With the help of the Mennonite Central Committee and World Vision, Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) pulled together a diverse group of almost 200 “Jesus Followers” for a conversation about the conflict between Israel and Palestinians. Impact: Holy Land featured the who’s-who of Palestinian Christian outreach to Evangelical America, prominent names of the Evangelical Left, and a handful of pastors from various Messianic Jewish congregations. While most presenters spoke broadly of peace, love and reconciliation the fellowship hall of the historic Friends Center in the heart of Philadelphia was lined with pro-Palestinian activists pushing books on Israel as an Apartheid state and hoping to enlist people for the latest boycott, divest, sanction (BDS) campaign.
The event would have been a huge success if the goal had been to bring Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians together to find common ground and discover together what it means to live as the “New Man” of whom St. Paul spoke. Many of the speakers from both sides of the separation barrier spoke genuinely of their love for one another. Holy Land Trust’s Sami Awad admonished, “Jesus calls us to build loving relationships and show loving respect to those whom we have called enemies. He did not call us to negotiate peace with them, he did not call us to resolve our conflicts with them, he did not call us to sign peace treaties with them, he calls us to do one thing with those who we view as the enemy and that is to love.” While King of Kings’ pastor Wayne Hilsden affirmed the effectiveness of demonstrating what Paul calls the One New Man by bringing Jews, Arabs, Gentiles from all over the world, finding unity and showing that the Father has indeed sent his Son.
However, it was clear from both the event sponsors and most participants that the event was largely designed to encourage Christians to focus their attention on Palestinians who are suffering under Israeli occupation and ignore the Palestinians who are suffering from fellow Arabs. The rejection of any equivalency between the suffering of Jews, both historically and currently, and the suffering of Palestinians was explicit. Palestinian lawyer Jonathan Kuttab forcefully remarked, “There is no equivalency. There is the occupied and the occupier, the oppressor and the oppressed, the powerful and the powerless.” Again, Wayne Hilsden sought to remind the audience that the Jewish concern was legitimate as they see themselves surrounded by hostile nations. He noted it was similar to New Jersey feeling concerned if the rest of the United States were hostile and routinely threatened it.
Even more troublesome was expectation for the Messianic Jews to speak to their fellow Jews about Palestinian suffering. When asked about this expectation, Jack Sara, President of Bethlehem Bible College, remarked, “It is very important for the Messianic Church to say, we don’t agree with what the Israeli government is doing for example on issues of injustice.” This expectation for the Messianic church was also confirmed by Lisa Loden, who, until 2011, was active in the leadership of her Messianic congregation. She noted, “I hope that my community will listen and some of us who are in the Messianic community will take part in addressing this issue and endeavor to speak to our community. At this point it doesn’t seem realistic, but we are looking for creative ways to put this issue on the forefront.”
This expectation is certainly unrealistic. Sadly, many Messianic Jews are considered apostate and face cultural opposition and even discrimination. To expect this small minority to make a plea for the Palestinian Christians would simply encourage their antagonists and bring even greater distrust upon themselves. To the same degree, any expectations for the Palestinian Christians to defend the Jews before their Islamist neighbors would be met by equal hostility. The expectation continued unabated by participants and organizers alike.
In addition to the expectation placed upon the Messianic Jewish Church, there was the expectation that one could avoid labels, politics, theology, and narratives and have a serious conversation about solving the conflict. Speaker after speaker proclaimed their desire to move beyond labels and theologies (except disparaging Christian Zionism and Dispensationalism) and build broad relationships. Of course these same speakers used labels and politics to highlight the diversity of their relationships. What is meant by the appeal to no-labels, no-theology, and no-politics is an attempt to avoid labels, theologies, and politics that are divisive. The hope is that once people have built relationships the obvious divisions won’t matter and can easily be nuanced away. Lynn Hybels, perfectly illustrates how one can both reject theologies and promote a theology at the same time. Shenoted:
“I believe biblical theology leaves room for Jews and Arabs to live together as neighbors and equals in the land. I recognize there are differing theologies of the land, based on differing hermeneutical approaches. These differing theologies often appear to be at odds when it comes to the question of who rightly belongs in the land that we call holy.
I hesitate to speak about this because I’m not a theologian, and I can’t enter theological battles. But I so appreciate a book written by two people who will be speaking here: Salim Munayer (Palestinian Christian) and Lisa Loden (Messianc Jew). They edited a book called The Land Cries Out, which includes essays by a wide variety of Messianic Jews, Palestinian Christians, and a few international voices. There are many different theologies of the land presented in this book, but because most of the writers actually live in the land and deal with the complexity of reality, they speak with the careful, nuanced voices that complexity requires.
Some of the essayists make a strong case that the birth of the modern State of Israel in 1948 and the ingathering of the Jews to the Holy Land is a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy that’s tied to end time events and the second coming of Christ; other essayists have different ways of looking at that. But running throughout all the chapters of the book was an image of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, living together in the land in peace.
For some of the writers (including both Palestinian Christians and a number of Messianic Jews), that peace could conceivably be manifested, to a degree anyway, in the two-state solution that is being discussed in current peace talks. For others, that vision of peace is for a time far in the distance, when Jesus’ Kingdom is here in fullness.
But what strikes me as critically important is that people with different theological perspectives, who are willing to look at reality honestly and think carefully, can envision Jews and Arab living peacefully and equally as brother and sisters.”
Simply put, different theologies are helpful if sufficiently nuanced and complex, and the only good theology is the one that envisions Jews and Arabs living peacefully together. Avoiding labels to promote a label, avoiding theology to promote a theology, and avoiding politics to promote politics is a favorite tactic of progressives. The appeal to relativism to promote an absolute is deceptive even if the absolute is fundamentally good.
On the surface, “Impact: Holy Land” did bring together diverse speakers and participants in a spirit of peace and reconciliation. But just below the surface were the usual expectations that all Christians should embrace the nationalistic Palestinian Liberation cause. It is this expectation that limited the effectiveness of the event and fosters the very distrust many hope to overcome.