King's Evangelical Divinity School

4 October 2009

Christians and the Israel-Palestinian Conflict: Why and How?

Apologies for no posts over the past couple of days. Flu. Anyway, I'm often struck by the tone of the debate on the Middle East conflict expressed by Evangelical Christians, which so often mimics the at times quite violent nature of the "debate" (better, slanging match) caried out in the media, blogs and across university campuses. To be sure, I'm not saying every believer involved in the whole Christian responses to Israel issue foams at the mouth, engages in cut-and-run quips rather than reasoned debate, or makes their case simply by knocking down straw men or being unnecessarily pejorative, yet looking around it seems a good many Christians - on both sides - do. (I'm pleased that several discussions on this blog have proved the issue can be discussed reasonably and hope this will continue and grow.) My question today, then, is two-fold: Why is this the case? Why does this issue raise such passions which often take the debate down unwelcome avenues? And secondly, what are some of the ways, principles and rules which can help ensure a more logical, fair, reasonable, and indeed fruitful discussion?

I hope to get lots of answers here (if we get no comments this will be a total non-starter) to both questions from all sides. At some stage I'd love to see some kind of conference organised by and for Evangelical Christians from across the spectrum to debate these issues in a sincere, honest and friendly manner according to a set of universally accepted rules. I think it could really help deal with some of the more extreme elements which seem to hold sway over the debate. (Of course, as well as an idealist, the pragmatic aspect of my personality doesn't hold too much hope of such a debate any time soon, but you never know). Anyway, over to you...


Anonymous said...

Hello Calvin
The division appeared in the early 19th C between the Derbytite branch of the Plymouth brethren and the Bristol brethren. It also has the appearance of a Hegelian dialectic of thesis and antithesis. Christians need to build bridges across the divide because division does no one any good. As someone who can trace his roots back to the 19th C Devon brethren I have an interest in building understanding.

Part of the reason for strong disagreement is that both sides today are influenced by political considerations. I believe that Christians should get past partisan politics and focus on people and communities and their needs, working for peace, justice and reconciliation. I don't think that accusations of anti-semitism and apartheid are helpful for addressing the real issues involved and improving people's lives on the ground.

There is partly a strong emotional attachment to Israel. The presence of a State of Israel gives an apparent visible symbol to Christians that strengthens their faith in the return of Christ - but what if their theology is wrong? Is the State of Israel then a false comfort to Christian faith? That is a question that needs to be considered I believe in light of dangers for faith. There is a danger also that some Christians are driving for war because of this.

On the other side some Christians can get over excited about engaging in political struggles as an expression of faith which doesn't necessarily help build understanding and assess needs on both sides.

There was incidentally an EA forum a few years ago with views from both sides.

Andrew Sibley

Calvin L. Smith said...

Thanks, Andrew. Several useful points here for the pot.

Anyone else?

Richard said...

"There was incidentally an EA forum a few years ago with views from both sides."

At which, according to eyewitnesses the visiting Jewish (non-Messianic) contributor Bat Ye’or was shouted down! I assume you were there Andrew as you were a contributor, (correct me if I am wrong)you can confirm, clarify or deny this. Yours was an interesting paper, though I'm not sure taking the most extreme example of a Christian Zionist such as Hagee, and by implication evaluating all Christian Zionists in his shadow is a fair way of depicting the broad spectrum of those who would consider themselves Christian Zionists, or Christians who are for Zion! (see: )

Also I was not sure what you meant by your claim in your paper that many Palestinians are Christians! They are a very small minority even if you do include the nominal Christians. As an evangelical I have a different definition of what a Christian is.

Richard said...

This is a subject that overlaps with the acrimonious debate over which eschatalogical position is correct. If Christians cannot and have not managed to engage one another on these issues without demonising each other and claiming they are heretical, I have little hope for the Christian debate on the Israel-Arab/Palestinian conflict & replacement theology.

Also I feel that too many Christians either dehumanise Israel or dehumaise the Arab Palestinians. Calling for the end of Israel does not help, can you really solve one refugee problem by creating another!

So IMHO the theological debate has to be had separately from the political one, but many find that difficult as they are so interwoven. Tall order Calvin!

Anonymous said...

Richard – sadly I wasn’t at that meeting. I wrote a review for the EA of Hagee’s book, and they put it on the website as part of a collection of papers. I am aware that Hagee’s position is not typical of all Christian Zionists. For many years I considered myself a moderate Christian Zionist, but doubts have increased in my mind due to various circumstances - Hagee’s book being one of them. (Hagee does though raise important questions about loving Jews as human beings, but seems to suggest the gospel is unnecessary for Jews – a position similar to JN Darby - although he may have revised his opinion slightly subsequently). I am also aware that many Christian Zionists are equally concerned about the question of the need for Jews to come to Christ. As a shameless plug I have extended that review into a short book as a more general study of the questions raised by the existence of a State of Israel

Many Palestinians are indeed Christians. I question what right we have to deny their faith just because we are evangelical in theology? In the Ottoman period Christian numbers were of the order of 20 to 30% Christian, today it is around 2% according to Wagner.
Andrew Sibley

Philip Blue said...

Calvin, I think you ask a tough question. I think people on both sides probably feel that the other side attacks them unfairly. What Richard says about separating the theological and the political is, I think, a sensible, if difficult, idea. Another way of ensuring a better level of debate is to actively try to understand the other side's position. A good example of this, and one performed by blogs such as Marginal Revolution, has been for people to write a summary of what they think the other side actually believes. As far as I know this idea came from Julian Sanchez, here:

In a previous discussion you suggest that balance is essential in the debate. So when you mention something bad done by Israel you should counter it with something bad done by the Palestinian side. That's all well and good; wrongful things are done by both sides. But what does one do when one thinks the situation isn't balanced?

I honestly believe that a greater share of the blame for the current mess can be attributed to successive Israeli governments. Therefore, in any discussion I'm likely to emphasise that view more strongly than I would attach blame to Palestinians (though, for clarity, I certainly don't think that no blame can be attached to successive Palestinian leaders). When discussing with more extreme elements, I have found that this tends to elicit accusations of anti-Semitism or similar.

So can I ask, do you believe that there is a way that it is possible to make the argument that Israeli governments are more to blame for the problems than others in a fair way? How would one go about doing this?

Calvin L. Smith said...

Philip, I agree, it is very difficult to be evenhanded, and in fact in a political debate I agree with you that there is no need to be. My comments were specifically aimed at those who claim to come to this as Christians and seek to understand the conflict theologically. As such, their motive should be driven by esablishing biblically sound views, rather than simply aping the political debate.

Having studied the history and politics of the land going back some centuries, as well as the present conflict, and having spent a great deal of time across the Holy Land, like you I have strong political views about the conflict, though they are quite different from yours. But I try to put those aside as I seek to reach theological conclusions. And this is the point, I think, for Christians who have views on the issue: their politics should not shape thbeir theology.

BTW, interesting blog of yours. We seem to share many interests.

Philip Blue said...

Thanks for your reply, and for your kind words.

I have to say that I've recently been challenged by a case for Christian Zionism that is more subtle and persuasive than the Robertson / Hagee version. I'm yet to be convinced by it, but I am encouraged to see that people are thinking about it in subtle ways.

Still, I think that part of the problem is that those involved often have a personal stake in the argument and for them it becomes more important than a simple debate. And often cries of anti-semitism are the first line of defence instead of proper arguments (I'm sure there are equivalents on the other side, too). As soon as that happens the argument ceases to be an argument and turns into a slanging match. I'm sure you've seen it many times.

As I mentioned before,I really think the discipline of summarising the other side's arguments is an excellent way of breaking the barrier. Maybe you could try it with a prominent Christian non-Zionist?

Anonymous said...

I believe it was Coleridge who said he wouldn't disagree with someone unless he had found something to agree on first.

I have recognised in writing that one of the strongest theological cases for the existence of the modern State of Israel is that God in his sovereingty has allowed it to exist for whatever reason. But God allows many things to happen according to his sovereign plan (in respecting human free will to reject God) and Christians shouldn't base theology on following God's permissive will, but on following God's directive will (or else we would support those in rebellion against God). That is; being obedient to the second great commission to make disciples of all nations - that would include the State of Israel.

It is my belief then that the Christian church must call the State of Israel to be obedient to Jesus the Messiah and rightful King of the Jews, and we shouldn't believe that because Israel exists as a State that everything it does is in accord with God's directive will. Neither should we oppose the Israeli State's right to exist in our own name, but engage in a prophetic ministry to Israel allowing God to deal with disobedience in his own way.
Andrew Sibley