Conservative Christians have generally been known for their enthusiastic support for the Jewish state. But a new movement of young activists is seeking to change that.
In 2010, a film was released that perfectly encapsulated the erosion of Evangelical Christian support for Israel. The film, With God on Our Side, featured a young man learning about the Palestinian struggle and coming to see Israel not as evidence of God’s faithfulness, but as a mean and heartless nation enabled by American Evangelicals who have embraced Zionist ideology.
The film’s narrative of peace-loving Palestinians mistreated by heartless Israelis and their Christian Zionist supporters has been repackaged and promoted again and again by anti-Israel activists in some of the most influential Evangelical institutions in the United States. These activists, often in high positions, have found eager disciples in places like the megachurch campus of Willow Creek and the academic halls of Wheaton College, one of America’s preeminent Evangelical institutions. And they have been able to exploit the resources of popular Evangelical development organizations like World Vision.
Exposing these activists and their strategy is key to thwarting their efforts to undermine Evangelical support for Israel.
For many anti-Israel activists, Christian Zionism is an easy and strategically important target. Many of them believe that U.S. political and military support for Israel is not the result of activism by the Jewish lobby, which represents at best 2 percent of the U.S. population, but the much larger segment of support that comes from politically active Christians, and in particular Evangelical Americans. In order to end U.S. support for Israel, which is held to be the only reason the occupation still exists, pro-Palestinian anti-Israel activists need to confront Christian Zionism. The added benefit, of course, is that it is much easier to avoid being labeled “anti-Semitic” if they go after a Christian movement instead of a Jewish one.
Just as Evangelical support for the religious Right is maligned by those who create a caricature out of Jerry Falwell, Evangelical support for Israel is maligned by those who create a caricature out of Christian Zionism and supporters like John Hagee. To many anti-Israel activists, all Christians who support the Jews’ right to live and flourish in their historic homeland are Christian Zionists.
In fact, such derision is highly inaccurate. The reasons Evangelicals support Israel are diverse and multifaceted. Some of them do believe in an apocalyptic eschatology that sees the modern state of Israel as a sign of the second coming of the messiah. Others, however, are more reluctant to embrace a particular eschatology, and find the return of the Jewish people to their homeland and the creation of the State of Israel as providential and evidence of God’s faithfulness to his chosen people. Still others are fairly uninterested in theological justifications, and support Israel because it is a fellow democracy in a region filled with antagonistic autocrats, most of whom persecute Christians and subvert freedom of religion, a value Israel strenuously upholds. And many support Israel for the same reason many secular people do: Compassion for the historical suffering of the Jews, who have suffered under the heavy boot of pogroms and countless other atrocities, and a belief in the rightness of Zionism.
While Evangelical support for Israel is broad and multifaceted, the challenge to this support has been driven by a fairly small number of people who wield vastly outsized influence inside the Evangelical community. One of those individuals is Lynne Hybels.
Lynne Hybels, co-founder of the Willow Creek Church, has become one of the most influential advocates of the Palestinian cause. Having heard her at no fewer than half-a-dozen events for young Evangelicals, I can testify that she comes across as compassionate and motherly. She speaks, for example, about meeting with Palestinian and Israeli mothers who have lost children in the conflict. She says that she supports the “existence of the State of Israel as a home for the Jewish people” and believes that “any violence against civilians… should be stopped immediately.” Behind this “pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-peace” narrative, however, lies the desire to shift the Evangelical stance on Israel from support to some form of neutrality; one that demands Israel make security concessions to those who have vowed to “drive them into the sea.”
What makes Hybels’ such a powerful voice is the role Willow Creek plays in Evangelical culture. Put simply, Willow Creek is one of the most influential churches in the United States. Started in 1975, it has grown from a few hundred to over 24,000 attendees. But their influence is not just due to size. They also run an international organization, the Willow Creek Association, and hold a massive Leadership Summit. Connected with over 13,000 churches and 80,000 leaders from around the world, Willow Creek is one of the most powerful voices in Evangelical Christianity. To many non-denominational pastors in the U.S., Willow Creek is their model. But sadly, Willow Creek has also been a nursery for numerous anti-Israel activists.
Hybels is far from the only pro-Palestinian activist to come out of Willow Creek. Before he grew dreadlocks and donned his trademark homemade smock, Shane Claiborne worked for Willow Creek. For many young Evangelicals today, he represents the pinnacle of Christian social justice activism. In 2012, Claiborne enthralled the audience at the pro-Palestinian “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference in Bethlehem. But his performance was also deeply troubling. He spoke, for example, about his participation in Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) at the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but was strangely silent about Saddam Hussein’s slaughter of thousands of his own people and support for the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. Like Hybels, Shane fervently disavows the use of violence and rejects the idea that he is anti-Israel, but there is no question that he has become a useful tool in the campaign to turn Evangelicals against the Jewish state.
Both Mae Canon, World Vision’s Senior Director of Advocacy and Outreach-Middle East, and Steve Haas, World Vision’s Vice President and Chief Catalyst, formerly worked at Willow Creek. And like Willow Creek, World Vision is an incredibly influential organization in the Evangelical world. The bulk of World Vision’s work involves assisting poor communities, and rarely crosses the line into political or theological controversies. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an exception. World Vision makes no secret of its distaste for Zionism, both Jewish and Christian.
World Vision’s antagonism toward Israel is largely the work of an activist named Tom Getman. Getman served as director of World Vision’s program in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza before being tasked with establishing World Vision’s office in Washington, DC. After he left World Vision, he was able to abandon his veneer of neutrality and joined the boards of the ferociously pro-Palestinian groups Evangelicals for Mid-East Understandings, Sabeel, Sojourners, and KairosUSA. In a brief interview with fellow anti-Israel activist Rev. Steven Sizer, Getman bragged about his connections in the White House and on Capitol Hill. These “friends,” he claimed, would encourage the U.S. government to engage in dialogue with other friends of his, who happen to be leaders of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.
We have friends… inside the White House, we have friends in the Senate like people in this room today, who are intent on putting steel in the spine so Obama can follow through on what he has said, not only the words but to do. Like our friends Nasrallah [Hezbollah’s political leader] and Sheik Fedlallah [Hezbollah’s spiritual leader] and many others in the Middle East have said to us, the problem with you Christians is you don’t do what’s in the book. So we are trying to encourage Christians within the administration or active Jews within the administration to really stand up and let Obama be Obama in terms of what his heart says in terms of dialogue.
What Tom Getman started at World Vision has continued to grow. When Getman left World Vision in 2008, its program in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza had 30 staff members and a budget of $8 million. Six years later, it has a staff of 140 and a budget of over $16 million.
Because World Vision is a trusted organization in most Evangelical churches, it is very easy for them to promote the one-sided message that Israel is 100 percent to blame for Palestinian suffering—especially that of Palestinian Christians. This issue is particularly emotive, and thus one that pro-Palestinian Evangelicals constantly emphasize. In 2011, for example, World Vision started the Palestinian Christian Engagement Initiative (PCEI). According to Steve Haas, Catalyst Officer for World Vision, the purpose of the initiative was to bring together Palestinian churches in order to address the problem of Palestinian Christian emigration. Haas parrots the typical explanation of such emigration, saying, “Christians particular to this part of the world were emigrating very fast, a lot of it simply due to the impact of the occupation and the bad economy it was creating for Palestinians here.” It is true that Christians in the Middle East are emigrating very rapidly. The main reason, however, is not Israel, but Islam. In fact, since 1967, the number of Christians in Israel has increased while the number of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza has plummeted.
World Vision’s focus in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza is based on the noble work of providing assistance to children and families trapped in abject poverty. But its funding for conferences like “Christ at the Checkpoint” and “Impact: Holy Land”, which are created to subvert Evangelical support of Israel, undermines its pledge of neutrality.
Targeting young Evangelicals at top Christian universities has also been an extremely effective tool in the hands of those seeking to erode Evangelical support for Israel.
This is particularly the case in the field of theology. One of the defining characteristics of an Evangelical is their commitment to Biblical authority. They believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and therefore a trustworthy guide for how Christians should approach both personal and political issues.
Wheaton College’s Dr. Gary Burge has dedicated much of his work to formulating a biblical argument against supporting Israel. In addition to his endeavors inspiring young Evangelicals to abandoned support for Israel, he also has worked to inspire his own denomination to take a hardline approach to Israel as well. As an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), Burge’s writings have played heavily in the recent decision of his church to divest in three companies that do business in Israel. The outrageously biased and anti-Israel study guide Zionism Unsettled included a chapter on Evangelicals and Christian Zionism taken from Burge’s work on the subject. His basic message is that the land of Israel is no longer important to God’s redemptive plan for humanity. The Kingdom of God, which was established by Jesus, fulfills all the promises God made to Abraham and the people of Israel. Thus, there is no need for an earthly “kingdom” for the Jews.
As Burge told the participants at the “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference, “It is not that the covenant of Abraham has been rejected; nor that it has been replaced or superseded; it has been fulfilled.” Using the term “fulfilled” is, essentially, an attempt to get around the nasty history of supercessionism and replacement theology, which hold that the coming of Jesus abrogated God’s covenant with the Jews and they are no longer a chosen people. To non-Evangelicals, it may seem to be simply a matter of semantics, but its implications are extreme: The Jewish people and especially the modern State of Israel have no special significance to God. Rather than using the imagery St. Paul offers—of the gentiles being grafted on to the vine of a faithful Israel—this view sees Israel as then egg from which Jesus hatches and then discards the shell.
This message of “fulfillment theology” is often coupled with stories of Palestinian Christians who have lost their land to Jews. In the film With God on Our Side—which is routinely shown at Evangelical colleges—Salim Munayer, founder of the reconciliation ministry Musalaha, stands beneath an olive tree and describes how his family lost their land in 1948 and their subsequent mistreatment by American Christians. “Quite often I meet Christian Zionist groups that don’t understand the implications of Christian Zionism,” he says. “The implication of Christian Zionism, the way we hear it here, is [that] to accept this theology is to commit suicide as a people group.” This is an explosive challenge to the average American Evangelical: How can you support a theology that causes people to suffer?
While this challenge may be emotionally effective in persuading some younger Evangelicals to reject the idea of God’s faithfulness to Israel, it ignores the robust Christian theology of suffering, as well as political realities that are hidden by fear. The Christian theology of suffering recognizes, for example, that God allows suffering for a season in order to further his redemptive plan for humanity. At the same time, the political reality is that Palestinian Christians are suffering less at the hands of Israel than those of Palestinian nationalists and Islamic radicals.
Christy Anastas, for example, a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem, has courageously broken the silence on how land is routinely stolen from Palestinian Christians by other Palestinians.
Palestinians are stealing other Palestinians lands—especially Christian lands. I have four uncles who lost half their land by people from Hebron. Just like that. They went to court to ask for their rights. The judge, sadly was from Hebron. He said to them, I can’t wait to see the four of you dead in the fridges.
The price Christy paid for speaking out was significant. She was disowned by her family and forced to flee to the UK, where she received asylum. Unfortunately, films like With God on Our Side refuse to acknowledge that the price of speaking out against Palestinian corruption, or even of not hating Israel enough, is too much for many Palestinians. It’s easier to go along with the crowd and blame Israel.
The absence of vocal self-criticism among the Palestinian leadership and its policies is largely overlooked by those promoting a supposedly more “balanced” outlook on the conflict. Telos Group, for example, founded by a Palestinian-American and an Evangelical Christian, bills itself as supporting “genuinely pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace movements.” For the last several years, it has been targeting influential Evangelical bloggers and media sites with its message. An example of Telos Group’s influence can be seen in a recent edition of Relevant Magazine. Founded by second-generation Evangelical leader Cameron Strang, Relevant is a favorite among more moderate and progressive Evangelicals.
Telos Group invited Strang, along with several other young Evangelical favorites like Donald Miller, on a tour of Israel and the Palestinian territories. The subsequent messaging strategy followed a well-trodden path. Cameron said of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute,
The conflict is one of the world’s oldest and most divisive, in which theology, politics, human rights, and history are all tangled into a hopeless-looking web. The sheer complexity of the situation in this relatively small plot of land has provoked many in the West to exhaustion, if not outright apathy.
Over the course of his article, Strang introduces the reader to Palestinian and Jewish advocates for peace. In between are comments by Todd Deatherage, co-founder of Telos Group, which make the case against American Evangelicals who support Israel for theological reasons. Deatherage is quoted at length, saying,
The theology can be debated, you can have different views of the End Times and different readings of books of the Bible that may speak to that. But those seem overridden by Jesus’ teachings that we should love our enemies, that we should do justice, that we should walk in humility and love and we should care about Christian believers in different parts of the world.
Strang and Deatherage, of course, passionately deny they are anti-Israel. “If you support the Palestinians and their right to live in their own state,” Deatherage says, “you have to support that for the Jews to live in Israel. You can’t be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian, and you can’t be pro-Palestinian without being pro-Israel, and all of that is pro-peace.”
Such words tickle the ears of many Evangelicals. After all, who doesn’t want to be identified as pro-peace? Left unchallenged, however, the “pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-peace” claim coupled with an anti-Zionist narrative tempts the average Evangelical to abandon fairly shallow support for Israel in favor of an even shallower slogan.
This is because the “pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace” slogan presumes that Israel and the Palestinians are more or less the same. This, in turn, asserts that the institutions that have allowed Israel to flourish—things like free speech, rule of law, a vibrant media, and religious liberty—would be available or even desired in a Palestinian state. But even now, the only real political opposition to the ruling Fatah party is the terrorist organization Hamas; and the two have just agreed to form a unity government. Thus, it looks increasingly like the debate will not be whether a Palestinian state is based on liberal democracy or Islamic law, but how strict the application of Islamic law is likely to be.
Given that Palestinian Christian leaders often encourage their followers to stay quiet about their mistreatment by Muslims for fear of further attacks, it seems foolish to think that Palestinian leaders will suddenly embrace religious freedom and pluralism once a Palestinian state is established. It is certainly not pro-peace to advocate for Christians to live under tyranny. Nor can it be seen as pro-Palestinian, should the Palestinians involved have the misfortune to be Christian.
After a single Telos Group protest tour, Cameron Strang is probably unaware of how undemocratic a future Palestinian state is likely to be; but Todd Deatherage, Gary Burge, and Lynne Hybels have travelled extensively throughout the Palestinian territories and are certainly not so naïve. They are no doubt aware that the average Palestinian Christian and Israeli Jew have much to lose from the concessions now being advocated by Washington, London, and Brussels. But by challenging Evangelical support for Israel, they are actively undermining the only real source of democracy and freedom in the Middle East; something that does not bode well for the region’s beleaguered Christians and their right to practice their faith.
The generational divide between the older, more clear-spoken Evangelicals and younger Evangelicals who want a more nuanced approach to political advocacy, represents a challenge to those of us seeking to strengthen Evangelical support for Israel. But it is no longer possible to ignore the struggles that many Palestinian Christians endure, nor that Palestinian Christians are being exploited by Palestinian nationalists and Islamic radicals in order to soften Evangelical concerns about the nature of a future Palestinian state. Those Christian organizations and leaders who promote an anti-Zionist agenda must tell us precisely how a future Palestinian state would be a blessing to Palestinian Christians, Israel, and the surrounding nations. If they will not or cannot, American Evangelicals should think very hard about whether they want to give up the opportunity to be a blessing to the nation that blessed us with Jesus Christ.
Banner Photo: BVCDL / YouTube