On Christian Zionism

I recently wrote an article for an up-and-coming publication by a friend of mine in Hong Kong.

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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).

 

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.

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.”

Being thankful

I’m thankful for having the luxury of traveling around at such a young age, and being exposed to different perspectives through my own eyes.

My friends in Hebron always ask about my travels, and comment on how young I am to be traveling the world far and wide. Many do not have the opportunities to travel abroad, whether it is because of the Israeli border control or their lack of financial means.

I’m also thankful for my parents, who have supported all my endeavors, regardless of how much pain and worry I sometimes cause them…

And of course, I’m thankful for God’s presence in my life and His Hand in all my endeavors. Without Him, I am nothing.

All you need is love…

Photo credit: Lo Yuk Fai

If only we can put it into practice.

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1 Corinthians 13

1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Queries into my presentations

1) Israel is a fulfillment of God’s prophecy to the Jewish people, so we should support the state.

But is Israel in her current manifestation really the fulfillment of God’s prophecy? Who is to say that the state is the state that God really wants? Especially when the state does everything that is contrary to what is deemed Christ-like behavior?

Plain and simple, the current state of Israel is a political construct. It is not a nation under God, and never was one to begin with. The Zionist movement – which led up to the creation of the state of Israel – is a secular, political movement. It was – and still is – comprised predominantly of secular Jews.

Is God’s promise to the Jews unconditional, and that He will bless a nation that is rife with human rights abuses and ungodly ways of dealing with others? And did God call on a political project that would destroy the lives of thousands of Palestinians?

I think one way of supporting Israel is to make sure that she is upholding God’s principle of love, mercy, compassion, and justice – things that she is not doing right now.

Moreover, God never called us to support certain political parties or governments – these are all man-made. All we know for certain is that God called us to be loving and merciful to others.

To quote a pastor from Jerusalem, “To idealize the religious significance of the State of Israel is to close one’s eyes to the spiritual, religious and moral realities of the modern Jewish state.”

2) Israel provides a safe haven for Christians, unlike all the other countries surrounding it.

Missionary activity is highly discouraged within Israel. In fact, some Messianic Jews are persecuted within Israel by other Jews.

An article by Amira Hass paints a different picture of Israel as a “safe haven” for Christians.

3) Injustices happen in other countries too, so why should we point out all the wrong things in Israel? Why should we single out Israel?

Just because these injustices happen in other countries doesn’t make what Israel is doing okay.

It’s the same thing as saying, “This person is doing drugs, so it must make it okay for my kids to do it too.” There are certain principles and values that you cannot backslide on – you uphold them wherever you go.

Shining a light on injustices is ever so important – not only in autocratic regimes, but also in democracies. We become lazy and falsely presume that democracies are well-oiled regimes that need no checks and balances from others – that they are infallible and moral constructs.

But wasn’t it a 21st century democracy – with the implicit and explicit backing of many other Western democracies – that led to the deaths of thousands in the Middle East?

Israel self-identifies as a democracy that upholds democratic principles and adheres to human rights conventions. When there is a disconnect between what the State says, and what its actions are, we need to keep the government accountable.

Martin Luther rightly said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

4) But you have to admit that these barriers, fences, checkpoints, etc. – though unpleasant – do help keep terrorists out.

Is it more important to secure the lives of your own citizens, at the expense of the liberties, freedoms, and lives of others?

Answering positively to this question translates to ill-conceived policies and security procedures, like pre-emptive wars.

Could you live in peace, knowing that your security is bought at the expense of thousands who had no choice but to submit to the Western world’s imposition of “justice” and “security”?

And who is to say that these security and pre-emptive measures really solve the root of the conflict? They may end up perpetuating the hatred and animosity in future generations.

Put simply, they are bandage solutions to a gushing wound. They not only fail at resolving the conflict, but perpetuate it.

Staring at strangers

Staring on buses, streets, Carmelit – I miss that aspect of Haifa. There is something comforting with being acknowledged by others that you exist – that they can see you with their own two eyes, and that they recognize you as having a mind and a soul.

Here in Vancouver, no one would dare to make eye-contact with you. The other day, I was on the Skytrain, and I suddenly felt alone. So very alone.

Why all the gloomy faces? Why all the effort placed on avoiding a simple contact with another?

We lead such separate lives here in North America. No one would want to go up to a stranger and genuinely ask them, “How are you?” Or even just to smile at each other.

I bet if I went inside everyone’s head on the Skytrain, each of them secretly want others to reach out to them and connect with them.

And that’s exactly what happens when I go on the Skytrain nowadays. Yesterday, a woman approached me because I was holding a Jerusalem bag, and she asked where I got it. By the end of our conversation, she was really eager to come to my presentations on Israel and Palestine. What a lovely lady, whom one might have simply dismissed, avoided eye contact, or just plugged in your ipod to avoid “small talk.”

Temptations

People have different values and beliefs system.

One would be led to believe that everything is not absolute, and that everything is relative to your own derivatives of what is right and wrong. In other words, you are the boss of yourself; you set the rules and you play by your own rules.

It takes a lot of guts to admit that, “Hey, maybe you don’t have the best system” and instead submit to higher authority. It also takes a bit of humbleness and humility to admit that you might not have it all together – that you need someone else to tell you what is right and what is wrong.

I’ve been there many times, and I’ve resisted higher authority.

But I guess it takes a couple falls – scrapes and bruises – to realize that, yes, I don’t have it all together.

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