Conflict Stirs Evangelical Debate
By Andrew F. Bush and Rob Dalrymple
Recently, the world watched the shocking televised split-screen images of Israel resorting to live fire against Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza, killing dozens and wounding hundreds including women and children, while simultaneously Israel joyously celebrating the opening of the United States Embassy in Jerusalem. For the Trump administration, which had authorized the relocation of the embassy from Tel Aviv, the day was portrayed as a triumph, a gesture of unqualified support for Israel, and a gift to the Trump administration’s passionately pro-Israel base of supporters among evangelical Christians.
Almost no hint of the sorrow in Gaza crept into the Jerusalem festivities. Instead, images broadcast by western media perpetuate a narrative that promotes the Israelis as victorious underdogs who have overcome the world, while castigating the Palestinians as violent protesters who engaged in mutiny when that underdog prevails. Such media coverage is not only inequitable and unjust, but it propagates a storyline that perpetuates a conflict instead of fostering peace. Scheduling the opening of the embassy on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding as a modern state, the event was effectively a repudiation of Palestinian aspirations for their own sovereign state.
Such media coverage is not only inequitable and unjust, but it propagates a storyline that perpetuates a conflict instead of fostering peace.
Political pundits quickly began pointing out a long list of possible negative results of the embassy’s relocation and the continued harsh treatment of Gaza’s citizens. Such a unilateral move forfeits any leverage that a final settlement of Jerusalem might offer in peace negotiations, as well as America’s role as a fair arbiter between Israel and Palestine. Such a move will further isolate Israel and America globally, while handing Shi’a Iran and Sunni Muslim extremists a tool to inflame anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment. In short, in the view of many pundits, the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem will ultimately hurt Israel.
According to some evangelicals, the moving of the US Embassy to Jerusalem is sanctioned by God, in that Jerusalem is the God-ordained capital of Israel—and, consequently, is an event that should be supported by all Christians. But many others, including a wide array of Christians who also identify as evangelicals, do not look at the day’s events in the same light. While on the one hand we rejoice with the Israelis, we also recognize that these events may well work against the state of Israel and its long-term security. Further, this action represents a rejection of the Palestinian historical presence (both Christian and Muslim) and their relationship to the land.
Simply put, Jerusalem is a shared city. Recognizing one people’s relationship to the city, while simultaneously ignoring the rightful claims of the other, is not a move towards peace, but a provocation that will necessarily result in unrest—not because one side is composed of radical terrorists while the other is peaceful victims, but because inequities foster strife.
As a result, a growing number of evangelical leaders view these events with concern. Not only for the political and social ramifications for Israel and Palestine, but also for the apparent diminishing of the gospel of God’s universal love in Christ Jesus—through Christians’ fervent support of Israel at the expense of the Palestinian people, the emphasis on nationalism above humanitarian needs, and the superseding of the clear, ethical teachings of Christ by speculative interpretations of prophecy.
Such inquiring evangelicals do not discount the importance of the State of Israel to the Jewish people, the centrality of Jerusalem in the Jewish faith, or even, in many cases, the prophetic role of Israel in what they understand to be the events that will mark the end of this age and the return of Christ. Where, though, they ask, is the compassion of Christ for the weak regardless of nationality or ethnicity?
How can Christians speak of the destruction of nations which oppose Israel in the end times without shedding a tear? In the same way as the Hebrew prophets who would only flatter Israel’s ancient kings by shouting “Peace, peace,” (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11) when there was no peace in store for God’s people because of its sins, questioning evangelicals are asking if the unqualified support of Israel—of even its harshest political policies toward Palestinians—is actually participating in Israel’s self-delusion, and perhaps of its destruction? At the least they wonder, does not such support by pro-Israel evangelicals frustrate Israel’s ancient call to be a unique humanitarian oasis in the world? Wouldn’t it be so much more like the kingdom of God if Israelis and Palestinians both could have celebrated the fulfillment of their peoples’ hopes in Jerusalem?
Evangelicals are asking if the unqualified support of Israel is actually participating in Israel’s destruction.
For those evangelicals who are asking such questions, an embrace of a more compassionate Christianity should not be equated with an exclusively pro-Palestinian political posture. To do so would frustrate the very borderless compassion and inclusiveness which they seek to promote. Rather, these evangelicals emphasize that they seek to be ‘pro-humanity’ in their spiritual lives, not only as it touches Israel and Palestine, but in matters of ethnic tensions in the United States, the flow of refugees globally who are cast adrift by war, famine, or other horrors, and other social issues.
Evangelical supporters of Israel repeatedly return to a belief in the chosenness of the Jewish people, and the favor of God upon them as demonstrated by the creation of the State of Israel. One might ask, though, what this chosenness implies. And what are its limits?
In the first sermon of Jesus as recorded by Luke (4:14-30), Jesus infuriated his synagogue audience in Nazareth by bringing to their attention that even though in the time of the prophets Elijah and Elisha there was famine and illness in Israel, it was a Gentile woman from Sidon and a Syrian army captain who miraculously were fed and healed. The message was straightforward: chosenness by God should not be equated with an exclusive claim to God’s blessings.
This was an outrageous message to the first-century Jews listening to Jesus. It undermined their national identity, which was founded upon their understanding of an exclusive claim upon God’s blessings. Such teaching crossed a red line for them, and they sought to put Jesus to death. Jesus lived to teach another day, and throughout his brief ministry on earth, he demonstrated what the universal love of God looks like both by blessing the sinful (Mark 1:40-45) within Israel and granting the prayers of those without (Matthew 15:21-28).
Perhaps an important takeaway from the jolting images of celebrations and concurrent deaths is that Christians should take a fresh reckoning of their understanding of the gospel of Jesus, and how as its messengers we are to carry that gospel into the world as peacemakers, reconcilers, and bearers of hope. Many evangelical Christians are doing just that, and inviting others to join them.
Andrew F. Bush, D.Min., is a professor of missiology at Eastern University, and continues his more than twenty years of Christian service in Israel/Palestine.
Rob Dalrymple, Ph.D., is a pastor, teacher, and writer based in California.