israel palestine

Finding Cracks in the Walls of Ecclesiological Separation

Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com
Palestinian men seeking access to Jerusalem at a checkpoint in August 2012. Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

JERUSALEM — One out of four Christians today is Pentecostal or charismatic, which means one of every 12 persons living today practices a Pentecostal form of Christian faith. This, along with the astonishing growth of Christianity in Africa, are the two dominant narratives shaping world Christianity today. Further, the gulf between the older, historic churches, located largely in the global North, and the younger, emerging churches in the global South, often fueled by Pentecostal fire, constitutes the most serious division in the worldwide Body of Christ today.

One can also frame this as the divide between the global Pentecostal community, and the worldwide ecumenical movement. Each lives in virtual isolation from the other, and both suffer as a result. I call it ecclesiological apartheid, with its own endless, winding walls of separation. And these walls need to come down, for the sake of God’s love for the world.

It’s become my passion, in whatever small ways, to make some cracks in these walls.

Stunned and Hopeful

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is often seen as a conflict between Jews and Muslims. But there are also minority communities of evangelical and other Christians who are caught up in the conflict. This includes Jewish followers of Jesus in Israel who call themselves Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians in the West Bank. Sadly, the chasm between Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians is deep. The end-times theology espoused by Messianic Jews can be interpreted in a way that supports the state of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. At the same time, Palestinian Christians can become so focused on the hardship of living under oppressive military occupation that they forget the justifiable fear of violence that haunts Jewish residents as well.

International Christians, even those who try to honor the dignity of both Israelis and Palestinians, tend to be labeled as siding with one or the other—either with Jews as God’s chosen people or with Palestinians as victims of injustice. In recent years I have been judged by some as leaning too far toward the latter perspective.

 In fact, I was severely criticized for speaking at the March 2012 “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference in Bethlehem. Because it was sponsored by Palestinian Christians, some people assumed it was anti-Israel. Prior to the conference, a writer for The Jerusalem Post called me a threat to the state of Israel; and some American Messianic Jews called me a heretic and an anti-Semite.

To be honest, as the conference approached I regretted having agreed to participate. Was it worth the controversy? And what if the conference inadvertently fueled hostility and division? Rarely have I gone into an event so fearful of outcomes and so earnest in praying for God’s intervention.

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The Common Bond of Blood

Robi Damelin has always fought injustice. Growing up in South Africa, she spoke out against apartheid and worked actively for co-existence. In 1967, she moved to Israel—“to solve the conflict,” she says with self-deprecating humor. She ended up working on a kibbutz. “Ever since then,” she told me, “I have had a love-hate relationship with this country.” She loves the reality of a homeland for the Jewish people, but she hates the oppression of Palestinian people that results from the Israeli military occupation. “Israel will never be free until the Palestinians are free,” she says.

Robi’s son, David, shared her perspective about the occupation. Robi claims he “would rather have gone to jail than serve in the military, but he knew that as soon as he was released, he’d just be posted somewhere else. In the end we agreed it would be better for him to serve as an officer and set an example to other soldiers by behaving like a human being.” David fulfilled his required service, but in 2002 he was called up to the reserves. Again, he and Robi decided he should serve and set an example.

But as a soldier “he was a symbol of an occupying army.” On March 3, 2002, 28-year-old David Damelin was killed by a Palestinian sniper.

“I was beside myself with grief,” says Robi. “I had all the good things in life, but it all became totally irrelevant. I just wanted to prevent other families from experiencing this.” Robi was invited to a meeting where she met Palestinian mothers who had also lost children. “I saw there was no difference in our pain. I realized that through our joint pain we could speak out and make a difference.”

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Getting Ready for the 'Palestinian Spring'

As a Palestinian Christian, I’m often asked in reference to the Arab Spring: “With all that is happening, where is the ‘Palestinian Spring’? Why hasn’t the revolution bug bit the Palestinian people yet?”

These questions are mostly asked by individuals who are not necessarily naïve of the situation or critical of the Palestinians, but are genuinely excited and inspired by what they see taking place in countries such as Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia. They assume that if the Palestinians engage in a once-and-for-all popular, nonviolent revolution, then the Israeli occupation of Palestine will end and peace will prevail.

This anticipation of a quick “Palestinian Spring” comes in light of how the revolutions across the Middle East have come to be without expectation or prediction—as if they were a set of dominos placed one after the other. The main issue with the Palestinian resistance and independence movement is that, when it comes to the Israeli occupation, we are playing an entirely different game: not dominos, but more like chess. The problem with our particular chess match is that the pieces on both sides are different, and the way the game is played by the two parties is also different.

In traditional dictatorships, as exists in most Arab countries, ultimate power, and full control over all resources, lies in the hands of one person. The entire socio-political-economic system of the state hovers around the dictator, who holds the key to everything. When the population begins to break the barriers of fear and dependency on that one person—followed by the public sector, then the police and military—the entire system begins to collapse.

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O Come Ye, O Come Ye to Bethlehem

Palestinian Christians hold mass near Bethlehem to protest construction of Israe
Palestinian Christians hold mass near Bethlehem to protest construction of Israeli separation barrier (ryanrodrickbeiler.com)

What one quickly learns when visiting Bethlehem is that the political climate today is quite similar to the one that was prevailing during the time of Jesus. One exception is that the Palestinian inhabitants of Bethlehem today are being occupied by those who consider themselves the offspring or cultural descendants of Jews who were under the yoke of Roman occupation in the first century.  Other reminders of the political similarities are the weekly demonstrations on the outskirts of Bethlehem by Palestinians, Israelis, and internationals to nonviolently protest the confiscation of Palestinian land to build new Jewish settlements. Unarmed and nonviolent demonstrators face heavily equipped Israeli troops who protect those who steal Palestinian lands in the West Bank and construct segregated settlements on them.  This reminds us of the brutality of the Roman occupation forces against Jewish freedom fighters.

But Bethlehem today is not all consumed with politics. Many of the folks in Bethlehem could not care less about politics. Repeated disappointments with the host of so-called peace brokers and failed peace plans have caused many Bethlehemites to abandon politics. They just want a decent standard of living to carry on with life in security with their children and grandchildren. These are the people who in spite of the same closures and repression by the forces of occupation, choose to be peaceful. They hope that freedom will come but they don't know when or how it will come. Like the folks who lived when Jesus was born, they continue to wait quietly for political liberation.

Holy Land Farce

GLENN BECK’S THREE-DAY “Rally to Restore Courage” in Jerusalem in August was an exercise in “exploiting Israel” in an effort at “restoring his credibility,” according to M.J. Rosenberg of Media Matters Action Network. Beck’s pilgrimage pledged to support Israel, a nation that Beck portrayed as challenged by misguided critics and “Islamic socialism.” Fusing entertainment and marketing, Beck promised the hundreds of fellow-travelers who would buy tickets for the event’s August 24 keynote a “life-changing, and I think planet course-altering, event” that “could be miraculous.” As it turned out, at the keynote he essentially declared himself founder of a global movement to take back the phrase “human rights” and stand up for “our responsibilities to our fellow man [sic].”

Ironically, Beck chose to do so on behalf of a country where human rights violations are severe. In reality the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” has become a “pieces process” of land seizures and displacement. Upward of 350,000 settlers in the Occupied Territories receive generous government housing subsidies, tax breaks, infrastructure, and security, all of which markedly reduce resources available to municipalities inside Israel proper. That’s just one source of frustration driving the recent street protests in Israel.

Public discourse is threatened when there is no critique of Israeli policies and Christian Zionist prejudices. Land heresy (“it is all ours”) and xenophobia (“all Palestinians want to destroy us”) fuel the illegal occupation of Palestinian and Bedouin land. This, and other oppression by a fragile Israeli coalition government, is supported by $3 billion in annual U.S. aid.

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