In March 2012, a unique Christian International Conference will take place in Bethlehem, Palestine, titled: Christ at the Checkpoint - Hope in the Midst of Conflict. The conference is organized by Bethlehem Bible College in Palestine, an evangelical Christian institution, and it is the second time the College has hosted such a conference. It will be one of the biggest gatherings of evangelical Christians in the Middle East ever to take place.
The first conference generated much interest and debate. It came out with a strong call for evangelicals to work towards peace and justice in Palestine and Israel. It also challenged the traditional stereotypical lens through which Western Christians have looked at the Middle East in general. The first conference report stated:
“The conference addressed different understandings of how the Evangelical Church, both in the past and currently, deals with Scriptural understandings of theology regarding those who live in the Holy Land and how that either promotes war and violence, or promotes peace and justice. Some of the themes of the conference included a Biblical critique of dispensational theology and repudiation of an exclusive theology of the land that marginalizes and disenfranchises the indigenous people. The conference affirmed the strategic role of the Palestinian Evangelical Church in justice, peacemaking and reconciliation. The conference speakers repudiated both Christian Zionism and Anti-Semitism. Other themes examined the dangers of using the Bible to justify ethnic hatred towards others, whether in demonizing Islam or minimizing the effect of the Holocaust. Participants shared their personal experiences and committed themselves to nonviolence as the only means to achieve lasting peace with justice.”
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has always been an issue of debate for Christians and non-Christians alike. The Evangelical Church, in particular, has typically looked at the Middle East through the eyes of prophecy, and leaned towards an unconditional support for Israel. Evangelicals in the West cheered the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent wars and uprisings, believing them to be signs of the second coming of Christ; all the while forgetting and neglecting the impact these events have had on the Middle East, specifically on Palestinians, and especially on the Palestinian Church. The irony for Palestinian Christians is that Evangelicals, with their over-emphasis on prophecy, have lost the capacity of being prophetic!
In many cases, when Palestinian Christians (or those who are sympathetic to them) shared their take on things, they were demonized, ridiculed, and even accused of being anti-Semitic. Bethlehem Bible College’s Dean of Students, Alex Awad, shared about the hurt caused by Christian Zionists in his talk at the 2010 Conference. The mere presence and voice of Palestinian Christians presents a dilemma for many Christian Zionists, who preferred the traditional, simple “black and white” perspective: Axis of Evil vs. Axis of Good. This kept them and their theology safe and secure. But over the years, Palestinian Christians have challenged the Western Church to consider what it means to be the Church; they have reminded them of the importance of justice and peacemaking. If our theology produces apathy to injustice, it must be reexamined. In the words of Carl Medearis:
“If your end-times theology trumps the clear commands in Scripture to love neighbours and enemies, then it is time to rethink your theology.”
A change is taking place in how evangelicals are looking at the Middle East. This change can be traced to many contributing factors. Many evangelicals, who were discouraged by the failed prophecies and the “mood of doom” that dominated the Evangelical Church in the second half of the 20th century, are rediscovering that the gospel also speaks powerfully to issues of peace, justice, and reconciliation. Books about the end times, like those written by Tim Lahaye and Hal Lindsey, no longer dominate the bookshops, and people are being challenged by writings that focus on the here and now, instead of the there and then! Social justice, peacemaking, equality, and reconciliation are on the agenda.
Many who come to visit the “Holy Land” are troubled by the situation of Palestinians, and are beginning to ask questions about the occupation and the injustices that the Palestinians are facing on a daily basis. Facts do not lie. There is still the problem of about five million refugees, of whom about 1.8 million still live in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and the surrounding Arab countries. The 700 kilometre-long (435 mile) Separation Wall continues to affect the lives of Palestinians, leaving thousands living in isolated ghettos. The building of the wall has been judged to be illegal by the International Court of Justice. The building of settlements continues to complicate matters for Palestinians and remains one of the biggest obstacles to peace. Though Palestinians and Israelis share the same water resources, per capita use in Israel is three and a half times higher than in the West Bank, due to water restrictions placed on Palestine by Israel. The Israeli military occupation is the longest occupation in modern history. Any visitor to the Palestinian areas cannot escape these realities. Checkpoints, the Wall, refugee camps, land confiscations, and lack of water define the reality for Palestinians.
More and more evangelicals are paying attention to the Palestinian Church and its testimony and ministry in the midst of the conflict; the writings of Elias Chacour, Naim Ateek, Mitri Raheb, and Alex Awad are good examples, along with the non-violent peace activities and advocacy by Palestinian Christian organizations. There are also the writings of many Western Evangelicals who are sympathetic to Palestinians, and new documentaries that offer a different perspective, like With God on Our Side and Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.
Then there is Christ at the Checkpoint. The wide participation in the first conference, and the strong message that came with it, generated enthusiastic support for this second larger conference. The conference in and of itself is a big example of this change. Among the confirmed speakers for 2012 are John Ortberg, Lynne Hybels (Willow Creek), Shane Clainbore (Simple Way), Tony Campolo, Ron Sider (Evangelicals for Social Action), Samuel Rodriguez (National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference), Chris Wright (Langham Partnership International), Chris Seiple (Institute for Global Engagement), Ken Sande (Peacemaker Ministries), Sang Bok David Kim (chairman of the Asia Evangelical Alliance and the World Evangelical Alliance), and many more. Evangelicals are paying attention to an issue that they once preferred to avoid.
In addition to the international speakers, local Palestinian and Messianic Jewish leaders will share their own experiences and offer diverse perspectives. Participants will meet Palestinian Christians, and be able to listen and see first-hand the realities on the ground, as seen through the eyes of the people.
So why “Christ at the Checkpoint?” The organizers want to draw attention to the fact that Jesus Christ is in the lives of Palestinian Christians who travel through and are humiliated at the Israeli checkpoints on a daily basis. He is at the checkpoint with the oppressed and neglected. The conference seeks to answer, among many other questions: what would Christ do today if He were facing the checkpoint on a daily basis?
The aim of Christ at the Checkpoint 2012 is to provide an opportunity for evangelical Christians who take the Bible seriously to prayerfully seek a proper awareness of issues regarding peace, justice, and reconciliation. The hope is to empower and encourage the Palestinian Church, to discuss the realities of the injustices in the Palestinian Territories, and to create awareness of the obstacles to reconciliation and peace.
The Conference will also create a platform for serious engagement with Christian Zionism and an open forum for ongoing dialogue between all positions within the evangelical theological spectrum, with many views represented. Above all, the Conference wants to motivate participants to become advocates for the reconciliation work of the Church in Palestine and Israel, and to recognize its ramifications for the Middle East and the world.
Tony Campolo wrote after the first Conference:
“I personally have witnessed the sadness and disillusionment of Christian Palestinians who feel that their American Christian brothers and sisters could not care less about the sufferings that they must endure. What troubles them most is that their fellow Evangelicals in America have very little understanding of the way the entire Islamic world views what is happening in the Holy Land, and how American Evangelicals who unquestioningly support Israel's policies are hindering evangelism among Muslims.”
Palestinian Christians deserve to be heard. Their suffering is real, their faith is genuine, and their perspective is valid.
Evangelical Christians have a huge potential and energy within them, and change can happen in the Middle East if this energy is channeled to peacemaking. Lynne Hybels, co-founder of the Willow Creek Church with her husband Bill, and one of the speakers at the Conference, has described her discovery of the church in Palestine. She concluded after many journeys:
“I am still pro-Israel, but I’ve also become pro-Palestine, pro-peace, and pro-justice and pro-equality for Jews and Arabs living as neighbors in the Holy Land. And the bottom line is always: pro-Jesus!”
If more Christians go to Bethlehem in 2012 and leave with the same attitude, we can start looking at this dark part of the world with hope, in a time when it is desperately needed.
Written by: Munther Isaac, Christ at the Checkpoint Conference Director