Monday, 21 July 2014

God's Forgotten Ones

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I recently finished reading Blood Brothers, the biography of Elias Chacour, a Palestinian priest. It’s a roller-coaster ride that takes you from his childhood as a refugee, to his time studying abroad, to his challenges in parish ministry and political activism. When I finished it I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness as he pleaded with Western Christians not to judge his people. After all, it’s what we do right? I’ve seen many churches that have Israel’s flag next to a cross or their national flag, but I’ve never seen a church with a Palestinian flag in it. I’ve heard many Christians proclaim a deep love for the people of Israel, but I can’t remember the last time I heard Christians proclaim a deep love for the Palestinian people. Are not Palestinians made in the Image of God too? Did Jesus not die for them just as he died for “Jew and Gentile”? Does God not love them? I doubt any reasonable Christian would deny that God loves the Palestinians so why do we not show it? Why do we let them become God’s forgotten ones?

In my last post I urged people to not get fooled by simplistic narratives of the conflict. One of the most famous of these is that the conflict is an unavoidable conflict when Jews and Arabs/Muslims, East and West. But this narrative is challenged by the fact that in the early 1900s, Jews and Arabs had a fairly peaceful coexistence in Palestine. The narrative also ignores the 200,000 strong Christian community in the Holy Land.[1]

Palestine is home to a rich diversity of Christians across many different denominations, including the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Baptist denominations. Of particular significance is the Melkite church, one of the world’s oldest denominations tracing its origins back to the church in Antioch (Acts 11).

In British Mandate Palestine (before the formation of Israel) it is believed that 15-20% of Palestine’s population was comprised of Christians. However that number has steadily decreased down to just 4% today. Most experts attribute this decline to the Christian population emigrating because of the difficulties in day-to-day life caused by the conflict, in particular the massive exodus that occurred during the 1948 war.[2] In fact, it is believed that 56% of Palestinian Christians make up the Palestinian Diaspora.

Alongside the difficulties that many Palestinians in the West Bank face, Christian churches (and Muslim mosques) have often been the target of threats, vandalism, and arson by Israeli settlers.[3] These attacks are part of a tactic called “price tag attacks” where settlers attack Palestinian civilian property or IDF personal in response to any measures taken which they see to be against settlement enterprises. These acts (along with the settlements) form a major barrier to peace in the region.   

But there is an insidious challenge that Palestinian Christians face from the Western church: in our support of Israel we have often neglected our Palestinian brothers and sisters, or worse. In Blood Brothers, Elias Chacour recalls an incident that happened when he was studying abroad in France. A wealthy and influential member of his church invited him to a Christmas dinner party where he was to be a special guest. He felt flattered until he was introduced as a Jewish seminary student from Bethlehem (apparently the host wanted to parade the “fact” that he had a Jewish believer celebrating with him). When Chacour took his host aside and asked him why he had been announced as a Jew and not a Palestinian, he was told that “You’ll get along much better if you stop announcing to the world that you are Palestinian.”[4]

But Chacour’s story is not unique. Speaking in an interview in the documentary film “With God on Our Side”, Palestinian Christian - and Director of Musalaha - Dr. Salim Munayer recalls his experiences in America.

“When you’re a Christian and you’re a minority you desire to be in contact and fellowship and relationship with Christians from other places. I do remember visiting a church in Dallas, and they said “we have a brother from Israel” and I spoke for a few minutes and after that people came to shake my hand. I still remember very vividly and distinctly one man came and said “Oh I’ve so longed to shake the hand of somebody from Israel, I love the Jewish people!” and I said yes great, I do love the Jewish people too but I am not a Jew I am a Palestinian. This man took his hand from my hand, turned around and left. I mean, and you experience that again, and again, and again. And you ask the question what’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with my Christianity? What’s wrong with this people? And you come to the conclusion that something is wrong with their theology. Their theology causes them to reject and object to a brother that doesn’t fit their end time theology. And that is a sin.[5] [emphasis added]

A common sentiment in the writings of Palestinian Christians is that a lot of the pro-Israel nationalist rhetoric spouted by some Christians is deeply hurtful to their Palestinian brothers and sisters. One such line of rhetoric is that all the Palestinians must leave the land so that Israel can have it. But I think this ignores that the purpose of the election of Israel and God’s allowing them to dwell in His land was always to bless the other nations and point them towards salvation. The land was part of God’s plan to redeem all of Creation but it was never an end within itself.

It also ignores another very important concept found in Galatians 3:28-29. I quite like how the theologian and philosopher Peter Rollins paraphrases this idea:

“To identify with Christ, to pick up your cross and follow him means that your various identities, male, female, Jew, Gentile, slave, free …  any of these identities do not follow define you. That those identities are robbed of their power and you enter into this space where you realise you transcend those identities; you’re not completely defined by them. And in that way we identify with others who have different beliefs and are part of different tribes to ours.”[6]

Here’s the thing: If your theology stops you from loving a whole group of people then your theology is in serious need of rethinking. Christ’s command to love one another calls for a type of love that affirms that all humans have intrinsic value because they are made in the Image of God. And this sentiment is found not just in the teachings of Christ but throughout the Bible. The Biblical view of God’s plan is a renewing of this world where all people are called to become children of Abraham by faith and anticipate their inheritance which is “not Palestine, a small geographical strip in the Middle East… [but] the whole renewed, restored creation… the whole world which is now God’s holy land.”[7]   


[2] Palestinian Christians have historically been wealthier and better connected than Muslim Palestinians, making it easier to emigrate.
[3] Vandalism ranges from destruction of property to spray painting Settler slogans such as “Arabs out”, “King David, king of the Jews. Jesus is Garbage”, or even “Send Arabs to the gas chambers”.
[4] Elias Chacour and David Hazard, Blood Brothers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Chosen Books, 2003), 112.
[5] With God On Our Side, directed by Porter Speakerman Jr. (Rooftop Productions, 2010)
[6] Peter Rollins, “Crucified Identities” (video), 21 May 2013,
[7] Wright, N T. Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues. New York, NY: HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014, loc1416.

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