Dispatch from the West Bank
I’ve been to Israel a number of times, most often leading tour groups. Each time, leaving Bethlehem I would insist our Israeli driver stop by Bethlehem Bible College so I could visit its president, Bishara Awad. I tried to keep myself abreast of the goings on within Israel and the occupied areas of the West Bank and Gaza, the strip on the Mediterranean. But never had I taken time to actually stay with my Palestinian friends. They would periodically visit Tyndale and students loved to hear their story. But I admit, too frequently Yasser Arafat and his cronies angered me by their seeming endless whining and refusal to admit Israel had legitimacy as a state with the right to defend itself. I assumed the Palestinians had had sufficient opportunity to find a deal with Israel, especially when Arafat turned down the Camp David offer.
So, as my friends know, I have and do support the establishing of the State of Israel. Finding a place for Jews in the 20th Century was the right thing to do. As well, God’s covenant with the Jews stands and their place in the eschaton (the days of Christ’s return) is assured. There is no equivocation in my mind of their critical place in the economy and agenda of the Lord.
This winter I decided I needed to go and live there, only for a few days, to see it through the eyes of my Palestinian brethren. Since this role as global ambassador, I’ve learned nothing can compare with walking in the steps of those you wish to understand. There is no substitute for sitting in their homes, listening to their stories, asking questions of their children, driving their streets, sitting in worship services, praying before and after meals. It was in this recent visit that I faced conflicting messages I could no longer ignore.
It came into focus one evening while eating dinner with Salim Munayer overlooking the Shepherd’s Field in Bethlehem. The wonder of the place never ceases to fill me with deep emotion. I never tire of visiting Old and New Testament places. As my eyes wander over the scenery in front of me, I noticed on the crown of the hill a recently built Jewish settlement.
To add to the dynamic of the location and moment, I need to also let you know that behind me was where Boaz had bought a field so he could marry Ruth, a Moabite, daughter in law to Naomi recently widowed. Boaz — whose name means kinsman redeemer — is an Old Testament precursor to Jesus, our Redeemer. An Old Testament story I have preached many times.
But back to my gazing at Bethlehem, hometown of David, king of Israel, the most famous of Jewish kings and in the paternal lineage of Jesus. The location is filled with multiple Bible stories. Here I sat just metres from where Jesus was born. Across the road was the pasture where shepherds heard the announcement for the King. From here they would have scrambled up the slope of the hill to celebrate the newly arrived king. Not any king, but Jesus, Son of God. Yes that very same Jesus who invites all to come to him and be reconciled with his Father. There is no distinction — Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free.
The romance of the moment was broken as I thought about the kingdom this baby would launch. Contrary to popular views then and now, counterintuitive in the politics of kingship, his was to be defined differently: our lives would be in service not domination; forgiveness not revenge would outline our behaviour; giving not getting would pave the way to blessing. I couldn’t escape the contradiction. I knew instinctively the ways of God stood in sharp contrast to what I was seeing.
2000 years later, I, and many of my fellow Christians, have been lured into thinking uncritically and approving ways of this nation state because our views are shaped by a biblical formula: for Jesus to return the Jews need to be living in the homeland promised to Abraham, secured by Joshua and ruled by kings inducted following Saul.
When the State of Israel was established in 1947 by the United Nations, the intended effect in establishing the state had been earlier outlined in the Balfour Declaration. In part it said, that “. . . the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people [with the understanding that] nothing should be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine . . . .” Land was to be divided for the incoming and resident Jews and for Palestinians, most of whom had lived there for generations.
Now today. The state I support — including reasons supplied by certain biblical interpretations of prophecy of the return of Christ — it turns out, is taking land from residents, many being Christians who trace ownership of land back for years.
As I looked out on the large settlement sitting above Shepherd’s Field, I asked Salim how they got this land to build the many settlements. “Was it bought,” I asked? “No.” “Was there negotiation?” “No.” “Who owned it?” “Christians and Muslims.” “Can you do anything about it?” “No. They are the army.”
I travel to many countries in which Christians face persecution from hostile religions, rebuttals by governments, death by fanatics. I have and continue to advocate for fairness and justice and seek peaceful negotiations so not only are people protected from violence, discrimination and death, but so that Jesus is seen as the Prince of Peace.
Here is the conclusion I came to, one that I found deeply discomfiting.
Please follow my logic and feel with me the intellectual and moral whiplash I experienced that early evening as I attempted to reconcile these following contradictory factors: Jesus was born in this very town as Saviour founding a kingdom to be ruled by love and grace. So then, have I his follower, some 2000 years later, ignored this land grab based on a belief it is essential to the Lord’s return, without regard for what Jesus stood for and what he announced as foundational to his coming rule?
Why have I been so blind? Why did I turn away when my Christian brothers and sisters asked me to see what I refused to see? I confess I think now I know. I have been willing to ignore the moral and ethical violations embedded in this action because I believed that control of this land, as preparation for Jesus’ return, transcends the heart of what Jesus said comprised his kingdom. Ethical and moral action became nothing more than words in the face of perceived promises that control of land, should in the end trump righteousness.
Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, The World Evangelical Alliance