A few months ago, I spoke at a Reformed church that supports me and my work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I was asked to think about a few questions. I want to share with you the answer I gave to two important questions.
- Can you share about a time when it was intimidating or scary to do your mission work?
- In what ways do you use your unique gifts to share the Gospel?
Question one: I am a missionary to the American people (and some Canadians), mostly white Evangelicals, on behalf of the Palestinian people and on behalf of the authors of the Bible. My message to them from the Palestinian people is something I am borrowing from a movement I support in the United States, and that message is: “Palestinian lives matter. We are not disposable for the sake of proving the validity of some prophecies from the Bible or for the sake of American foreign policy in the Middle East. We are being systematically occupied and oppressed by Israel, denied of basic human rights and sometimes killed for peacefully protesting our oppression. We are suffering, and evangelical Christians, by and large, support our oppressor.”
In a Pew survey from January 2018, Americans were asked, “In the dispute between Israel and Palestinians, which side do you sympathize with more?” Amongst white evangelical Christians, which is probably the identity of most individuals in the Reformed Church in America (my employer) and the Christian Reformed Church, 78% sympathize more with Israel. Forty-eight percent of white mainline Protestants sympathize more with Israel, while 16% sympathize more with Palestinians and 19% sympathize with neither or both. Incidentally, of those with no religious affiliation, 26% sympathize more with Israel, 29% sympathize more with the Palestinians, and 24% sympathize with both or neither.
Some important biblical texts (Gen 12:1-7 is a prominent OT text and Rom 9:4-5, 11:28-29 are the most important NT texts) lead these white Evangelicals, and many other Christians, to their sympathy for Israel. For this reason, I bring you the following message from the authors of the Bible: “We were human and thus our writings are human, meaning diverse and imperfect. We do not always agree with one another, even on important things like the character of God. Sometimes we advocate theological or ethical positions that are simply wrong. You must acknowledge our shortcomings and sort out the good stuff of the Bible from the bad stuff. Our work cannot bear the burden of your need for certainty. Interrogate us and our work. We welcome your questions and your critiques.”
I find that a good deal of Christians, evangelical or otherwise, are willing to rethink their views on Israel and Palestine, and I am grateful for that. It is much harder for any Christian to rethink her views on the Bible. In many ways, though, this is the more crucial task. We are apologists for stories and doctrines that we know are awful, and that have awful repercussions. In my context, some Christians are apologists for a God who is somehow so uncreative and cruel that God requires the suffering of Palestinians for the sake of the promises that God made to Israel. Like the Canaanites before them, they are simply in the way of what God wants to do for Israel. I find that position both entirely biblical and completely monstrous. Any God who acts like that is unworthy of the designation “God.” But the God of the Bible is sometimes like that. That’s a hard truth that we must face. I love my Palestinian brothers (like Johnny, our Palestinian guide) and sisters (like Salwa, one of the founders of Military Court Watch). But to love them and advocate for them requires that I reject some central biblical claims about God and God’s priorities.
Ironically, then, I need to be strong and courageous in front of the American church, especially the evangelical American church. I have to stand in front of my supporters, the people who allow me to put food on my family’s table, and tell them that they are mistaken. If they sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, then they are supporting oppression. And if they think that God supports Israel in this oppression, a perfectly reasonable biblical claim, then they need to rethink their understanding of the Bible and of God. As I do this, I am simultaneously unafraid and afraid.
I hope that those who know me personally would say that my humility and graciousness have grown significantly over the last five to ten years, even as I summon the courage to speak boldly. I have come to these conclusions over many years of struggle, study, and confusion. In fact, though I have clarity on some things, I am confused about so much. Nonetheless, I leave you with my current thoughts on the character of God, my answer to question two.
God is gentle and tender in a world that is often lacking gentleness and tenderness. God loves all peoples and does not have a favored ethnic group. God is not a real estate agent. God does not resort to violence to solve problems. God is not needy and, in fact, God does not need anything. God is not intrusive and pushy. God is patient and not controlling. God is like that person in your life who is easy to be around, for whom love and kindness come easily. That’s what the God of the universe is like and that is good news.