Blessed are the Peacemakers at Open Book

PalestineIn our second cycle for 2019 (starting Thursday 23rd May), we stare a half-century long wicked problem in the face. How should we understand and engage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which lies at the heart of so much Middle-Eastern political unrest?

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This bloody disagreement is so complex, and the perspectives so disparate and propped up by alternate facts, as to make it impossible to understand–let alone agree over–precisely what is going on. (Vox and Crash Course in History, however, offer a good start, as does the 6-part video history by Dr. Jonathan Kuttab).

A protester holds a placard as she stands next to Israeli soldiers during a protest against Israeli settlements in Beit Fajjar town south of the West Bank city of Bethlehem

A protester holds a placard as she stands next to Israeli soldiers during a protest against Israeli settlements in Beit Fajjar town south of the West Bank city of Bethlehem December 27, 2014. REUTERS/ Mussa Qawasma

At one level, and drawing on Neil Postman’s memorable phrase from Amusing Ourselves to Death, this seems like “impotent information”; it streams through our screens from such a distance that we are powerless to do anything with these horrible images of looming walls, water shortages, firing rockets, territory occupied, dismembered children, shouting voices, guttural cries and clashing flags. So, why bother studying such a contentious and seemingly intractable topic, from the relative safety of the antipodes?

Jesus at checkpointAt another level, it behooves any Christian who claims to follow the Prince of Peace as part of his beatitude community (exemplified here) to both pray for the shalom of Israel (Psalm 122:6), and to stand against injustice, irrespective of the perpetrator. And yet, this dual vocation exposes a fault line running through the heart of modern evangelicalism.

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TOPSHOT – A man walks past graffiti depicting US President Donald Trump on the controversial Israeli separation barrier separating the West Bank town of Bethlehem from Jerusalem on August 25, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX (THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)

Prominent American voices say that supporting Israel is a “big deal“, forging an interfaith partnership with pro-Israeli forces to carve out “Christian Zionism“. This both supposedly fulfils unconditional Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants permitting occupation of this land as a Jewish gift from God, and secures Jerusalem as the global centre for Christ’s rule from a rebuilt Temple initiating the second coming.

6205594305_119800573e_bAnd yet, a growing number of Jews and Christians, even conservative evangelicals, have recognised human rights abuses by the modern Israeli State in the name of religion; in place of ill-defined and ever expanding territory, they call for a two-state solution that protects both a formerly and currently displaced people group.

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While we must be careful to avoid anti-Semitic beliefs that the Church has replaced Israel, it would seem that popular evangelical support for the modern state of Israel is premised on some poor theology and questionable history, failing to sufficiently grapple with the plight of the Palestinians, including many oppressed Christian brothers and sisters.

Israel-Palestine-Ben-HeineHow, then, can we take sides when both Israelis and Palestinians love Jesus, and each party has blood on their hands? Is there a path forward?

Following the true and better Joshua, before we justify any siege on today’s “Jericho”, we do well to ask our Saviour who alone is just to bear the sword:

Are you for us or for our enemies?”
“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”
Then Joshua fell face-down to the ground in reverence. (Joshua 5:13-15)

Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza Border

SDEROT, ISRAEL – JULY 18: An Israeli reservist troop prays near the Israeli-Gaza border on the morning of July 18, 2014 near Sderot, Israel. Late last night Israeli forces escalated their operation with a ground offensive, sending troops into Gaza. More than 250 Palestinians have lost their lives since Israel began operation ‘Protective Edge’. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

This series, then, is a poignant case study in a re-tribalising and polarised age, drawing us into deeper questions that we must all face:

Blessed are the peacemakers! Yet where is Christ in ongoing global conflict? How might his church wisely serve as agents of reconciliation, healing rather than exacerbating historical wounds?

B3-AA668_ISPAL_P_20180412134543Over four fortnightly sessions starting Thursday 23rd May (schedule below), editors Manfred Kohl and Munther Isaac will guide our conversation, having selected pivotal papers across various “Christ at the Checkpoint” conferences, hosted by Bethlehem Bible College in Palestine. Who comprises this conference?

We are a community of evangelical Christians who believe that following Jesus with integrity means that our lives are formed by our love for God, the teaching of the Bible and a fearless life of discipleship in the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We believe that one of the first hallmarks of discipleship is love for both our own community and for our enemies. We wish to find Jesus at the center of everything we do and to make his life our life. Which means finding courageous love for Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews alike.

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Christ at the CheckpointWe’ll grapple with their 2018 book, Christ at the Checkpoint: Blessed are the Peacemakers (CCPwebsite; videos), chosen by Liz and Andrew Nichols. It gets into the complexities of following Christ as agents of reconciliation amidst very divided situations such as daily experienced by Palestinian and Jewish residents of “the holy land”.

In Andrew’s words, here’s why they thought this book was timely to explore:

Prison cities, refugees, targeted killings, arrests of children and demolitions of houses of families of activists, shooting of demonstrators, destruction of orchards, settlements, illegal occupations and annexations. Surely Christians would condemn this and support sanctions against such a nation … like they eventually did with Apartheid in South Africa. … But no! Christians, and in particular Evangelicals, seemingly suspend their faith when it comes to such acts committed by Israel.

Why is Israel singled out for this special treatment by the followers of Christ, and is it really justified by Scripture? Are we just not the worst hypocrites?

I discovered the material of  Bethlehem Bible College some years back, on line. They are dedicated to spreading the Kingdom of God in reconciliation between Jews and their Palestinian neighbours, but they do not shy away from engaging with and calling out injustice, and showing how Christians can no longer turn a blind eye to it.

bethlehem-wall-880x495Clearly, this book amplifies the less heard voice of Palestinian Christians. This shouldn’t, however, be taken as a one-eyed view of the world. No less a scholar than Old Testament Professor and former theological chair for the evangelical Lausanne global evangelisation movement, Dr. Chris Wright, offers this endorsement:

Having participated in two Christ at the Checkpoint conference in past years, I found them greatly challenging and informative. I was impressed with the range and balance of speakers and the desire to listen respectfully to voices from radically different perspectives, theologies and locations. I was also deeply moved by the willingness to share one another’s pain on both sides of “the wall,” and the profound longing for biblically rooted and defined justice, reconciliation and peace. For those of us who stand “outside” the realities of life in Israel-Palestine, there is so much to learn, so much to re-think, and so many dear brothers and sisters in Christ, both Arab and Jewish, to help us understand. We need to hear Christ in and through them.

In preparation for this series, you may find of interest my Malyon Theological College Chapel Talk on Exclusion and Embrace unpacking Genesis 16 and 21 from Hagar’s perspective (Aug. 22, 2018: video; slides), the Lausanne Movement’s “Larnaca Statement” (Aug. 2016) composed by Messianic and Palestinian Christians together (press release; introduction; statement), and from an internationally respected inter-religious scholar and theologian arguing for an ongoing biblical concern for the people and land of Israel (though still challenging fundamentalist Zionism), see the work of Gerald McDermott, in particular his books Israel Matters, Returning to Zion and Covenant and Hope, with a taste in his interviews herehere and here.

leesmith_041712_620px.jpgUltimately this is not about choosing sides. Whatever our view, we need to skirt both the Scylla of supercessionism (where Israel is replaced by the church and is ignored in the rest of the Bible) and the Charybdis of unthinking Christian Zionism (where the modern and largely secular nation-state of Israel is conflated with the ancient ethnic group of Jews, thereby baptising all they do and offering unconditional support to their possession of modern territory that unethically displaces and harasses Palestinians).

No easy task, but a crucial dialogue nonetheless!

Details below, and all welcome, whatever your faith commitment, tradition, or none.

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201404-2Over 4 Thursday sessions (May 23 – July 4) at Andrew and Liz Nichols’ house (155 Burbong St. Chapel Hill; call Liz on 0415624982 if lost) we will dialogue with Kohl and Isaac’s Christ at the Checkpoint [CCP] and each other, discovering what it means to work as peacemakers amidst intractable conflict.

Check out the calendar below for key dates, and pick up your paperback or kindle version of CCP here.

{Want to join us virtually? We’re experimenting with Zoom so you can listen in, and share your thoughts, live streaming the experience. Download the pdf of the powerpoint slides (e.g. on schedule, e.g., click link for CCP1) to play on your computer, and then see what’s happening through a basic web-cam capture of the group. We’ll have a shared microphone so the sound won’t be great, but you should be able to hear what we’re each saying, add your own voice when you ‘unmute’ your microphone, and participate in the practices as best as we can short of teleporting materials to your living room! … https://zoom.us/j/396017392 … Log in around 7:00pm on the fortnightly Thursday to test your sound, then start the conversation with us around 7:20-9:10pm. New to Zoom? 50 second meeting joining video  here, and more detailed directions, especially for problem shooting, here.}

We have a soft-start from 6:30pm—feel free to rock up early and eat your dinner or share a cup of tea. (Park up top, on the left-hand side of our circular driveway.) At 7pm sharp we get into the night, finishing each night by 9pm with supper together and an unrushed chat over coffee. OPEN BOOK includes some basic spiritual practices and prayer, before unpacking the pre-reading scheduled for that night.

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For each week, it helps to think through how the reading provokes you in 4 ways:

1) Questions: what didn’t make sense?

2) Challenges: what did you think was wrong?

3) Implications: what difference does this make for peace-making in a polarised world?

4) Applications: how do we live as a be-attitude community, brokering shalom?

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OPEN BOOK, THURSDAYS 7PM | Kohl and Isaac’s Christ at the Checkpoint (CCP)
(Click session # hyperlink for liturgy/ppnt slides–e.g., CCP 1 below–and page numbers for the next reading. Virtual/Zoom participation via https://zoom.us/j/396017392.)

May 10 | Pre-series Open Table dinner, on the theme of “Wisdom of Our Elders“. Who has impacted your life the most as a mentor? We’ll explore stories of ageing, what we’ve learned from those who’ve lived well and also would rather forget from our grumpy forebears. Generally, we’ll trade hard earned wisdom that gave many their grey hairs! Location at Nathan and Melissa McConaghy’s place (69 Sunset Rd., Kenmore, 4069).

May 23 | CCP 1, pp. 5-63: Introduction/About/Manifesto (5-13), and Part 1: Voices of Palestinian Christians: Ch. 1 “A Testimony to God’s Faithfulness” (15-20), Ch. 2 “The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Palestinian Perspective” (21-30), Ch. 3 “The Delegitimization of Palestinian Christians” (31-44), Ch. 4 “A Testimony of Palestinian Women in the Midst of Conflict” (45-50), Ch. 5 “Transforming Hearts through Non-Violence” (51-63).

June 6 | CCP 2, pp. 65-119: Part 2: Biblical Response to Christian Zionism: Ch. 6 “What Can We Tell When We Return Home?” (65-74), Ch. 7 “A Biblical Response to Christian Zionism” (75-92), Ch. 8 “Abraham in the New Testament” (93-104), Ch. 9 “Christian Zionism as Imperial Theology” (105-119).

June 20 | CCP 3, 121-193: Part 3: The Gospel in the Face of Religious Extremism: Ch. 10 “The Gospel and Religious Extremism” (121-132), Ch. 11 “Jewish Extremism and a Gospel Response in Israel-Palestine Today” (133-142), Ch. 12 “My Jewish Neighbor” (143-152), Ch. 13 “Religious Extremism: Radical Islam and Violence” (153-178), Ch. 14 “A Christian Response to Radical Islam” (179-193).

July 4 | CCP 4, 195-250: Part 4: Blessed Are the PeacemakersCh. 15 “Evangelicals and Peacemaking” (195-206), Ch. 16 “Christ, Violence and Peacemaking Today” (207-222), Ch. 17 “Jesus, Muslims and Violent Extremism: Five Commands for the Road to Peace” (223-238), Ch. 18 “The Kingdom of God” (239-250).

July 19 | Open Table dinner, theme and location t.b.a.

Hope to see you there!

Vox

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