IN A COUPLE OF DAYS…
In John Lawing Jr’s wonderful ‘What If’ cartoon series in Christianity Today, one of Abraham’s friends is talking to him about the quarrel between Isaac and Ishmael. ‘Don’t worry, Abe,’ says the friend. ‘In a couple of days it will all be forgotten.’ It has been a long couple of days.
In 1988, a member of the Jerusalem City Council addressed a tour group that Vanessa and I led to the Holy Land. ‘If after you’ve been here for a few days, you think you know how to solve the problems we face,’ he said, ‘you are better than we are. We’ve been here for years, and we still don’t know.’
Well, I don’t know either. But I do know that Christians have a significant role to play in the midst of the bloodshed and death, the recrimination and revenge. Western Christians have an obligation to encourage them in every possible way.
It is now some years since I have been to Israel, but I don’t think things have changed much in the established church. Recent reports suggest that people are moving out, rather than in. The way Orthodoxy is presented, it is no wonder people are drifting. I have looked in on Orthodox services in Israel and Jordan where there was no one present at all except for the priest and a reader. But the service goes on anyway. They see it as an act directed towards God and it does not seem to matter what happens to the people, or whether or not they are even there!
On one occasion in the Church of the Holy Nativity, we were actually evicted (I use the word advisedly) from the chapel so a service could be conducted by a group of priests. Any thought that we might join them or that they might in some way minister to us seemed far removed from their minds. So it is no wonder some of the newer (often charismatic) groups are flourishing. At least they reach out to people in need.
Western Christians tend to sympathise with the nation of Israel and its people. I know of one Christian church which recently gave $25 000 to a Jewish orphanage in Jerusalem. This kind of practical Christianity is admirable, of course. But it is important to remember that being a Jew does not make one pro-Christian, even to a fellow Jew. Israeli Christians have a rough time of it in Israel. One night during a service in a small church in Tel Aviv, rocks and stones were thrown against the windows and on the roof. Although it was a hot night, we had to close the shutters. As we left that night, we drove past some children who seemed to have been responsible and whose parents were sitting outside their front doors socialising and making no attempt to stop them. The driver of our car, an American Mennonite named Paul Swarr, wound down his window, smiled at them and called out cheerily, ‘Laila tov’ — which roughly translated means, ‘Have a wonderful evening!’ The perplexity and surprise on their faces was fascinating to behold.
Sadly, the fate of Christian Palestinians is often overlooked. We need to remember that most of the believers in Israel are Palestinians. Of course, we don’t see them in the media: only the violent terrorist leaders and the angry, vengeful mobs are shown. But there are tens of thousands of Palestinian believers, faithfully trying to serve God through peace and love.
Bishara Awad is an old friend and Principal of Bethlehem Bible College (BBC). He is a Spirit-filled Mennonite and one of the most Christ-like people I know. He and his team are agents of peace in a world where they are rejected on all sides. By Muslims, because they are Christian; by militants because they will not use violence; by Israelis because they are Palestinian; by Orthodox Church leaders because they are non-conformist; by Catholics because they are Protestant; and, I am sad to say, sometimes by evangelical Christians because they are not pro-Jewish. In a recent letter Bishara spoke of Israeli tanks firing at Palestinian houses across the street from the College — and of damage to the College buildings themselves. Fortunately no lives were lost. But they continue to reach out in love to all — including Israelis. They teach, preach, educate, serve, encourage and get their hands dirty.
I remember one deeply moving meeting with BBC which included Lebanese, Palestinian and Israeli believers, with a few of us westerners thrown in.
One particular aggravation for Palestinian believers is the number of Zionist Christians who visit Israel but who have virtually nothing to do with them. They arrive in air-conditioned planes, travel in air-conditioned buses, stay in air-conditioned hotels, follow Israeli tour guides and visit Israeli synagogues. ‘They come wearing a cross,’ said Bishara to us on one occasion, ‘and go home wearing a star of David.’ They ignore the fact that most of their brothers and sisters in Christ are Palestinian. Their narrow views of eschatology and their support of Israel politically tend to blind them to their true loyalty — the church of Jesus Christ.
‘Many Christians see the return of the Jews to Palestine as a wonderful fulfilment of prophecy,’ said Bishara. ‘To us it has meant nothing but pain and hardship.’ When he was a boy, his own father was shot dead before his eyes in street warfare in Jerusalem. He does not know to this day whether an Israeli or Arab soldier triggered the weapon. But in his eyes the Jews were responsible. If they had not tried to set up a Zionist state, there would have been no war. Consequently, for years, he hated the Jews. It was only when he was baptised in the Holy Spirit that his hatred was dealt with. He now shows equal love to all, regardless of who they are.
But this does not remove the disappointment that many Western Christians show little understanding of the plight of their Christian Palestinian brothers. On one occasion, for instance, Vanessa and I were in a very large Christian celebration where they prayed both for the success of Israel’s armies and for the rebuilding of the temple. We were astonished and grieved. How could they pray for any army, without considering whether or not their cause was just? And how could they pray for the rebuilding of the very institution from which Christ died to save us? This is the kind of thing that grieves Christian Palestinians.
On one of our tours to Israel we arranged for our tour members to stay in the homes of Palestinian believers for a weekend. Arabs are very hospitable people, of course, and they will do anything to welcome guests. This was a marvellous experience and for most of the group the highlight of the tour. I think it was a blessing for the hosts as well. It certainly gave us all a better understanding of Palestinian Christianity.
This is not to be anti-Semitic. Politically, I think the Israelis have a good case. I support their quest for a homeland of their own. I believe the oil-rich Arab nations, with all their petro-dollars, could do a great deal to help the Palestinians. They could easily provide luxurious homes and steady incomes for all of them to live in comfort and prosperity and never miss it. It seems they prefer to use the Palestinians as political pawns.
Nevertheless, as far as Christian believers are concerned, and whatever some eschatological views may claim, there is no doubt that the Church is God’s agent on earth. For the last two millennia it has been through the Church, not the nation of Israel, that God has made his purposes known (Eph 3:1-12). Israel has done nothing to further the cause of Christ. With all its failings and weaknesses, it is the Church which has been responsible for the good news spreading throughout the earth.
So our primary allegiance is to the people of God in Christ — and in the case of Israel this means believers in Jesus, whether Jew or Arab, who are all our brothers and sisters in him.
Dr. Barry Chant