However much as Christians we seek to avoid confrontation and division, unfortunately Christian responses to the Israel-Palestinian conflict are sharply, dogmatically, even bitterly polarised into the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian camps. The problem is, polarised positions are not particularly constructive, exacerbated by at times quite shrill rhetoric, which makes any effort at moving the debate forward somewhat difficult, if not downright impossible.
Phase 1: "People, not land"
A major sticking point in the Church’s polarised response to the conflict, which echoes the nature of the debate in both the media and the region itself, is the issue of who owns the land. My own approach, during the course of various conference papers, journal publications and debates, has been to shift away somewhat from this aspect of the conflict and instead focus on the election of the Jewish people, that God has not finished with the Jewish people. It is significant He is described as the God of Israel around 200 times in the Bible, while “Israel” is a truly biblical theology theme, covered substantial in both Testaments. This canonical theme, together with his delving into systematic and historical theology, is the approach taken by R. Kendall Soulen in his excellent book The God of Israel and Christian Theology.
So God retains a plan and purpose for the Jewish people, with whom He has not finished. The Bible presents Israel – the Jewish people – as God’s historical people, to reveal and bring about his salvific historical plan, fulfilled through an historical Jewish Messiah. Given how God has worked through history in this way, how then can he ditch his historical people so cavalierly? Such a position makes little sense in light of a biblical theology approach. Thus, I think it is significant that throughout Church history even many thinkers, churchmen, theologians and others not coming from traditions necessarily sympathetic towards Israel nonetheless have expressed unease with a fully supercessionist approach, recognising that the Jewish people retain at least some continued theological significance. Actually, with a little digging one finds this view appear throughout the pages of Church history, and notwithstanding a real and shameful Church history of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, I do rather wonder if the supercessionist tradition has been rather over-egged by both zealous pro-Israel Christians keen to highlight the dangers of taking an alternative approach, as well as the equally zealous new strain of supercessionist – as opposed to the older, less politicised and less polemical variety – who for triumphalist reasons speak up their strength and history in order to portray themselves as part of the historical orthodox mainstream. I’m not convinced their numbers add up.
Arguably, then, an approach focusing on the people allows us to disengage to a degree this issue from ownership of and what to do with the land. In short, the approach of “people, not land” presents a way to move the debate forward. Yes, I know, biblically ownership of the land is a central feature of God’s covenant with His people. But while in exile in Old Testament times, or under Roman occupation in the New Testament (when they were not in political control of the land), the Jews nonetheless still remained God’s chosen people. So while the land is a major biblical issue which cannot be ignored, nevertheless I believes it plays a subservient role to God's calling, election and covenant and covenant with the Jewish people.
Surely, then, this offers a way of forwarding the current debate among Christians surrounding our various responses to the current Middle East conflict. By focusing on the election of the Jewish people rather than the land permits me to consider the possibility of exchanging some land for peace (though pragmatically I believe this wholly unrealistic at the present time, and indeed for the foreseeable future, as the Gaza pull-out demonstrated, even before the Israeli blockade). On the other hand, however, emphaising the view that God has not finished with the Jewish people, that their calling and God’s plan for them continue to exist (a view which has a long and respected tradition in Church history) will have a positive theological bearing on how Christians view the Jewish state. Thus by focusing on people rather than land we open the way for a more theologically nuanced approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, where we disengage modern Israel's politics and relationship with its Arab neighbours and population from a biblical focus on the house of Israel, that people with which God has an ongoing relationship.
Thus, disengaging the issue of the people from the land, differentiating between God’s ongoing covenant with the Jews from the present Israeli secular democracy and political situation, frees up Christians to be more critical of the situation when Israel does wrong. In other words, rejecting supercessionism and holding to the view God has not finished with His people does not automatically translate into unbending, uncritical support for the State of Israel or prohibit the exchange of land for peace on theological grounds. It also does not mean one must take an “Israel right or wrong” position when it comes to the current conflict. After all, if biblical Israel sinned how can we maintain modern Israel does not?
So for now, by emphasising “people, not land”, I am content to leave the land issue in God’s hands, not believing (as some Christians seem to) I somehow need to read myself into a biblical prophecy role aimed at restoring the land to Israel and so influencing politics and lobbying governments to achieve this aim. God’s sovereignty is much greater than that, than me, and whether we are pre-, post or a- millennial, Reformed or dispensational, pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian Christians, it seems to me there is at least one thing we can agree on: God’s sovereignty is such that His will and plans will be brought about in his own time, regardless of human activity or agency which either seeks to assist or oppose Him..
Phase 2: Two peoples, not one?
So having focused for a while on “people, not land”, I’m ready to begin developing a possible second theological approach towards the Israel-Palestinian conflict, encapsulated in the phrase, “two peoples, not one”. (I also have a third phase already developed for later discussion). In short, I want to explore how God views the Arab people and what this might bring to the table for Christians debating the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Please note my aim here is simply to outline an idea I first encountered as a child through my father, a churchman and thoughtful Bible teacher. Neither is it a particularly unique view in various Christian circles – including among some Christians Zionists – though I’m unaware of it yet being developed academically and biblically (if you know different, please do let me know). If it transpires there is merit in the approach it will, of course, need to be developed and critiqued through a conference paper and journal article or two.
Part 2 to follow within the next few days.