There is a growing concern among evangelical Christians for the conflict in Israel-Palestine. Prominent leaders such as Lynn Hybels of Willow Creek Church and Gary Burge of Wheaton College are visiting the Holy Land, learning firsthand about the conflict and returning home with a passionate call to do something about it. They are also returning with a deeper understanding of the conflict’s causes and imbalances and the ways the Bible has been used to perpetuate it.
A primary example of the latter is the belief that God commands us to support the state of Israel without question or condition. “Whoever blesses you I will bless, and whoever curses you I will curse,” God declares in Genesis 12.
However, the “you” is not Israel, let alone the modern state of Israel. It is Abraham, whom God intended to be a blessing to all nations and who became the father not just of Judaism but of Christianity and Islam.
A second example is the belief that Palestine rightfully belongs to modern Israel because God promised it to them. Often overlooked is the conditionality of God’s promise: It depended on biblical Israel’s faithfulness to God’s covenant.
Over and over, the biblical prophets chided Israel for its unfaithfulness, particularly its lack of justice for the oppressed. The prophets, in other words, were pro-Israel, but that didn’t stop them from naming injustice when they saw it. (For a thorough, biblical analysis of this issue, read Burge’s Whose Land, Whose Promise?)
Jesus was pro-people, pure and simple. He wanted the best for everyone. But he also wanted the best from everyone. And so he didn’t hesitate to confront injustice when he saw it. One could even argue that he took sides — with the poor and oppressed, just as the prophets and the Torah did before him.
Becoming the oppressors
Many Israeli Jews — particularly their European forebears who experienced the Holocaust — know all too well what it is like to be oppressed and persecuted. They are understandably determined that it never happen again.
But visitors to the Holy Land, if they look closely enough, discover an awful irony. The oppressed have become the oppressors and the persecuted the persecutors.
The victims are the Palestinian Arabs (both Christian and Muslim) who had been living in historic Palestine long before the Jewish immigrants began arriving — displacing the Palestinians, destroying their villages and declaring an Israeli state.
Palestinians who remained in Israel must now live as second-class citizens. Those who fled eastward now live under military occupation, their movements severely restricted, their olive groves destroyed, their water sources seized by the thousands of Israeli settlers living illegally in the West Bank. Those who fled to the area known as Gaza live in what many call an open-air prison.
In 2009, Palestinian Christian leaders wrote a letter known as “Kairos Palestine” to Christians in the West, pleading not just for our prayers but our attention, compassion and help. Meanwhile, the U.S. government continues to support Israel militarily and without condition, giving scant attention to the humanitarian plight of the Palestinian people.
If we follow Jesus’ example, we will be pro-people. We will want the best for everyone. We will remember that in God’s economy, everyone should be able to live without fear, beneath their own vine and fig tree — including both Israelis and Palestinians (Micah 4:3-4).
We will denounce violence, whether committed by Israelis or Palestinians. We will work for peace with justice for all of Israel-Palestine. But if we follow Jesus, we must stand up especially for the oppressed and hold the oppressors accountable to the standard of living and loving required by God.
Tom Harder is co-pastor of Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church in Wichita, Kan., and chair of the Mennonite Palestine-Israel Network (Menno-PIN) Steering Committee.