The Future of Evangelical Support for Israel

Note: This piece originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of the Jerusalem Post Christian Edition.
Evangelical Christians are the latest targets of an aggressive and deceptive pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel narrative specifically designed to turn these traditional supporters of Israel away from that support in favor of the Palestinian Christian cause. The intended audience is vulnerable to this anti-Zionist agenda due to an appalling dearth of historical and theological knowledge. As a result, Evangelical support for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state faces an uncertain future.

While Palestinian Christians’ needs are genuine, the advocacy on their behalf is, for the most part, disingenuous and blatantly anti-Israel. Those behind the current campaign employ factual errors and false accusations in an obvious attempt to demonize the Jewish State. This crusade is spearheaded by Palestinian Christians, is advanced by leaders in the United States, and is justified through a customized replacement theology that has roots in historic anti-Jewish theology.

Replacement theology states that the church has replaced Jews and Judaism in the purposes of God. In other words, there is no longer any divine reason for the existence of Jews as a people.The origins of this doctrine are found in the theological anti-Judaism conceived by early church fathers at the beginning of the Christian era – a dogma dependent upon delegitimization and demonization of Jews and Judaism.

As two millennia of history have demonstrated, Christian anti-Judaism inevitably leads to overt anti-Semitism, which is antipathy towards Jews based on race. Anti-Semitism becomes anti-Zionism when the negative qualities attributed to Jews and/or Judaism are attributed to Israel, the collective Jew.

This ancient phenomenon is evident today in the Palestinian Christian narrative.

Palestinian Christian anti-Zionism is a new manifestation of historic anti-Judaism in that the right of Jews to exist in terms of their own self-understanding – which includes recognition of one of the essential identifying features of Judaism, the importance of the Land of Israel – is denied them. It is also a fresh expression of historic anti-Semitism in that by opposing the existence of a Jewish State, Jews are opposed on the basis of ethnicity.

The direct connection between historic Christian anti-Judaism and current Christian anti-Zionism in relation to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State must be recognized by today’s Evangelical Church in order to prevent that segment of the church from perpetuating the two thousand year old tradition of Christian anti-Judaism/Semitism.

This relationship must also be acknowledged in order to expose how statements made by leaders in the current anti-Zionist crusade demonstrate the erroneous theology that originated with the early church, and to understand how that doctrine supports the narrative Palestinian Christians are promoting with the help of Evangelical leaders in the United States.

Bethlehem Bible College (BBC), an interdenominational college located in Bethlehem, was founded in 1979 by local Arab pastors under the leadership of Bishara Awad. BBC is the sponsor of the biennial “Christ at the Checkpoint” (CATC) Conferences, first held in 2010. The name of these conferences, as well as the logo – which depicts a church behind the security barrier built by Israel to prevent suicide bombers from targeting Israeli civilians – demonstrates the focus of these meetings.

Article 9 of the CATC manifesto states: “For Palestinian Christians, the occupation is the core issue of the conflict.” Through the connection of checkpoints, the security barrier and the “occupation” with the significance of Bethlehem for Christians, the message of these conferences is clear. According to the storyline, if Jesus lived in Bethlehem today, He would have to go through checkpoints and live under Israeli “occupation” as the Palestinians do.

Through content and imagery, CATC preserves the millennia-old Christian dogma that Jews – and therefore Israelis – are an obstacle to God’s purposes.

The leaders of CATC adhere to a customized replacement theology in which Palestinians replace Jews as the indigenous people of the Land, and Jesus and the early Christians were Palestinians. Jews are redefined as recent immigrants and therefore, the Jewish State does not have a legitimate right to exist.

Because evangelical leaders from the United States participate in these conferences, BBC and CATC play significant roles in spearheading the anti-Zionist movement, which is then advanced by American Evangelical churches and para-church organizations.

The Telos Group is one of the primary engines driving this movement in the Evangelical world. The organization is headquartered in Washington D.C. and was co-founded in 2009 by California-born lawyer of Palestinian Christian descent Gregory Khalil and evangelical Christian and former State Department employee Todd Deatherage.

The group offers training seminars and national gatherings to educate Evangelicals about the conflict, and brings selected Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the US for speaking tours.Most significantly, Telos invites strategic leaders in the American Church to participate in all-expense paid educational pilgrimages to the Holy Land, where tour participants are presented with a one-sided narrative that portrays Palestinians as victims and Israelis as oppressors.

Core issues of the conflict such as Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish State and the use of terrorism against Israeli citizens are ignored.However, this biased narrative is not surprising in light of the speakers evangelical leaders meet when they participate in Telos’ tours.

Pilgrimage participants listen to prominent Palestinians such as Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem.Raheb has a long history of anti-Israel activism, and has been criticized by NGO Monitor and the Simon Wiesenthal Center due to “his efforts to delegitimize the Jewish State’s existence.”

When he spoke at the “Christ at the Checkpoint” Conference in Bethlehem in 2010, Raheb used a racial theory to support his belief that Jews are not the true people of the land of Israel. He said:

Israel represents Rome of the Bible, not the people of the land. And this is not only because I’m a Palestinian. I’m sure if we were to do a DNA test between David, who was a Bethlehemite, and Jesus, born in Bethlehem, and Mitri, born just across the street from where Jesus was born, I’m sure the DNA will show that there is a trace. While, if you put King David, Jesus and Netanyahu, you will get nothing, because Netanyahu comes from an East European tribe who converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages.

This statement provides a vivid example of how Palestinian Christians delegitimize Jews and, by extension, the existence of the Jewish State.It also demonstrates their particular form of replacement theology, in which Palestinians have replaced Jews as the ind
igenous people of the Land, and Jesus and the early Christians were not Jewish, but “Palestinian” instead – an identity invented in the 20th century.

Telos tour participants are also exposed to Archbishop Elias Chacour, the vice president of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center founded by Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Anglican priest. Sabeel’s theology advocates for the liberation of Palestinians from Israeli “occupation” in the name of working for justice and peace.

In conjunction with his liberation theology, Ateek believes the Church has replaced the Jews in the purposes of God. As a result, the continued existence of any form of Jewish sovereignty represents an affront to both his and Chacour’s replacement theology.Within this construct, Jews have no right to a sovereign state of their own because their identity as a people of God has been replaced by the Church.

Telos’ consistent use of Palestinian leaders such as Raheb and Chacour indicates that the organization does not object to the replacement theology both of these individuals advance. While Telos has not made its theology public, its relationship with these speakers makes the organization complicit in their erroneous theology, and in the overall effort to delegitimize the existence of the Jewish State.

The Palestinian anti-Zionist agenda has influenced other American Evangelicals as well, all of whom have a significant impact of their own. Lynne Hybels is a member of the Telos Presidential Advisory Council, and a co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, Illinois.She is well known in the Evangelical world and was a featured speaker at the “Christ at the Checkpoint” Conference in Bethlehem in 2012.

She brings a compassionate and motherly dimension to the narrative as she speaks about her meetings with Israeli and Palestinian mothers who have lost children in the conflict.However, the over-riding motivation behind this empathetic approach appears to be her intent to neutralize Evangelical support of Israel by emphasizing its obligation to make continual concessions to enemies intent on its annihilation.

In addition to the potency of her emotional appeals, Hybels is an effective voice for the Christian Palestinian movement simply because of the extensive reach of the Willow Creek Church. In addition to seven campuses that are each a fully functioning church within themselves, the church runs an international organization, which serves more than 18,000 churches in 90 countries with resources and training.

This makes Willow Creek – and by extension, Lynne Hybels – one of the most influential voices in the Evangelical world today. And Hybels uses this position to advocate in favor of the pro-Palestinian narrative, which is inherently anti-Israel.

Willow Creek Church also hosts the preaching of Dr. Gary Burge, an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church USA and professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Chicago, Illinois. The church promotes Burge’s book, Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians are Not Being Told about Israel and the Palestinians, which presents the reader with a decidedly pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel narrative.

Invoking passages from the New Testament Book of Hebrews, which speaks of God’s covenant with Abraham as becoming “obsolete” and “vanishing away,” Burge writes that Christians inherit the guarantees to Abraham by virtue of their faith in Christ. This is a dramatic demonstration of Burge’s own replacement theology, in which Christians replace Jews as the recipients of covenant promises – promises that include the pledge of land within specific borders.

In addition to the influence Burge has on his Evangelical college students, he has had a significant effect on anti-Israel actions taken by his denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). His writings had a noteworthy effect on the church’s 2014 General Assembly decision to divest from three companies that do business with Israel, and his work was included in the seventh chapter of the PCUSA’s anti-Israel study guide, Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Study Guide,” published in January 2014.

In the promotion of their pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel narrative, all of these people – Palestinians and Americans alike – consistently ignore a very inconvenient truth. They fail to acknowledge that the tiny Jewish state is surrounded by twenty-two vast Arab and Muslim nations, many of whom have stated their intent to annihilate all Jews.

As they employ factual errors and false accusations against Israel in their campaign to garner support for Palestinian Christians, they neglect to mention the existential threat to Israel’s survival demonstrated by the following statements.

The Hamas Charter, Article 7, declares: “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight and kill the Jews, when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and the trees will say, O Muslims, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”

Likewise, Article 19 of the Fatah (PLO) Constitution affirms: “This struggle will not cease unless the Zionist state is demolished and Palestine is completely liberated.”

And on July 30, 2013, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas proclaimed: “In a final resolution, we would not see a single Israeli — civilian or soldier — on our lands.”

In light of this reality, it is indeed alarming that under the guise of concern for Palestinians, any part of today’s church would succumb to the millennia-old practice of delegitimizing and demonizing the Jewish people and their right to exist in their ancient homeland.

The future of Evangelical support for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state remains to be seen. Will the church succumb to the aggressive and deceptive anti-Zionist agenda, or will it expose the errant theology and oppose this newest crusade against the Jewish people? If it doesn’t, the Evangelical church will be complicit in the intensified danger facing the Jewish State, as well as Jews around the world.

Tricia Miller, Ph.D. works as a Senior Research Analyst for CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (@cameraorg).

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