Church God Theology

Israel, Palestine and the parallel narrative western Christians ignore

It was the evening of November 9, 1938—the “Night of Broken Glass,” or Kristallnacht if you know German. Broken glass lined the streets from shattered windows of hundreds of Jewish synagogues, homes and shops that were burned to the ground by Nazi thugs.

The horror of the night left a deep emotional imprint on Germany and the world, one that would only be deepened by the totality of the Holocaust.

Hearing the distressing news the following day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the date “November 10” in his Bible next to Psalm 74:8: “They said in their hearts, ‘We will crush them completely!’ They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land.”

Bonhoeffer was a faithful advocate for the Jewish people during Hitler’s reign of persecution and genocide. He believed the Jews were still (God’s) people in a country where many didn’t believe they were people at all.

Some German Christians, many of whom had been “reformed” by Nazi ideology, also became increasingly hostile to the Jews. They figured that by making peace with Hitler and conforming to his racial laws, they could restore the church to its original glory.

But Bonhoeffer, as he was known for doing, pushed back: “here is the church,” he said, “[a place] where Jew and German stand together under the Word of God, here is the proof whether a church is still the church or not.” At the core of Bonhoeffer’s faith and theology was the centrality of Christ and how Christians were called to live out their identity as His body: “The church is the church only when it exists for others,” he famously remarked.

Bonhoeffer’s point then still remains true today. The “others” the Church exists for “here and now” certainly includes Jewish people—Israelis—those who have settled in modern day Israel and whose heritage dates back to the Ancient Near Eastern world of the Bible. Christians know them as God’s historical people, beloved and chosen by Yahweh as servants to the bless nations through Jesus, the promised Seed of Abraham (Is. 41: 8; Gen. 12:3, 22:18; Gal 3:16).

But in Jesus, there is “neither Jew nor Gentile…you are all one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28). Paul’s point in our context: Jesus does not operate out of partisanship; He doesn’t show political or religious partiality towards one people group over another. Rather, He welcomes people “from every nation and tribe and people and language” into His everlasting Kingdom (Rev 7:9).

We have to remember that, even in the Old Testament where Israel is front and centre as God’s people, that God also reveals His heart for “others” outside Israel: “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance” (Is. 19:25). We can even argue that Israel was chosen specifically for the benefit of others. “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:18).

The modern day Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has seen bombs dropped and lives shattered like glass, is controversial and divisive. And while we are certainly called to support Israel—God’s historical people—in its ongoing battle against Hamas and other terrorist groups, we need to remember that Palestinians are God’s beloved people too.

Unfortunately, many evangelicals today have succumbed to the dispensational theology of Christian Zionism, the belief that Scripture teaches the Jews will return to Israel before the Second Coming of Christ.

So when they see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “they believe they are seeing the fulfillment of biblical promises and prophecies and feel that God must be on the side of the Jews,” says Colin Chapman, author of Whose City? Jerusalem and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. “It is almost inevitable, therefore, that they cannot feel the same sympathy for the Palestinian Arabs.”

Last summer, Ineke Medcalf, who spent three months in the West Bank as an Ecumenical Accompanier with the World Council of Churches, wrote in an article on ChristianWeek.org that “Christians in the West need to recognize that there is a parallel narrative to the creation of the State of Israel. The parallel narrative is one that involves occupation and the suffering of the Palestinian people.”

If the Church exists to love and care for others, we mustn’t forget the suffering of the Palestinian people. The body of Christ exists to bless all nations in a world of suffering, bombs and broken glass.

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