The Common Good

Beyond a Predictable Script: Dialogue with Comments on My Israel/Palestine Posts

It's one thing to go to the "Holy Land" and see where Jesus worked and walked in the past. It's another thing to combine that with seeing where the spirit of Jesus is working and walking in the present, teaching people to seek peace and reconciliation with God, neighbor, and enemy. I've received a number of positive responses to my recent posts on Palestine, like this one:

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A lot of people are noticing what you're writing and your witness. Right now, it's mostly people saying "hey, McLaren seems to be getting it." (That was a comment on your Sojourners piece.) But be ready to be attacked and insulted and slimed like never before... I suspect you've developed a thick skin by now. Just want you to know you're going to need it. And I'll be praying for you.

Of course, some other responses haven't been so positive. Before getting to the less positive responses, the same person who wrote the previous email responds to this post:

1. There are A LOT OF peace workers. Not always closely linked. Not always allowed in the country (evictions are frequent). But there's not a lot of focus on the ants' work of peace workers...

2. Care for people on the ground is virtually impossible without addressing the politics. World Vision used to put in wells in Gaza; the IDF would blow them up; then the US would give more money to WV to put in wells. I agree that some politicians forget the people on the ground -- and even NGOs sometimes waste opportunities. But helping the people is a major political issue. Actually, the main reason people on the ground need help is because of the political context.

3. USAID's blatant ineffectiveness is not due to the amount of money -- they've poured over 100 million US dollars in the health sector over the last eight years and achieved nothing -- it's due to the political restrictions Congress places on USAID's work.

4. The only reason for humanitarian aid is because the economy is being choked to death. But economic development has no point at all and cannot work without addressing the occupation. Palestine used to be a middle-income country. It's now virtually a low income country. When F-16's blow up malls in Nablus, it's hard to see the priority as "economic development."

These are helpful points, especially the last one. People who simply want to show compassion without doing justice eventually come up against this reality: all your work trying to build a school or orphanage can be destroyed by a single bomb in a split second.

Here's another e-mail that came in:

I'm wondering if you will have open conversation with mainstream Jews living in Israel on your current mission? Most of what I've read so far of your mission has been predictable almost as if it were a political script. I heard the same thing many times and once that begins to happen it's evidence that the conversation circle has gotten really small, and for the most part boring. Everybody is saying what everybody is supposed to be saying as if no one is really paying attention to any thing new. At least that is how the language seems to function. So I wondering if you are going to step out of the comfort zone and speak to folks who may have a different script?

Yes, we spoke with many Israeli Jewish folks, from a very outspoken and radical settler to some more "mainstream" immigrants from the U.S. to a Refusenick to various peace activists. And of course, I've lived 53 years in the U.S., where the general message in the media and from politicians has often seemed to boil down to this: all Palestinians are terrorists and the Israelis are only innocent victims. (Just today, I asked a neighbor what she thinks of when she hears the word Palestinian, and she said "terrorist.")

It was interesting: all of the Palestinians we talked to urged us to be sure to listen to Israelis, and we were told several times that they don't want us to take sides one against the other, but to seek the justice and peace which will benefit everyone. And we were surprised at how candid many Israelis were about the Palestinian situation. They were ashamed, horrified, and deeply concerned about what was happening to their neighbors in the West Bank and Gaza. They didn't like the expansion of settlements, house demolition, the killing of children in Gaza, the wall, the checkpoints, and the demonization of their Palestinian neighbors. We really tried to listen and learn from everyone we could.

This response is obviously from a sincere person who takes his/her faith seriously:

Dear Mr. McLaren,
I wonder how those that read our blessed scriptures can get it so wrong
and in doing so also bring great distress to our heavenly Father.
I do know He says, those that curse Israel I will curse, and those that
bless Israel I will bless.
I ask this, as recent writings, have said rather unpleasant things about you.
Can these be true?
Only you can work that out with our heavenly Father.
May His blessings be with you.

Thanks for your note, and for your prayers for me. Please be assured, I have not in any way criticized the Jewish people; it would be foolish to criticize a group of people the majority of whom live not in Israel but around the world for the actions of the Israeli government. I think it's important to separate "the Government of Israel" from "the Jewish people." I wouldn't want to be blamed for every action of my government.

That's why I have spoken out against certain policies of the Israeli government (supported by the U.S. government) that I believe are harmful to Palestinians and counterproductive to peace for Israel itself. But it seems strange to me that you would interpret this as "cursing Israel." Do you think that "blessing Israel" means that we should turn a blind eye when the Israeli government does unjust and counterproductive things? Would the ancient prophets of Israel be guilty of cursing Israel if that's the case -- because they had a lot to say about injustice in their day?

Please be assured, I love the Israeli people, and I want nothing more than for them to enjoy God's blessings in a safe and secure homeland. Even in my critique of the occupation by the Israeli government, I've tried to be respectful and fair, and careful in my language -- although I'm sure I'm far from perfect in anything I say or do. Because I love Israelis and want them to experience true security, I hope they will change certain unjust policies that I believe undermine what they truly want and need. We feel a special responsibility because our nation has provided so much financial and military support to Israel. If these were trivial matters, it would be easy to keep silent, but when they are so important, many of us feel we must speak out about what we have seen and heard and studied -- not to curse, but to bless.

Here's an even more strongly worded response:

I read your blog on Israel and Palestine. As a PCUSA minister, I find your views anti-semitic and void of a sense of history. Jews have been persecuted and thrown out of every country over the last 2,000 years. Now they are finally in their historic land, occupied by Arabs, and you have the nerve to criticize them. The views of you and your guests would fit nicely as an addendum to Mein Kampf.

First, thanks for reading the blog and taking time to respond honestly. You obviously have very strong feelings on this subject. It's truly honorable and good that you are concerned about the mistreatment that the Jews have suffered -- most horribly at the hand of so-called Christians -- through history. I share your horror at this. We Christians need to look back and face the flaws in our theology and spiritual formation that allowed our ancestors to behave in truly unconscionable ways toward our Jewish brothers and sisters. Our behavior has been absolutely despicable, and too few Christians have acknowledged it, and so I fully agree with you that we should avoid anti-Semitism of any kind. We Christians need a deep spirit of repentance and humility over what was done to Jews -- and others -- often in the name of God and Jesus. It's heart-breaking, nauseating, disgusting.

I do find it distracting and offensive that you would compare my views to Hitler's, but let's just put that aside. I want to focus on two other things you said.

First, you said their land is occupied by Arabs. Israel is indeed surrounded by Arab nations on three sides, with the sea on the fourth. But they aren't occupied by Arabs; in fact, since 1967 Israel has been occupying the nation that was mandated to Palestine in 1948. Imagine if the United States stayed in Iraq and Afghanistan until 2045, and imagine that we gradually created settlements where only Americans could live. Imagine that we controlled and undermined the Iraqi and Afghan economy for forty years, that we demolished homes and erected checkpoints to control their behavior. President Bush felt that Saddam Hussein was a threat to U.S. security, so he invaded and occupied the nation in 2003. Our desire to achieve security has produced some unintended consequences, and I think the same is true in Israel.

Second, you said I have "the nerve to criticize them." In the Bible, both before and after the exile and return, the prophets told the people that if they didn't pursue justice, they would experience terrible consequences. The prophets weren't simply criticizing their people in a mean-spirited way; they were reminding them of God's call to justice. I think you'll agree that in the Bible, the best way to achieve security is through following God's wisdom and God's justice, not by oppression and injustice. We might say that in the Bible, right creates might, rather than the reverse.

Of course I don't have any illusion the Israeli government would have any interest in what one small person like me would say. But as an American citizen, I am implicated in what's happening in Israel, because our nation supplies billions of dollars and huge supplies of weapons to Israel. I hope to speak up as an American citizen so that we will be more wise in our support of Israel, and use our influence to urge them to treat the Palestinians fairly, to end the occupation, and to pursue neighborly relations with them, following the ways of the Lord. For twenty-four years, I was a pastor like you, and like you, I want nothing more than to love God with all my heart, and to love my neighbors as myself -- all of my neighbors, with no bias or prejudice, whether they be Jewish, Christian, or Muslim ... Israeli, Arab, or whatever. I hope that makes some sense.

Here's another strongly worded one. I'll insert responses into the e-mail at a couple of points.

Hello Mr. McLaren,

My name is XXX. I am a Christian (the kind that you have a tendancy to belittle in such an underlying kind of way), but I was just wondering why do you always side so much with the "poor oppressed" Palestinians? Why do you have so much disdain for Yahweh's chosen people and consider them the of middle east peace?

First, I'm terribly sorry you feel that I have belittled people like you. I do my best to show respect to people, especially when I disagree with them, but apparently I haven't done a good enough job of that. I hope by this response you will see that it's possible to learn from one another when we disagree, without belittling one another.

I would hope that I would side with anyone who is "poor and oppressed," Israeli or Arab, American or Iraqi or whoever. The reason I do this is because of my commitment to God and my love for the Bible. Again and again in scripture, I've learned that God cares for the poor, that God upholds the oppressed, that God is a God of justice and compassion. Contrary to what you've said, I have no disdain for the Jewish people. I want the people of Israel to enjoy the same peace and security all people should enjoy, and I want the same for the Palestinian people. There are ways in which both the Israelis and the Palestinians have been oppressed, and there are ways each has made mistakes. I believe God wants the best for all people, and is "not a respecter of persons" and shows no favoritism (Acts 10:34). Whatever the term "chosen people" means, it doesn't mean that God doesn't care about justice for the "unchosen." That would violate God's character, at least as I understand it. (If you ever read any of my books, you'll find places where I discuss what I believe it means to be "chosen people." In short, I believe it means being chosen not for elite or exclusive privilege, but for service for all.) You continue ...

Do you fail to recognize that of all the middle eastern nations, there's is the only real democracy and country with freedom for men and women alike? Even for Muslims (who are free to practice their demonic religion as they wish there, so long as they obey the law and especially as long as they stop trying to kill the Jews)

Actually, it's not quite that simple. You're absolutely right that Israel offers equal rights for women and men. But Israel isn't simply a democratic state: it's a Jewish democratic state. That means that non-Jews in Israel don't enjoy all the same freedoms that Jews do. A number of policies of the Israeli government severely undermine human dignity and human rights for Christian and Muslim Palestinians in both Israel and the Occupied Territories.

I find it unhelpful and offensive -- and frankly, socially dangerous -- for you to call Islam a demonic religion. That's the kind of language that has been used to justify terrible things in the past. As well, to do so implies that Christianity is a "clean" religion, and Islam an "unclean" one. But I recall how Peter was once rebuked by Jesus for speaking from the dark side, so to speak; so even among Jesus' disciples, evil influences could be at work. I believe the line between good and evil doesn't run between groups or individuals, but through them.

I didn't intend for this letter to be so long, I'm sorry but I guess it was a bit of a venting, I just don't get you man, and I know we don't know each other, and I'm sure your a nice guy, but honestly I think you are so wrong on so much. Your a very influential man (for which I left my church because of the emergent influence), but I fear your going in the wrong direction. For what it was worth I felt I had to write to you. You know the truth, you know the gospel, I pray that you will follow Christ in truth.

Thanks for writing, and for your prayers. But perhaps this is an opportunity for you to see things from a different perspective. Maybe some day you could take a trip like the one I was just on and see some of these things for yourself. But short of that, there are so many books you could read -- books by conservative Christians like yourself -- that would help you see a bigger picture. Can I recommend one? Try reading Blood Brothers ... it's an interesting read, and would be a great first step in learning more.

Finally, I normally wouldn't respond to an inquiry that begins by calling me a "useful idiot," since that kind of language doesn't normally set the stage for constructive dialogue. But this writer asked several questions that deserve an answer:

-If the Palestinian people are the peace loving people that you describe what would a Palestinian controlled Israel look like?

First, I'm not claiming the Palestinians are morally superior; I can't imagine where you'd get that idea. I think all human beings are all a mix of good and bad. The problem is occupation. I think any nation that occupies another nation is going to abuse their power. Just as occupied nations are tempted to the violence of insurgency and terrorism, occupying nations often yield to temptations of domination -- I think Abu Ghraib illustrates that. The problem is exacerbated in that the Israelis have the power. They're backed by the U.S. in their occupation, so the Palestinians are truly backed against a wall. If the Palestinians occupied Israel and had a similar imbalance of power, I'm sure there would be problems there too.

-Why are you silent about Palestinian terrorism against innocent Israeli civilians?

I'm not. Any action against innocent civilians is terrible and unacceptable, whoever does it. But violent insurgency against the occupation is widely reported in the U.S. Injustices of the occupation are not so widely reported.

-Can you substantiate the claims you make about Israeli torture of innocent Palestinians?

I've personally met and spoken with individuals who experienced unjust imprisonment and torture. But if you're interested in a respected Israeli Web site that presents this kind of information, I'd recommend this site. It would also be good to learn about house demolitions -- here's a site that will inform you a bit. Thanks for your willingness to check these out.

-If Palestinians were absorbed into Israeli society would they coexist peacefully as they have proven not to be able to (see Jerusalem) or would they make good on their promise in the Hamas Charter that "Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it."

First of all, it's terribly unwise to let Hamas represent all Palestinians. That would be like letting one political party be the exclusive voice of all Americans. The PLO is the official representative of the Palestinians, and they have affirmed Israel's right to exist for many years. The Palestinians, since 1967, have been under occupation, so I wouldn't want to judge a people's behavior under occupation as a good indicator of how they would behave when they are granted equal rights.

-What do you have to say about the Palestinians training their children to hate Israelis and to honor suicide bombers?

It's tragic and terrible. But it's also terrible for Israeli children (and adults, and tourists) to be taught a prejudiced view against Palestinians. It's also terrible for Palestinian children to grow up in a situation where they are treated as terrorists before they've done anything wrong. My belief is that restoring full civil and human rights by ending the occupation is the best way for us to get beyond this terrible and tragic situation. Continuing oppression will only continue resentment, which will lead to continuing violence on both sides.

One last thing. I'm not an expert or scholar on these matters. I've done a lot of reading and study, and visited and learned from people on the ground. But there are, no doubt, many things I don't understand, or have misunderstood, and I'm always ready to learn where I've been wrong. I'm just trying to do what I can to be on the side of justice and peace. I hope you'll consider what I'm saying in the spirit I'm saying it. I'm not trying to make you or anyone an enemy. I just want to do what Jesus said ... "seek God's kingdom and justice" as my first priority. God bless.

Brian McLarenBrian McLaren is an author and speaker whose next book is A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.

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