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Evangelical Opinion on Israel and the Palestinians: Is a Change in Perspective Possible?

Because of my background and upbringing in an evangelical denomination, I’m particularly grieved by how today’s evangelicals tend to think about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  This last week we’ve seen the very evangelical Sarah Palin visit Israel and express what might best be described as a near pious, devotional support to the overseas nation—whatever Israel does, seemingly, must be God-ordained.  Prior to that, Mike Huckabee (a Baptist minister, no less) also visited Israel and implicitly bemoaned the presence of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories—the land he apparently believes they should be polite enough to just up and leave as unobtrusively as possible, without further fuss or ado.

(Sad to say, expect other Republican candidates, even non-evangelicals, to mimic both Palin and Huckabee in the upcoming months—in part because there simply are too many votes at stake for them not to be wrapping themselves tightly in the Israeli flag.)

My own, firsthand experiences around evangelicals also have led me to conclude that they tend to have incredible pro-Israeli and hence anti-Palestinian biases.  For example, I’ve been standing next to evangelicals on several occasions and overheard them say that if America doesn’t support Israel then America can expect God’s wrath to fall on her.  I’ve also heard similar talk coming from the pulpit.  Of course, with a theology like this, it’s easy to see why expecting much in the way of balanced, nuance viewing of the issue is probably expecting far too much.

I’ve thought long and hard about how to convince “my people” to take a more balanced approach to this issue, but I’m too aware that their political take on the situation is linked to their interpretation of the Bible.  To change their minds on the former issue would mean changing their minds on the latter issue, and, of course, changing people’s minds on matters of religion is notoriously difficult to do—even if I were to express the sincerity of my Christian beliefs to them.

Or would it?  Because just lately I’ve been thinking about an analogy.  Here it is:

Most Christians (and certainly all evangelicals) feel that it would be a wonderful thing if all non-Christians converted to Christianity.  Yet, today virtually all Christians understand that God wouldn’t want this to happen in just any way.  For example, God wouldn’t want Christians to punish those who converted away from Christianity (as happened on both the Catholic and Protestant sides during and prior to the advent of the early modern period in Europe).

What this means is that at least on the issue of conversion Christians separate an outcome from the process of arriving at the outcome.  Most Christians today follow an ethical process when it comes to seeking converts—and then leave it to God to control the outcome.

Though I don’t believe that the Occupied Territories belong to Israel, even if I did it seems that I also might separate the process by which Israel could come to possess the Holy Land from the outcome, the actual possession of it.

Again, an example:  I might believe that someday Jews should have all the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, but I might be opposed to the expropriation of and expansion into the land by Jewish settlements in the West Bank because the process of doing this makes it impossible for the Palestinians to live normal lives and necessarily leads to either forcible, violent expulsion or South African-style apartheid (because the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation won’t be given the vote—if they were they’d become a majority of the overall population).

I suppose some evangelicals might ask, Then how will Israel ever get the land?  To this, allow me to note how ironic such a question would be.  Of all Christians, evangelicals are the ones most likely to believe in every one of the miracles in the Bible as they are literally described.  My point here is that if it really is God’s will for the Jews to have all the land, then let God take care of it using any number of options still available—whether they be naturalistic or miraculous.  We need only help out by doing and advocating what’s ethical at each step along the way—and not by putting a finger on one side of the scales of justice “just in case.”

That means being perfectly unbiased and showing no favoritism on this issue is WJWD—”what Jesus would do,” and I would suggest that when virtually all Palestinians (including almost all Palestinian Christians), many Jews—both in the Diaspora and in Israel, and virtually the entire world (even the U.S.) condemn the expropriation of West Bank land by Jewish settlers then in all likelihood there is something deeply unethical about these actions.

To put a twist on popular piety:  While erring is human, having the meekness to re-evaluate truly can be divine.  I hope that American evangelicals and other religious conservatives begin to re-evaluate their stance on the I/P conflict, take notice of the grave problems posed by Jewish settlers, and support an appropriate American response.

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