Taking sides: The Christian and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
From IMPACT Magazine
Darius Lee // May 24, 2021, 5:00 pm
Rockets are fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel. Palestinians carry out protests near the border which turn violent. Soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) shoot and arrest a number of Palestinians. The media reports that Palestinians, including women and children, are injured or killed in the clashes.
Israeli politicians condemn various Palestinian groups for carrying out terrorist activities. Palestinian authorities deny the accusations and accuse the Israelis of targeting innocent civilians.
Sound familiar? Every so often, we read reports of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East involving clashes between two groups, and you may read news headlines similar to some of those above.
During this time, your social media may be filled with a flurry of discussions, and some of your friends may consistently side with the Israelis while others consistently side with the Palestinians. You may feel pressured to take one side or another in such debates.
What should our attitude towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be? Whose side should you take?
THINKING ABOUT “ISRAEL”
Many Christians are inclined to support the State of Israel’s actions, sometimes uncritically, because of Israel’s special place in the Bible.
When thinking about “Israel”, we need to distinguish between the different uses of the term “Israel”, both in and out of the Bible. The term “Israel” can refer to:
- The name God gave to Jacob, because he “struggled with God and with men” and prevailed (Genesis 32:28).
- The descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, known as the people of Israel, whom God brought into the Promised Land and established as a nation ruled according to God’s Law (Exodus 19). (“Biological Israel”)
- The northern kingdom of Israel, during the time when Israel was divided between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, after the north rebelled against King Rehoboam, King Solomon’s son (1 Kings 12).
- The community of faith of both Jews and Gentiles who profess Jesus as their Lord and Saviour (Romans 9-11). (“Spiritual Israel”)
- The modern “Jewish and democratic” State of Israel, which declared independence on May 14, 1948.
There is a dangerous theological error that has been taught through the centuries, that the church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people (known as “replacement theology” or “supersessionism”). This is wrong because “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:29)
Instead, as Paul puts it, Gentile believers are “ingrafted branches” into the original olive tree which is Israel, even as a number were broken off because of unbelief (Romans 11:17-21). Spiritual Israel thus comprises both Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ.
The return of the Jewish people (i.e. the tribe of Judah, and possibly also Benjamin) to the land was a remarkable fulfilment of the biblical prophecy that God will gather together the dispersed people of Judah from the four corners of the earth (Isaiah 11:12).
However, the modern State of Israel is not the same as the Israel of the Bible; it is a vessel for part of the people of Israel (Biological Israel).
There are a number of reasons for this. The modern state is based on a system of international law dating back to a series of European treaties in 1648 known as the Peace of Westphalia and not the theocratic nation of Israel mentioned in the Bible.
There are other non-Jewish people (such as Arabs) living as citizens in the State of Israel and Jewish populations living in other places around the world. Also, there are at least 10 lost tribes of Israel whose existence and location today are known only to God.
“FOR US OR AGAINST US?”
This conflict is the worst case of identity politics I have ever seen. Each side sees the conflict as a struggle of “us versus them”, of “good versus evil”.
One study called this “motive attribution asymmetry”, where each side sees their own as motivated by love, while seeing the other side as motivated by hate.
During my time spent studying in Jerusalem, I not only studied about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also took the time to travel through Israel and the West Bank. When speaking with Israelis or Palestinians, I frequently felt like I was being assessed by them: Are you for us or against us?
This brings to mind the incident in the Bible when the Israelites were brought up by God out of Egypt, and Joshua met the angel of the Lord in the wilderness. Many Christian scholars believe that the angel of the Lord was the pre-incarnate Christ Himself.
Joshua asked the angel, “Are You for us or for our adversaries?”
“No,” He replied, “But as Commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” (Joshua 5:14)
The real problem is not “us versus them” or the “good guys” versus the “bad guys”.
We all know that Jesus Christ disappointed the Jews of His time because they were expecting a political messiah who would save them from the Romans. However, He did not come to pit the Jews against the Romans in a political contest of might.
Instead, in His words to Pilate: “For this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” (John 18:37)
Truth takes no sides. The question is not really whether truth is on our side, but whether we are standing on the side of truth. And Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. (John 14:6)
THE LINE SEPARATING GOOD AND EVIL
In his series, The Gulag Archipelago, Russian Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had some profound insight:
“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.”
Jesus made the very same point in the gospel when He said: “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” (Matthew 15:19)
The real problem is not “us versus them” or the “good guys” versus the “bad guys”. It is deeper and lies within every human heart: sin.
That is why Jesus had to die on the cross, to root out the deeper problem within.
In the end, the answer to the fundamental problem that lies within the human heart remains one and the same: Jesus Christ.
It is He who brings peace, breaking down the wall of separation “to create in Himself one new man from the two” and “that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity” (Ephesians 2:15-16).
Thus, we are not called to be “for” or “against” any particular side in the conflict. Our calling as Christians is to testify to the eternal truth of the gospel that brings peace and reconciliation to all humanity.
Darius Lee spent a year and two months in Israel, completing a Master’s in International Law and Human Rights at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He studied, travelled widely and spoke to many Israelis and Palestinians in an effort to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This article was first published in the Apr-May 2020 issue (Vol 44 no 2) issue of IMPACT Magazine and has been republished with permission. All scriptural references are in NKJV unless otherwise stated.
PAUSE + PRAY
We thank God for the ceasefire that has taken hold since last Friday. We urge you to continue to keep the region in prayer as they begin the work of reconciliation and recovery.