taking the words of Jesus seriously

Excerpt from Red Letter Revolution by Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne. Reprinted with permission.

TONY: To call Israel and Palestine “the Holy Land” is a misnomer when what goes on there is so unholy. Evangelical Christians in this country do not realize that there used to be a large Christian community among the Palestinians that has been dramatically diminished. Many Christians have left Palestine because constraints and difficulties imposed on them by the Israeli government made their lives in Palestine more than they could handle. The Palestinian city of Bethlehem was 80 percent Christian twenty-five years ago. Today it’s down to 15 percent Christian. (1)

Thousands and thousands of Palestinian Christians have fled Bethlehem because they could no longer live freely in the city in which they had grown up. For them, Bethlehem became an occupied city. The harassment and the difficulty that goes with getting in and out of Bethlehem through Israeli checkpoints is just one of the things that makes life there unbearable for them.

Resolutions of the United Nations calling for an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands have been regularly ignored by the Israeli government. This is significant because the state of Israel would not exist if the UN had not created the Israeli nation with a resolution in 1947. Israelis want UN resolutions that guarantee the continued existence of the Israeli state, but they do not want to obey UN resolutions that call for the just return of occupied territory to the Palestinians. The UN policy is that when any war ends, no nation has the right to keep any land they have occupied during the war as a result of military conquests.

When President Obama said he wanted the borders of Israel and Palestine to be re-established as they were in 1967 prior to the Six- Day War, he was declaring only what is legal and right according to international law. Nevertheless, the president’s proposal caused an uproar across this country. There were protests from the leaders of both political parties. Members of Congress knew that the American Evangelical Zionists, who number in the millions, would be on their backs if there was even a hint of asking Israel to give up any land it had taken from the Palestinians prior to 1967.

It should be noted that President Obama did not demand that Israel go back to the borders established by the UN in 1947. He was compromising by saying that the borders should be as they were in 1967, but that was not acceptable to Christian Zionists. When the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, told the US Congress that Israel would never return to the borders of 1967, he was given a standing ovation. Those politicians knew right well what Evangelical Zionists, as well as a significant number of Christians in mainline denominations, were expecting of them. Therefore, in spite of what they knew were Israel’s violations of rulings from the World Court and the UN, they affirmed the Israeli prime minister. The Israeli government has established hundreds of illegal settlements on Palestinian land, yet because of the political pressure exerted by Christian Zionists, most of those in Congress are unwilling to raise their voices in opposition. More than 300,000 Israelis now live in settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. (2)

SHANE: With three bodyguards for every Israeli settler.

TONY: In addition to that, Israelis have built roads from Israel proper to each of these settlements. Israelis have constructed fences and walls along these roads so that Palestinian people cannot travel freely, even to visit relatives who live as little as a hundred yards away on the other side of the road, without going through a checkpoint into Israel proper and coming back on the other side of these walled roads.

Not long ago I spoke at a conference at the Bethlehem Bible College and had the opportunity to talk with Palestinian Christians whose homes had been leveled by Israeli bulldozers in order to make room for these illegal settlements. In several cases, these houses were on land that had been in their families for generations. This is, quite simply, the robbery of land and the illegal destruction of private property, yet the painful reality is that American Christians seldom ask what kind of justice this is.

SHANE: While in Palestine, the team I was traveling with visited a settlement to hear their perspective. Essentially, one of the settlers said, “God gave us this land. Anyone who has a problem with that needs to take it up with God.” He was kind enough to take questions, so I asked him what it said about the character of God if God seems to care more about folks on one side of the wall than folks on the other.

I told him that the God that I know is a God that heard the cry of the Israelites in their captivity, when they were slaves, and continues to hear the cry of the suffering. And I started to mention Jesus, but he stopped me and said, “I’m not a Christian.” But the golden rule to “love your neighbors as yourself” is not just a New Testament rule (Leviticus 19:18). It’s a rule of the Torah too. And when our theology gets in the way of loving our neighbors, it is time to rethink our theology.

TONY: What’s interesting about this theology is that many evangelical Christians point to Genesis 12 and 18 and say, “See, this land was promised to the seed of Abraham.” A Muslim Palestinian pointed out to me that while the Jews are the seed of Abraham, the Arabs are also the seed of Abraham. Abraham had a son named Isaac with his wife Sarah and another son named Ishmael whose mother was Hagar. Jews are the descendents of Isaac, and Muslims are the descendents of Ishmael, but both are the seeds of Abraham.

Ishmael is acknowledged as Abraham’s son and Ishmael’s descen- dents are cited as descents of Abraham (Genesis 25:12–17). Both were his seed, as would be their children and all who would be born into their two families for generations to come.

I realize that there are other Scripture passages suggesting that only the Jews are entitled to this land, because the Bible also says that the children of Jacob should inherit the Holy Land. But Scripture makes it is clear that Jacob could not fulfill the prophecies of the restoration of Israel without reconciling with his brother Esau. Certainly Jesus declares that if there is a problem of alienation with a brother, that reconciliation must take place before there can be any kind of worship of God (Matthew 5:23). In our day, we are given an ongoing ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18), and to that end we must work to bring Jews and Arabs together with justice for both groups.

The future of the Jewish people will be primarily in relationship with Jesus Christ; Scripture says that all people become one in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:23). The future of Gentiles and their salvation is in Jesus Christ, and the salvation of the Jews is also in Jesus Christ. Through Christ, we all become part of the same family of faith. God wants for the Jewish people what he wants for the Palestinian people. As Christians we become one with the Jews, and together we become the new Israel (Romans 9:25ff, 10:10–13). Nevertheless, I still think the Jews will have a special place in the “end times,” according to God’s plans, but I am still trying to figure out what that place will be.

SHANE: Do you have some suggestions of real concrete possibilities? Obviously, as outsiders, it’s not our place to pre- scribe all the answers, but we both know tons of folks on the ground, and you’ve been actively involved in these negotiations for decades. Any thoughts on a way forward that might help solve the problems of the Jews and the Palestinians?

TONY: There are two dominant issues that keep peace from being established in the Middle East. First, there’s the problem of the Palestinian refugees who are living in the Gaza Strip on the West Bank. They want what they call “the right of return.” In the midst of the two wars in 1948 and 1967, many Palestinians fled to the West Bank and to the Gaza Strip when the Israeli army moved in and took over their land. Palestinian villages and their vineyards were taken away from them. One of the Palestinian demands is the right to go back and live on the land that was once theirs and to repossess the homes that they believe were illegally taken from them.

The Israeli government reasonably says, “We can’t let the Palestinians return. Not now! Over the last fifty years they have reproduced at such a high birth rate that if they return to that land that is now within the borders of Israel, they would outnumber the Jews and, hence, they could vote the state of Israel out of existence.” For the Israelis this is a real and understandable concern.

The second major barrier to peace is that the Palestinians in the Gaza strip and the West bank demand that the illegal Jewish settle- ments be dismantled and the Israeli settlers be sent back to where they came from. But the present Israeli government is unwilling to give back any of that land. The Israelis are not about to dismantle the extensive housing they have built on that land, nor are they willing to drive the more than 300,000 Jews who live in those houses out of their homes.

SHANE: Just give the Palestinians back the keys to their houses, right? Or maybe the keys to the settlements?

TONY: Here is a proposal that was drawn up by the political science department of Princeton University; it is called the “Condominium Solution.” (3)

First, it states that there should be a two-state solution. It is proposed that Israel should have a state with safe and secure borders; and that Palestine should also have a state with safe and secure borders. Additionally, each state should have a fully recognized government. Both of these nations would have capitals in Jerusalem. There is a section of Jerusalem, now referred to as East Jerusalem, which belongs to the Palestinians, and this section of the city should be set aside as the capital for this new Palestinian state. The Israelis would have the rest of Jerusalem for their capital.

Second, all people who are of Jewish descent would be required to be citizens of the state of Israel, regardless of where they live. Whether these Jews live in Israel proper, the West Bank, or the Gaza Strip, those of Jewish descent would be have to be citizens of the state of Israel.

On the other hand, every person of Arab descent would have to become a citizen of the new state of Palestine. That means that the Arabs who live within the legal borders of Israel and who have Israeli citizenship would have to give up their Israeli citizenship and become citizens of the Palestinian state. This would be hard for Arabs who are presently Israeli citizens, since they have enjoyed many benefits by being Israeli citizens.

Third, and most important, both Jews and Arabs could live anywhere they wanted in the Holy Land. It means that the Arabs could return to land in Israel proper and the Jews could continue to live in the settlements. Since Jews and Arabs would be mixed up together living side by side, Hamas would probably have to give up lobbing rockets into Israeli territory because by doing so they would be just as likely to kill their own people as their “enemies.” There would be Palestinians living alongside Jews within Israel and Jews in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank living alongside Arab peoples.

Only Jews would be allowed to vote in Israeli elections, so the Israeli government would not have to worry that Palestinians living within Israel proper could vote the state of Israel out of existence. That would be the case even if Palestinians outnumbered Jews within the borders of Israel. Palestinians would only be able to vote in Palestinian elections, and Jews could only be allowed to vote in the Jewish election no matter where Jews and Palestinians lived.

Of course, the United States would have to put up a lot of money for Palestinians to buy back land and buildings that the Israelis have developed in wonderful ways over the last half century, but that would cost a lot less money than we’re now spending to make the Israeli army the fourth strongest in the world and also to underwrite the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Better still, the United Nations ought to carry some of this financial burden since it created the problem in the first place.

When I presented this plan to both officials in the Israeli government and to elected Palestinian officials, I got the sense that they saw the plan as workable. If we are called to be agents of reconciliation, we cannot simply allow the hardened positions that differing Christian groups have established in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to remain in place. As Red Letter Christians, we have a calling to come up with proposals that offer both these groups a way to live together in peace.

SHANE: Another reason the United States is so deeply invested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the biblical issue of the end times. The word eschatology means the study of eschaton, or the end times. This is the backdrop of much of the conflict in Israel-Palestine. In fact, Israel is the biggest recipient of US foreign aid. It can feel like we are stocking up weapons and preparing for the apocalypse.

It’s interesting because in one sense folks are saying, “We love the Jews. God bless Israel.” But then if you press them, the same folks will say, “But if you don’t become a Christian, then you’re going to go to hell.”

To be continued tomorrow…

Chapter 22. On the Middle East
1. An interview with Alex Awad, Dean of Students, Bethlehem Bible
College, March 8, 2012 [[publication details? personal interview?]].
2. Central Intelligence Agency, “The Middle East: West Bank,” in The
World Factbook, March 21, 2012, CIA Website. https://www.cia.gov/
3. Russell Nieli, “The Marriage of a One-State and Two-State Solution,”
Tikkum, July/August 2009, 33.

About The Author


Tony Campolo is Professor of Sociology at Eastern University, and was formerly on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. For 40 years, he founded and led the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, an organization that created and supported programs serving needy communities in the Third World as well as in “at risk” neighborhoods across North America. More recently, Dr. Campolo has provided leadership for the Red Letter Christians movement. He blogs regularly at his own website. Tony and his wife Peggy live near Philadelphia, and have two children and four grandchildren.

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