IMES has just run its 9th annual conference: Middle East Conference 2012. For 5 days we heard from Profs. Colin Chapman, Glen Stassen, Sami Awad, and others, beginning with the historical, political and theological backgrounds to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and eventually focusing on the tragic daily realities of Palestinian refugees living in the horrendous conditions of camps in Lebanon and other neighboring countries. Our conference title: “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself: The Church and the Palestinian in Light of God’s Command for Justice and Compassion.”
A longtime friend who did not actually attend the conference but had heard about it came and gently reprimanded me on the last day: “You should have brought in a Jewish perspective,” he said. “Your conference was one-sided and biased.”
As may be noted from the very title, the purpose of the conference was not political, or even purely theological per se. Our purpose was to enter the world of a Palestinian refugee and to consider how God might be asking us, as members of his Church, to act in such a situation. But it did strike me as well that my friend’s accusation was unfair. Strictly speaking, it is true that the Zionist position was not represented at MEC 2012. But neither is that position the only possible one from a Jewish point of view. The fact remains that my view on Israel/Palestine is actually inspired by a Jew. His name is Jesus of Nazareth!
Jesus was born into the Jewish tradition. He was raised as a good Jewish boy. He was trained in the rabbinical method. Jews of his time called him “Rabbi” and “Master.” They gave him the pulpit in the synagogue. Yet Jesus the Jew profoundly disagreed with the understanding of his mainstream Jewish contemporaries on a number of things. He liberally broke the Sabbath according to the current interpretations and practices of his Jewish contemporaries, by healing the sick (Mark 3:1-6) and allowing his hungry disciples to glean wheat on that holy day (Matthew 12:1-8). He appealed, in self-justification, to the principle of mercy that he saw as underlying the divine command (Matthew 12:7), and asserted that “the Sabbath was created for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28). He seemed to have little attachment to the stone of the temple, one of the most cherished symbols of the Jewish institution of his day. When his disciples invited him to admire the rich and beautiful stone with which it was built, he assured them that not one of these stones would remain standing on top of the other (Matthew 24:1-2). He later affirmed in public: “destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19). Judging from some of the accusations shouted against him while he was hanging on the cross (Matthew 26:61; 27:40; Mark 14:58; 15:29-30), this very affirmation seems to have contributed significantly to his death. He reaffirmed the finality of the earthly temple to the Samaritan woman when she attempted to draw him into a theological debate when he assured her that true worship was neither to take place on Mount Gerizim nor in Jerusalem, for “God is Spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
Strikingly, there are no references in the teaching of Jesus as to the importance of “the Land” or the necessity of its liberation from Roman occupation. We know from the gospel narrative how desirable such a message would have been for many of his Jewish contemporaries, including among his own disciples, who looked to him as the one who would “redeem Israel” from Roman occupation (Luke 24:21). As a pious Jew, Jesus would have had the Psalms memorized as a tool for worship. He knew full well that “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). The earth is important, because it belongs to God and is a gift from him. But as created beings, we are not landlords. We are merely stewards. Over and over, Jesus played down the significance of ethnic association with the Israelite Patriarchs as a path into the Kingdom of God. In this too he would have sounded quite disrespectful: “For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham” (Luke 3:8). That last message was the core of his discourse to Nicodemus, whom he invited instead to be “born again” rather than be confident in being born of “flesh and blood” (John 3:5-7), the latter being a clear reference to his Abrahamic ancestry.
So, would Jesus have supported a Zionist interpretation of the modern state of Israel, of the land, of Jewish ethnicity and end-time theology? The witness of the gospels would seem to deny it. Neither would he have cared probably to argue staunchly against these views. But what seems quite clear is this: we would have found Jesus in the camps of Bourj el Barajneh and Ain el Helweh, in Nahr el Bared and Baddawi, walking with the Palestinian inhabitants, for whom every new day represents another argument against hope for a political resolution of their condition. For their sake Jesus would have once more broken the social conventions of the day in order to flatten boundaries between Palestinians and Lebanese, and with all the others who hold prejudice against them.