As followers of Christ, we are called to live at peace with all people, regardless of their customs or beliefs. We are all brothers and sisters because we are all made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–27), and we are called to be peacemakers, to bless our enemies, even when they persecute us. Scripture calls us to the ministry of reconciliation in which we are commanded by God to love everybody. But what do we do when we come into conflict with each other because of our theology? How do we deal with this situation?
For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. 1 Corinthians 12:13–14
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 1 John 4:7–8
From this passage we can see that God has called us all to love one another, especially fellow believers. If we cannot find a way to reconcile our differences, then what hope do we have in reconciling with people who have beliefs are different from ours? We may not agree on everything, but we have to find a way to love each other in spite of our differences.
Divergent theological beliefs play a central role in many conflicts world-wide, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, religion has been identified by some as the primary cause of the conflict, as well as one of the causes of its intractability. As the conflict centers on a land holy to three of the world’s major religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, this analysis has some credibility. Among followers of Jesus/Yeshua (Palestinian Christians and Israeli Messianic Jews) there are significant theological differences which prevent reconciliation and perpetuate the conflict.
Prophecy vs. Justice
For the community of believers in Jesus/Yeshua in Israel/Palestine, two issues stand out as the most influential and divisive: prophecy and justice. We are, of course, making generalizations here. However, by looking at these issues generally, we will be able to better understand the situation so that we can move forward. The issues that divide them are substantial, but not impossible to overcome.
For the Israeli Messianic Jewish community, the issues of prophecy fulfillment and eschatology (or end times theology) are some of the most important theological concerns. This is also mirrored in the theology of many Evangelical advocates of Dispensationalism and Christian Zionism. For Palestinian Christians, the most important theological issue is that of justice.
For the Israeli Messianic Jewish community, the theme of prophecy, and specifically prophecy fulfillment and eschatology has become a very important theological issue. This is because, for many of them, the restoration of the Jewish people to Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel) is both the fulfillment of prophecy and significant for the plan God has for the future. One of the most frequently cited biblical passages on this subject comes from Ezekiel 37:1–14, Jewish people scattered throughout the world in the Diaspora. This suffering culminated in the Holocaust. But from the depths of this suffering, God brought forth his people and delivered them from their suffering, bringing them back to the land he promised to them.
Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD. Ezekiel 37:13–14
This belief is usually accompanied by a belief that through the establishment of the State of Israel, other prophecies concerning the end times will also be fulfilled. Some of these assumptions are:
Prophecy, Eschatology and Reconciliation
Through this theology we get a real feel for the urgency of eschatological matters and prophecy, viewing God as the mover of history. In this view, God is not only involved in history, but also in the great events that shape our lives.
However, because of the emphasis placed by some Israeli Messianic Jews and Christian Zionists on their particular interpretation of history and prophecy, many of the political conclusions drawn are dubious at best, and intolerant and racist at worst. This interpretation of the principles of election and the sovereignty of God, which ignores other aspects of God’s nature, can easily lead to a dangerous logic in which the ends justify the means. God’s promises are to be fulfilled, and anyone who stands in the way ceases to be a person, and merely becomes an obstacle, an enemy of God. Justice is seen as the “order of righteousness whereby individuals and peoples can fulfill their God intended destinies.”
If the Jewish people do not submit to the Law of God and are instead a lawless people or if they replace God’s Law with human laws which contradict that Law, they will find themselves suffering and resisted by God himself. By the same rule, if Palestinians refuse to recognize what God says about the Jewish people and their connection to the Land of Israel, then suffering will result. Justice therefore, when properly understood, is the fulfillment of God’s promises and God’s will.
When such a strong emphasis is placed on the chosen-ness of a people as it relates to the end times and prophecy, the human rights of other people will recede into the background. it essentially ignores the pain and suffering of the other side, and is dangerous because it can lead to justifying almost any action as long as it helps further the interpretation of what God’s will is.
Justice and Liberation Theology
On the other side of the divide we have the Palestinian Christian community, which is primarily concerned with the biblical theme of justice. This is because of the profound sense of injustice they suffered at the hands of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel during the Nakba, suffering which continues today through the Occupation and through Israel’s discriminatory practices. This call is heard in the voice of Micah, who said:
He has showed you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8
Rev. Naim Ateek has led the charge demanding justice for the Palestinian people, and providing a theological framework for this call. This theology has found support among many mainline churches in the West, such as the Presbyterian Church and the Episcopal Church.
The Need for Justice: Palestinian Liberation Theology is modeled on Liberation Theology which came out of Latin America, as an alternative response to Western, European theologies. “According to the Bible, sin, or the breaking off of friendship with God and others, is the ultimate cause of want, injustice, and oppression in which human beings live.” However, this does not give us an excuse to avoid working against injustice, or to fatalistically claim that there is nothing we can do, for “The claim that sin is the ultimate cause is in no way a denial that these situations have structural causes and are objectively conditioned. The point is rather to stress that things do not happen by change, and that behind an unjust structure there is a responsible individual or collective will, a will to reject God and others.
Preferential Option for the Poor: When justice is understood to be a prerequisite for peace, a problem arises. If you seek justice, the people who are committing the injustice necessarily become your enemy. “are we to meet all the requirements of love of God in a situation of conflict in which individuals end up opposed to one another?” His solution is to love everybody, especially our enemies, just as God commands, but to side with the poor, with what he calls the Preferential Option for the Poor. He claims, “the universality of Christian love is incompatible with any exclusion of persons but not with a preference for some.”
In this setting, the Palestinian people are the “poor,” Gutiérrez spoke about, and indeed they fit the description Gutiérrez himself gave of the poor. He claimed that the poor are people who face premature, unjust physical death, as well as cultural death, for “when a people is not taken into account, when a people is despised in one way or another, then in a certain sense the persons who belong to that people are also killed.” We are to side with the poor and the oppressed, not because they are better than their oppressors, but because God himself sides with them, because of his generosity and love. “The preference stems from God’s goodness and it stems from God’s gratuitous love, a central idea of the gospel message. God first loved us.” Just as God has mercy on us and provides us with salvation in spite of our “spiritual poverty,” he also has mercy and sides with those who are physically poor and oppressed.
Not Justice Alone: It is also acknowledged that justice alone is not enough for true peace and reconciliation to occur. There also has to be mercy and forgiveness. “God is able, at one and the same time, to act both justly and mercifully. God can absorb the demands of God’s justice and righteousness and still emerge as the God of mercy and love.” He continues, “It is only when justice is ultimately defined by both mercy and peace, and when it has an inherent bias toward the underprivileged, that there is hope in the resolution of any conflict.”
Hermeneutic of Christ: Finally, Ateek concerns himself with developing a new hermeneutic for the reading of the Bible, which will counter the Zionist reading of the Old Testament which is painful and destructive for Palestinian Christians. In the Old Testament the portrayal of God is more primitive, and it becomes fuller and richer as we move forward into the New Testament. This climaxes with Christ, whose life and death was the ultimate goal of redemptive history. Thus we are to view everything in the Bible though the knowledge and understanding of Christ’s love. The love of Christ is a filter that all passages in the Bible must pass through. In this way, “The text of the New Testament provides us with a view of God—God’s nature, character, and will.” When seen from this perspective, “the whole Bible is valuable, but not all of its parts have the same value and authority.” According to Ateek we have to ask ourselves, “Is such a passage, which is attributed to God, consistent with how God is revealed in Jesus Christ? If not, we must say that it only reveals a human understanding of God’s nature and purpose that was superseded or corrected by the revelation in Christ. In other words, such passages are revelatory of a stage of development of the human understanding of God that we must regard, in light of Christ’s revelation, as inadequate and incomplete.”
Liberation Theology and Reconciliation
There are very positive aspects of this theological perspective as well. It has proved to be an unmistakable and irreplaceable voice in the conflict, reminding us that there is more to God’s nature than election and sovereignty. It has also reminded us that we can not presume to do God’s will while simultaneously oppressing people, that our means are a reflection of our ends, and that the Palestinian people cannot be ignored.
When it comes to reconciliation, however, there are a number of problems with Palestinian Liberation Theology which we will now explore. First, and foremost among them is the fact that it is a theology that is turned inward, and does not address the other side except to deal with their role as the oppressor. This is rather general, but it is significant, because a theology that does not engage the other side will not be able to reconcile the two sides.
When Liberation Theology calls for believers in Christ to love their enemies, it is admirable. This is a perfect example of following the commandment of Christ in a difficult situation such as a conflict. We cannot and should not accept injustice, however by focusing all of our attention on our enemies we can easily become convinced that the situation is very simple, and we blind ourselves to our own faults, and our own acts of injustice. In short, this division oversimplifies a very complicated situation, and ignores many of its complexities. This can only add to the conflict, not aid in reconciliation.
Additionally, it is problematic to claim that we should have a preference for the poor, based on God’s preference for the poor, and at the same time claim that the Palestinian people are the ‘poor’ in this context. This is basically the same thing as saying that God has a preference for the Palestinian people, that God has taken a side in this conflict. This is obviously a very dangerous assumption to make. Interestingly, it is very similar to the claim that some in the Messianic Israeli Jewish community make, when they say that they are God’s chosen people, not because of their inherent goodness, but because of his sovereignty.
Another problem with saying that we as believers should side with the oppressed because God sides with the oppressed is that it is a very subjective qualification, especially in a conflict like the Israel-Palestinian conflict, where both sides see themselves as the victim.
Finally, many have objected to a biblical hermeneutic that places the Old Testament on a lower plane than the New Testament. While it does make sense to view all of scripture through the person of Christ, many object to Ateek’s project of “de-zionising” the Bible, and see it as problematic because it does not address the Jewish people at all. There is no place for the Jewish people in this theology (other than as oppressors) and there is no recognition of their historical and spiritual attachment to the land, all of which prevents reconciliation.
The issue of the land is another divisive issue for Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians, and it is an issue that is connected to the topics of both prophecy and justice. Both of these communities have very strong historical and spiritual ties to the land of Israel/Palestine, and both of them are at times guilty of seeing their own attachment to the land as the only valid attachment to the land. Who is the land promised to? What was the promise exactly? Are there conditions to the promise? These questions, and the notion of the land as the Promised Land, arise from the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis:
The LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”Genesis 12:1–3
For many Israeli Messianic Jews, the issue is clear, “God promises the Land of Israel to the Jews. This promise has not been revoked, and, like all of God’s promises, it will be fulfilled through our blessed Jewish Messiah, Yeshua (Jesus), the Messiah, Lord and Savior of all humankind—Jews, Arabs, and everyone else.”33 This interpretation leaves very little room for anyone who does not believe that the land was promised to the Jewish people alone, and consequently, it presents difficulties for reconciliation. Stern continues,
Of the Arab Protestants, very few espouse the theology of the Lands presented above. Where this is not due to ignorance or mistaken teaching, it can only be the result either of finding that theology at odds with political ambitions or of fearing the consequences of holding an unpopular view. I am always impressed with the courage of the occasional Arab Christian brother willing to admit that God has given the Land to the Jews as an eternal possession – a view which for him is very politically incorrect.
For Palestinian Christians, the issue is far more complex. It has to be, for if they accepted the theological interpretation presented by some Israeli Messianic Jews, they would be disobeying God simply because they live in their own homes and do not want to leave. For many in the Palestinian Christian community, much of the Old Testament is troubling. Naim Ateek says that the Old Testament is important for contextualization, but,
[I]t cannot stand on its own nor can it be understood apart from its completion and fulfillment in Christ. In fact, without the New Testament, many parts of the Old Testament are, in today’s language, Zionist and racist. Without Christ, the Old Testament is not only incomplete, it can be, in some of its parts, a very dangerous document that calls for ethnic cleansing and can produce fanatical actions by fanatical people.
For Ateek, and for many Palestinian Christians, this hermeneutic of Christ, universalized the promises God gave to Abraham, and encompasses the whole world, rather than just the land of Israel/Palestine, and extend to all people, not just the Jewish people. Therefore,
The land of Israel/Palestine is part of God’s world. It belongs to God. God is its creator and owner as God is the maker and owner of the whole world. Today, God has placed both Palestinians and Jews to live on it. They must share the land under God and become good stewards of it. It does not belong to either of them exclusively. They must share it equitably and live as good neighbors with one another. Both nations must do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
There is much to be said about the theological issue of the land, but for right now we will only point out four principles from the Bible, and discuss how all these issues affect reconciliation. These are four principles to keep in mind, no matter what our theological position on the land is.
When it comes to theology, there is a problem that plagues both sides, and makes reconciliation impossible. We allow our theological views to prevent us from having contact with others who disagree with us, and allow our theology to be used as a political weapon. This is not to say that theology and politics can be totally separated, or that they should be. However, we have to have room in our theology for others, even if we do not agree with them. Some followers of Dispensational Theology refuse fellowship with people who do not accept their interpretation of prophecy. It is common for followers of Palestinian Liberation Theology to avoid all interaction with ‘the oppressor’ until liberation is achieved. Believers from both sides have been drafted into the conflict instead of acting as a bridge across the gap of suspicion and hatred.
An exclusive focus on the end times and fulfillment of prophecy or on justice and liberation can never be the full picture. Pursuing either one alone, outside the context of the cross, will lead to violence, exclusion and rejection. Whatever our theology, we have to remember God’s love, and God’s commandment for us to love each other. Our aim should be unity through Christ’s love and through the cross, as Jesus called for in John 17:21, saying, “that all of them [believers] may be one, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Ateek, Naim Stifan. Justice And Only Justice, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1989.
“Putting Christ at the Centre: The Land from a Palestinian Christian Perspective.” In The Bible and the Land: An Encounter, edited by Lisa Loden, Peter Walker and Michael Wood, 55–63. Jerusalem: Musalaha, 2000.
Benhayim, Menachem. “The Church Has Replaced the Jewish People—A Response.” In Mishkan, A Forum on the Gospel and the Jewish People, No. 21, 2/1994.
“Reckoning With God’s Choice, The Election of a Land and a People.”In The Bible and the Land: An Encounter, edited by Lisa Loden, Peter Walker and Michael Wood, 83–94. Jerusalem: Musalaha, 2000.
Brueggemann, Walter. The Land, Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith Second Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
Burge, Gary, M. “Theological and Biblical Assumptions of Christian Zionism.”
Challenging Christian Zionism, Theology, Politics and the Israel-Palestine Conflict, edited by Naim Ateek, Cedar Duaybis, and Maurine Tobin, 45–58. London: Melisende, 2005.
Gutiérrez, Gustavo. The Making of Modern Theology, Nineteenth- And Twentieth-Century Texts, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Essential Writings, edited by James B. Nickoloff. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.
The Truth Shall Make you Free, Confrontations, translated from the Spanish by Matthew J. O’Connell. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991.
Juster, Dan. “A Messianic Jew Looks at the Land Promises.” In The Land Cries Out:Theology of the Land in the Israeli-Palestinian Context, edited by Lisa Loden and Salim J. Munayer. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2011.
Kalisher, Meno. Come and See What Will Take Place in the Future. Jerusalem: Jerusalem Assembly – House of Redemption, 2007.
Maoz, Baruch. “People, Land and Torah: A Jewish Christian Perspective.” In The Land of Promise, Biblical, Theological and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Philip Johnston and Peter Walker, page numbers. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000.
Shulam, Joseph. “Noting the Biblical Pattern: The Land in God’s Prophetic Purposes.” In The Bible and the Land: An Encounter, edited by Lisa Loden, Peter Walker and Michael Wood, 165–176. Jerusalem: Musalaha, 2000.
Stern, David H. “Making the Issues Clear, The Land from a Messianic Jewish Perspective.” In The Bible and the Land: An Encounter, edited by Lisa Loden, Peter Walker and Michael Wood, 37–54. Jerusalem: Musalaha, 2000.