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Theology Thursdays: Evangelicals Don't Agree On Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


As President Bush prepared for last week's Aqaba summit with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Newsweek reported on a "very mixed marriage" closely watching the Holy Land peace process. The June 2 article said that an unlikely alliance between Jews and conservative Christians supporting Israel could spell trouble for Bush's reelection.

"The administration won't be able to lean hard on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon without being attacked by two blocs it cares very much about as the 2004 election approaches," wrote Howard Fineman and Tamara Lipper. Noting scriptural ties to Israel and implying opposition to a Palestinian state, the article said that evangelicals may become "an unmovable obstacle to Bush's road map."

Could evangelicals politically challenge Bush over Israel? The Washington Times reported on a conference where an attendee called Bush's plan "a Satanic road map." A London professor recently praised Bush in The Guardian for resisting the pressure of 45 million evangelical voters and persuading Sharon into accepting the peace plan. The Australian Financial Review called Bush's peace plan a gamble that has incensed the Christian Right.

News reports have also recently focused on a letter signed by 24 evangelical leaders sent to Bush last month that said, "It would be morally reprehensible for the United States to be evenhanded between democratic Israel, a reliable friend and ally that shares our values, and the terrorist-infested Palestinian infrastructure."

The organizer of the letter, Gary Bauer, president of American Values, told CT that signatories supported Israel for various religious and political reasons. While some of those who signed the letter have publicly opposed a Palestinian state, that objection is not included in the letter. Instead, it said that while the road map is well-intentioned, some of its requirements are already being undermined by partner countries.

"I signed the letter, but I don't think it said what Newsweek implied it said," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "The letter does not say the Palestinians should not be given a state. It said Israel shouldn't be forced to make any concessions [in forming a Palestinian state] that it believes would hurt its national security. Since Sharon has said he's willing to acknowledge a Palestinian state, it is clear he doesn't feel its existence would compromise Israel. If, for instance, Israel were asked to push ahead without a comprehensive peace agreement with Syria, evangelicals would balk at that. The Bush administration would not be in any trouble with evangelicals unless it was demonstratively pushing concessions that compromised the Israeli right to live in peace within secure borders."

Some evangelical leaders bristle at news reports that imply evangelicals are of like mind when looking at Israel. "Evangelicalism is not monolithic," said Robert Seiple, president and founder of the Institute for Global Engagement. "As we have demonstrated on numbers of occasions, such as when another group of us wrote to Bush last summer asking for a more evenhanded approach to the peace process, there are some major gaps in the evangelical spectrum. It simply does not work for us to be in a one-size-fits-all category."

Where are evangelicals?

John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, told CT that typical evangelicals in the pew are not well versed in the Israeli-Palestinian debate. "Most American evangelicals do not have particularly sophisticated views of the Middle East," he said. "On a lot of questions, you will get the 'I don't know' answer. It is very foreign to their experience."

Green said that while poll questions asking "How do you feel about Israel?" will get 60 to 70 percent positive responses, the same question about Palestinians will also be answered highly positive - about 50 percent.

Tougher questions, however, show that evangelicals typically support Israel. "If you asked, 'Who's side are you on?' you will find about 50 percent of people having no opinion, 30 percent favoring Israel, and 20 percent favoring the Palestinians," said Green. "You may think this means they don't support Israel, but they do. They just don't have enough information to have a firm opinion."

The reasons for evangelical support of Israel are diverse. In fact, recent study findings contradict claims by pundits and those in the media who argue that conservative Christian support is chiefly driven by eschatology. In a poll commissioned by Stand for Israel, a project of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, The Tarrance Group found that theology is not the primary reason for evangelicals to back Israel. Forty-three percent of evangelical respondents said their number one reason for backing Israel was Israel's identity as a democracy and a long-standing U.S. ally. Only 35 percent of those polled said their primary reason was its significance in biblical prophecy.

An additional question specifically asked respondents for their principle theological basis for support. Fifty-nine percent of evangelicals said it was God's promise to bless Israel. Only 28 percent said their primary theological reason was related to the End Times.

"In my reading of Scripture, Israel has a special place in the heart of God (Romans 9-11), but all people have a place in the heart of God according to Matthew 28," said Clive Calver, president of World Relief. "It is incredibly simple: the heart of Jesus is for all people. We have a mandate not to stand with one side or the other, but to seek to stand for peace, harmonize people, and bring Jesus to them."

Leaders have more sophisticated views

While the general evangelical populace may not have a solid stance on Israel, Green told CT that evangelical leaders are a different story. "The position of people in seminaries, leaders of parachurch organizations, and elites in denominations are much stronger than you'd find in the mass public," he said. "Their views are sophisticated, and they've thought about this clearly."

In a 2002 foreign policy survey for the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Green questioned 350 leaders of evangelical organizations. Sixty percent of respondents said the U.S. should back Israel over the Palestinians. The number was up slightly from a similar study in 2000.

Why isn't the strong support of leaders reflected in their parishes and constituencies? "For many of these elites, foreign policy has not had a high priority," said Green. "Until recently, they talked more about abortion and gay rights. The only exceptions were relief agencies, who for a long time were the only ones talking about this."

"They want to see peace."

Green said it may be surprising that while 60 percent of evangelical leaders back Israel over Palestine, 52 percent are in favor of a Palestinian state. "Evangelical elites want to see peace in the Middle East," Green told CT. "They believe the Palestinian people have legitimate aspirations to have their own country. These elites would not support a state if it threatened Israel."

Land told CT that this is why some evangelicals are cautious to see whether the current peace plan asks Israel to do anything that compromises its security. "I would argue that nothing could be more secure for Israel than creating a viable, self-sustaining Palestinian state that agrees to live in peace and agrees to suppress terrorism," Land said.

Bauer does not want to see a Palestinian state carved out of Israel since it is already the smallest democracy in the region. He told CT he believes the modern state of Israel occupies covenant land promised through Abraham to the Jewish people. "There already is a Palestinian state, and we call it Jordan," Bauer said. "I would like to see an approach that would provide financial incentives for Palestinians to want to live in Jordan in order to find the peace and security they want for themselves and their children."

Fahed Abu-Akel, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta and former moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), told CT that a Palestinian state is the most viable option for peace. Abu-Akel is a Palestinian Christian forced to leave his home near Nazareth at the age of 4.

The other options toward peace, he said, would be to keep the situation as it is now, transfer the Palestinians out of the area, or form one secular, democratic country like the U.S.

"Israel would not accept being one secular state. Moving the Palestinians out would be, what we call in American terminology, ethnic cleansing. Further, no evangelicals would ever accept living under the conditions the Palestinians have for 36 years," Abu-Akel said. "If we as evangelicals are not going to support co-existence as two states, then Palestinian injustice will continue to be a powder keg."

Abu-Akel said mainline denominations (Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches) have, more clearly than evangelical churches, advocated justice for both sides. "In our Reformed theology, we see that ancient prophecies have already been fulfilled," Abu-Akel said. "The prophets said Israel would return. They came back from Syria and Babylonia, so the prophecy was fulfilled by their return to Palestine. We are hooked more onto Jesus and his teaching about the kingdom than to the...interpretation that says Israel in 1948 is the fulfillment of prophecy and Jesus is coming tomorrow."

"For many evangelicals, our theology shapes how we see things," said Dan Simmons, director of World Vision Jerusalem. "If an eschatological view becomes the primary lens through which we read Scripture and leads us to an ideological commitment to a political state, then that shapes what we want to see. Clearly, there are some evangelicals whose ideological commitment is so complete that it does not allow them to see the humanity of the other side."

Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary and signatory of the letter sent to Bush last summer asking for an evenhanded approach to Israel, said that evangelicals have to ask themselves if there is anything theological that either forbids or requires a Palestinian state. "The answer is no," Mouw said. "The question for me is one of prudence, and not of theological principle."

He said that evangelicals should look to Old Testament prophets, who were pro-Israel but made it clear that God would not bless Israel unless it was just.

Seiple said that Bush's proposal to form a Palestinian state by 2005 is the best available option to bring resolution. But he fears that it could easily be derailed by politics, terrorism, or even pressure from evangelicals and other religious groups. "This is our best opportunity to do something significant for the first time," Seiple told CT. "We have to hope that political sabotage in the west or extremist sabotage in the Middle East does not throw this off. There are a number of people who could sabotage this. What a tragedy if evangelicals were the ones throwing the grenade down the hole."

But what requisites for peace have to be met - on both sides - for this road map to be worthy of evangelical support?

Seiple said that it is imperative for both sides to confess the past and acknowledge their wrongs before they can move on. The terrorist groups who act in support of the Palestinians, he said, have to be condemned and shown that the plan will work. "Someone has to be working through this process with Arafat quietly on the side to show him why this road map is beneficial to him," Seiple said. "None of this works if people are shooting at one another."

Land told CT that Israel doesn't need to change significantly for peace to work. "The Israelis proved how far they were willing to go with the Barak proposal [in 1999]," Land said. "However, it was rejected, and a terrorist war was declared on them. If the Palestinian Authority wanted peace, we'd have peace. If it could sign a peace agreement it can enforce, you will see a radical Israeli shift in favor of the peace settlement. And if the Israeli public is willing to accept it, Palestinians will have little problem with American evangelicals."

Bauer agrees that Israel doesn't need to change in order to make peace work. "I don't see much that Israel has done wrong," Bauer said. "Israel has restrained itself. There is little I would criticize them for. It has rejected a culture of hate." Palestinians, however, must repudiate their anti-Judaism, Bauer says. "The needed changes are so fundamental that it ought to make diplomats hesitant in assuming that well-crafted words on a piece of paper could somehow bring peace when hatred is taught generation to generation," Bauer said.

He said another problem with the road map is that it asks Israel to take risks in ending its military occupation. Meanwhile, Palestinians are only being asked to make rhetorical changes, like denouncing terrorism and affirming Israel's right to exist. Bauer argues that Bush must carefully wade through the peace process. "If Israel continues to be browbeaten, more and more people will become disillusioned and angry," Bauer says. "It also would be a disaster for Bush to meet with Arafat. I have serious questions about him meeting with the Palestinian prime minister, because he's been implicated in the attack on Israeli athletes at the Olympics."

Vic Pentz, pastor of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta and signatory of the August 2002 letter supporting an even-handed approach to the conflict, said that two Palestinian requisites include creating a plan for a credible democracy and quelling the violence. He added that a key to the peace process is the fair and constant attention of Western leaders. "The U.S. has to play a central role in holding everyone's feet to the fire," he said. "We need to also give support to the new emerging moderate leadership in Palestine and provide them tools and resources so they can fight the terrorist problems they have."

Mouw agreed that fair outside leadership is vital in the peace talks and praised Bush's "shift from a spokesperson for Israeli policy to a mediating position - although many on both the Jewish and evangelical sides claim he betrayed the cause."

"Palestinian Christians do not exist in the American psyche"

Evangelical leaders of many stripes lament that many lay Christians fail to view both sides with compassion. Abu-Akel said that Arab Christians are often forgotten.

"Palestinian Christians do not exist in the mindset of the American Christian," Abu-Akel said. "How can people in the U.S. look into the eyes of a Palestinian Arab Christian with a church that is 2,000 years old and say, 'You don't have the right to Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and the West Bank?'"

Pentz said that he tries to broaden the perspective of his laity by bringing the reality of Palestinian Christians to the forefront. "When I introduce American evangelicals to Palestinian Christians, the world suddenly becomes very complex," Pentz told CT. "As Christians learn more about the Palestinian side, it is not at the expense of the Israeli side. Nor is there ever support of violence. Instead, [they develop] a nuanced support of Israel and say that Israel needs to recognize the dignity and freedom of the Palestinians."

World Vision's Simmons, said that Palestinian Christians in 1948 made up 25 percent of the population. They now make up only about 1.4 percent. Those that are still there have remained because of a commitment to give witness, he said.

"Western evangelicals do not have a real accurate look at what is happening in the West Bank or Gaza," Simmons told CT. "They need to go to Israel and not do a Holy Land tour, but go into the refuge camps and meet with their Christian counterparts of that indigenous church. Walk in their shoes for a day. Prayer, informing ourselves, and acting for justice instead of eschatological commitments are imperative if we are to follow Jesus."


This article was written by Todd Hertz, assistant online editor for Christianity Today.



Thursday, June 12, 2003

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