Musings on the Middle East

There is not much that is positive on the news these days. This is particularly true of the horrific stories coming out of the Middle East. Since mid-May, the violence has escalated, swelling from a few isolated killings to all out warfare. Both sides have innocent blood on their hands. However, the narrative that dominates the American news cycle tends to be a bit one-sided.

So with the weight of those stories and the events of recent weeks pressing on my heart, let’s start with this: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is endlessly complex, and if anyone attempts to tell you it is not, please be suspicious of anything they do tell you about it.

It is presumptuous to think that I could address the conflict comprehensively in one blog entry. I do not feel qualified to sort through the sociopolitical chicken or the egg debate as to which injustice comes first—the mistreatment of Palestinians or terrorist acts against Israel, etc. However, I am well aware that people’s theological beliefs about Israel as a modern nation-state largely shape their approach to the conflict. Thus, I will attempt to limit my response, primarily, to how we should think about these matters theologically–ever mindful that our theology has very real-life implications for real people in the world.

Disclaimer: My treatment of the issue has largely been shaped by the time I spent in Israel in the summer of 2011 and the friends I made there – Jewish, Arab, Muslim, and Christian alike.

For many evangelical Christians, these matters are simple: Israel is God’s side and therefore should be our side. This is about good verses bad, light verses darkness. Anything less than a ringing endoresment of all Israeli policies is seen as an affront to the living God. This position is largely determined by eschatological convictions in which Israel (as a modern nation-state) exists as a fulfillment of prophecy about the end of the world. In other words, a loud group of evangelicals preoccupied with the Apocalypse have force fed us a narrative where to be pro-Jewish means to be pro-Israel, and to be pro-Israel means to stand by any actions Israel deems necessary for her own “survival.”

It is the way of the world to parse out land, to subjugate peoples, and to conform them into norms. But if we are followers of Jesus, we have no borders. We are first and foremost citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. With that in mind, let me begin offer this simple premise:

a) God is deeply, desperately in love with Israelis and Palestinians;

b) Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace;

c) God longs to bring His Shalom/peace to the Middle East.

First, following this Jesus and living out His Kingdom will inevitably put us at odds with the nations and governments of this world because their modus operandi requires conformity, not unity and it is maintained through the power of the sword, not the power of self sacrificial love.

Revelation is a book about how God overcomes the evil of the world through the cross of Christ.  It is through the blood of the Lamb that God wins in the end.  His people do not share in His victory by beating their enemies with bigger weapons, but by sharing in the sacrifice of the Lamb, “following the Lamb wherever He goes…loving not their own lives even unto death.”  The subversive victory of love and sacrifice over the forces of the evil make a mockery of the so-called principalities and powers of the world, from the Roman empire to every tyrannical and oppressive empire in our own time

Second, following this Jesus and living out His Kingdom means that we are to be pro-humanity — not just pro-Jewish, pro-Christian, pro-American, pro-Palestinian — what have you. I don’t buy into the false dichotomy that one has to either be pro-Hamas or pro-Israel, as if Hamas represents every Palestinian and as if Israel is a monolithic entity without dissenting voices. The reality is much more nuanced than that. So let us remember: our first call as Christians is not fidelity to a nation called Israel but fidelity to Christ and the things of His Kingdom. A commitment to that kingdom should inspire in all of us deep compassion, and active love not just for Israel but for all peoples regardless of nationality or faith tradition. What should concern us as Christians are the facts on the ground.

So a few facts:

Since 2000, Palestinians have died at a rate 6 times higher than that of the Jews in this conflict. When there is direct fight, Palestinian small arms and homemade rockets are met with F-16’s, apaches, and tanks. Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation get their homes bulldozed, and their land stolen for the use of new Israeli settlements that are illegal according to international law as set by the U.S. U.N and E.U. Palestinians have their movement controlled and they are subject to regular unjust violence. Because of this there are more than 4 million Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East.

(see map)

vanishing-palestine

So while the rocket attacks into Israel are inexcusable, we must also realize that the inexcusable tactics by Israel have forced the Palestinian people live in legitimately deplorable conditions that create an inevitable breeding ground for radical voices.

Third, if we are followers of Jesus, then we know that God intimately cares about this earth, cares about Creation, and cares about real human bodies and human history. Living out His Kingdom means that we should too.

Apocalyptic Israel worship devalues this world because it believes that this world will be destroyed by God. If it’s going to burn, why take care of it, so the logic goes. In this vein, the famous Christian Zionist and theologian Dwight Moody once said, “Why polish the brass on a sinking ship?” You can hear the pessimism in his pristine simplicity.

But I stand with a large handful of theologians who are not so convinced that the ship is sinking and thus we are committed to not only polishing the brass, but painting the hull, navigating its course, and making sure its passengers are safe until we are surprised by Christ’s return, like the bible tells us.

In fact, the idea that we are made up of eternal, ethereal, incorporeal souls that will one day float away from this earth for a place far away called heaven isn’t even a Christian doctrine that is presupposed anywhere in Scripture. It is a pagan philosophy presented to us by Platonic thought. That the God of the Bible who literally formed humanity out of the soil of this earth, the God of the Bible that entered into history and delivered the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt, the God of the Bible that became Incarnate to dwell among us, the God of the Bible who is in Covenant with Creation would agree with our Platonic obsession with the afterlife and incorporeal souls is utterly alien and unthinkable!

Apocalyptic Israel worship and our obsession with “end of the world prophecy” has completely de-contextualized the way we read the Scriptures, and has rendered its prophecies devoid of any meaningful history to the point that any prophecy can be construed to mean something in the future and not something that has already happened.

Apocalyptic Israel worship will destroy us all if we let this narrative continue to dominate the worldview of the Church in America.

Why?

That’s because Hamas and the Israeli government both worship the same god of violence. They offer sacrifices on the same bloodstained altar. They engage in the same endless cycle of scapegoating—justifying their violence by pointing to the violence of their enemy.

Until we recognize the scapegoating for what it really is: demonic, and until both sides give up the absurd notion that if they kill enough of their enemies, they’ll finally achieve peace, the violence will never stop.

There is no easy way out of this relentless conflict of scapegoating, violence, and bloodshed. But we will never find another way if we remain imprisoned by fear, unable to imagine that God might love the very people we’ve been told to hate.

Fourth, the response of the people of God to conflict in the Middle East is not to take a side but to take up a cross. As followers of Jesus we must remember that the sacrifice to end sacrifices was made by God through the sacrifice of his Son on the cross. And the ending of sacrifice means that we don’t continue to sacrifice other people to make the world come out all right. Justice has been done. We’ve been given all the time in the world to announce the God would not have God’s kingdom wrought through violence. And Jesus does not desire to war, and human suffering to be the entrance music for his return. We’re called to be peacemakers, and peacemakers cannot be violent fearmongers. The biggest difference between a peacemaker and a fearmonger is whether or not they really believe in the unconditional and victorious love of God. That’s hard news, but its good news.

So Christians…

We must repent of our obsession with the afterlife at the expense of ushering in God’s Kingdom here on earth as it is in Heaven. We must admit our violent histories and our complicity with war in the name of God. We must remember we belong to Jesus, to His Kingdom, and to God’s Reign before and above any earthly power. And we must refuse any options that are presented to us other than the cross–which means we look for ways to sacrifice our own comfort for the sake of hurting people all over the world.

(Patrick Craig is a graduate student at Duke University Divinity School)

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