The Common Good
December 2008

Discovering Palestine

by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson | December 2008

Forming relations with people of faith in the Holy Land could help transform the U.S. role in the region.

I grew up in Park Ridge, Illinois. My family were members of South Park Church, whose main claim to historic fame may be that it dismissed Bill Hybels as its youth leader, sending him on his journey to found Willow Creek.

Like most evangelical churches shaped after World War II, our church’s theology included the kind of interpretations of the “end times” found in Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind novels. I recall some of those complex charts on walls of Sunday school rooms with passages from Daniel and Revelation giving clues to current events and fueling expectations that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ was drawing near.

My dad was a business executive, and two of his associates—Wally Stolkin and Sid Luckman, the former Chicago Bears quarterback—became close family friends. Wally and Sid were both Jewish. So I first came to know the Jewish community as a child through these relationships.

I was theologically curious as a young boy. Like other evangelicals in the 1950s, I would hear interpretations of world events that were pointing to Christ’s return. Once, when I was probably 9 or 10, Mom was explaining to me how exciting it was that the Jews were returning to Israel. This was concrete evidence that biblical prophecies were being fulfilled and that the Second Coming was near. And I remember asking, “When are Wally and Sid going to move there?”

This was the first time in my story that the theology of evangelical Zion­ism began colliding with actual facts and relationships in my experience. That would happen many more times.

In 1970, I was working for Sen. Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon. He decided to take a trip to the Middle East. As governor of Ore­gon, he had visited Israel more than once, getting to know figures such as Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, Golda Meir, and others. But this time, he decided to visit a couple of Palestinian refugee camps in addition to meeting with political leaders.

When he returned, he shared with me the powerful emotional and political impact his visits to those refugee camps made on him. “There can never be peace,” he told me, “without addressing the issue of justice for the Palestinians.” So he decided to deliver a major speech on the Senate floor, and I began working on a draft. In that speech, he said, “Voices of moderation are diminishing and polarization is increasing. If voices that heretofore have been mollifying influences in the area are further alienated, chances for peace in a rapidly escalating confrontation will be severely curtailed.”

In the floor discussion that followed, Sen. Hatfield said, “We have found, as to the present problem in the Middle East, the attitude that if you are not for Israel, then you have to be for the Arabs; or if you speak favorably of the Arabs, then you are against Israel. We are being judged by these parties, in some instances, not by how much you are for them, but by how much we hate the other side.”

“I fear for this kind of polarization within our nation,” Hatfield continued. “The United States has the power, the resources, the idealism ... to be a peacemaker. But if we are going to try to be a peacemaker there by standing purely on one side of the issue, with one group only, and say there is no cause and no justice on the other side of the argument, we totally eliminate the possibility of that peacemaker role.”

Sen. Hatfield was surprised, and so was I, by the attacks that followed. His exposure to facts, experiences, and relationships on the ground in Israel and Palestine collided with the standard political rhetoric around Israel and Christian Zionism at that time. He spoke clearly out of his experience and proposed what that might mean for U.S. policy. Today his measured words seem so painfully prophetic as we witness the tarnished and catastrophically discredited image of the U.S. as a peacemaker in the Middle East.

I’VE TRIED TO REMEMBER when I first learned that there were Christians living in Palestine and then met them. I know how strange that sounds. But the assumptions of evangelical Zionism that infused my Christian upbringing made me predisposed as a young person to believe that Israel was on the right side of any conflict. I didn’t know the stories of Palestinians—and ironically, I didn’t really know the stories of the Jews, but only the version of Jewish settlement in Israel interpreted through the lens of Christian Zionism.

As I learned the histories of these peoples, and navigated the domestic U.S. politics of the Middle East conflict, I was struck by the contortions of much evangelical theology as it was applied to these realities. I saw with alarm Israeli political leaders co-opting evangelicals into religious sanction of territorial aggression. When Menachem Begin and Pat Robertson were singing from the same hymnal about Judea and Samaria as illegal settlements were being established on the West Bank, Christian faith was being distorted and exploited for secular political agendas.

Since the 1970s, Israeli settlements have continued to expand, to the point that today more than 425,000 Israelis live in occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank, including East Jeru­salem, creating a situation ­that implies an intentional permanent acquisition of additional Palestinian land. In April 2004, the Bush administration reversed 35 years of U.S. policy by endorsing the large Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, pre-emptively undermining peace negotiations on this point.

I came to know many Christians whose roots were formed in the soil of the Holy Land, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, whose churches had stood on that soil for centuries, and whose families had worshipped there for generations, going back to the time Jesus Christ and the apostles walked along those same hills. These relationships deepened the spiritual and human bonds of fellowship with Christians in the region.

These experiences also underscored how most American Christians lack understanding of the historical continuity of the Christian presence in the Middle East and are ignorant about the Christian churches living in the Holy Land. This ignorance continues, impoverishing all Christians.

These facts, relationships, and experiences need to be nurtured and built, particularly between Christian communities in the U.S. and the Middle East, in order to challenge and overturn the dominant theological and political assumptions of U.S. Christians. We em­phasize today the priority of Christian-Muslim dialogue in our time, and I could not agree more. But ironically, it’s actually Christian-Christian dialogue and solidarity, between churches in the U.S. and the Middle East, that is so urgently needed, almost as a prerequisite to Christian-Muslim relations. Here’s the point: The experience of Christians struggling to witness, live, and simply survive in the Holy Land today and throughout the Middle East can transform how Christians in the U.S. respond to the effects of U.S. foreign policy in the region and to the theological expectations of Christian Zionism.

At some point in listening to this type of reflection, my Jewish brothers and sisters will say, with passion and fervor, “What about our human realities?” What about the innocent children on a bus whose body parts are scattered by a suicide bomber? What about the farmers and villagers who are forced to live in underground shelters or face the risk of random rockets that might fall on their lands and homes? And what about the instinctive passion and joyful wonder experienced by Jews who bond with the soil and land that has nurtured the roots of their religious culture and identity as a people more than two millennia ago?

Of course they are right. Of course the task of the Christian is to enter, honor, cherish, and learn from the human experience of all people, and to discover and to share God’s presence, God’s love, and God’s justice in each situation. Further, we know that the relationship of Christians and Jews carries such a particular and weighty significance, both because of the common roots of our faith and because of the horrific history of Christian anti-Semitism.

Thus, it is deeply tragic for this relationship to be contaminated by the ideology of evangelical Zionism and distorted by zealous political expectations that define fidelity to a 2,000-year relationship by indiscriminate loyalty to a narrow national agenda of military and diplomatic policies. It is my conviction that Christian-Jewish relationships today must be nurtured in the soil of human aspirations, suffering, and hopes that are not circumscribed or predetermined by dominant political or theological expectations. And the same, of course, is true regarding the relationship of U.S. Christians with Palestinians. These relationships begin not ideologically, but incarnationally.

Therefore, affirming the gifts of land, peoplehood, and identity ex­pressed through the State of Israel, established now for 60 years, must be accompanied by affirming these same gifts of land, peoplehood, and identity through the establishment of a Palestinian state.

These relationships today take place amidst the continuing Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and the intense military siege of the Gaza Strip. That is the context of human hopes and fears, and for discerning prophetic and biblical calls in this day for God’s justice to reign in this land.

The devastating effect of the Israeli occupation and settlements on the West Bank is difficult to understand without seeing and experiencing it. It is a profound assault on Pales­tinian hopes. Israeli settlements should not exist. No single action by the Israeli government has done more to violate international trust and to mock hopes for a just political resolution than the persistent establishment and expansion of settlements on lands occupied since 1967.

Israeli settlements have purposely established “facts on the ground” that intentionally decimate Palestinian aspirations for statehood and intentionally separate Palestinians from their arable land and sources of water. These acts are considered by the international community to be illegal by standards of international law.

MANY PEOPLE in the region believe that all U.S. Christians are right-wing Zionists. That widely held stereotype seems deeply rooted in popular and political opinions. And the damage that it does is awful. The policies of President Bush and the beliefs of Christians are seen as united, so Christian faith is perceived as antagonistic to the vast majorities of those in the Arab world. You can imagine the difficulty this creates for Arab Christians.

Evangelical Zionism is the enemy of Christian witness and mission in the Middle East. It’s not just a theological aberration. Rather, it’s a doctrine that actually endangers fellow Christians and cripples the effective proclamation of Christian faith throughout the region.

We recently observed the 40th anniversary of the illegal Israeli occupation. The brutal situation in the Holy Land dehumanizes Palestinians and Israelis alike and undermines the peace and security of the region and the world. The support of Christian Zionists and the United States government for expansionist policies and actions of Israel, and the turning of a blind eye to the persistent illegal activities of the Israeli government, undermines our ability to serve as peacemakers or honest brokers in that area of the world.

An American Christian in Jerusa­lem, Marlin Vis, wrote in his blog: “A small Palestinian Muslim child, 4 or 5 years old, burrows his face deeply into the skinny chest of his 10-year-old brother. Their furniture and clothing, all they could carry, lie in a heap outside their stone-block home. Big brother has explained that in a matter of minutes, the soldiers will destroy the home. The little boy’s eyes express the terror that his tongue can’t describe. An 18-year-old Israeli soldier stands guard over the seven children of this family. His eyes too tell the story that he would never allow his tongue to repeat. ... These are the hidden wounds of occupation, and these wounds are as hurtful and damaging as any other. ... For the sake of that little boy, his brothers and sisters, and his 18-year-old cousin standing guard, this occupation must end.”

The continuing task of Christians is to nurture an incarnational presence in the Holy Land that informs our perspectives, our witness, and our action. We must follow Jesus again, today, among those who feel the brunt of military oppression, among those who so readily exercise dominion over others, among those who seek to be peacemakers, and among those who thirst for justice and yearn for healing.

We must find ways to open our lives to the actual human experience of those who live in the midst of these realities, and be with them. And then we must witness to their struggles, their fears, and their hopes. From that place, we can learn how to pray and act for the peace of Jerusalem.

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson is general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. This article is adapted from an April 2007 address at North Park University’s Center for Middle East Studies.

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