Like many, I’m struggling to understand what’s going on with the current fighting between Israel & Palestine. More to the point, I hear rumors that American Christians and American tourism might actually be making matters more complicated for those involved.
With that in mind I asked my good friend, Jon Huckins, to help me understand it a bit better. Jon is the author of two books, Teaching Through the Art of Storytelling and Thin Places. Jon is also my co-author for Good News in the Neighborhood. He’s a part of NieuCommunities, an organization that trains missional leaders, as well as the co-founder of a new ministry start-up called the Global Immersion Project which helps inform and Christians in the peace-making efforts in Israel and Palestine. They offer a four month learning experience that integrates historical, theological and social realities which culminates in two weeks on the ground in Israel and Palestine. Their hope is to cultivate a generation of peacemakers who better live, love and lead like Jesus both in the Middle East and in their neighborhood.
Enough with the bio… here’s my interview with Jon.
AM: For those of us new to this conflict, help us understand what’s going on. Why the build-up of Israeli military and why is Hamas shooting rockets towards Tel Aviv & Jerusalem?
JH: Well, if you asked 10 people why/who started this thing you’d probably get 10 different answers, but I’ll give you my best shot. First, if we are to understand the events of the past week, we have to look at the history of the past 60 years since Israel became a Nation-State. When Israel became a State, natives of the land (Palestinians) were displaced as refugees into the West Bank and Gaza (both are considered Palestine, but are not geographically connected and are led by different political parties). While the West Bank is governed by the Palestinian party Fatah (yet under Israeli military occupation), Gaza is governed by Hamas and cut off from the world by an Israeli blockade. This means that they are basically a big refugee camp with diminishing resources and no ability to import/export, etc. Such a reality has led to dyer conditions for inhabitants (Palestinians in Gaza are Muslim and Christian) and birthed a distain for the government of Israel. Although Hamas and Israel have been regularly firing at each other, the past week ramped up in violence after Israel killed the leader of Hamas’ military. Hamas then responded by firing rockets into non-military populations in Southern Israel and Israel countered with massive airstrikes and drone warfare. All this has led to 130+ Palestinian casualties (primarily civilians) and 3 Israeli casualties (also civilians).
AM: Americans like good guys in white hats and bad guys in black hats. In this conflict, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?
JH: If we’re using the “bad guys” language it would be the leaders of both Israel and Hamas. Massive (if not the majority!) percentages of both Israeli’s and Palestinian condemn the actions of their government While the governments also know this, the people are outspoken that escalating violence in never going to lead to a long term peace agreement. The “good guys” are the every day citizens (Muslims, Jews and Christians) who are working tirelessly for peace yet find themselves covered by airstrikes, falling rockets and a narrative redemptive violence.
AM: We understand that the Christian community, especially evangelicals, are a character in the narrative between Israel and Palestine. What has been the role of evangelicals in the past 20+ years and what is the new role you are hopeful evangelicals will play?
JH: As an evangelical, it pains me to say that evangelicals over the past 20+ years have been key players in assembling a narrative of misunderstanding, stereotype and one sided support. Now, there have been beautiful movements within evangelicalism that have chosen to engage this issue by engaging with both Israeli’s and Palestinians through the lens of a shared humanity in Jesus, but they haven’t been the majority. Something that many evangelicals don’t hear about through traditional forms of Western media is the significant Christian population in Palestine (both the West Bank AND Gaza). I recently had a conversation with a Christian Palestinian friend of mine from Bethlehem and he said, “American Christians come here to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, but they don’t engage with the people with whom those footsteps were leading towards.” Evangelical tourism has provided the #1 source of income for Israel and brought about more misunderstanding about the political/social situation than resolution. If we begin to use our influence to engage the people, listen to stories of both Israeli’s and Palestinians and build friendships I have full confidence that evangelicals will shed destructive stereotypes and ignorance. It’s time we pull into driveways instead of parking lots, sit around shared tables with those that are different than us and step into the conflict with the hope of Jesus rather than run from it.
AM: In our conversations, you seem to put some of the blame for the conflict between Palestinians/Israelis on the theology of evangelicals. In what ways is our eschatology contributing to the violence we see today?
JH: A dispensational eschatology (study of the “final things” or end times) disseminated by evangelicals in the past 100+ years has been a huge reason for the political and social disunity in the region. It is a relevantly new concept that was birthed in England by John Nelson Darby and spread through evangelical churches and seminaries in the early 1900’s. I wrote a brief history of this eschatology and its modern day implications in Israel/Palestine for Tony Campolo’s Red Letter Christians which you can read here.
One Christian leader recently shared on Twitter: “Watching events in #Israel . All those hellbent on destroying Israel playing directly into Biblical prophecy. #almostcomical
There are few perspectives that have done more harm for the cause of Christ over centuries of Church history than the one expressed above. We could get into why this has significant theological holes that lead to a fatalistic mentality by discussing the role of Apocalyptic literature found in the second half of Daniel, Mark 13 and much of Revelation, but that is for another time and place.
Here is the question we must ask: As followers of Jesus, how does speculating about the eschaton (Final Things or “End Times”) help us live into our vocation as active participants in the restorative Mission of God? We are to be a people who are marked by our love of God and neighbor. Choosing to view violence apathetically (or worse, with excitement of what it may mean for the future!) is anti-Jesus and anti the mission he invited to extend on his behalf.
If we look at the Middle East primarily through the lens of “prophecy fulfillment” then we are unable to primarily look at its inhabitants as humans loved by Jesus. We reduce Image Bearers into pawns within a divine drama. Within Church history you will see “this is the end times!” being proclaimed dozens of times. These pronouncements are nothing new; at one point Napoleon Bonaparte was thought to be the anti-Christ.
In the end, this mentality fosters a loss of humanity both for those we condemn and for who we are as humans designed to love and be loved.
AM: In Donald Miller’s piece the other day he says that officials on both sides brushed off the possibilities of non-violent resistance. What are some examples of non-violent, Christ-oriented peacemaking you’ve seen in your work in Israel and the West Bank?
JH: There is a significant movement budding forth among Jewish Israelis and Palestinians (both Muslim and Christian) that are setting aside narratives of destruction and misunderstanding for narratives of reconciliation and a shared future. 70% of Israeli’s support peace efforts that would bring an agreement with Palestine and the current leadership in the West Bank, Palestine (Fatah party) endorse non-violent means of conflict resolution.
With all that said, as a Christian, it is the grassroots movements led by Christians (in both Israel and Palestine) that bring about the most joy and hope for my work in that region. Bethlehem Bible College is an evangelical seminary in Palestine that is leading the way in being a presence of reconciliation in the midst of conflict. They partner with Christians like Daoud Nasser who started Tent of Nations embodies Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in dealing with daily injustice by saying, “We refuse to be enemies.” There are my dear friends Milad and Manar who as Christian Palestinians work for reconciliation by creating a place for youth to learn art, job training and social skills as an alternative to getting caught up in the cycle of violence. There are people like Miko Peled who as an Israeli Jew traveling the world calling people to support Israel by choosing a way of justice and righteousness. There is my friend Eliyahu – Director of Jerusalem Peacemakers – who as a faithful Jew has build relationships that allow him to enter the home of a Muslim Palestine in the morning and a Jewish Settler in the evening and receive a hug from both. (Read more about this here)
It is these stories that we must highlight as followers of the Prince of Peace. We must reboot our imagination for what God has in store for humanity as we acknowledge each day through our lives a submission to the King of the Kingdom, Jesus.