What Can Western Followers of Jesus Do for Peace with Justice in Israel and Palestine?

Paul's Magic Trick at Checkpoint in Hebronby Paul Alexander

I am an outsider to the Palestinian situation. I only know what I’ve read and heard and what I’ve seen during the few months I’ve spent in the West Bank and Israel. I can’t help but be an American Christian.  But as painfully and intimately aware of the greed, nationalism, one-sided Zionism, and violence perpetrated by myself and my Christian brothers and sisters, as much as I might be ashamed of my past mistakes and the ongoing attitude of so many Christians, I am convinced that followers of Jesus must use their unique gifts and particularities to work for a just peace in Israel and Palestine.

Four ways to appeal to  Christians:
1. It’s biblical—Many followers of Jesus tend to respect and be persuaded by arguments that are biblically based. That’s good news as it applies to this situation, because working and sacrificing for a just peace is good biblical theology. The Bible calls for peace with justice, so the Bible is on the side of those who work to end the occupation and work for a just peace in Israel and Palestine.

2. It’s Jesus-centered—Jesus calls us to love our enemies while also nonviolently resisting injustice. When Jesus said to turn the left cheek he taught neither passivity nor violence, but a third way of engaging oppressors with hopes of redeeming and transforming them (and us) and changing the situation. Jesus loves everybody, and Jesus is with those who work to end the occupation and work for a just peace.

3. It’s Spirit-empowered—In Luke 4, Jesus declares that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him to preach good news to the poor, release the oppressed, and declare the year of freedom (Jubilee). That is the work of the Holy Spirit in Luke and Acts, empowering Jesus and his followers to take on entrenched, imbedded, status quo, oppressive systems. Christians often resonate with a call to rely on the Holy Spirit to take on seemingly impossible obstacles.

4. It’s concrete—The fourth aspect of an argument that appeals to followers of Jesus is that it must be intensely practical—the Bible, Jesus, and Spirit-empowerment have to matter in the real world—and Palestine is as real as it gets. It has to make a difference.  It has to answer the question, “So what?” We want concrete actions that we can do and keep doing and get others to do. We actually want to make a difference.

Western-Followers-3Four things followers of Jesus can do:
There is a lot that Christians do poorly and foolishly, but I will focus on four things that followers of Jesus can do well.

1. We can tell stories. Ours is a faith that is drawn forward by stories; it is story-motivated and story-formed. Storytelling and music are two of the most powerful forms of human communication, and some Christians are said to specialize in both.(1) Here’s a true story:

I had just returned from the West Bank as part of a Christian Peacemaker Team delegation right before the Gaza pullout of 2005. My wife, Deborah, saw a sign at her home church, an 8-foot long Israeli flag hanging in their foyer, and a sign out front saying, “The Bible says the land belongs to Israel.” My furious and prophetic wife calls me. I’m watching Gandhi, had just watched the scene where the protestors are beaten by the British and row after row of Indians resist, are beaten, and carried away. I paused the movie, lay down on the floor, and prayed, and cried like a baby. “If Gandhi can take that to expel the British, I can call my fellow minister and ask to speak in his church.”

I called the next morning, Saturday, and left a message, hoping he doesn’t call back. He does. I pray and plan the rest of the day, drive two hours Sunday morning. Get there, and the pastor says, “There’ll be no peace in Israel until Jesus comes back.” I respond that if a hungry family comes to your door you wouldn’t tell them that things will only get worse until Jesus comes back; we’d feed them, right? And help them find a home and a job if they need one? So there are things we can do until then to make things better.

I started my sermon with Jesus and his love for the outsiders in Luke 4 (how Elijah and Elisha took care of the Syrian army commander and the foreign widow rather than fellow Hebrews) and how that sermon almost got Jesus killed (thrown off a cliff). I gently complexified the situation a little by talking about Palestinian Christians (Palestinian what?); simplified it by telling stories of how some Christians, Muslims, and Jews are working together in the Bereaved Families Forum and the work that Holy Land Trust, Musalaha, and Bethlehem Bible College are doing; and had an altar call where we all got on our knees together and prayed for the Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel. This approach may not work in every situation, but it’s the language they understood.

Western-Followers-1We must become experts at showing the faces and telling the stories that reveal the giftedness and dignity of people in Palestine and Israel. Millions of people suffering—that’s too much to comprehend. But we can tell the small stories in the name of Jesus.

The church suffers without the stories of Palestinian Christians.(2) We all need stories and testimonies of the good, the reconciled families, the human rights that bloom, the lights that shine. We also need stories of complaints, prayer requests, and stories that protest abuse, exploitation, and oppression. Christians can protest. We call them prayer requests, but they can be seen as protests against suffering, injustice, and pain. “Testimony and lament are two sides of the same coin.”(3) These stories are protest/imonies—we’re protesting and testifying at the same time, and that can be truly prophetic.

I know followers of Jesus can move from fundamentalist, dispensationalist, one-sided Christian Zionist, uncritical support for Israel and disregard for Palestinians to Jesus-shaped, Spirit-empowered love for Israel and Palestine and dedication to a just peace based in solid biblical theology­—because it happened to me.

The stories of the suffering must be told; the despair, and fear, and frustration must be expressed. For hearing the voices and seeing the faces of the injustice can evoke empathy,(4) and empathy can lead to calling, and calling can lead to action, and action can lead to healing, and healing can lead to hope and transformation.(5) I believe that God works through the practice of telling stories, and this can bring healing, hope, justice, and peace to Palestine and Israel by evoking empathy, calling, and action.

Imagine a fundamentalist Christian televangelist, with millions of viewers around the world, preaching powerfully on the rights, gifts, and humanity of Palestinians. We need people with the televangelist’s mass appeal preaching the peace-with-justice message of Jesus and the prophets. We need a continually flowing counter-narrative that can gently and humbly undermine, subvert, and replace a one-sided Christian Zionist narrative that does not support justice for Palestinians (and that therefore does not truly support the state of Israel).

Imagine a 24-hour television channel with Christian leaders and activists telling stories, showing the gifts of Palestinians to the world—online TV channels, podcasts, YouTube, websites, radio, skits, drama teams, curricula, all presenting stories, testimonies, preaching, and teaching, real Christian people referring to Jesus and the Bible, connecting the deep core of their own religious expressions and traditions to this concrete situation.(6)

The Palestinian News Network does this with excellence, but I think there needs to be more. For instance, there could be a North American Christian show on human rights, justice, and peace-building that uses its particular Christian language and is produced by Christians who are passionate about this issue.

2. Followers of Jesus can testify. One particular way that Christians tell stories is by testifying. Some call them praise reports. I testify of the goodness of God who has saved me from continuing a life of theologically justified racism, greed, warmongering, one-sided Zionism, and injustice. And I have all kinds of additional sins that I’ll hopefully be able to testify about in the future. This is what Christians do—we tell our narratives of transformation, and this opens up continual narrative frameworks in which others can live.

Think about your own personal testimony of your journey with God. What has happened to you and in you—emotionally, spiritually, physically, experientially, rationally—that has brought you to a place of concern for justice and peace? What is your story? Your story matters deeply, and people are motivated by personal testimonies of transformation and hope.

We need communities that cultivate persons of character and conviction who, through habits, practices, and actions, live out the core of our faith. We then become the stories we tell that continue to shape our communities of faith and empower work for justice.

3. Followers of Jesus can believe in and work for conversions. Christians believe in changed hearts, changed minds, and changed realities. They are willing to pray and work for people’s transformation—from substance abuse and destructive behaviors to healthy relationships and healthy lives. Christians believe that nothing is impossible with God; the impossible is possible. Holy Land Trust has a “Making the Impossible Possible” campaign, and to me that seems like a very Christian way of looking at this situation. To continue to take on a situation as serious as this, there has to be a movement of people who believe in conversions.

I know followers of Jesus can move from fundamentalist, dispensationalist, one-sided Christian Zionist, uncritical support for Israel and disregard for Palestinians to Jesus-shaped, Spirit-empowered love for Israel and Palestine and dedication to a just peace based in solid biblical theology—because it happened to me.

This brings hope. And hope is crucial. I’ve seen people change, so when doubters say that folks are stuck with their worldview or theology, or that people don’t change, I just look in a mirror and at many of the other people I’m working with and think, “I don’t know how you can say that, because here we are.” People can change their minds, they can learn something new, they can have the situation reframed and re-storied for them so that they understand it differently, and then they can work for social change.

Only 11 percent of Assemblies of God pastors in the US believe that Israel should not be privileged over the Palestinians. I think that 11 percent is a prophetic minority and that the number is growing and will continue to grow—people can change. It is possible.

4. Followers of Jesus can follow Jesus. To have the kinds of conversions to peace with justice in Palestine that this social movement needs, I think we have to stick very close to Jesus—a “thick Jesus” whose life and teachings we take seriously and whose call to peacemaking we heed.

Jesus taught neither passivity nor violence when he taught us to turn the other cheek. When slapped on the right cheek of indignity, one could either retaliate with violence or passively slink away and take it. But Jesus taught his disciples to stand there and turn the cheek of equality, of dignity, of hope, offering a space for possible confession, repentance, transformation, and redemption. Now the oppressor has choices: hit me on the cheek of equality, which means I suffer yet still win; walk away because he will not see me as an equal; or repent and I can forgive and we can embrace and be reconciled. But the oppressed takes the initiative to transform the situation, this third way of cheek-turning, this transforming initiative that flips the script.(7) It is the way of Jesus and it is Spirit-empowered, biblically based, and intensely practical. We must rediscover and practice the powerful teachings of Jesus.

Since God’s name is invoked in vain to support the occupation—confiscation of land, suppression of human rights, exploitation, and destruction—we should invoke God’s name not in vain but with honor and humility as we nonviolently and redemptively promote human rights and political solutions. We can say, “UN resolution 242 says that Israel should withdraw and Palestinians should be compensated,” but  many Christians would simply respond, “So what? That’s just the UN.” They’re not convinced, because UN resolutions are not sacred texts. But scripture is sacred, and Jesus is authoritative, so when we say to Christians, who are supposed to listen to Jesus, “Jesus does not want Israel to continue occupying Palestine,” we can tell them why God cares, based on the scriptures, about the Palestinians and what we think can and should be done.

This is what followers of Jesus must do: commit to the challenging and inspiring work of exploring the depths of our faith to create communities that follow Jesus and who can’t help but surpass the expectations of the UN security resolutions.

We do not expect too much when we ask Christians and their leaders to work for a just peace in Palestine and Israel; we expect too little. Human rights should be easy; love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness are greater challenges and greater gifts. So Christians can do the powerful and divinely bestowed task of calling our people to faithfulness, and this will help us accomplish the easier task of promoting a two-state solution.

God with all of us
Christians should glorify God and support the Palestinians as well as the Israelis by being themselves and by being prophetic. Prophets “speak for God to the world”—pointing out evil and calling us to justice, risking their lives by telling the truth, loving their enemies, and challenging injustice. We need faith leaders and communities who humbly risk their careers and their safety to stand in solidarity with the suffering and tell the stories, in the name of God, and to carry their words and stories to the streets and to the halls of government and become part of the story as they risk it all for the glory of God and the health of Israel and Palestine.

The prophet Joel said, “Your sons and your daughters will prophesy” (2:28), and the time has come in human history for followers of Jesus to speak and act prophetically regarding this present injustice without relenting, no matter the cost, and to use every nonviolent weapon in our arsenal—stories, preaching, teaching, persuasion, music, movies, marches, prayer, jail, drama, patience, and even the giving of our very lives.

So let us speak freely, humbly, powerfully, and continually in our own particular ways and tell the stories that prophetically protest, testify, and inspire to action; for the stories of painful protest and the stories of thankful testimony are often the same story, the story of Immanuel—“God with all of us.”

This article was adapted from chapter 5 of Christ at the Checkpoint: Theology in the Service of Justice and Peace, edited by Paul Alexander (Pickwick Publications). Paul Alexander is professor of Christian ethics and public policy at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University and director of public policy at Evangelicals for Social Action. He is also cofounder of Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice.

 

Footnotes:

1. Tex Sample, White Soul: Country Music, the Church, and Working Americans (Abingdon, 1996), 63.
2. Scott A. Ellington, “The Costly Loss of Testimony,” Journal of Christian Theology 16 (2000), 48–59.
3. Ibid.
4. Christine S. Davis, “Sylvia’s Story: Narrative, Storytelling, and Power in a Children’s Community Mental Health System of Care,” Qualitative Research 12 (2006), 1220–43. “Authority and power are based on whose story is told, and whose story is seen as the moral one. . . . It is moral for all of us to see our responsibility in forming each other’s stories.” Ibid., 1228, 1234.
5. Nicholas Wolterstorff, a philosopher at Yale, recently shared his testimony about the philosophy of justice as a calling. He testified that when he met South Africans struggling against Apartheid and heard their stories he felt “called” by God to work with them against the injustice of the Apartheid system. Later when he met Palestinians and heard their stories he again felt “called” by God to work against the occupation and for a just peace in Palestine and Israel. Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Speaking Up for the Wronged” at the Sophia Forum, February 12, 2008 at Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, California. Personal files of the author.
6. Our religions can preach the message of universal human gifts. Through stories and sermons we can and should invite God’s people to become communities who in greater or lesser ways can embody the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). We should encourage and empower local and particular expressions so that we can speak to our own people in our own languages.
7. See Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Engagement and Discernment in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992) and Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003).
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2 Responses

  1. The entire situation of Israel and Palestine deeply troubles me. And the position of most churches troubles me even more supporting the occupation and persecution of an entire culture. VERY unbiblical. Israel, in the days before Jesus, was thrown out of their own land by God a number of times for the very same thing. If there is ever hope for the Temple to be rebuilt … the people must have a heart of compassion and love, not hatred. God will never dwell among haters.

  2. Here is a bit more on my comments about the Temple from the Talmud. I can’t think of too many more hateful things to do than to occupy and suppress a race of people. A rabbi comments about what it will take for the Temple in Jerusalem to be rebuilt:

    http://ravkooktorah.org/TISHA-AV-70.htm

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