Megachurches, or churches with more than 2,000 members, have become an increasingly important aspect of Evangelical Protestantism in the United States since the 1970s.
Evangelical Protestantism has typically been a bulwark of support for the Jewish state in America, but some of the churches and church associations in the megachurch movement are embracing the same narrative that mainline churches have offered about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
This narrative portrays Israel as being in control of the violence directed at it and able to bring about a unilateral end to the Arab-Israeli conflict through concessions and peace offers. According to this narrative, the Arab-Israeli conflict continues because a flaw in Israel's national character prevents the Jewish state from making peace with its adversaries.
A version of this narrative was on display at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference held in Bethlehem in March, 2012, which had a significant megachurch presence.
Most notably, Lynne Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church
in Chicago spoke at this conference. During her talk, Hybels offered a frankly distorted narrative about home demolitions in Jerusalem.
This should come as no surprise given that Willow Creek's pastor and Lynne's husband, Bill, has promoted
the work of Wheaton College Professor Gary Burge, author of Whose Land? Whose Promise?
and hostile text
that portrays the Jewish sovereignty as a violation of Christian expectations of the Jewish people. As stated in a previous CAMERA assessment
of his work, In Rev. Dr. Burge's analysis, the failings of the modern state of Israel raise theological concerns; the failings of its adversaries do not.
The presence of anti-Zionism in the megachurch community is problematic for one important reason: These churches are tech-savvy. They are in the words of researchers at Hartford Seminary, wired and have proven highly adept at using modern technology and media to gain followers to the Christian faith.
Sadly, it appears that some megachurches are using their tech-savvy to promote a distorted view of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
This is evident in the Bethlehem Caught in the Crossfire video produced by Kensington Church in 2010. Kensington Church, which has 10,000 members at its main campus in Troy, Michigan and has started several other churches in Michigan.
While the video, narrated by former journalist Dan Mountney, has less than 400 views since it was first posted on Vimeo in May 2010, it is likely the video was also shown in church at Kensington's various campuses, including the one in Troy, which boasts a state-of-the-art sound system. Under these circumstances, the video is clearly going to have an impact on how people view the conflict.
While the video is over two years old, Willow Creek used this video to promote the appearance of Palestinian Christian Sami Awad at its church in Chicago on Sept. 21, 2012. When concerns were raised about the video, Aaron Niequist, a musician associated with Willow Creek, stated this film captures profound truth, and I'm excited for people to see and wrestle with it.
There are a few problems with the video.
First, the video describes the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as coming along after the Six Day War, which took place in 1967. In fact, the PLO was founded in 1964.
Dating the PLO's founding after the Six Day War gives the false impression that it was founded in response to Israel taking possession of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The PLO's founding was not a response to Israel's occupation of these territories, but was motivated by a rejection of Israel's right to exist.
The PLO's founding charter calls for the liberation of all of Palestine, which means the destruction of the Jewish state. It was this type of thinking that contributed to the Six Day War, prior to which Arab leaders openly called for Israel's destruction.
Secondly, the video's narrator states unequivocally that Elias Awad (Bishara Awad's father)
was killed by the Israelis. There is contradictory testimony regarding the circumstances surrounding Elias Awad's death, but the one thing we do know is that the family does not know who is responsible for his death.
In his book Palestinian Memories: The Story of a Palestinian Mother and Her People, first published in 2008 and reprinted in 2012, Rev. Alex Awad, one of Bishara's brothers, a Baptist minister affiliated with the United Methodist Church, writes, Who killed Father remains a mystery to the family."
Some members of the family believe that the bullet came from the Jewish side of the fighting, but a Jordanian official compensated Elias' wife for the death of her husband in 1948. And in 2003, a pastor interviewing Bishara Awad reported that He [Bishara] does not know to this day whether an Israeli or Arab soldier triggered the weapon.
Third, the video states that the population of Christians in Bethlehem and the West Bank is plummeting. The percentage of Christians in the West Bank is declining, but this decline is the result of a substantial growth in the territory's Muslim population. In absolute numbers, the population of Christians living in the West Bank has increased under Israeli control.
The numbers,compiledby the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in a background paper published in August 2011, reveal that in the late 1940s, there were approximately 60,000 Christians living in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gazaand that this population declined to approximately 40,000 just prior to the Six Day War in 1967.
Today, there are approximately 52,000 Christians living in these areas. In other words, the population of Christians in these areas declined under Arab rule and increased slightly under Israeli rule.
Quotes Victor Batarseh
Amazingly enough, the video relies on testimony from Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh for information about the decline of Christians in the West Bank.
This is somewhat surprising given that he was elected to his post with the support of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and is a former member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), an organization that denies Israel's right to exist and has perpetrated many terror attacks (including suicide bombings) against Israelis over the course of its history.
The organization is also responsible for the murder of Leon Klinghoffer in 1985. For details about Batarseh, see this article published by CAMERA in 2007.
This crucial information about Batarseh's background was omitted altogether from the video. (By the way, Batarseh was a speaker at the previously mentioned Christ at the Checkpoint Conference in Bethlehem, where he said Palestinians are being "crucified" by the Israelis.)
The video reports that when the security barrier is finished, it will completely surround Bethlehem. This is false. The barrier does not completely surround the city, but in fact passes by its northern and western sides. This falsehood has been repeated many times.
Theological Double Standard
Another issue of concern is the manner in which scripture is used to assess Israeli behavior, but not used to assess the behavior of its adversaries.
In his appearance in the video Palestinian Christian leader Saleem Munayer speaks about how Jeremiah warns the ancient Israelites that they will be exiled from the land because of the manner in which they treat the widow, the orphan and the stranger. He adds that Israel's presence and existence in the land depends on how Israelis treat the stranger, in this case, the Palestinians.
Like Gary Burge, Munayer traffics in a discriminatory application of scripture that fails to take into account Arab and Muslim culpability for the continued existence of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel cannot bring a unilateral end to the conflict. Simply put Israel cannot make peace with the strangers next door whose leaders refuse to acknowledge its right to exist.
In 2000, Israeli leaders tried to negotiate a settlement with Yassir Arafat who did not negotiate in good faith. Arafat turned down made to him in the summer of 2000. To make matters worse, he refused to make a counter offer and he rejected the Clinton Parameters offered a few months later January 2001 despite the following warning from Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan: I hope you remember, sir, what I told you. If we lose this opportunity, it is not going to be a tragedy. This is going to be a crime. (The New Yorker, March 24, 2003.)
It seems reasonable to ask: What would Jeremiah say to the Palestinians? Would Jeremiah condemn Palestinian leaders for their corruption? Would he condemn Palestinian leaders for the anti-Semitic hate speech that appears on Palestinian Authority controlled television stations? What would Jeremiah have said about suicide bombings? These are questions that Palestinian Christians have been loath to ask (or answer).
The question facing the megachurch movement is a simple one.
Will megachurch leaders use their technical savvy and access to large audiences to promote an honest and factual understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict or will they propound the one-sided and dishonest view embraced by mainline churches in the U.S.?