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.