The Rev. Munther Isaac speaks from inside the walls of beleaguered Bethlehem
Munther Isaac is a Palestinian Christian pastor and theologian. He is pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem. He is also the academic dean of Bethlehem Bible College, and is the director of the highly acclaimed and influential Christ at the Checkpoint conferences.
Munther is passionate about issues related to Palestinian theology. He speaks locally and internationally and has published numerous articles on issues related to the theology of the land, Palestinian Christians and Palestinian theology, holistic mission and reconciliation. He is the author of “The Other Side of the Wall”, “From Land to Lands, from Eden to the Renewed Earth”, “An Introduction to Palestinian Theology” (in Arabic), and a commentary on the book of Daniel (in Arabic). He is also involved in many reconciliation and interfaith forums. He is also a Kairos Palestine board member.
The impact and influence of Christian Zionism have been manifested, especially in the four years of the Trump presidency, and it is evident to everyone how influential they are. I am now trying to look more deeply into the DNA of Christian Zionism, looking at it not simply as a theological belief…”this is what the Bible says”. But more its relationship to the whole matrix of Empire, control and power, and even the relationship between East and West. So I’m going to share some slides with you as well.
The title of my presentation is Christian Zionism as Imperial theology, and it’s based on two chapters of my recent book, The Other Side of the Wall. As a Palestinian I will be speaking from my own experience and locale, as occupied, as displaced, as part of the Palestinian people, who in the State of Israel are treated like second class citizens, especially under the nation state law. My perspective comes from my position as a Palestinian and as such I say I speak from hurt and pain and from the other side of the wall and as you will see in my presentation, the wall to me refers to more than just the ugly, physical concrete wall in Bethlehem. It’s more a narrative of separation, a mentality or a worldview of separation and displacement that has long existed in the mind and ethos of Western Christendom.
To understand the impact of Christian Zionism, let’s just go back to what happened in 1948. What the world celebrated as the miracle of the establishment of the State of Israel, we looked at as the Nakba. The Nakba is an Arabic word for catastrophe. Just think of the Nakba, in small numbers, in terms of the number of villages that were completely destroyed. The number of refugees – 800,000; we lost more than 78 per cent of our historical land, in addition to the thousands who were killed, and please understand that the Nakba never stopped, the Nakba continues today.
I live in Bethlehem, where if you look at this map, and the complication of this map, you will see the wall in red, how it cuts deep into the West Bank. It’s separating one Palestinian community from another, and basically creating a reality of gated Palestinian communities where we live in these communities, in Bethlehem and in the big cities in Hebron, Nablus and Ramallah. But Israel controls everything around us and there is the continuous expansion of settlements. So where I come from in Bethlehem, we are still living under Israeli occupation. Yes, we have a Palestinian Authority and a Palestinian government. But the Israeli occupation defines our reality, a reality of inequality that is manifested in so many ways in the distribution of water, and the loss of immigration. Some of our church members are not able to unite with their spouses, whereas any Jew can immigrate to our land, and they will have more rights than we do as Palestinians. The daily humiliations at checkpoints, the economic disparities and more recently, the COVID reality where one people in the same land are vaccinated and the other are still waiting. All of this defines our reality today. Yet, despite all that, and we can have different political interpretations, of course, but despite all that, it continues to be celebrated as a miracle, as a divine act. The creation of Israel as a state continues to be celebrated by Christians today as a sign of divine intervention, as a miracle from God, or as a fulfilment of prophecy.
When it comes to the church, in general, and how the Christians around the world look at the state of Israel today, these four principles summarise how many Christians, if not most Christians, understand the Bible in relation to the situation today. These are what I call the main assumptions of Christian Zionism. But please note that these assumptions are sometimes shared by many, your day-to-day Christians in the pews who might not even realise that this is part of that Christian Zionism agenda: basically, that the Abrahamic Covenant continues with the Jewish people today, and by association with the State of Israel.
As I said, this is a common assumption among many Christians. And I want you to pause for a moment and think of the implication of such an assertion on Palestinians, how this is perceived by us as Palestinians, the idea that those who we are in conflict with or even those who are occupying us, oppressing us are in relationship with God. We immediately ask, ‘where do we fit in this?’ And note that in this assumption, there is another assumption: that the Israel of today is a direct continuation of the Israel of the Bible. Similarly, many see the creation of Israel in 1948, as I said, either as a fulfilment of prophecy, especially among evangelicals, or as a sign of God’s faithfulness to the Jewish people. By the way, all of these are either direct quotes or taken from official church statements or church leaders.
The idea that the creation of Israel is a sign of God’s faithfulness is very common in Protestant churches, not necessarily just evangelical churches. And again, I must ask, what is this telling me as a Palestinian? Because if the creation of Israel is a sign of God’s faithfulness to the Jewish people, it is a sign of God’s what exactly to the Palestinians? Does that mean that God is against us? Is God judging us? That begs the question that many Palestinians ask. Where is the gospel, the good news of Christianity to the Palestinians if what happened to us in 1948 is simply a divine act.
Another assumption I’m sure you’ve heard, and it’s very common, for example, in North America, but I’ve seen that it’s also common in East Asia or in Africa, or Latin America, the idea that if you bless Israel, God will bless you. But if you stand against Israel, God will curse you. Now they base this on Genesis 12 123, where the address is actually about Abraham, it doesn’t mention his descendants, and the Bible reads this as a sign of God’s blessings to the people through Christ.
Yet somehow, that statement from God to Abraham became the way in which many Christians today relate to a secular state. And to me, that’s incomprehensible. But that led many people to support Israel simply because they want what’s best for them, not necessarily for Israel. I look at this principle and I say this is 101 Religious Manipulation for a Political Purpose. You’re manipulating people using a religious text, to support a political position, you have to support Israel or you will face God’s wrath. However, if you give money to Israel, or if you take political action on behalf of Israel, God will bless your life and your ministry.
And finally, there is the assumption that the land that today we call Palestine and Israel belongs to the Jewish people as an eternal possession, because God gave it to them. And as such, Jews have a divine right to the land. This led many Palestinians to write a lot on the theology of the Promised Land. I wrote my PhD about this topic. But I don’t want to go into the biblical text and analyse this assumption, but to simply ask, as a Palestinian again, and I continue to bring it back to the question of how does this come across to us as Palestinians, because now you’re telling me that the land of my ancestors where I’ve been born, and my ancestors have been born, and we’ve been here for hundreds, if not thousands of years, somehow is not ours. And so we are taking someone else’s land, and even worse, we’re standing against God. The idea of a divine right, puts me in opposition to God.
And you see, if you ask many Christians around the world, do you believe God gave the land to the Jews? They say ‘yeah, definitely.’ And again, I ask, so what about us Palestinians? What’s missing in all of this narrative is precisely the Palestinian element. We don’t exist. And please keep this in mind because this will be a common thread in my presentation.
So Christian Zionism defined. If you wish to get a straightforward definition, I like Robert Smith’s definition in his book More Desire than our Own Salvation, it is political action, informed by specifically Christian commitments to promote or preserve Jewish control over the geographic area now comprising Israel, and Palestine. I like this definition because it reminds us that we’re talking not simply about a theological belief, or a theological school, but about a political movement, a political action. And when it comes to how this political movement functions, Stephen Sizer in one of his books identifies at least six ways in which Christians Zionists act on behalf of Israel or support Israel by political lobbying. As I said, this has been very much manifested during the Trump presidency, which was fuelled by the support of evangelicals. And one of their tenets was the support for Israel. And this was translated to political decisions, like the movement of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. One of Trump’s famous quotes about this was, ‘I did it for the evangelicals, I didn’t do it for Israel.’ Just think of that.
They support and finance Jewish immigration to the land, which when you pause a little bit think of it from a Palestinian perspective. These are my sisters and brothers donating money for people to come from outside of my land, take my land, and have more rights than the rights I have in my land. To us Palestinians this is just mind boggling.
Support the settlements, politically and financially. This is well documented, and one of the shocking figures is how much money goes from churches to settlement projects. And we’re not talking about thousands of dollars or millions of dollars. We’re talking about hundreds of millions in some cases, money going to Israeli settlements, settlements that most diplomats recognise as the main obstacle to peace and to the two-state solution.
Some radicals support the rebuilding of the Temple, and this will have catastrophic results, and most oppose any peace process and any giving of the land to the Palestinians, which they see as a compromise. Of course, they’re sitting in the comfort of their offices and defining reality for us. What’s common, again, in the DNA of Christian Zionism is that we are missing as Palestinians, we are ignored at best, dehumanised at worst. This is one of the most common things I see among Christian Zionists: they act as if the land is empty, as if what’s done was created on an empty land. This is seen in the infamous slogan that the Zionists promoted, which many Christian leaders in Britain, in particular, promoted before Zionism was born, the idea of a land without people for a people without a land, which, before that was a country without a nation for the nation without a country.
The main concept here was that the land was empty. But you know too well the land was not empty. They knew too well that the land was not empty. And in the case of the British Mandate, it’s not just the Balfour Declaration, everything related to it. They knew too well that the land was not empty because they occupied us. Yet still our land was described as a land without people. Because as Ben White put it in his book, yes, they knew that the land has people but for them, we the Palestinians were a complete irrelevance. For the Zionists, Palestine was empty, not literally, but in terms of people of equal worth to the incoming settlers. This is a typical colonial mentality, and dare I say, typical colonial Christian mentality. Yes, the land has people, but they can be shifted. We can control their fate. And today, we still hear the idea. Why don’t you go to Jordan? Today, we still hear debates like this: do Jews have a divine right to Israel’s land?
Where a discussion is made about our land, they call it Israel’s land. But we are continually ignored in such discussions. This is an example of a discussion in Christianity today. The two authors are an American leader and a Messianic Jewish American leader sitting in the comfort of their offices discussing our land as if it’s empty. And what about our perspective? But you say our perspective does not matter. That’s the issue. And by the way, in this case, I actually emailed Christianity Today saying, Can I respond? At the time I was still writing my PhD on the topic, and I lived in this land. But that didn’t give me the merit in their eyes to actually be part of the conversation. Why? Because we don’t matter. Yes, the land has people. They knew that, but it doesn’t matter. Because through understanding of the Bible all righteous acts come from us. That’s the whole nation. To me, this is the original wall, in that we are invisible.
In theology books, we don’t exist, we are invisible in the language of the church. I call this the myth of returning to an empty land. That’s the myth that many, if not most Christians, simply assume if you ask them about Palestinians…they probably don’t know. They are shocked to know Palestinian Christians exists. And at best, they describe an idea of Israel creating a Garden of Eden in the middle of the desert, it was an empty land, the idea of returning, you know, again, puts me as a Palestinian in the wrong place. It’s as if I have occupied someone else’s life, even though this is the land of our ancestors. The same applies, by the way, to most pilgrims today, and they come to the Holy Land, spending at best two hours in Bethlehem. Why? Because, again, we don’t exist. And if we exist in their mind, we are the dangerous backward people on the other side of the wall, people to be feared people to be dehumanised. And in the mentality of the wall, those we isolate or separate to the other side of the wall, because they, in their understanding, brought it to themselves, they are terrorists, radical Islam, and so on, you can stereotype whatever way you want. And actually, you can then justify all acts of violence against them. That is the mentality. That’s what I mean by a colonial DNA or a colonial theology. When you look at Palestinians as less humans.
I’m going to unpack this more now, as I look at certain elements in the theology of Christian Zionism, and try to illustrate it by certain example. Let’s look at what I mean precisely by that idea of Imperial theology.
First of all, we have the whole employment of God. It’s not simply that we’re talking about a chosen people, a theological principle, now it’s even a chosen state.
God is on Israel’s side. And as such, we must be on the right side and stand with Israel because we want to stand with God. This is how Christian Zionist leaders and one of the most influential in the 80s put it, to stand against Israel is to stand against God. It’s plain and simple. We believe that history and scripture prove that God deals with nations in relation to how they deal with Israel. You see how God here is brought to a struggle. And it’s shocking to me how, when the same Western Christendom criticises, or challenges, calls out Islam for making conflict, and using religion and politics, they’re perfectly fine applying the same principles on Israel, making the conflict a religious conflict. This is when the conflict was made religious. And so anything we do is opposing God, as I said, in this article that I mentioned do Jews have a divine right, because what if the answer to such a question is, if yes, Jews have a divine right to the land? Where does that leave me as a Palestinian? Can I object? You see, if I object to that statement, I would be standing against God. And that’s the whole essence of Christian Zionism. In that mentality, the world is divided into us versus them and ‘them’ is the Arabs, Muslims in this case are to be feared.
Instilling fear is one of the most powerful tools of Christian Zionism. They always exaggerate the threat of the Arab countries: there are 250 million Arabs, just waiting to destroy Israel. And of course, that was put aside, at least for a moment with the so-called peace deals between Israel and the Arab states. Iran becomes then the enemy and even many Christian Zionist leaders called for nuking Iran, or bombing Iran, because of that. Because they characterise the other as to be feared.
All of this comes from a position of privilege, where we act as if we are superior to others: assuming that there are us and them, where the Judeo-Christian tradition is superior to everything else, especially in this case, to Islam. And that’s really the essence of that term, the whole idea of a Judeo-Christian tradition as being that we are superior to others. I have quotations to highlight this. In 2016, Evangelical leaders were meeting with Trump before the elections to show him support. And they prayed for him. And one of them said these words, ‘only two nations have been in relationship with God in history. Israel, and the United States of America.’ See how it’s more about we are the only two nations in a relationship with God. But to me, nothing describes or illustrates this mentality of superiority, and we’re better than everyone else and division, the mentality of the wall, more than this quote by Mike Pence, previous American Vice President, an evangelical himself, who spoke in front of the Israeli Knesset or parliament, during the visit, and he said those words, and I want you to pay attention to how Palestinians are described, in these words. He said, ‘we stand with Israel, because your cause is our cause. Your values are our values, and your fight is our fight. We stand with Israel, because we believe in right over wrong, in good over evil, and in liberty over tyranny.’
It might look like a simple statement or a quote. But in reality, what Mike Pence is saying, notice, who are the Palestinians in this quote, we are the wrong, the evil, and the tyrant. And the Israelis are those who are right, who are good, and who believe in liberty. The irony in all of this is that the only thing we’re asking as Palestinians, is our own liberty, yet asking it makes us the tyrant. Just think of that. But look how the world is divided into us versus them. And if we’re dealing with a people who are wrong, who are evil, who are tyrants, then you can basically do anything. Because you are better.
That’s what I mean by the DNA of Christian Zionism. Now, one might be wondering, maybe Mike Pence wants to refer to radical Islam here or so on. But our experience has shown that all of this is even applied to us as Palestinian Christians, simply because we challenge the Christian Zionist narrative and Israeli policies. Even us Palestinian Christians have been attacked, and called all sorts of things. We have been labelled, dehumanised, demonised. All of these are actual things that were said on some of the movements I did, like Christ at the Checkpoint, because we dare to challenge the Christian Zionist narrative. The whole idea is not to engage in a dialogue, not to treat us as equals, but to label us, so that we are feared, we are perceived as a threat, so that people don’t engage with us.
It’s fascinating to me, these are Christians attacking us, because we spoke our just narrative. The whole phenomenon of silencing Palestinian Christians is not new. And yes, we’ve seen inside of trying to silencers. We’ve seen examples of Israeli politicians interfering, to stop airing segments in documentaries about Palestinian Christians in American TV, for example. It’s all in my book.
But even worse, I’ve seen Christians silencing us Palestinian Christians, where we are invited to speak in conferences, and then the invitation is withdrawn. Why? Because again, we are a Palestinian. This means that sometimes there has been conferences in Christian seminaries where there was no Palestinian speaker because no one was deemed worthy to speak because the Christian Jewish Lobby or Christian Zionist lobby challenged the idea of that Palestinian Christian speaker and that they cannot speak. Not one of us could speak.
I was once invited to a conference in Ireland. And there was a big fuss about my presence there. And they almost withdrew that invitation. But in the end, they didn’t. In other cases, the invitation was withdrawn, in the United States for example. In that conference, I’ll never forget what they said. Because I said, ‘why are they challenging my presence? Is it anything I said? Do they know me? Did I anger them?’ They say, ‘oh, no, they don’t know you. It is because you’re a Palestinian.’
And I want you to pause for that, it was actually a mission conference. And the other conference where my invitation was withdrawn was also a mission conference. Is there anything about the Christian faith, about God’s heart to reach out to people, to God, who loves the world? But if I happen to have a different perspective about Israel and Palestine, maybe that means in their mind that God does not love me? I don’t know. But that’s really the idea. Palestinian Christians are silenced because we challenge the stereotype. Because we challenge the common narrative, when we insist that this is not a clash between the Judeo-Christian tradition, civilisation and Islamic terrorism: this is a political conflict.
Yes, religious extremism is a challenge, but occupation is the core issue. And that is not the message that is well received by many. And when we speak, please realise that we are not well received because, to them, we are not equal, we don’t present a proper theology. They always dismiss us as Palestinian contextual replacement. But we are not authentic, understanding of theology. I quote Palestinian theologian Paul Tarazi. I love what he says, how can they say so when they are repenting on our ground over a deed which happened on all this based on a premise we reject? This is a great combination of theological and political imperialism, trying to dictate the narrative and trying to say, we will interpret the Bible for you.
This is why the Bible continues today to be weaponised, whether by politicians as with the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, or by Christian leaders. And here, I love this quote by the Kairos Palestine Group, a document that was written in 2019. And in it we state unequivocally that we reject any use of the Bible to legitimise or support political options, and positions that are based upon injustice, imposed by one person on another, or by one people on another, to transform religion into human ideology, and strip the Word of God of its holiness, its universality and truth. Whether for Kairos, or for most Palestinian Christian speakers, justice matters. And we must emphasise that. At the core, the problem with Christian Zionist theology and ideology is that it’s devoid of justice. Even justice is relativised.
I want to use a quote from another Christian Zionist leader, who said that if Palestinians refuse to recognise what God says about the Jewish people and their connection to the land of Israel, then suffering would result. So you see, the problem is that we don’t accept their theology. Justice in regard to the land requires that there be a submission to what God has declared about this land—basically, that it belongs to Israel. So if the Palestinians do not acknowledge God’s promise, they are foundationally unjust, and are themselves resisted by God and lose the rights to the land.
So you see justice here or injustice is not about confiscation of land or treating people as second class citizens or denying them the natural resources and their own lands. But to him, injustice is when you don’t accept what the Bible says about Israel, or let’s put it more clearly, what he interprets about the Bible saying about the Jewish people. Now before I present a quick rebuttal or challenge to Christian Zionism in the last five minutes, I want just to highlight this important concept, that Christian Zionism, especially in some of its forms in North America, is not actually that friendly to the Jewish people.
This was brilliantly highlighted by a recent documentary by Israeli journalist Maya Zinshtein, and I believe it was shown on BBC, called Till Kingdom Come which shows that many Christian Zionists believe in a vision in which two thirds of the Jews will be massacred, and the other third will then convert to Christianity. They’re obsessed with end times. And, as I say, in my books, they relate to Jews, mainly as objects, in their eschatological fantasies, rather than neighbours or people of faith, deserving our attention and love as God commands us to love thy neighbour. And so that documentary written from an Israeli perspective challenges the notion that these are our friends, and highlights how many times they act precisely against these agreements. So I strongly recommend that documentary. A critical analysis of Christian Zionism will show that it is not really that friendly to Jews themselves, but based on self-interest.
I want to present a few principles in which we as Palestinian Christians, from our perspective, challenge Christian Zionism. It’s not enough to criticise, but it’s important to provide an alternative. First, it’s important to challenge the silence of the church about injustice, and its apathy. You cannot continue to speak about our land as if it’s empty. It doesn’t work anymore. What about the Palestinians? That’s the question with which we want to continue to challenge Christian Zionism.
But more importantly, what about God’s call for us to be peacemakers? It’s missing completely from the Christian Zionist narrative. What is the vision for peace? What is the vision for Palestinians, and even in the best forms of Christian Zionism, who say we want to recognise the Palestinian presence? They’re not willing to say truth to power. One of my observations has been that there are many Christians who might not identify as Christian Zionist, yet maybe present a challenge to peace by their silence, by doing nothing, or by simply being diplomatic, and praying for both sides. We want to listen to both sides. And I say, that’s maybe equally harmful. Because we need Christians who speak truth, we need Christians who challenge power and who call for justice. And my final important point is that Christian Zionism at its core, it’s an exclusive dismissive ideology that excludes others. Our response to that should be, and that’s the response of the Palestinian church, a vision in which the land is shared, rather than divided by walls, a land in which the dignity of all people, the equality of all people born in the image of God is celebrated. This is God’s land. And as such, we must learn how to live in God’s light, because it belongs to God, it doesn’t belong to any ethnicity or religion. And we certainly don’t solve it by trying to understand to whom God made the promise 4,000 years ago, and who are the descendants of that people? We can do much better than that.
When I say a shared land, I mean that all the dwellers of the land share it and its resources equally, they have the same rights, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or nationality. This is not what we have. What we have right now is the reality of occupation, or even apartheid: two laws, one that applies to our people, one that applies to Jews. Before we can talk about any peace, any vision for the future, I think we must challenge the occupation. That should be the priority of the church. And that’s where we should challenge Christian Zionist as well, because they are at peace with the idea of the occupation, they don’t even recognise it.
And what they don’t see is that occupation is harmful to both of us. This is a quote I love from the Kairos document again, which says, our future and their future are one. In other words, if you truly care for the Jews, then you must insist that they treat Palestinians with dignity, that justice prevails. The alternative is a cycle of violence that destroys both of us. In other words, Christian Zionists do not have that vision for peace. It all, as I said, begins by ending the occupation. Again, let me read from Kairos, ‘even though we have fought one another in the recent past and still struggle today, if we are able to love and live together, we can organise our political life with all its complexity, according to the logic of this love and its power, after ending the occupation and establishing justice.’
What I love about these quotes and what I want to highlight here is that our response to an exclusive ideology that functions on the basis of superiority cannot be another exclusive one or another religious vision in which there is one nation or one people or even one religion, that we assume as the followers of that religion that we are are simply superior to others. No. Rather it must be an inclusive nature, an inclusive ideology that welcomes and incorporates all. I want to refer you at the end to a document called Cry for Hope, which challenges churches to revisit their positions, their theology, offers ways to empower Palestinian perspectives and resistance, not just talk, but practical ways and gives guidelines for how Christians can act to end occupation non-violently and in a way that honours God.
Diana Safieh (moderator): Thank you so much for giving us that presentation. As you can imagine we’ve had lots of questions. I’m going to start with Angus Rhodes. First I’m going to tell you about Angus Rhodes. I know him as a fundraiser, he fundraises for St John Eye Hospital which I know you’re familiar with as well, and I’m highlighting him because he is completing currently Herculean tasks in order to fundraise for St John. His version of the Herculean task, so he’s been jumping out of planes, doing multiple marathons within a short period of time, firewalking etc etc. He says he’s typing as a Christian and he says Christ was born as a Jew and instructs that his kingdom was not of this world. For Christians, the Promised Land was in fact the Kingdom of Heaven which a Christian could only hope to reach after death. How could they possibly interpret there even being a physical promised land when they have been taught inherently that this is not meant to be a physical one? Likewise how can Christians find any kind of justification for violence or persecution when it is expressly forbidden in their own teachings?
That’s a loaded question that demands a lot of explanation. First of all, let me say something about my Christian hope. I certainly believe in life after death and a new Heaven and a new earth, but to me the Kingdom of God is an is an earthly phenomenon that we experience now when we fulfil the will of God on Earth as it is in Heaven. It’s not about escaping this world. What happened is that some Christians adopted this mentality that the world is evil and we don’t belong to this world and as such created a dichotomy between an Old Testament vision of the Kingdom versus a New Testament vision of the Kingdom, where they believe that the Old Testament vision is earthly, and is a political kingdom. And that is for Israel. But we have a spiritual kingdom, escaping this world or living in a spiritual reality for Christians.
Creating that dichotomy led to creating a system in which they promoted the idea that one day the church will disappear and we will go back to the Old Testament days. So they see all of this just as the first step of the unfolding of eschatological events in which there will be a messianic kingdom on Earth. So they’re expecting Jesus to come and actually rule in a Davidic fashion as a political ruler from Jerusalem, but the Church must disappear to give way to that. So that’s how, not all but some, or a good percentage of Christian Zionists believe, and that allows them to create this dichotomy. So they would agree with the premise that, yes, our Kingdom as Christians is spiritual, but that’s not for Israel. Israel has a different destiny.
I’ve got two questions that I’m lumping together because they are very similar. And one is from our trusty Roger Spooner, and co-founder with his wife, Monica Spooner, of the Balfour Project. How many Christian Zionists do you know, who have changed their views? And how do we help change more of them? And from Patrick Darnes Have you any advice to Christians that are, are not Christian Zionists to challenge their beliefs?
How many Christian Zionists change their views? Not enough, obviously. We’ve seen some, I know some, but certainly not enough. You must understand that to change a Christian Zionist it is not simply to present an alternative perspective, but it is to deconstruct years and years of teaching in Sunday School, in youth groups and from the pulpit. So this is not something that is done easily. Usually Christian Zionists who change, the first thing is they go through a crisis in which they ask themselves, ‘why were we taught all of this when the reality on the ground differs?’ And so that brings the two questions together, I have come to see that the most effective way of challenging Christian Zionists is by presenting them with the reality on the ground. That’s why we wish people would come to Bethlehem and see, or to Ramallah or to Hebron. We wish people would come and see the impact of the occupation on our lives. And then we wish they meet Palestinians. I cannot tell you how many Western Christians I’ve met who hesitated even to meet us, were afraid and they admitted that, and then they discovered, ‘Oh they are nice!’ I mean, come on.
So you have to deconstruct and to struggle with years of moulding, and let’s be honest, viewing the world from a position of privilege, and then as such, assuming that you get it, and then only to be shocked by an alternative reality. And it takes time. So reality on the ground, and always challenge Christian Zionists, ‘what about Palestinians, and especially Palestinian Christians? They have a different perspective. Have you read the book? Have you listened to a talk? Have you met the Palestinian Christian?’
To me, that’s the most effective way of beginning of conversation with a Christian Zionist.
Thanks for that. I confirmed that yes, we Palestinians are very nice. I’ve got a question from Magan Singodia, another one of our trustees. You had a conversation with an American evangelical pastor in the BBC documentary Till Kingdom Come. Why was it so difficult to have any common understanding when the Bible is so clear about how to treat your brothers and sisters?
That pastor used the Bible to support his ideology. So when he said, ‘I don’t believe there’s anything Palestinian’, he will just go to the Bible and look at the Israel kingdom and interpret it. It’s about interpretation. What’s interesting in that conversation is that that pastor, actually, when I asked him, ‘do the principles or the guidelines that God gave Joshua when he entered Jericho to go and kill everyone still apply today?’ he thought about and he said, ‘yes.’ I asked him twice to make sure, it’s not in the film, unfortunately. And I said, you just promoted ethnic cleansing of my people. And he was shocked. And we talked for more than two hours, by the way, and I expected that he at least recognised our presence. But that illustrates how difficult it is to challenge that.
I think the most important thing about that encounter is that Pastor Boyd thinks simply because he comes from Kentucky, and studied in seminary and knows the Bible, that he not just understands the Bible better than me, even though of course, the Bible was written here…Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but somehow, they think they have got it right…not only is he entitled to interpret the Bible for me, but he understands my reality better than me. And that’s the level of arrogance that’s shocking to me. He comes from Kentucky and he thinks he’s able and entitled and understand my reality better than me. So when I say as a form of Imperial theology, that’s the essence of it, ‘we know better.’
And that brings me quite nicely onto the next bunch of questions. We’ve had a couple of people ask, for example, John Pritchard, Shazia Gleadall. they’ve commented that Christian Zionism seems to be more of an American phenomenon, and that they thankfully haven’t come across it that much in Britain and in Europe. Do you have any comments on that?
Well, the origins of it were in Europe, so there are many books about it. And Christian Zionism was influential during the British Mandate, and influenced policies like the Balfour Declaration. And that’s also documented in studies, to mention Stephen Sizer as just one and Robert Smith, who spoke on the origins of Christian Zionism…they both show clearly that it began with the Puritans and later expanded. John Nelson Darby who started this sensationalism, which became to be very influential in North America, was Irish.
Now, what about today? For sure, it’s strongest in America. And it’s part of the dichotomy that exists today between conservatives and liberals, where everything is either this or that, and part of the conservative fundamentalist ideopogy has become support for Israel. But I’ve travelled and seen multiple forms of support for Israel in Europe. The Protestant churches in Europe are very much pro-Israel, with some exceptions here and there. I think it’s important to say that the support among Protestant Christians in Europe, and among Catholic Christians in Europe, for Israel is based on somehow a different premise. And that’s the idea that God is still faithful and in connection or a relationship with the Jewish people, without necessarily referring to end times scenarios and eschatology. So they believe as if God has two different communities or people, one a special relationship with the Jews. Part of this is trying to correct the wrongs of antisemitism in Europe. So the church adopted this position that’s very friendly and looks at Jews as God’s people.
When I read the statement, the creation of the State of Israel is a sign of God’s faithfulness to the Jewish people, that is an official statement from the Dutch Protestant Church. So that view is prevalent. If you talk to these people in the Netherlands, they will say, ‘we don’t care about these end times scenarios that Americans talk about, and prophecies and so on. But we just want to highlight the connection between Israel and God on one hand, and Jews and the land on the other. So it is in Europe, but not necessarily as strong as it is among evangelicals in America.
Thank you for that. We’ve got a couple of comments on your response there. Peter Buckley says that it’s alive and well in Britain, but not so visible because it has little political clout in the UK, compared to the USA. And Rose S says that, sadly, it’s very strong in South African churches across the denominations and race groups.
We’ve got one quick question for you. Hopefully, the answer is yes. The question is, Abigail Avisal Metzger asks if your thesis is published and available?
Yes, the short answer is yes. It’s called From Land to Lands: from Eden to the Renewed Earth. But it’s very much into Biblical Studies. So it’s a thorough investigation, one of the most comprehensive works on the theme of Promised Land in the Bible. It doesn’t touch on the political reality, on the daily or the contemporary issues, but it’s just going through the biblical text. My challenge to Christian Zionism is in the other book, The Other Side of the Wall.
We’ve got a question from Vicki Karali, does the divine right of return of Jews to Palestine prohibit any coexistence with other people? She says Palestinians, Christians Muslims, Bedouins, maybe it’s not necessarily a faulty theology, but it’s implementation that is wrong.
I think that’s the second question that must be asked to the Zionists and their supporters, not to us. Look, for example, at someone like Martin Buber who believed that Zionism could coexist with Arabs and we want to live side by side with the Arabs, maybe even in one state. To me, all of this talk is nice but irrelevant, because so far, the only and dominant expression of Zionism that I deal with is the current one, which is the Netanyahu rhetoric. Just the elections yesterday, Israel keeps shifting to the right, and keeps having no room for us as Palestinians. So listen, if Jewish rabbis, theologians, intellectuals believe that they have a divine right to the land, or if Jewish historians use the historical data, that’s the Jewish question. And every people have the right to, but to me, I look at Zionism the way it’s related to me, and certainly it’s dismissive. Certainly it’s exclusivist. So when people ask that question, I think you should rather address that to the Zionists and challenge the Zionist movement than ask it of me. So far, the answer to that question, from my perspective, is no. I wish I am wrong. If I am wrong, then Israel has to show that to me.
Thank you for that answer. The next question is from Omar Dorzi, is teaching the Old Testament extensively part of Zionist control on our churches?
It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. The reason I say that is I am a Christian leader. And by the way, as a theologian, if you want to insist on putting me in a camp, I’ll probably fall under a conservative camp, especially now I understand scripture. I teach from the Old Testament, I preach from it. I find there excellent material about justice, I find excellent material about inclusivity, about God’s desire to bless all the nations through Abraham. Some of the most powerful statements on justice and challenging privilege and racism, and on inclusivity, are found in the Old Testament. So I guess it all depends on how one reads it. And where we put our emphasis. And, of course, as a Christian leader I must read the Hebrew Scripture or Old Testament, the way Jesus read it, the way Paul read it. Jesus Himself challenged certain issues and Old Testament. Jesus Himself, one could say, broke certain rules, when, for example, the emphasis was not much on what you eat, but what comes out of your heart. So we cannot just take the Old Testament without doing some re-interpretation on it, based on the coming of Christ. At least that’s my perspective. So I don’t want to put the problem on the Old Testament itself, but on how people use it.
Thank you. We’ve got a question from Robin Kealey, who I’m sure you’re familiar with, a former British Consul-General in Jerusalem. How does the Christian Mission to the Jews fit into the overall picture, with Christ Church by the Jaffa Gate and running the International School in Jerusalem? Do they have a political agenda beyond encouraging closer links between Judaism and Christianity?
Honestly, I don’t know much about Christ Church to answer with certainty. So I don’t want to give a judgment, They certainly come across as very pro-Israel. Theologically, one, might put them in the restoration as a camp. In other words, they do have the belief that Jews will come to faith in Christ at some point before the Second Coming of Christ. In my book, I argued that whenever we relate to Jews based on our eschatology I think that’s what the problem is. Because, you know, we Christians seem to want to think that we know what will happen in the future, and then try to fit in God’s purposes for the future. And I don’t think that’s a helpful approach at all. What I suggest instead is the whole concept of loving your neighbour as yourself, regardless of whether your neighbour is a Jew, or a Muslim. If my main shape of Judaism and the Jewish people, and then the political issue is shaped but by what I believe will happen in the future, or what is happening right now, that God is fulfilling prophecy and so on, it will certainly blind me from relating to injustices. One of the things we say, for example, is we insist on relating to Israel as a secular state based on the international law. That’s all we’re asking as Palestinians. But when you see Israel as part of God’s unfolding drama that will influence how you relate to Israel. And I think that’s where I would challenge movements like Christ Church, and the whole movement related or that whole movement.
We’re wrapping up now, because we’ve made you speak for over an hour now. But I want to end on this question from Debbie Hubbard, because I hope it’ll end this conversation on a hopeful note. And she says, in my church, we do not hear anything about Palestine preached from the pulpit or engaged in learning about the reality on the ground. Any thoughts on how we might begin the conversation in our church?
Yes, thank you, Debbie. It’s a good way to end this. You know, I appreciate what many of our friends are doing in England. And there was a movement to bring Palestinian sermons to churches in England to be read in churches. I think it was the Friends of Sabeel UK that that led that initiative. But as I said, there are multiple ways, we have books, we have articles, we have many, many media resources, videos that present our perspective. And today’s world, the post COVID-19 world, gives us the opportunity to Zoom in Christian leaders to speak to, to churches and congregations. There must be first the desire to say, ‘we have ignored the Palestinian reality, the Palestinian churches’ reality, and it’s time that we listen. And when I say listen, you know, there must be the willingness and the humility to listen and accept, that maybe we have ignored the perspective of our sisters and brothers.’
And so there are many books, videos, articles, social media. And we’re willing to come in person post-COVID or be brought through Zoom. And there are many organizations in the UK that facilitate that.
The Other Side of the Wall can be found on Amazon.