My 10 cents on Christian Zionism

I recently wrote an article for an up-and-coming publication by a friend of mine in Hong Kong. Below is the piece for your leisurely perusal.

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In the Footsteps of Christ

Constructing a Narrative

I grew up on Biblical narratives of events long past, whether it was how Moses brought his people out of Egypt or of God’s covenant with Abraham to make his descendents as numerous as the stars in the sky.

Such narratives are useful in conveying spiritual truths, such as the power and mightiness of God. Many Christians, however, have taken Biblical texts and superimposed them on contemporary realities. In particular, Biblical passages are erroneously employed to fashion an anachronistic vision for the modern state of Israel.

A prime example is the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, one of the largest Christian Zionist organizations in the world. In its position statements, the organization affirms that “the land of Canaan, for the purposes of world redemption, is the everlasting possession of the Jewish people” and the said nation-state’s creation is the fulfillment of God’s promise to the Jewish people.[1] It goes without saying that Christians should have unwavering support for Israel, since the nation-state is a demonstration of the “exclusive sovereignty and purposes of God over the nations in the course of human history.”[2]

A logical development to upholding this religious stance is to reprimand those who shed light on Israel’s moral and ethical imperfections, for it might cast doubt on the religious-nationalistic construction of Israel as willed by God; in other words, infallible. For instance, “alternate tourism”—tours that go beyond the normal pilgrimage to learn about the effects of the Israeli military occupation on Palestinians—is labelled as an effort to “delegitimize Israel and denounce its presence in Judea and Samaria.”[3] All in all, those who seek to expose the subaltern’s narratives are roundly vilified, some even wrongly accused of being anti-Semitic.

The consequence is that many Christians are (wrongly so) cowed and silenced, out of fear that they might be derided for not supporting democratic values and the Jews’ right to national self-determination, or even worse, being denounced for defying God’s will for the Jewish nation. Do these damning accusations hold merit and stand up to Biblical truths?

The Fallibility of Human Interpretation

Like all religious texts, the Bible can become a tool through which fallible humans claim and wield authority over others. Although Biblical prophesies and promises are useful for recognizing God’s authority and plan in the lives of individuals, they have oftentimes been misinterpreted to form naïve attitudes of how Christians should react to the current situation in Israel.

With much religious undertones, Christians are called to have a zealous declaration of Jerusalem as the eternal, undivided capital of the Jews (least it be “national suicide” for the Jewish state), or to the continual expansion of settlements in Judea and Samaria.[4] The dominant ideology hence emphasizes the religious significance of the modern Jewish state, while downplaying—and in some cases, moralizing—the ethical and moral pitfalls of the Israeli government.

The ramifications of this is evident in how we choose to turn a blind eye to actions that might jeopardize one’s religious and nationalistic claims, while paying due attention to those that adhere to our constructed historical narrative of the land.

Failing our Responsibilities

As responsible Christians, we need to educate ourselves on the lived realities of those living in the “Promised Land.” At the very least, Christian circles should initiate and foster open discussions on the current realities in Israel and Palestine, in particular from the perspective of the locals.

There is a pressing need for honest inquiries presently, given the wide popularity of Christian religious tourism in the Holy Land. Thousands of Christians descend upon Haifa, Jerusalem, the Galilee, and so forth, without really knowing the history and the context of the places they visit. A topical scan of Israel may reveal an Arab souq, good hummus, sandy beaches, and a whole bundle of holy relics, but rarely do these visits reveal realities of a more insidious nature.

Ask any typical North American Christian returning from the Holy Land of their religious tour. Chances are they are still basking in a post-pilgrimage halo, while ever more ignorant of the cramped refugee camps that dot the fields of Bethlehem, the discriminatory urban planning policies in the Negev, or the persecution faced by Messianic Jewish because of their faith in Jesus.[5] Nor would Christian tourists be told that Jewish artifacts are meticulously excavated to publicize religious nationalism, while many non-Judaic archaeological finds from other eras are conveniently neglected.[6]

Many present-day examples can be found, not in the least Silwan, where archaeological projects such as the City of David are being used to evict Arab residents, for the benefit of expanding Jewish settlements in the area.[7] Despite the many livelihoods destroyed in the process, Christian Zionists fastidiously employ convenient rationalizations for the settlement constructions that expediently brush away the claims of Palestinians.

Indeed, what undeniably amazes me is Christians’ justification of the Israeli military occupation in the West Bank as a “necessary measure” for ensuring that God’s prophesy is fulfilled.

This is evident during one particular Sunday service I attended in Jerusalem last December. When I entered the church, I was promptly given a card that duly noted for us to continue praying for prosperity and expansion of an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. I was utterly shocked that the church would not only promote individuals to defy international law, but also essentially go against the moral conviction of a Christian who professes to follow Christ and have true love and empathy for Palestinians.

Alas, many Christians continue to follow seemingly-innocuous calls of support for Israel, while implicitly endorsing the destruction of Palestinians’ livelihoods so that Israel could continue to prosper and be “blessed by God.” All in all, the religious justifications for supporting Israel is indicative of how entrenched North American Christians are in dominant ideologies—ones that stifle the subaltern’s narratives and experiences.

Truly Following Christ’s Footsteps

I do not claim to be an authoritative figure on Middle Eastern politics, religious strife, or Christian doctrines, nor am I advocating for a certain political stance on the myriad of issues involved. However, what I do suggest is an honest examination into the lived experiences of those in Israel and Palestine—a search for a deeper understanding of the conflict that transcends religious dogmatism and hegemonic narratives.

If Christians truly want to see God’s will fulfilled, perhaps Israel could prove to be the hard-learned lesson for individuals to find within themselves the capacity to empathize with the “other.”

Jesus called us to follow in his footsteps, one that is marked by love and forgiveness. Our duty is not to support one political entity or another; rather our duty is simply to make disciples of all nations so that others can experience the same grace and love that God has shown us. Perhaps then, when we have truly followed Christ’s example, we will find a lasting peace in Jerusalem.


[1] Malcolm Hedding, “Position Statements: The ICEJ’s core beliefs,” ICEJ, http://int.icej.org/about/position-statements (accessed August 21, 2012).
[2] Ibid; David Parsons, “The Question of Justice: Biblical Zionism and Christian Palestinians,” ICEJ, http://int.icej.org/media/question-justice (accessed August 21, 2012).
[3] Estera Wieja, “One Man’s Lonely Battle with ‘Alternative Tourism,’” ICEJ, http://int.icej.org/news/special-reports/one-man%E2%80%99s-lonely-battle-alternative-tourism%E2%80%99 (accessed August 21, 2012). Malcolm Hedding, Vice-Chairman of the ICEJ’s International Board of Directors, roundly denounced a social justice conference held at the Bethlehem Bible College. Access full article here http://int.icej.org/christian-zionism-social-justice.
[4] Malcolm Hedding, “The Delegitimization of Israel: Why Christians must defend the nation of Israel,” ICEJ, http://int.icej.org/node/219834 (accessed August 21, 2012).
[5] Associated Press, “Messianic Jews say they are persecuted in Israel,” Ynet, June 22, 2008, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3558795,00.html (accessed August 21, 2012).
[6] Raphael Greenberg, “Towards an Inclusive Archaeology in Jerusalem: The Case of Silwan/The City of David.” Emek Shaveh: Archaeology in the Shadow of the Conflict, http://www.alt-arch.org/silwan.php#two (accessed August 21, 2012).
[7] Sophie Crowe, “In Silwan neighborhood, evictions and displacement,” The Palestine Monitor, November 30, 2011, http://www.palestinemonitor.org/?p=3165 (accessed August 21, 2012).

 

Listen Up

This summer, I went to a talk on Christian Zionism.

The Q&A session at the end reminded me of the many times strangers would go on a preachy monologue, instead of having a real conversation – just to make sure I would be swayed (read: shamed) to being on their side.

One man asked, “Where is Israel?” Another retorted, “Who are the Palestinians?” While another valiantly defended Israel’s need for security.

In the end, it turned into a shouting match, where no one listened to what the “other” had to say. Sometimes I feel everyone involved in this conflict needs to just sit down and (not to belittle the issue) have an EARS session.

Constructing Normalcy

Israeli soldiers conducting a military drill on Shuhada Street

One could easily render his or her surroundings – as extreme as they could be – into a state of normalcy.

I was caught in this state while in Hebron. Images like the one above were embedded into my framework for interpreting how a “normal day” should play out.

One should always expect soldiers patrolling the streets and prowling the rooftops.

One should always expect to be interrogated at the checkpoints.

One should always expect to be detained for no reason.

My Palestinian friends told me that this is how the locals could cope with the absurdity and blatant injustice of the situation – that they have to accept this as “normal” in order to resist the urge to fight back, to retaliate, to condemn those who mistreat them.

But how long could this facade of normalcy remain intact? What does it take for someone’s state of normalcy to be shattered?

Privilege

Akin to Peggy MacIntosh’s “white privilege” thesis, I – as a North American – am endowed with immense privileges. This is all the more evident whenever I travel abroad.

In the case of Hebron:

  • One could drive around without being hindered at checkpoints, because you hold a Canadian passport.
  • One could shop at ease at the local market without fear of having no money to buy your daily bread.
  • One could easily pass around on both Israeli and Palestinian roads.
  • One could talk with both Israelis and Palestinians, without fear of being seen as a “collaborator.”
  • One could travel easily between towns and across borders.
  • One could have access to legal justice, adequate healthcare, and goods from all over the world.

Here in Vancouver, we also take for granted many of our undue privileges:

  • One does not have to constantly plan for imminent attacks by our neighboring countries.
  • One does not have to fear that our food prices are going tospike up so high that basic staples become unaffordable.
  • One does not have to constantly worry that our basic freedoms - freedoms of speech, expression, religion, and association – will be taken away overnight.
  • One does not have to lose your life’s possessions and sense of security due to house demolitions.

Ignorance blinds one’s ability to empathize with another. But if you know and have seen how lucky you have got it in life, it should compel you to action.

Films

Now that I’m back in Vancouver, I’ve been catching up on the films that I’ve been meaning to watch for the past few months…

Arna’s Children

Paradise Now

The Law in These Parts (there’s a screening on May 11th at DOXA Film Festival in Vancouver)

Fruits

I grew up within a church and went through the usual “programming” for as long as I could remember – AWANA, Sunday school classes, Sunday worship and services, bible summer camps, fellowships, you name it.

People presumed that I was a Christian back then – after all, I could name all the famous Bible characters, I “believed” that “Jesus is my savior” and reaffirmed that to my summer camp leaders, and I “served the Lord” in various ministries.

But it was only after falling away from the Lord that I realize: I was  not a Christian during all those years!

If one truly believed in the Word, then one would produce good fruits. I realize that during the past couple of years, all I was capable of doing was producing rotten fruits – jealousy, contempt, anger…and the list goes on.

How is it that a presumably “good Christian girl” could be capable of falling away from God?

Simple. It is because I never really cared for God before.

Many North American kids would go through the usual church routine every weekend, without really examining their true motivations for going to church-related activities.

In the past, I’ve been guilty of going to church because I wanted to:

  1. Socialize with the friends I grew up with
  2. Uphold my “good Christian girl” image in front of others

Simply put, I was never motivated to go to church because I truly wanted to seek God.

I left Vancouver to attend university in the States. That was when I stopped going to any church-related activities.

No one would nag me to go to Sunday School, and I always had convenient excuses for not attending service or fellowship (“I have like 3 midterms next week! God can wait…”).

I also felt invincible – that I was attending a prestigious university, getting stellar grades, in a steady relationship, not doing drugs or getting into trouble with the police.

My pride and arrogance blinded me from seeing the need for God in my life.

It took a really bad fall to make me wake up and realize how broken of a person I’ve become. That I am not as perfect as I make myself out to be. That I am truly flawed, sinful, and in need of God’s grace and mercy. And that there is no better plan than to submit to God’s authority and see how I can do His will – not mine.

After a 4-and-a-half year dry spell, I’ve finally started to produce a few good fruits. I’m still a work-in-progress, but I’m so happy and glad to have God in my life again.

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7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Freedom

My parents have always allowed me to pursue whatever I wanted. I had the freedom to go to a university in upstate New York. I had the freedom to choose my own academic discipline and pursue whatever subjects that interested me. I had the freedom to travel around the world – to places that only one could dream of going at such an early age.

I also had the freedom to rebel, and I chose to do that while I was away.

I did not fear and love God. I was a fool.

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My dad likened it to the freedom that God has given humans. God gave us a mind to think for ourselves. He also gave us freedom of choice to do whatever we desire.

God loves us to the point of giving us the freedom to rebel against Him.

This verse struck me:

“What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them. “Crucify him!” they shouted. “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Mark 15:12-15

Out of love, God gave us freedom. How much it must pain and anger God for us to rebel against Him.

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The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.
Proverbs 1:7

Settlements

Beit Romano, an Israeli settlement in Hebron's Old City

When I first encountered the word, “settlement,” I thought it was comprised of tents and people touting guns to settle a piece of barren land. But in this part of the world, “settlements” pretty much mean physical concrete structures that are built smack dab in the middle of existing Arab neighborhoods.

So how does that affect the local population (read: Palestinians) who have been living there for centuries?

I think the best approach is simply to examine the physical structures that surround a settlement. I’ll take Beit Romano as an example (pictured above).

In order to “secure” a settlement, the Israelis would create buffer zones (“secure areas”) around a settlement.

They would create these buffer zones by:

  1. Evicting Palestinian tenants out of their buildings
  2. Welding shut Palestinians’ stores
  3. Closing off roads to Palestinians

One of my Palestinian friends’ parents used to live in the house pictured on the right, but they were soon evicted after the Israelis deemed them a security threat. Now, a soldier occupies the roof of the building.

To give you an idea of the economic impact of the settlements in Hebron, 1,829 Palestinian shops located in and around Hebron’s Old City have closed between 2000 and 2007. Of the closed shops, 440 of them were closed due to military orders.

The map below shows the extent of the closures in Hebron’s city center. All the areas shaded in purple are the closed areas, while the blue areas are the Israeli settlements.

For more info, check out the resources listed here.

Conflicting narratives

This conflict will not be solved, unless people could find within themselves the capacity to love, forgive, and empathize with the “other.”

“Why is there war, grandma?”

“Because people don’t like each other.”

“What happens in a war?”

“People do nasty things to each other.”

“Like what?”

“Well, people would destroy each others’ homes.”

“With what?”

“With weapons.”

“What are weapons?”

“Weapons are things that you use to destroy other things.”

“Why do people use weapons?”

“Because they don’t like other people.”

“Why don’t they like other people?”

“Well, for a lot of reasons. That’s why there is war in the world.”

“I don’t like wars.”

“Me neither.”

“Then why do we have wars, grandma?”

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