on both sides.
Diverse theological beliefs
The conference theme was ‘Your Kingdom Come’, which meant something different for each attending group, from Palestinian Christians to Messianic Jews, Mennonites to Reformed evangelicals and dispensationalists. The main theological division lay between Christian Zionists, who believe that Jewish return to the Holy Land fulfils biblical prophecy and thus demand Christian commitment to political support for Israel, and those who believe otherwise.
Yet diversity was an asset to CATC, said Bishara Awad, founder of Bethlehem Bible College. ‘You may hear theological points of view that are not your own’, Awad said at the opening session. ‘As you do, ask yourself: does this help the kingdom of God? That is, do these perspectives stand for justice and peace, defend the weak, and help the poor?’
Despite their wide-ranging theological beliefs, CATC attendees united in their commitment to peace. This came through in four conference highlights:
Recognition of different narratives in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is key to reconciliation. Taking in an ‘enemy’ perspective can be painful, said Musalaha Ministries director Salim Munayer, especially when it invalidates your own sense of identity. Yet the gospel calls precisely for Christians to love their enemies by seeing them as neighbours, brothers, and friends.
‘The kingdom of God is not holding a sword against other human beings, but blessing them’, Munayer said—an idea that is radically counter to the usual Israeli and Palestinian rejection of the ‘other’.
‘When Christians pray “deliver us from evil”, it’s not just evil from others. Many times it’s evil that we do’, Munayer said, calling for Christians to set an example in humble self-examination. ‘We must always ask: are my theology, narrative, and conduct a source of blessing to my enemy? If they’re not, that’s not the kingdom of God.’
Reconciliation also requires loving one’s neighbour despite eschatological differences, as was demonstrated through dialogue between Messianic Jews, Palestinian Christians, and international evangelicals.
Wheaton College theologian Gary Burge and Messianic Jewish leader Daniel Juster delved into the conflict’s theological nuances, tackling Zionism, dispensationalism, supersessionism, replacement theology, and how all the above relate to peace, justice, and Jesus. The two disagreed on whether Jews continue to play a special role in God’s plan for salvation and on the theology of the land, but agreed on Christ’s centrality and the urgent need for Christian fellowship and unity.
Messianic Jewish leader Oded Shoshani also called for oneness among believers in the Holy Land. ‘Messianic Jewish and Palestinian believers need each other. We need practical love, surpassing differences and theology’, Shoshani said.
Dr Geoff Tunnicliffe, Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance, applauded CATC as a peacemaking effort. Political complexity must not stop evangelicals from pursuing the peace that burns in the heart of God, he said. ‘The suffering, grief, and despair of Christians, Muslims, and Jews here are an affront to humanity and to our God’, Tunnicliffe said. ‘The prince of peace laid down his life so we could be reconciled to God and to others.’
Evangelicals may disagree on how the world will end, what Jesus’ return will look like, or whether the physical Holy Land has anything to do with it, Tunnicliffe said. However, we can agree on Christ’s clear directive to love our neighbour, no matter who he may be. ‘We as evangelicals have many core beliefs in common. Eschatology is not one of them’, he said. ‘But for the sake of Christian unity, can we live grace-filled, Christ-honouring ways together while we disagree?’
Eschatological disagreement should not impact Christians’ commitment to resist injustice and love even those who hurt us. ‘It is a mistake to think that restricting the freedom of some will create stability for others in society’, Tunnicliffe said, adding that the peace of Christ is meant to be a blessing for all, not an exclusive few. ‘Power secured by oppression and imprisonment of minorities is shaky and unstable power.’
Who is my neighbour? Who is my enemy? These questions guided discussions of not only Israel and Palestine, but also Christianity amid political turmoil and rising Islamism in the Middle East. The answers were consistent: everyone is my neighbour and no one is my enemy.
‘There is no us or them when defining the neighbour’, conference director Munther Isaac preached. ‘Everyone is a neighbour and we are called to love them as ourselves.’
Palestinian minister Hanna Massad spoke about Rami Ayyad, a believer executed by Gaza militants—just one of many Arab Christians targeted for their faith. ‘Christians in the West are supporting an occupation seen as evil and unjust. Some extremists react against that by taking out hostility on innocent Arab Christians’, said Joseph Cumming of Yale University.
Yet the speakers called not for resistance or retaliation, but embrace. ‘Christ shows us the power of love and forgiveness. Don’t let anything to steal peace and joy from your heart’, Massad said. Perfect love casts out all fear, Cumming likewise preached. ‘If we are focused on our own survival, we won’t survive. If we’re willing to put survival at risk in order to love our neighbours, that is how we will truly live.’
Christ calls us not to fearful self-pity, said Anglican theologian Colin Chapman, but to bold, vulnerable willingness to reach out and understand. ‘If Jesus could change his Jewish followers’ attitudes toward Samaritans, could he not change our hearts toward Muslims today?’
Coptic Bishop Angaelos likewise spoke of the Egyptian church’s response to persecution. ‘We have no enemy in Christianity. Loving our enemy means loving those who consider themselves our enemies. Thus enmity is broken’, he said. ‘We fight hatred by seeing in every person the image of God. Palestinian, Israeli, Christian or Muslim—at the core, I see and love the image and likeness of God in each person.’
4. The Palestinian Church
Palestinian Christians founded and currently lead Bethlehem Bible College, which organized CATC. They were the clearest speakers against the Israeli occupation.
‘Shared land is one where we are all neighbours and equal. For this to happen, occupation must end’, Isaac said.
The difference between their narrative and the mainstream Palestinian one, however, was their call for ending occupation not by conquering the ‘other’ or by violent means, but by caring for the other.
‘The gospel is and should be good news for both Palestinians and Israelis’, said Bishara Awad. Justice demands standing up for the weak and oppressed. However, asserting Palestinians’ dignity does not detract from Israelis’ equal humanity.
‘I am not against Jews living in this country. I want Palestinians, Israelis, Jews, Christians, and Muslims to live in this land in peace’, said Rev Alex Awad. ‘I am hopeful because I believe in God, who loves the Jews and Palestinians. When I look to God, I know peace is coming.’
CATC sought to ‘challenge evangelicals to take responsibility to help resolve the conflicts in Israel-Palestine by engaging with the teaching of Jesus on the kingdom of God’. The time has come for followers of Jesus to take their calling to be peacemakers seriously and engage positively in this part of the world.
Lynne Hybels, co-founder of the Willow Creek Church, spoke in the first two CATC conferences about her discovery of the Palestinian church. She recently said: ‘I am still pro-Israel, but I’ve also become pro-Palestine, pro-peace, and pro-justice and pro-equality for Jews and Arabs living as neighbours in the Holy Land. And the bottom line is always: pro-Jesus!’
If more Christians begin to develop the same attitude, then we will see the hope that is desperately needed in the Middle East.
- Editor’s Note: See Thomas Harvey, ‘The Impact of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict on Ministry to Muslims’ in the January 2013 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis at https://lausanne.org/en/documents/global-analysis/2013-01.html.
- Editor’s Note: See Wafik Wahba, ‘Turmoil in the Middle East: Implications for Christians there and globally’, in the November 2013 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis at https://lausanne.org/en/documents/global-analysis/november-2013.html.
Munther Isaac is an instructor and Vice Academic Dean at Bethlehem Bible College. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. Since 2011, he has been the director of Bethlehem Bible College’s international conference, Christ at the Checkpoint.
Alice Su studied Public Policy and International Affairs at Princeton University and now lives in Amman, Jordan, freelancing as a journalist and working with refugees. She volunteered on the media team at CATC 2014.