On Friday 15 June I accompanied Troy Jackson to a very interesting meeting. They were planning a series of events on Israel and Palestine for Midwestern churches.
The meeting was to plan part of a visit to the Midwest by Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust. The trip would introduce Sami and his perspective to various evangelical churches in the Midwestern USA.
The Holy Land Trust, based in Bethlehem, was founded by Sami Awad in 1998. In their Mission Statement they say that they ‘aspire… to strengthen and empower the peoples of the Holy Land to engage in spiritual, pragmatic and strategic paths that will end all forms of oppression’. An interfaith project, it works from a Christian basis, including the non-violence principles of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
Sami Awad is a Palestinian Christian, whose father is currently President of Bethlehem Bible College. He studied politics and international relations in the USA before returning home to support non-violent dialogue and community work. The Trust’s projects include leadership training, the rebuilding of Palestinian homes demolished by the Israel, and even bringing people from the US to the region to participate in the olive harvest.
Sami’s tour is seen as a peace initiative by Midwestern churches. Someone said to me during my trip that there is a sense that the Midwest is overlooked by outsiders. We tend to hear about politics and finance from the east coast, or entertainment and technology from the west coast. In fact, the area between is, in more ways than one, the heartland of the United States. Often political, social and cultural ideas come from the heartland, where we don’t expect such things to come from.
So given that the evangelicals have such an important role in determining US middle east policy, trying to alter the mind-set of the Midwestern churches could be vital. The point of Sami’s tour was, it was said at the meeting, and attempt to ‘politicize’ the Churches- but not in the usual way.
Many evangelical Christians already take a highly politicized view of Israel, based on their beliefs. There is a range of theologies at work here, but many take the view that re-establishment of a Jewish homeland is a fulfilment of Biblical prophecy. This too easily translates into an unthinking support for the state of Israel, with scant regard for any rights or sympathy for the Palestinian people. The ‘war on terror’ and the demonizing of Islam since 2001 has reinforced these views: the conflict is seen as an Islamic war against the Jewish people. There is little knowledge of, or concern for, the terrible pressure on the Christian communities in the region, whether the traditional Churches (such as the Orthodox) or more recent Protestant communities. Instead, the belief that the land has been promised by God to the Jews colours everything. Working together, the Christian Right and the Jewish lobby are responsible for maintaining an almost uncritical support from America for the State of Israel. For me, this is a case study in how faulty theology can lead to terrible political consequences.
Our meeting was business-like, even although it took place over a meal. There was a clear strategy, with the various stakeholders taking responsibility for the various elements. The tour would be backed with teaching materials and meetings with Church leaders. The goal was to change US Christian viewpoints on the Palestinian conflict, as well as fundraising and make a practical difference on the ground. The message was defined as:
- proclaim justice and peace
- we are pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-poor and pro-peace
- to encourage sustainability of the Christian church in the Holy Land
- our goal is to raise resources to improve the lives of children and communities in Palestine
It’s the second of these I find most interesting. Against the default setting of evangelical support for Israel, these folks were attempting to say: the Palestinians deserve our compassion as Christians as well. And doesn’t the Gospel had a bias toward the poor and in favour of non-violence? Here was the ‘left wing’ social evangelicalism which I had met at Sojourners applied to the Middle East conflict, and the role in that conflict of US Christianity.
The planned tour would take Sami to a range of venues, including some very large megachurches with thousands of members. It will be a tall order to change the unstinting and often unthinking support give to Israel by evangelical Churches in the United States. The forces ranged against this group are formidable; they are taking a risk trying to create an alternative to the usual narrative about Middle Eastern politics. This point of view is very much a minority view among US evangelicals. We can only hope that this more pragmatic and compassionate approach gains ground.
I was impressed that this group was willing to take on the attitudes of these huge, rich congregations, which too often have held unswervingly to a right-wing political agenda. But two conversations outside of the meeting proper were very interesting. One was a question put by his colleagues to a leader from one of these megachurches. Asked how things were going in his congregation he replied, ‘Well, the ministers to look after children, families and youth, and the elderly all tell me things are going well. But the ministry with middle-aged people is not growing. We are seeing the middle-aged leave our church because we are no longer wrapping ourselves in the flag. In some ways it seems surprising that some of them have stayed so long, because about ten years ago we looked at our Church- white and middle-class- and decided that us all being the same just wasn’t Biblical. So we made a conscious effort to become more diverse, to reach out to ethnic groups and classes who we were just not reaching before. Now that we are much more diverse, some of our middle-aged people are uncomfortable with that, and they are leaving us’.
I thought that this Church had been very courageous to pursue this policy. For it reminded me of a guest lecturer I heard when I was at Princeton who told us the secret of Church growth was to attract a broadly similar kind of people to your Church. This was based on research that showed that, 20 years ago, the fastest growing Churches did just that (with the consequence that, as someone once put it to me, Americans were never more racially divided than on a Sunday morning). It occurred to me- and I said this to the lecturer- that there was a Dutch word for a theology that urged separate Churches for different sorts of people, which became government policy in South Africa: apartheid.
The other conversation I had was with another participant in the meeting, a lady who was very committed to the aims of the proposed tour. She was Pat Davis, who was the wife of a Congressman Geoff Davis, a Republican from northern Kentucky. But that story is for my next post!