Alex Awad speaks at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference.(Ryan Rodrick Beiler)
“Christ at the Checkpoint: Hope in the Midst of Conflict” was a five-day event organized by Bethlehem Bible College earlier this month. Christian theologians, academics and church leaders were invited to meet with the local Palestinian church and challenge the Christian Zionist influence within the evangelical movement.
The conference attracted major speakers both from within the Palestinian Christian community as well as international evangelicals, including Tony Campolo, Gary Burge, Stephen Sizer, John Ortberg and Shane Claiborne. Messianic Jewish speakers were also invited.
“This is a conference about sitting down together, Christians, Muslims, whoever comes, discussing theology, in this environment of occupation,” Alex Awad of Bethlehem Bible College told The Electronic Intifada. “We want people to come, see the wall, see the checkpoints, see the reality on the ground, and then open the Bible.”
“The bottom line is the reality of God and his goodness, and the reality of this occupation. Because as Palestinian Christians we face this every day,” Awad added. “We go to church and we learn God is good, but to get to our church we have to go through a checkpoint. How do we figure the goodness of God with the harsh realities on the ground? That is what the conference is all about.”
Empowering the Palestinian church
According to the Christ at the Checkpoint website, its main aims were to empower the Palestinian church, expose injustice in Palestine and to motivate participants to engage in reconciliation.
Topics ranged from the role of Palestinian women in ministry, to the theology of the land and biblical principles of justice and nonviolence. One of the most prominent themes, however, was using the Bible to challenge the theology of Christian Zionism, a theme which proved unpopular in Christian Zionist circles.
The aim that proved most controversial, however, was the conference’s desire to “create a platform for serious engagement with Christian Zionism.” A series of attacks ensued from the Christian Zionist community, including campaigns to intimidate speakers into withdrawing from the conference.
Challenging Christian Zionism
The conference included seminars and talks which outlined why, from an evangelical Christian perspective, Christian Zionism has dangerously misinterpreted the Bible. An entire day of the conference was devoted to engaging with Christian Zionism, including a seminar by Rev. Stephen Sizer, author of Zion’s Christian Soldiers, entitled “Seven Biblical Answers to Popular Zionist Assumptions.”
“Christian Zionism can be defined as Christian support for Zionism,” said Sizer in an interview with The Electronic Intifada. “They simply believe that promises God made to Abraham and the Jewish people in Hebrew Bible are in some sense being fulfilled today, or are about to be fulfilled.”
“Therefore as Christians our responsibility is to support what God is doing among the Jewish people today and so taints our political agenda,” Sizer continued. “But there really is no place for the Palestinians within a Christian Zionist theology, other than as the servants, or the hewers of wood and the carriers of water.”
“The particularism and the exclusivism of Christian Zionism is actually a misreading of the Bible,” he added. “When you turn your theology into a political agenda which denies the human rights of other people because they’re not Jews, for me that’s where it crosses a line.”
For many Palestinian Christians, the Christian Zionist theology leaves no room for the presence of an indigenous church in the Holy Land, and fails to address the suffering of the Palestinian people as a whole.
“Christian Zionism, in my opinion, has ignored us Palestinian Christians at best, [and] demonized us at worst,” said Munther Isaac, conference director, in his talk at the conference entitled “A Palestinian Christian Perspective.”
“Whenever they speak about prophesy and Israel, it’s as if Palestinians don’t exist. We are not mentioned in the books, in the films, in the theology conferences,” he added.
“For too long there has been only one narrative,” Isaac said. “The Palestinian narrative is there and is challenging the narrative which has dominated for too long. They can no longer ignore the Palestinian voice.”
The aims of the Christ at the Checkpoint conference did not go unnoticed. For months before the conference, Christian Zionists and Israeli Messianic Jews waged a campaign against the conference and its organizers, labeling them “anti-Semitic” in an attempt to have the conference canceled.
“You wouldn’t believe the negative stuff that was written about us — sometimes [it] was nasty, some was personal,” said Isaac. “Major Christian media stations have spread lies about Bethlehem Bible College, just because of this conference. I never expected it to get this nasty and this personal.”
These critics suggested the conference was one-sided, biased and anti-Semitic, and speakers were attacked individually and accused of being anti-Jewish and anti-Israel. One op-ed in The Huffington Post even asserted that Stephen Sizer had “joined hands with the Iranian regime” (“Christ at the Checkpoint Conference will only breed more Theological Extremism,” 9 November 2011).
Meanwhile, Guilio Meotti wrote in an op-ed for Israeli online publication Ynet, “Their Intifada from Heaven is breathing new life into a kind of demonology that bans Israel from the family of nations,” (“Christians who Hate the Jews,” 19 February 2012).
The attacks intensified in the days leading up to the conference, culminating in a hysterical treatise in The Jerusalem Post which equated the conference with Haman’s genocide plot against the Jews in the Old Testament (“This Bethlehem Conference is no Purimshpiel,” 29 February 2012).
As well as attacking the conference aims and individual speakers, critics were also unhappy both with the choice of the name, “Christ at the Checkpoint,” and the logo, which depicted a church surrounded by Israel’s wall, an image based on a photo of a church in Bethlehem. Some conference organizers were even targeted by the Israeli authorities.
“The Israeli officials and military leaders summoned me and Dr. Bishara [Awad, founder of Bethlehem Bible College] to interview about the conference,” said Isaac. “They tried to intimidate us and protested the logo and the name of the conference. We said, ‘you don’t like the wall and checkpoint? Remove them, then we’ll change the name of the conference.’”
Christ at the Checkpoint organizers responded to these attacks both personally, by writing to their critics, and publicly, by publishing statements on their website.
“[To] everyone who criticized us, we sent a personal email and said please come to the conference, and then make your judgements,” added Isaac. “In a lot of cases there was no credibility in the attacks, because they were based on the wrong information.”
“It is not fair for one to assume that any criticism of Israel should be considered an act of demonization,” stated Isaac and Awad on the conference website. “In reality, many of these attacks are made by extreme fundamentalist groups or writers who do not have any tolerance for a view that differs from their own. For these writers, any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism … If any demonization is taking place, it is the demonization of all Palestinians and Arabs” (“An important message from Christ at the Checkpoint”, 25 January 2012).
For most speakers, the attacks suggested that Christian Zionists were unhappy with any challenge to their theology, particularly from within the evangelical community. According to Stephen Sizer, Christians Zionists often attempt to intimidate or isolate any Christian who publicly disagrees with them.
“Many ministers I know share the views I hold but they won’t talk about it, because when they do they get hit over the head,” he said. “So intimidation often works.”
But while some are intimidated, others remain resolute.
“This is the first time within the evangelical movement there’s been an uprising against Christian Zionism,” Awad explained. “And these people don’t want an uprising, especially because it is a civil uprising. We are evangelicals, and we are revolting against Christian Zionism from within the evangelical church … this is the first time that Palestinians [are speaking] to them loudly.”
Influencing the evangelical church
For many years, the Christian Zionist narrative has dominated evangelical Christianity, particularly in the United States. Prominent figures and pastors such as John Hagee and Pat Robertson have circulated the belief that the modern state of Israel is fulfillment of biblical prophecy and part of God’s divine plan for humankind.
Though Christian Zionism is still very much a mainstream theology, this conference, which describes itself as a “major breakthrough,” shows that there is a growing number of Christian academics and pastors, both within Palestine and worldwide, who are willing to challenge Christian Zionist doctrines and support a biblical understanding of the Middle East based on principles of justice and care for the oppressed.
“Because we are evangelicals, when we come up with a conference to question the basics of Christian Zionism it really angers them,” said Awad. “That article in The Jerusalem Post said one statement that made me very proud. It said that this conference has the possibility of changing the evangelical movement. Well if our conference can do that, hallelujah!”
For Sizer, Christian Zionism isn’t the first historical example of Christians confusing theology with politics in order to oppress others. “The Bible has been misused by every colonial system,” he said.
“The Spanish used the church to suppress the Incas and the other people in Latin America, the British used the Bible to justify the colonisation of East Africa and Asia. In South Africa the Dutch Reform Church used the Bible to justify why the blacks were inferior to the whites.”
“We’ve used the paradigms of the Bible to justify mistreating other peoples that we could denigrate or dehumanize them … My message to the Christian community is to say Jesus has called us to treat everyone with dignity and respect.”
According to Isaac, many Christian Zionists tend to ignore the suffering of the Palestinians as it presents a problem to their theology. “One of the most typical and common reactions we hear from many Christian Zionists when they are asked about the situation of Palestinians, you know what they say? They say it’s ‘unfortunate,’” he said.
“People look at the conflict, the death, the refugees, the wall, the humiliation. Tourists pass by the checkpoint and the refugee camps into the Nativity Church, they look at the wall, and all they can say is ‘it’s unfortunate.’”
“No, it’s not unfortunate, that’s the wrong word,” Isaac added. “If you spill a cup of coffee, that’s ‘unfortunate.’ People victimize us in the name of God and the Bible; that is not ‘unfortunate.’ It makes me wonder whether we as evangelicals have lost our conscience. How have we become so apathetic to the suffering people of the world?”
“In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the people who passed by the wounded person were religious people. Maybe they passed by the person and said, ‘it’s unfortunate.’”
Emily Lawrence is a recent graduate and independent writer currently based in Bethlehem, West Bank. She can be followed on Twitter at @EmilyWarda.