Humbling. That is the word that comes to my mind after encountering the complexities of life in the midst of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. After recently spending eight days in Israel hearing from people and leaders on all sides of the conflict, I realize that what appears difficult at first glance, possesses multiple layers of complexity below the surface. I also realize that the tendency of Americans to watch cable news channels and make snap judgments about what ought to be done in the Middle East conflict is audacious hubris.
The Conflict is Full of People Created in the Image of God
The opportunity I received to go to Israel from The Philos Project and The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has left me humbled and burdened. I saw and met people. People—not merely sides, but people—created in the image of God. To give you some idea of the communities the people in Israel come from, consider the following: there are Israeli Jews, Israeli secularists, Israeli Christians, Israeli Messianic Christians, Druze, Bedouin, Aramaic Christians, Palestinian Arab Muslims, Palestinian Arab Christians, and even a few Palestinian Arab Jews. Within each of these communities there is an amazing amount of variety. Someone who simply thinks that the only players in the conflict are Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arab Muslims is simply wrong—dangerously wrong.
Simply driving around Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories will show you street signs are in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, which provides a sense of the reality the situation is marked by complexity upon complexity. Border walls, barbed wire, check points, occupied territories, soldiers everywhere, should remind the American that this is a world of which we know little. Visiting a hospital on the Lebanon border that has a fully functionally bunker hospital underground in case of attack and a staff that has to do bunker transition drills is grievous. Listening to a doctor at that hospital talking about operating on Syrian refugees (an Israeli political opponent) who have been shot and maimed is sobering. Standing at the Israel and Syrian border and hearing bombs from the Syrian civil war is more sobering still. But, we must never forget that all involved are people created in the image of God.
A Pro-Jesus Approach to the Conflict
During the week, our group heard from a man who introduced himself as an Israeli Palestinian Christian. He said, “Imagine the identity crisis of living in an occupied territory as an Israeli who is not a Jew, a Palestinian who is not a Muslim, but a tiny minority evangelical Christian.” We also heard presentations from and had the opportunity to question medical professionals, columnists who cover the conflict, Israeli politicians at the highest levels, the US Ambassador for religious freedom, Christian college professors and academics, Jewish scholars, Muslims scholars, Jewish rabbis, Christians (Aramaic, Arab, Jewish, and Palestinian), authors, legal experts, ministry leaders, church members, synagogue members, mosque members. Have I mentioned that the situation in region is complex? More than being pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian, Christians must be pro-Jesus as they think about the conflict. Nevertheless, knowing the best way to be pro-Jesus is not easy.
There is an inherent danger in describing ones position regarding the conflict in this way—it is often an excuse for non-engagement. Too often, pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace, or even pro-Jesus descriptors, function merely as shibboleths. This kind of lazy sloganeering does not address any of the real and vital issues. It takes a multilayered complex situation and makes it neat and tidy. Too often this kind of approach is not the fruit of critical thinking and engagement but rather a simplistic way to avoid thinking about the issues. To do so, is an insult to God’s image bearers living in the region dealing with the consequences of the decisions that are being made. We must care about human flourishing throughout the world and in God’s providence the Middle East has always been an epicenter that inordinately affects the entire global community. Taking “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5) demands being informed and takes deliberate prayerful effort.
Conflicting Narratives and the Gospel Narrative
I had people tell me that there would already be peace in the conflict if the United States stayed out of it, while others said that there would be peace in the conflict if the United States would get more involved. Separated by language, religion, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, each group has a narrative about the conflict, which often tells a completely opposite story of the story the other groups tell. Tal Becker, who serves as principal deputy legal adviser at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is a senior member of the Israeli peace negotiation team, spoke to our group and said, “How can you get anyone to change? You have to know what story they are telling themselves. You must be able to get into their bloodstream and affect that story and many levels.” He also said, “One of the problems in this region is that everyone has a competing victim/villain narrative, including Israel.” That is certainly true and applicable beyond the Israel/Palestinian conflict.
Israel is one of the smallest countries in the region. It is about the size of the state of New Jersey. The present nation-state of Israel has only been in existence since 1948. Nevertheless, the land has ancient sacred meaning in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and it is rich in history and tradition for all three religious faiths. In particular, Jerusalem is a sacred city, with sacred sites that are important for all three of the great monotheistic religions. Each group traces a direct lineage back to Abraham (Gen 17:5). The region of Israel/Palestine matters, it has always mattered, and it will always matter.
The modern Jewish state of Israel lives in constant fear of terrorist attacks form Islamists and military threats from every direction. On May 15 1948, Israel declared its independence and national sovereignty, and the following day they were invaded by a combined Arab attack from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. Living in fear of possible attack is a way of life in the modern state of Israel. Palestinians of all faiths feel ignored by the world and even many of their Arab allies, since the founding of the modern state of Israel. Living under military occupation for almost five decades causes many Palestinians to feel a sense of hopelessness and humiliation. Christians are a small minority in Israel, and evangelical Christians are a tiny minority who do not even constitute one-percent of the population. One Palestinian evangelical Christian asked me, “Do you find it strange that Christians in the West are more focused on helping unbelieving Jews than they are helping their Christian brothers and sisters?” It is complicated.
The Bible tells the story of Israel and Israel’s God. The four New Testament gospels present the fulfillment of Israel’s story. The Bible is not Israel-centered any more than it is Gentile-centered. The Bible is Christ-centered, and we must be as well. God is working in the world “to sum up all things in Christ” (Eph 1:10). “The eternal purpose of God” is “realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph 3:11). Any time we sum up Christianity and Christian doctrine in anything other than Jesus Christ we fall into error and misapplication. All doctrines, practice, and events are to be summed up in Christ. Christ is never the sub-point. He is always the main point and gives meaning and purpose to all else. Jesus is the center and goal of redemptive history and the entire cosmos.
The current geopolitical entity of Israel is not coterminous with Israel as referenced in the scripture but that certainly does not mean it is unimportant. Israel has been and continues to be a strategic ally of the United States of America in a volatile and dangerous part of the world. Israel’s presence and military power undoubtedly helps stabilize the region. The Christian though is under no obligation to give the current Israeli government unqualified support and ought to judge the government by its actions in the same way all other governments and actions are judged. Jesus proclaimed messianic salvation and offered to Israel, and then to the Gentiles, himself, as the fulfillment of Israel’s true destiny as a light to the nations. This destiny is accomplished in Christ through those from every tribe, tongue, and nation who receive his message by faith. Nevertheless, all Christians should pray for the great salvific ingathering, in Christ, of ethnic Israelites to which Paul points in Romans 11:26-27.
The focus of the Old Testament was not on Israel in the abstract but on Israel’s role as a light to the nations in the fulfillment of the covenant promises, which was accomplished in Israel through the obedience of one Israelite—Jesus of Nazareth. The resurrected Christ taught his disciples on the road to Emmaus that the whole story of Israel built to its narrative climax in him—the Messiah (Luke 24:13-49). Jesus is the turning point of redemptive history. Psalm 2 concludes, “Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Ps 2:11-12). Jesus’ disciples are the recipients of the messianic salvation who have kissed the Son and have ultimate allegiance to him and not any nation-state, but in his providence we do live in nation-states, and they do matter.
Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem
The current situation is complex and humbling, but there is one thing every single Christian—Israeli, Palestinian, American, Syrian, Russian, etc.—should do: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!” (Ps 122:6). The peace of Jerusalem has a name—Jesus (Luke 2:14, 24:36, John 20:19, Acts 10:36, Rev 1:4). There is coming a day when there will be no more conflict in Jerusalem because the Christ who died, was resurrected, and ascended in Jerusalem, will return (Acts 1:11; 2:29-36, Zechariah 14:4) and establish permanent peace within its walls. All Christians should be eagerly awaiting His return and pray for the time when the Prince of Peace will reign in a New Jerusalem, a heavenly city that will far transcend the glory of its earthly counterpart (Gal 4:26; Heb 12:22).
Until then, remember as we serve King Jesus among the nations, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9) and we must “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15) whether they be Jew, Palestinian, Syrian, American, Iraqi, and so on. Even so, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).
David E. Prince
David E. Prince is the pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church and a professor of Christian preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.