Following Jesus in the West Bank

As a Christian committed to justice, I am glad the Jewish people have a homeland. I long for the day when they can live in Israel—or anywhere—in security. I don’t hold to a theology asserting that the modern State of Israel represents a divinely mandated return of ancient Israel to the Promised Land, but I do wholeheartedly support its existence as a national homeland for the Jews.

At the same time, I wholeheartedly support justice for the Palestinians. Two years ago at a conference in Amman, Jordan, Arab Christians challenged me to broaden my understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict and to see for myself the current plight of Palestinian Christians and Muslims living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank.
I’ve traveled to the West Bank three times in the last year. Life under military occupation is grim. A shattered economy, land seizures and house demolitions, Israeli-only roads networking through Palestinian land, and hundreds of military checkpoints on Palestinian roads—all these make daily life difficult and frustrating.
I’ve met with both Palestinian and Israeli faith leaders committed to using nonviolent resistance to end the occupation. Most recently I spoke at a conference hosted by Christians in Bethlehem. The conference, called “Christ at the Checkpoint: Theology in the Service of Peace and Justice,” challenged evangelicals from North America and Europe to stand with the Christians of Palestine. The conference was inspiring, but for me the highlight was the three post-conference days I actually spent with Palestinian Christians.
I loved hearing about the evangelical church that Salwa’s husband pastors, and about Salwa’s ministry to marginalized women in Bethlehem. “Salwa” is an old Arabic word meaning consolation. “I love caring for the broken-hearted,” she said, “and leading them to Jesus, the source of all comfort.” She described the Palestinian Christian community as a secret garden: “Nobody sees us unless they come and look.”
I spent several hours with Shireen. Born in the West Bank, she studied English literature and translation at Bethlehem University, then received her master’s in educational administration at Texas A&M (where she also was homecoming queen). Today she’s a wife and mother, a teacher in a Christian college, and a volunteer for a reconciliation ministry. She took me and two other Americans to a women’s meeting in the Muslim village of Al-Khader. We were the only Christians in a roomful of Muslims, and we were warmly welcomed.
My friend Christine and I went to dinner with a group of young women we had met on a previous trip. Educated in the social sciences, media, cross-cultural relations, leadership, and reconciliation, they remind me so much of my daughter and her friends: godly, articulate, fun, energetic, and committed to building a better world.
We had breakfast with Munther and Rudaina. Munther received his master’s in religion and biblical studies from Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. An instructor and assistant academic dean at a college in Bethlehem, he is working on a doctorate in applied theology from the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies in England. He is married to Rudaina, an architect. Her name means “the woman who carries armor for soldiers.” We laughed when she explained that. Like all the Palestinian women I met, she is on the front lines of the struggle for peace.
I met George, a school administrator. Some years ago one of George’s daughters—12 years old—was killed by Israeli gunfire that hit the car in which the family was riding. George is now an active member of Parents Circle-Families Forum, Israelis and Palestinians who have lost children to the conflict and meet to share their grief and work for peace.
Sadly, the Christian community in Palestine is dwindling as well-educated young people emigrate because they can’t find jobs at home. But young evangelicals like the ones I met choose to remain in the West Bank because they take Jesus’ call to be peacemakers seriously. They understand they have a unique opportunity and calling to bridge the gap between Muslims and Jews as they incarnate the truth of the Prince of Peace.
I am still pro-Israel, but I’ve also become pro-Palestinian. Pro-peace. Pro-justice. Pro-equality for Jews and Arabs living as neighbors in the Holy Land. And, bottom line, pro-Jesus.
Lynne Hybels, co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, is author of Nice Girls Don’t Change the World.

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