Palestine, Evangelicalism, and the Problem of Power

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by Caleb Hutcherson

As I write this, a ceasefire has been negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. Again. During those 11 days, more than 230 people in Palestine, including 66 children, have been killed. Along with at least 12 people in Israel, including 2 children. One report dropped me to my knees a few nights ago. All 5 children of a Palestinian team member of the organization Danish Church Aid were killed when an Israeli airstrike blew up the car in which they were trying to get away. All 5 kids. My heart just can’t…

Lord, have mercy.

Someone asked me the other day about what my take was on the situation. I don’t have words. Those that do come are a ramble and mush, an observed abstraction of others’ actual experiences. Some things are complex and need nuanced discussion to understand. But other things are just wrong. And sometimes something just needs to be said.

Christ, have mercy.

If you want a helpful take on the situation in Palestine, I much prefer you read the words of Palestinian Christians living in Palestine, 150mi. (240km) from where I live in Beirut.

For example, in recent blog posts, Yohanna Katanocho calls for praying for peace, weeping with those who weep, standing with the oppressed, while also speaking truthfully about the current realities in Gaza and the West Bank. He teaches me about gentleness and about being a peacemaker in circumstances that make me rage. Likewise, Munther Isaac challenges me to seek truth by calling things what they are, and by rethinking the problematic Christian theology that fuels this catastrophe.

Many others have drawn attention to the political, social, and humanitarian aspects of not just the present “troubles,” but the ongoing racism and apartheid against Palestinian people that are the real context of the past two weeks in Palestine. Perhaps those words make you cringe. They are not mine. The Israeli human rights organization B’tselem used these words in January to describe the reality of the situation. As did the independent Human Rights Watch in a report published in April. Bottom line: the current laws, policies, and practices in Israel embed Jewish supremacy as the rule of law. Ceasefires are welcome, but they only mean a return to the daily suffocation of apartheid and military occupation. Slow violence is still violence.

But what about the problematic theology to which Katanocho and Isaac refer? Their gentle request is for American Christians to rethink how their beliefs contribute to the ongoing catastrophe. As it so happens, I am a white, American Christian who grew up in Arizona, attended the evangelical churches that taught literalist, premillennial, dispensational theology, and graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary (sort of a hub for dispensational theology); I am a child of this stream of theology. One might even say I have the receipts. Because of my background, I want to say some things about some concrete problems I have seen in the tradition I grew up in that lead to this disregard for Palestinian lives.

The easy and obvious object for criticism is the popular Christian Zionist stream of evangelical Christianity that directly supports Israeli apartheid, racism, and thus prevents any possibility of a future Palestinian state. This popular form of idolatry fuses American Christian Nationalism with the Zionist project of reclaiming the entirety of Palestinian lands for the modern state of Israel, eagerly expecting this calamity to usher in the end times. But this silly doomsday prophesying and warmongering is largely rejected by many of my family and friends who hold dispensational convictions, and even most of the dispensational professors I studied under. Yet many of them still support Israel-first policies. Consequently, as obvious as it is, I don’t think this popularly espoused Christian Zionism is the real root of the problem.

I am increasingly convinced that the source of the evangelical Christian disregard for Palestinian people’s situation is more basic than interpretive theory. The problem I see is our problematic relationship to power. This relationship is embedded in our practices, which means it precedes and informs how we read the Bible and the world. In her recent book analyzing the subjugation of women within evangelicalism, Beth Allison Barr chillingly summarizes the evangelical power problem in these words: “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing Christians that oppression is godly.”

I believe this gets at the heart of our problem. We American evangelicals have been spiritually formed to practice our faith in ways that are steeped in oppression. We have assumed the superiority of white skin, “western” values, neoliberal politics, and males over females, and embedded these cultural hierarchies in our faith practices. As a result, we race to cry foul when our beliefs and morals fall out of privilege in society, but all too often fail to recognize how they lead to the oppression of others, whether by neglect or intention.

We have been catechized into receiving the political agenda from one political party as “Christian,” while criticizing the other as of the devil. We have been baptized into conservative politics of power animated by the desire to preserve the status quo. And we have been spiritually formed with an authoritarian impulse that takes the side of the strongman, while blaming the victim.

In sum, we have been discipled to protect our power by disregarding our moral or political responsibility for the humanity and liberation of all who are oppressed. Unless they are unborn babies.

As a result, we hear in the news from Gaza “just” consequences necessary for establishing order, rather than oppression and apartheid. We can spout off the “injustices” of Hamas’s constitution, but none of the “injustice” of Israel’s. We laud freedom and praise caring for “the poor, widows and orphans,” but question why Palestinians can’t just stop shooting rockets. We quote Genesis 12 and attribute America’s success to the privileged status America gives to Israel, while simultaneously imagining all Palestinians as “terrorists” who deserve subjugation.

This victim-blaming protection of power does not end with evangelicals thinking about Palestine. It is embedded in American Christians’ politics and efforts to turn away European Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi atrocities in the period leading up to World War 2 (incidentally leading to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948). But this same problem is also there in the ways we talk about modesty to girls in youth group. It is there in the way we have counseled wives to return to their abusive husbands, or blamed them for their husbands’ use of pornographic material. It is there when we have protected male pastors and popular teachers who sexually abuse others. It is there when we criticize African Americans for protesting the injustices they have suffered because of our complicity in racism. Our sense of justice has been skewed by the belief that God wills some people for domination, and others for subjugation. Consequently, too many of us in a position of power disregard the people to whom we should be listening most carefully – our “others”, whether racial, ethnic, national, political, or religious.

Father, forgive us.

If we are committed to attending to those most vulnerable, the abused, and the oppressed around us, as Christ calls his disciples to do, we need humility. That means attending to “our neighbors” and believing what they say, especially about their suffering. And by “neighbors,” I don’t mean the ones who live on our same block, who drive the same cars, and who look and talk like us. Yes, it’s likely going to hurt a little. It may even be embarrassing when we must come to terms with our complicity in their oppression.

But it is the only way we are going to reclaim what is broken in our theology. Christ-like humility lead us away from seeking to preserve our power like something to be grasped, and towards wielding it on behalf of – to the benefit of – those who are powerless.

Caleb Hutcherson is a lecturer in historical theology at ABTS.

15 Comments

  1. Mike Kuhn says:

    Well-said, Caleb. Our flirtation with power also extends to the way we wield our economic advantage in majority world settings, politically and in ministry. There is a tendency to think, the money makes it happen so the one who puts out the money calls the shots. It’s a hard nut to crack, but I think we need to have extensive conversation about what it really means to partner in the developing world.

    I was intrigued by your comments about your family and professors who hold to Israel-first policies though they are dubious about the end times frenzy that we hear from popular evangelical leaders. I wonder if we’ve held on to a “literal reading” of Old Testament prophecies (as well as apocalyptic literature, e.g. Daniel and Revelation) such that we fail to read the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching. It seems to me that insistence on a literal reading of Old Testament prophecies can fail to acknowledge how radically Jesus and the apostles reinterpreted the Old Testament in the light of his advent and his inauguration of the Kingdom. I think we need to address this issue among evangelicals. Otherwise we are stuck in a rut of preferring a particular ethnicity over others which blatantly undermines the gospel and subverts its impact. Frankly, that type of reading, in my view, contributes much to unjust practices such as exploitation, domination of one group over another and superiority of one ethnicity over another. .

    • caleb says:

      Absolutely, Mike! I very much agree with you about that way of reading the Bible also being a factor. Admittedly, I do know many progressive dispensationalist scholars who, though taking the OT prophecies as yet having a local, national fulfillment, do push-back on Israel-first US foreign policy, based on the OT “curses” that are pronounced on a disobedient Israel…who does not do justice and love mercy.

  2. […] As I write this, a ceasefire has been negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. Again. During those 11 days, more than 230 people in Palestine, including 66 children, have been killed. Along with at least 12 people in Israel, including 2 children. One report dropped me to my knees a few nights ago. All 5 children of a Palestinian team member of the organization Danish Church Aid were killed when an Israeli airstrike blew up the car in which they were trying to get away. All 5 kids. My heart just can’t…(click here to read the rest) […]

  3. Brent Hamoud says:

    Thank you Caleb for this raw reflection. You do meaningful service by reminding us that problems like this are a matter of integrated sin (spanning space and time) rather than isolated situations.

    Your list of grievances here could have added a point on the problem of progressives. It was demoralizing in this last tragic spell of violence to see once again how folks who pride themselves as champions for human rights, equality, and justice completely leave the arena of discourse when Israelis start unleashing carnage on Palestinians. It’s completely unjustifiable; even the minimum demand for humaneness- “Stop bombing people!”- was more than some leaders could muster. Outside of a few outlier voices, the mechanical response of too many progressives is to maintain a status quo of being “troubled” by the massive death rates of innocent Palestinians while applying zero accountability to unhinged Israeli aggression. But this is changing; many who claim a commitment to rights and justice are finding it’s easier to have one face for human dignity than two faces for conditional principles and passive accommodation. I hope many of us come to demonstrate a sense of awareness and critique that you provide in this reflection.

    Thanks Caleb.

  4. David W. King says:

    Thank you, Caleb, for this outstanding article. I, too, grew up in a very conservative family and church. My first Bible was a Scofield Reference Bible and notes. It was not until I studied eschatology in seminary that I finally understood what the Bible really teaches on this subject. As one of the missionary founders of ABTS it was my experience on returning to the States that churched in the south especially were still holding on to the literalistic interpretation of Daniel and Revelation and other scriptures. They did not understand why I was not 100% in favor of Israel as God’s chosen people, but I told them that I had watched Israelis, flying American planes, bombing the people of west Beirut just blocks from our BBS so I could not approve such actions even though they claimed they were targeting the PLO. Surely God’s plan for Israel is far wider than that and all Israelis, just like all Arabs, need to receive the Lord Jesus as Savior. They are not chosen for salvation except in Jesus.

    • caleb says:

      Hello David…great to hear from you. I recognize well the dissonance you describe between life here in Beirut and the abstracted “literal” interpretations of friends living elsewhere. I find myself losing patience with that move to assert abstracted theological principles that are not grounded in the realities of people’s everyday experience (and troubles). It is a move that far too often used to justify more subjugation and oppression.

  5. Colin Barnes says:

    Hi Caleb,
    thankyou for your compassion! My own understanding of Christian Zionism is that it says to Palestinian Christians ‘you are loved and needed.’ We could discuss this further, but if you are interested, http://colinbarnesblog.blogspot.com/2018/01/israel-in-plan-of-god-beginners-guide.html is an introduction.
    God bless, Colin

    • caleb says:

      Thanks for your comment, Colin. I applaud your effort to try to reform Christian Zionism to be more gospel centered. But it seems apparent that even your own version of CZ misses the fullness of the gospel of Jesus. It remains, as such, a theoretical abstraction.

      I recognize that you will not really be convinced by what I have to say, as you are quite ready to reject what even the Palestinian Christians I have cited have to say about their own situation of oppression. But a theology that holds that it is a part of God’s plan for Palestinians, whether Christian or Muslim, to be kicked out of their houses and driven from their lands so that Jewish people can live there is not good news. It has missed the gospel of Jesus.

  6. Sammy W says:

    Thank you for your passionate and compassionate words, Caleb. First let me say, I am very sorry to hear about the death of those five children. What a terrible blow!
    Secondly, I think that you are right on target when you point out how evangelical Christianity has had too close a relationship with power and the resulting oppression of that.
    However, when I read your words on the Israeli conflict, I wonder if we haven’t forgotten a thing or two. Are you writing these words as a Caucasian who is living on land that Native Americans were once forced off of? Are you planning to give that land back to them? Have evangelicals come to grips with the glaring theological problems with the Monroe Doctrine, the ideal of Manifest Destiny, and the modern day notion of America as the world’s policeman?
    My point is that I suspect that many Evangelical Christians feel uncomfortable criticizing Israel’s political actions because they are aware of the glaring hypocrisy of doing so as an American. Two towers were taken down in new York, and the U.S. invaded two countries as a response. Don’t we need to do a little housekeeping of our own as a first step on the journey towards being able to properly critique the social issues of the world?
    The word Zionist, last time I checked the dictionary, means believing that Israel has a right to exist as a nation. I guess that makes me a Zionist. I am also an Americanist in that I believe that the United States has a right to exist as a nation, and I am a Palestinianist in that I believe that Jordan, a Palestinian state, has the right to exist as a nation.

    • Brent Hamoud says:

      Greetings Sammy, I hope you don’t mind me injecting my thoughts into this conversation. I am an American national, so the points you raise resonate. I firmly agree with the way you challenge Americans (Caucasian or otherwise) to engage the issue of Palestine-Israel by reflecting honestly on the American experience. (Though your claim of Jordan as a Palestinian state is a rather original assessment that many others, including the Jordanian royal family, would not agree with.) The formation of the contemporary United States was certainly a long, harsh project of settler colonialism as indigenous communities were removed from lands and oppressed to make way for new populations of settlers. It’s a tragic aspect of the American nation that has not been properly reckoned with (as is usually the case with the historical mistreatment of indigenous communities), and I do suspect, as you suggest, that this plays a profound role in how Americans understand injustice in places like Palestine. Bringing these contexts together into a dialogue as you have done is warranted.

      Unfortunately, we do not get any do-overs in history; we cannot undo and redo what has been done. But we can learn from the past, affect the present, and forge futures. And if we engage in cleaning our house while working to make a better neighborhood, then we are being faithful on all fronts. (Injustice does not adhere to nation-state borders, neither should our distaste for it.) It would be terrible if any sins done in one context are used to somehow normalize sins happening in another. My hope is that lessons from history will help us find durable, dignifying solutions moving forward for all the people in the land. New situations can emerge where all in a place are formally included in the fabric of a state. Native peoples of America are now full-fledged members of the American state. Why cannot the people of Palestine become full-fledged members of a state alongside other residents of the land, regardless their background? One land within a shared state boasting a common citizenry based on principles of liberty and justice for all. That seems like a possible way forward that actually builds on examples of how America and other places worked to move from oppression to inclusion based on the rule of law. In fact, I cannot imagine a reasonable solution for the crisis taking any other form. And every element of dignity, justice, and decency extended to Palestinians now will only contribute towards building a better future for all who claim this fascinating piece of land as home.

      No matter what we conceptualize as solutions, we can all agree that the status quo is untenable. Perhaps in the American tradition of “new births of freedom” and “second foundings” of new national communities can emerge in the Middle East!

    • caleb says:

      Hi Sammy…thanks for your engagement. A few assumptions in your comment, however, are problematic…and foster the very problem I’m seeking to address.

      First, Zionism is not defined in any dictionary as the belief that the state of Israel has the right to exist. It is the ideology of Jewish nationalism…that a nation-state should be established in which citizenship and belonging is defined by Jewishness. In that sense, it would have parallels to Christian nationalism in the US.

      Second, the idea of Jordan as a Palestinian state was briefly popular in the early ’70’s. But no one took it seriously, and the idea is only really talked about today by right-wing Israelis. To posit the idea starts down the path of saying that, since Jordan is a Palestinian country, all Palestinians should be transferred there. It would be like saying all French speaking Belgians should be transferred to France.

      Third, “Caucasian” is an archaic — and problematic — construct that was created to juxtapose “european”-type people with two other types: mongoloids and negroids.

      Absolutely, we should also talk about the original sin of the Americas. There are some great analyses out there that draw parallels between the frontier colonialism in the US and the US’s support for Israel. But two wrongs don’t make a right. And discussing America’s original sin wasn’t the point of my post. But make no mistake, it is absolutely related to American evangelicalism’s problematic relationship to power.

  7. Sammy W says:

    Thank you Caleb, for engaging me in conversation. I did not mean by my previous comments that we should do nothing about the current treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli government, but rather that deep repentance for the sins of our past might be a first step in that direction and for some, perhaps, a prerequisite to properly understanding the current injustices taking place.
    You challenged the accuracy of some of my statements. So I’d like to back them up with some sources. Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition of Zionism, “An international movement originally for the establishment of a Jewish national or religious community in Palestine and later for the support of modern Israel” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Zionism). To support modern Israel does not mean supporting every decision that the government makes, just as one can be in support of the United States and not be in agreement with huge segments of their foreign policy. But it does include believing that they have a right to exist as a country, on the land that they now hold, and have the rights that any other nation has.
    As for Jordan, I am simply meaning that it is a country that Palestinians can call their home, if they so choose. Millions of Palestinians do call it their home (https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-is-the-ethnic-composition-of-jordan.html). In other words, Palestinians are not without a country to call their home. I’m not saying that every Palestinian should therefore go and live there. No one is saying that Jews should all go and live in the nation of Israel. But Israel is a country that Jews can call their own if they so choose. That is significant.
    I totally agree with you about the word “Caucasian”. I apologize for using it. It is not a very precise or useful word.
    I hope you are able to convince the U.S. government of this as easily as you have convinced me. :-).

    • Brent Hamoud says:

      Sammy, I wonder if saying Jordan “is a country that Palestinians can call their home” is like saying the U.S. is a country where Germans can call home, because during a historical moment populations migrated and were eventually nationalized in a different place. I tend to think Germany is where Germans can call home (or they can migrate if they want 😉), and I wish it were so for Palestine and Palestinians as well.

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