May 25, 2010

Proselytizing for Palestine

Mark TooleyBy Mark Tooley
Institute on Religion & Democracy

Evangelist and activist Tony Campolo, formerly spiritual counselor to Bill Clinton post-Monica, recently sojourned to Bethlehem Bible College in the West Bank for the school’s convocation of “Christ at the Checkpoint: Theology in the Service of Peace and Justice.” This Palestinian evangelical school peddles a form of Palestinian liberationism that much of the evangelical left in the U.S., increasingly anxious to justify hostility to Israel and its U.S. allies, eagerly finds persuasive.

Besides Campolo, other speakers included British anti-Israel Anglican priest Stephen Sizer, author Lynne Hybels (wife of Willow Creek mega-church pastor Bill Hybels), Wheaton College professor Gary Burge, United Methodist missionary Alex Awad, and Naim Ateek of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre.

Campolo effusively rhapsodized about “Christ at the Checkpoint” in a column for Jim Wallis’ Sojourners. The “horror stories” from “oppressed Palestinians” that Campolo heard at Bethlehem Bible College “sent chills” up his back and aroused his “indignation” and “compassion.” Naturally, Campolo is angriest at pro-Israel evangelicals in the U.S. who are the real culprits for Palestinian suffering.

“Why don’t our Christian brothers and sisters in America care about what is happening to us?,” Campolo remembered one Palestinian imploring of him. “Do they know that their tax dollars paid for the Israeli tanks that destroyed my house and the houses of my neighbors?”

Predictably, Campolo recited the usual narrative of Christian exodus from among the Palestinians, reporting that Bethlehem has declined from 70 percent to 15 percent Christian. “Sometimes heartless and dehumanizing treatment that Bethlehem Christians have had to endure over the years has led most of them to emigrate to other countries,” he explained. Supposedly Israel is exclusively to blame for Christians leaving the region. But the overall Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza, which is 95-98 percent Muslim, continues to grow. For the most part, Muslims are not leaving. Why would the one or two percent of Palestinians who are Christian most likely emigrate? Could radical Islam’s influence be a factor? Could it also be that Christians have more contacts with the West that more easily facilitate emigration?

Campolo, like most of the evangelical and religious left, does not try to answer these questions. Nor does he express a lot of public interest in Palestinian and other Middle East Christians except as a cudgel against Israel and, ultimately, against conservative Christians in the U.S. — Campolo’s favorite bĂȘte noire. “The most serious threats to the well-being of the Palestinians in general, and to the Christian Palestinians in particular, come not from the Jews, but from Christian Zionists here in the United States,” he charged.

Of course, Campolo repeats the usual canard that U.S. evangelicals are uniformly bewitched by “Dispensationalism,” which originated with 19th century English theologian Nelson Darby. In the stereotype that Campolo rehashes, these Darbyite Dispensationalists blindly believe that Jesus Christ will not return “until all of this land is occupied by Jews, and all others are forced to leave.” Trying to sound equitable, Campolo notes that “Jewish lobbies” are not the main villain behind the “30 percent of all U.S. foreign aid” going to Israel which enables the country to have the “fourth most powerful army in the world.” No, it is the Christian Zionists who are the “primary sources of pressure on the U.S. Congress to financially back the Israeli military that has made the injustices I have described possible.”

In the Campolo/evangelical left narrative, pro-Israel Christians foolishly ignore how the “entire Islamic world views what is happening in the Holy Land,” U.S. evangelical support for Israel is “hindering evangelism among Muslims,” and “so many of the conflicts that exist between Muslims and Christians around the world are partially due to what is happening in the Holy Land.” The Muslim media is quick to link the “oppression of Palestinians to the justification of attacks on Americans, in particular, and the Western world, in general.”

For Campolo, the solution is simple: “We should be calling for the demolition of the separation wall that is as offensive as the Berlin Wall was.” And “we should be demanding” a return to the 1967 borders. He says he favors “safe and secure borders for the State of Israel and protection against terrorists.” But evidently, Israel should not be permitted to build walls against suicide bombers or to negotiate defensible borders. Presumably, good will and accommodation will create all the security that Israel needs.

Anti-Israel Anglican priest Stephen Sizer, who participated with Campolo at “Christ at the Checkpoint,” enthusiastically interviewed Campolo afterwards for his website. “The only talk of a resistance against the Israelis, that I heard, is non-violent resistance,” Campolo blithely assured an eagerly listening and believing Sizer about Palestinian intentions. The evangelist apparently also likes the Israel-Apartheid comparison: “When you begin comparing this to Apartheid in South Africa, you immediately communicate to the American people…The phrase has power.” And Campolo warned that “both sides,” i.e. Israel and Palestinians, are guilty of hateful portrayals of each other in educational curricula, but Israel is especially guilty. “Hate is allowed to reign free within the Israeli community,” he warned. “And we incited the Hilltop situation in Hebron and the young men going in…” he continued, in an apparent reference to the 2008 incident when Israeli youth rampaged over Israeli court ordered evictions of Israeli settlers. It’s not clear who the “we” is who provoked this violence, but presumably it is the dreaded pro-Israel Christians in the U.S.

According to a Pew poll, evangelicals, mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics in the U.S. all sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinian cause. But for the angry evangelical left, including Campolo, supposed Israeli oppression is due exclusively to Zionist evangelicals purportedly obsessed with biblical prophecies about the end-times.

Most American Christians sympathize with Israel because it is a pro-American democracy and not owing to 19th century Darbyite theology. But Campolo and the evangelical left prefer not to discuss the merits of democracy versus its Islamist alternatives. Instead, they demonize pro-Israel evangelicals and hope cries of “apartheid” will persuade when sound argument will not.

Related Links

U.S. to set deadline for Middle East peace - Foreign Policy
Dispensational Hermeneutics: The Grammatico–Historical Method - (Andy Woods [PDF])
About that Anti-Israel Thing Going on Right Now - Moriel Ministries
The Dispensations of God - Ariel Ministries (Arnold Fruchtenbaum [PDF])
Taking Back the United Methodist Church - Mark Tooley (Book)