Toward Peace in the Holy Land

By Chuck Lutz, Engage Minnesota

In all 3 Abrahamic faith traditions, much of the peace attention focuses on Jerusalem, the holy city. Its name can be translated “city of peace,” salem being a form of salaam/shalom. Christians have just begun the annual season of watching and waiting for the coming of the prophet of peace.

But it’s arguably the case that more horrific violence has come from politics based in Jerusalem than any other human habitation. U.S. Catholic writer James Carroll calls Jerusalem “the epicenter of God-sponsored violence.” He does not mean God is the author of the violence, but that it’s violence done by humans in God’s name!

We responders have been urged to personalize and localize our comments. So here’s a quick review of my own Holy Land history as a Christian. My first recollections are, as a young teen, learning of the Holocaust. It was 1945 and my father, a Lutheran pastor, was serving in German as a US Army chaplain. When he returned he brought stories of his visits to death camps, such as Dachau near Munich. I knew no Jews in rural Iowa. But a few years later I saw creation of a state for Jews in Palestine as an example of justice being done.

My feelings also had a measure of Holocaust guilt. As a Lutheran of German heritage, I felt a connection to the Hitler horrors, and I learned of Martin Luther’s virulently anti-Jewish writings and how they’d been used by the Nazis. I also knew we had family kin living in Germany who did not stand with the Jewish people against the Nazi demons when they should have.

Because of the Holocaust, it appears, many western Christians have been reluctant to voice criticism of behavior by the Israeli state. And so for quite a while Israel’s dealing with its non-Jewish neighbors was a taboo topic in settings of Jewish-Christian dialogue. Within mainline US Protestant and Catholic communities, this was a standard stance for several decades. Change began with the first intifada 20 years ago and was hastened during the Oslo Accord period.

Then we have those self-identifying as Christian Zionists, who combine a radical interpretation of biblical prophecy with a far-right political ideology, more extreme than the most conservative Israeli political perspectives. Christian Zionists are uncompromising in their political vision because they see it as (1) God’s will, and (2) the essential route to the Second Coming of our Lord. Christian Zionism takes a particular biblical interpretation that is highly questionable, known as dispensationalism, and translates it directly into U.S. foreign policy goals. Their perspective gets popular treatment in the best-selling “Left Behind” novels. Christian Zionists insist Jesus will come again only when Jews alone occupy, at least control, all the land from the river to the sea and the temple is rebuilt on the site where the Muslim Dome of the Rock now stands in Jerusalem.

It’s clear that, in the end, this scenario is not Jewish-friendly. It envisions an Armageddon catastrophe in which Jews who become Christ-believers will be saved and those who don’t will be annihilated. Yet, in the meantime, some US Jews welcome them as allies. Lenny Davis, a former AIPAC staffer, said of the Christian Zionists a few years ago, “Sure, these guys give me the heebie-jeebies. But until I see Jesus coming over the hill, I’m in favor of all the friends Israel can get.”

The Christian Zionist movement has had little attention in MN. One exception: the flurry a few years ago around the speaking invitation to John Hagee of Christians United for Israel by an independent evangelical church in the north suburbs. When Rep. Betty McCollum publicly refused to appear with him, some voices accused her of siding with terrorists and against Jews.

Critics of Christian Zionism, including Holy Land Christian leaders, have called it a heresy. Some have said it is neither Christian nor Zionist. It is a departure from classical Christian theology and from the basic secular Zionist understanding among Jews, which did not claim a right to all the land from the river to the sea.

A fine overview of current biblical scholarship on the land issue is provided by a U.S. Catholic scholar, Ronald Witherup. We offer it as an appendix in “Christians and a Land Called Holy”. Witherup seeks to distinguish between centuries-old theology and today’s political reality:

“We should acknowledge the perennial value of the Bible’s teachings without asserting that the Bible applies directly to every ethical or political issue in our own time. This approach is both thoroughly Catholic and consistent with many other intepretive traditions, Protestant and Jewish included. In my judgment, the only place to begin with the land question is not with the Bible but with the facts of the present situation in the Holy Land. The situation ‘on the ground’ is what we must now confront.”

One US group trying to do this, in a way that seeks to move our own government leaders toward a just Holy Land outcome, is Churches for Middle East Peace. I’m honored to serve as its volunteer coordinator in Minnesota. A coalition of 22 Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant agencies, CMEP addresses the federal policy agenda on the quest for Israeli/Palestinian peace. What do we advocate? Basically what’s been outlined for decades in the visions of international conferees and by peace parties in both Israel and Palestine:

• Two independent states defined by borders akin to the 1967 Green Line, with some land swaps that are mutually agreed to.
• Jerusalem shared as city in which both peoples live and as capital for both.
• Just compensation to refugees from the 1948-49 conflict.

This represents a 3rd way for US Christian relating to Israel/Palestine: neither silence nor Christian Zionist but active political advocacy for a peace with justice. In MN, it means lobbying with our Congresspersons, providing speakers for local church and other venues, and joining with other groups sharing a Holy Land peace agenda, such as Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, Tikkun’s Network of Spiritual Progressives, and the Coalition for Palestinian Rights.

What CMEP pursues is based largely on what we hear from fellow Christians in the Holy Land, who believe they have a distinctive vocation from God in the present conflict. They see themselves as a buffer between the majority Jewish population of Israel and the majority Muslim population among Palestinians. They see themselves as hope-bringers to a situation that seems hopeless. They talk about the centrality of forgiveness in their understanding of God’s way with humans and our relationships with one another, noting that there’ll be much to be forgiven as part of any peaceful resolution of the conflict. These indigenous Christians hear God calling them to a vocation that has two goals-to be hope-givers and to be reconcilers.

What are Holy Land Christians saying to us? First, they emphatically say, “We ask that you be neither pro-Palestinian nor pro-Israeli-but pro-justice, pro-peace.” That is echoed in these words from “Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism,” issued by church leaders in August 2006. With their words I will conclude.

“We reject the contemporary alliance of Christian Zionist leaders with elements in the governments of Israel and the United States that are presently imposing their unilateral pre-emptive borders and domination over Palestine. With urgency we warn that Christian Zionism and its alliances are justifying colonization, apartheid, and empire-building.

“We affirm that Israelis and Palestinians are capable of living together within peace, justice, and security.

“The demands of justice will not disappear. The struggle for justice must be pursued diligently and persistently, but nonviolently. As the prophet Micah says, ‘What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.’ ”

Chuck Lutz is a coordinator of Churches for Middle East Peace and co-author of Christians and a Land Called Holy: How We Can Foster Justice, Peace, and Hope (Fortress Press, 2006). He gave this talk at an event on Dec 2nd, at the University of St. Thomas, “Healing Wounds and Building Bridges: Interfaith Dialogue on Peace in the Holy Land.”

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