A Tale of Two Cities

o-FERGUSON-facebook Two grand juries issued their decisions this week. In Jerusalem an Israeli border guard was indicted for firing live ammunition on a crowd of young Palestinian protesters and killing a 17-year-old. In Ferguson, Missouri, another grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who fired six shots into the body of an unarmed 18-year-old. One victim was Palestinian, the other African-American. Both lived in regions where escalating violence and racism are a part of daily life. Both lived under systems that justify police violence against unarmed civilians. In both countries indictments of police officers are extremely rare. What made the difference ?

In the case of Nadim Nuwara, the Palestinian teenager, whom the officer accused of throwing rocks as part of a protest, the incident happened in front of a private home where four security cameras captured the shooting. The Israeli guard’s story could not hold up in the face of such testimony. In addition, forensic evidence determined that Nadim was killed by a live bullet fired from the officer’s gun. Israeli border police are required to use rubber bullets when dispersing crowds.

None of us knows what really happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown that night. But would the officer have acted differently if cameras were rolling ? (Some U.S. police forces are now requiring all their officers to wear body cameras.) Clearly, with each week delivering fresh headlines of new police shootings of unarmed black youth, American citizens need some way to keep our peace officers accountable. Requiring body cameras is one way to do just that, especially given the recent and ongoing militarization of local constabularies, where more money seems to be pumped into weaponizing than training.

Still, one has to ask why the escalating violence ? Why now ? Certainly, such incidents are not rare in the racially charged United States of America, with our long history of violence and injustice against people of color. But the recent almost daily reoccurrence of this kind of violence is alarming. Why is it happening ?

Perhaps it is not surprising given the rising tide of violence worldwide. Syria. Ukraine. Iraq. Afghanistan. Nigeria. Kenya. Gaza. Human life seems to be growing cheaper by the day. Racism, too, is enjoying a comeback, brought to us courtesy of right-wing regimes everywhere. In the U.S., with the help of radio shock jocks and media outlets like Fox News, it has become almost respectable again to be a white supremacist. White people here are afraid, the demographics are tilting, and it would seem, for some, that genocide is their only recourse.

But I would lay the bulk of the growing violence on a lack of global leadership. The U.S., in its unswerving commitment to blind foreign policies and failed military strategies and its backing of repressive regimes worldwide, has long abdicated its once vaunted role as peacebroker. When so much of your economy is based on the manufacturing of hammers, then of course everything looks like a nail. Our drone program, designed to save American lives, kills far more innocent civilians than it cares to admit. Such strikes are about as surgical as a potato-masher, they are racist to the core, and they are responsible for recruiting more jihadists than even bin-Ladin on a good day.

When the Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning Leader of the Free World continues to justify war after war, even the assassination of American citizens, how can we expect local law enforcement not to behave like Genghis Khan on crack. Now there is one arena where the trickle-down effect actually exists !

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Hastening Armageddon

Here is an excerpt from my book Christ Held Hostage: The Hijacking of American Christianity (2013). In light of US support for the war crimes and carnage being committed in Gaza, I thought it timely to reprise the following Christian response:

 

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.—Leviticus 19:33-34

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt… Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice…Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.—Deuteronomy 10:17-19; 24:17-18

Waiting for Armageddon (2009) is a controversial documentary about America’s fifty-million-strong evangelical population.[i] Directed by non-Christians, the film purports to be fair-minded, portraying conservative evangelicals not as ignorant troglodytes, but as people from all walks of life, including enlightened and prosperous yuppies and highly educated physicists. What is meant to be particularly frightening, however, is the documentary’s observation that what they all have in common is a fervent expectation of the end of the world, preceded by the Rapture and Armageddon—a belief system that leads, the directors believe, to a worldview that seems shockingly self-serving and militaristic.

While one might not agree with all its preconceptions about American evangelical Christianity, the film does make a strong case that a rigidly literal reading of the Book of Revelation, coupled with certain aspects of popular eschatology (such as those popularized by authors Hal Lindsey and Tim Lahaye) tends to foster a great deal of fear, resulting in often fanatically unchristian behavior, militarism, and a lack of concern for human suffering. The question the documentary asks—and it is a good one—is whether evangelicals’ zealous support for Israel and the kind of militaristic holy war waged by the Religious Right are in fact a self-fulfilling prophecy pushing us closer to World War III.

From its inception Christianity has always been an apocalyptic movement. The theology of the kingdom of God, as taught by Jesus, is based on a worldview that believes that God is bringing this present evil age to a close. The Bible teaches us that we are in fact living in the Last Days, and that Jesus could come at any moment. At various points and crises in church history, the end has seemed very close indeed. But while emphatic in instructing his disciples to prepare and look for his coming, Jesus never commanded them to focus on rebuilding a Jerusalem temple or an Israelite empire, nor to attempt to hasten the end through holy war.

There is a very basic but wise rule in biblical interpretation: that one of the Lord’s own teachings (called a dominical saying) should always have greater weight than any other. Another rule is that we should not make doctrine out of obscure verses or those whose interpretation is unclear (and Revelation is full of those). What we believe about the end times should be based first and foremost on what Jesus himself tells us; his words should be our starting point and the standard against which all else is measured.

Authors of contemporary Christian fiction may be sincere in their devotion to the Lord, but a work of fiction is hardly canonical. What is dangerous is the fear and fanaticism engendered by some of these books. People read them without much discernment, unaware that the eschatology contained in them might be disputable.

For Christians to pour so much money and effort into the rebuilding of Israel out of love is laudable. It is likewise commendable that evangelicals may wish to help Israel in order to show contrition for so many centuries of the church’s persecution of Jews. However, when such benevolence stems from a fanatical desire to hasten Armageddon and thus Jesus’ return, it should not surprise us that our motives should be called into question. The aspiration of some Christian Zionists to rebuild the old empire of Solomon and the temple—in the absence of any specific instruction from Jesus and in the face of such suffering on the part of another people group (the Palestinians, for whom he also died)—is at the very least misguided and nearsighted. In their well-meaning zeal to see a very narrow interpretation of prophecy fulfilled, such Christians somehow manage to ignore the booming biblical call for justice.

Revelation is a profoundly beautiful and inspiring book, but as history proves, it is also dangerous in the hands of fools, however well meaning. Throughout the history of the church, many cults and sects have sprung from a misreading of its pages. No wonder the early church argued so long over its inclusion in the canon!

What does the Lord want us to focus on? He wants us to live daily expecting his return and to conduct ourselves in such a way that we will not be ashamed of standing before him. He wants us to share the gospel with every living soul and to continue his ministry in demonstrating the reality of his kingdom by healing the sick, helping the poor and oppressed, casting out demons, promoting justice, and, yes, even raising the dead. When we become sufficiently accomplished at the latter, then perhaps we can spend hours speculating endlessly about the end times. Meanwhile, there is work to do!

When the disciples ask the risen Lord when he is going to “restore the kingdom to Israel,” Jesus replies, “It is not for you to know the times and dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:7,8). In other words, this is the Father’s business; yours is to spread the gospel.

In his teaching, Christ makes few references to the land, but when he does, he seems to be speaking from a different playbook. For the twelve disciples, the kingdom implies self-governance for Israel; for Jesus, its scope is much wider, covering the whole earth, in fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise. For him, as for the New Testament authors who followed him, the land takes on a greater, eschatological meaning—a heavenly inheritance, eternal life with God—just as the Jerusalem they hope for is a celestial one (e.g., Mt 5:5; 25:34; Ac 20:32; Eph 1:14; Col 1:12; Heb 9:12; 11:10,16).

The fact that Christ does not answer the disciples’ question directly would not preclude any return of Jews to the land or to self-determination. Yet it ought to show us, as his followers, what our focus should be.

Jesus is not going to return simply because a bunch of us enthusiasts have built a landing strip for him on the Mount of Olives. He promises he will return after we have done our job of preaching the good news of the kingdom to all nations (Mt 24:14; Mk 13:10)

Blowback

Blowback is the term government personnel use to describe the sometimes violent reaction in response to a military or covert U.S. action. For example, sixty years later we are still reaping the fruit of the CIA’s toppling of Mohammed Mosadegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, and our replacing him with an absolute monarchy. Supporting repressive regimes is very costly in the long run. Take Israel.

In comparison with most other governments in the region, the State of Israel seems a bastion of democracy. And if it were not for Palestinians’ lobbing missiles into Israeli territory, things would be peaceful—so we are told. If you watch the news on any given week, you might see footage of tanks and armored vehicles rolling through the poverty-stricken streets of Gaza, a tightening of the noose around the “terrorists.” Yet the American media tells only one side of the story. The reaction the media would like us to have is similar in naiveté to that after 9/11: “Why do they hate us? We’re nice people after all.” The Israelis are seen as the white hats, simply defending themselves against the forces of annihilation arrayed against them. But most Israelis and their media know it is much more complicated than that. Why don’t we?

Since the 1967 War the Israelis have occupied Palestinian territories. They were supposed to withdraw after the war (in accordance with international law), but they never did. Now millions of Palestinians live as virtual prisoners amid great poverty in their own country, many unable to work, go to school, or seek adequate health care. When people are stripped of citizenship, hope, and human dignity, they will inevitably resort to any means possible to fight back, including blowing themselves up. Imagine if you kept someone chained for decades in your basement, unable to see the light of day. Would you be surprised or indignant if he occasionally spat at you? (I am not at all trying to justify the evil that is terrorism, just to understand it at a human level.)

American Christians have had these Scriptures drummed into their heads: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Ps 122:6), and “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you” (Gen 12:3), as though God’s promises were completely disconnected from any responsibility on Israel’s part (or our own) to act with justice. Sometimes I wonder if we support Israel merely out of fear or a desire to reap blessing (like forwarding a chain letter), rather than from a sincere commitment to truth and justice. Let me just state clearly that God will not bless America simply because we support Israel. Giving any nation, even Israel, carte blanche to trample other nations is not a New Testament concept, nor is it the teaching of the Lord Jesus. As Christians our support must be guided by biblical justice, fairness, and a more profound respect for human life—every human life. How can there be peace without justice?

Although I do not make a habit of quoting such people, former Iranian President Ahmadinejad was right when he stated in a 2008 Christmas message broadcast on the BBC:

“Jesus the Son of Mary is the standard-bearer of justice, of love for our fellow human beings, of the fight against tyranny, discrimination and injustice…If Christ was on earth today undoubtedly he would stand with the people in opposition to bullying, ill-tempered and expansionist powers…If Christ was on earth today undoubtedly he would hoist the banner of justice and love for humanity to oppose warmongers, occupiers, terrorists and bullies the world over…If Christ was on earth today undoubtedly he would fight against the tyrannical policies of prevailing global economic and political systems, as he did in his lifetime.”[ii]

An ironic statement by a man whose country executes converts to Christianity, but nonetheless true. Jesus was not a freedom fighter, in the common sense of the term; he calls his people to love, not hate, to peace and suffering, not violence. But he also calls us to stand with the poor and oppressed, to speak out against injustice, to expose evil, and to change the world through the power of the gospel, prayer, and unselfish service to others. What the Iranian president said in effect was, “Hey, Christians, Jesus stood for justice and against oppression. Why don’t you?”

A Voice in the Wilderness

Jimmy Carter may have been one of our least popular Presidents, but you have to admire the man for his integrity and commitment to peace. Here is a man who has dedicated his life to the eradication of unnecessary human suffering. For the past thirty years, since he left the White House, instead of just playing golf, like a lot of ex-Presidents, he continues to be a key player in the effort to promote peace in the Middle East.

Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has also written a book whose title is so controversial, most of the American media as well as his fellow Democrats would not touch it (or him) with a ten-foot pole: Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2007).

“Palestinians are deprived of basic human rights,” says the former President. “Their land has been occupied, then confiscated, then colonized by the Israeli settlers.”[iii] In his book Carter accuses the Israeli government of establishing an apartheid type system in the occupied territories. Many of his fellow party members, such as former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, renounced the use of the word apartheid, finding it offensive. Democratic leaders even begged Carter to delay publication of the book until after the midterm elections. News agencies scattered at the mention of the “A” word, and few gave the book any press coverage. It is not the first time Carter has had to go it alone.

“Israel’s continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land,” he writes.

 “…The United States is squandering international prestige and goodwill and intensifying global anti-American terrorism by unofficially condoning or even abetting the Israeli confiscation and colonization of Palestinian territories.”[iv]

If these words were coming from a jihadist, perhaps we might be more justified in our skepticism. But Carter has been involved in the Arab-Israeli peace process since 1977, including the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt, which have resulted in peace between the two nations for over thirty-five years. For many of those years, his Carter Center has been actively monitoring the democratic process among the Palestinians. He knows the situation on the ground intimately.

It is also important to note that Carter is not saying that Israel as a nation has an apartheid system. He is talking specifically about the “occupied territories,” such as the Gaza Strip and West Bank, land that was originally given to the Palestinians to live on and which Israel has occupied as a result of the 1967 War. It is within this disputed territory that Israel continues to deprive Palestinians of basic human rights, making them second-class citizens in their own country.

The fact that both politicians and the media attempted either to pooh-pooh Carter’s book or to smother it makes one wonder if our nation really has a free press. Watching the former President being interviewed on PBS, I was amazed at how nervous and fearful the reporter seemed, as though she were looking over her shoulder. At times she appeared almost to mock the views in the book, but when Carter presented his argument so persuasively, all she could do was throw up her hands and distance herself from the evidence, as though he were speaking of some kind of quack remedy for piles.

So much of the current international hatred and violence that America faces is directly related to our inability to see facts squarely in the face. We hear what we want to hear and believe what we want to believe. If we really considered Israel a friend, we would not support the oppression of Palestinians. We would call Israel to account. That is what friends do. That is what the world is waiting for—for America, the “arsenal of democracy” and “defender of liberty,” to speak up.

I thank God that someone of the caliber of Jimmy Carter has had the guts to do so. The man is almost ninety, a Nobel laureate, and now a private citizen. Obviously it takes someone who is neither part of the cowering media nor a cringing elected official to speak the truth in love.

The New Apartheid

Mahmoud used to rise early to try to get to work, having to pass through humiliating checkpoints and to travel the old roads (the new roads are reserved for Israelis only). Now he does not do so, for there is no longer any work. Neither can he feed his family. Such is life under the “new apartheid” in the occupied Palestinian territories, where two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line.

In the old South Africa, where whites feared being outnumbered by blacks nine to one, the white power structure instituted an apartheid system, a legalized form of segregation and discrimination. They knew if blacks were ever allowed to vote, it would spell the end of their white, hothouse Western economy and lifestyle. So blacks were forced to live imprisoned in crowded townships, amid institutionalized poverty, violence, and police brutality. Traveling outside to find work was always dangerous, if not illegal.

International economic sanctions against South Africa worked, for after only a few years of sanctions, the wall of apartheid came tumbling down. Now the nation struggles not just with its past, but with its future, trying to forge a new identity, as formerly oppressed blacks learn to live with new freedoms and formerly privileged whites learn to live as a minority within their own country.

The comparison between South African apartheid and that currently practiced in the occupied Palestinian territories is not exact. Yet there are several points of comparison. Today most Israelis live in fear of being outnumbered, for the birthrate among impoverished Palestinians is far outpacing that of Israelis. Therefore, the idea of giving Palestinians in the occupied territories the right to vote as Israeli citizens and welcoming them into a prospering economy (a one-state solution) seems like suicide. Instead, Israel has erected walls, and not just of concrete, but economic barriers as well. Time, however, is not on their side. It never is on the side of injustice. As poet Robert Frost wrote, “‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/ That wants it down.’”

Yet the biggest issue is also the oldest: land. Israeli settlers continue to occupy land given to the Palestinians by UN mandate. And despite occasional efforts by Israeli politicians to hold back these settlements, they continue not only to exist but to increase each year: Israelis gobbling up more and more land, leaving Palestinians in shrinking islands of ever increasing poverty, bitterness, and hopelessness.

The history of Palestinian terrorism and intermittent rocket attacks appear to give Israel’s military control over these territories some legitimacy. But in clamping down on the violence with violence, and massacring hundreds of women and children in the process, Israel only deepens the hatred and turns up the heat on an already boiling cauldron.

No one disputes Israel’s right to defend itself, but defense must be proportional to the threat. The rate of Palestinian to Israeli fatalities is more than 6 to 1! (Since the year 2000, 1,104 Israelis and 6,829 Palestinians have been killed in the ongoing conflict—129 Israeli children and 1,519 Palestinian children, a rate of over 11 to 1).[v]

Polls indicate that the majority of Israelis as well as Palestinians want peace and favor a two-state solution. So what’s standing in the way? We are, for one.

Ironic, isn’t it, that American evangelicals, who claim to serve the Prince of peace, are a major roadblock to achieving it? It is also ironic that Christian Zionists, who ought to be living in the New Testament, are still stuck in the Old. “God gave this land to Abraham,” they say. “The Palestinians should leave.” Where do they propose that four million people should go? Cozumel? Or do they favor annihilation? Is this the Great Commission handed down from our Lord: “Go take back the land, slaughter its inhabitants!”?

Some say it is up to the Palestinians to renounce terrorism. Absolutely, they must. Both sides must see that an immediate cessation of hostilities and a commitment to peaceful negotiation are in their own best interests. Yet if it wants peace, Israel must take the bigger step and withdraw. For Israel to make that step, Washington must apply pressure. For Washington to apply pressure, we must pressure Washington.

Thou Shalt Not Move Thy Neighbor’s Boundary Stone

Undeniably, along with slavery, one of the greatest blots on the collective American soul is the treatment of the native peoples who once inhabited this land from coast to coast: our systematic displacement and cultural and physical annihilation of whole people groups is not often taught or discussed in detail, since it is usually the winners who write the history books. But if you want to know how it was done, you need look no further than the current occupation of Palestine by the Israelis, sponsored by none other than the good ol’ U.S.A. The mindset of manifest destiny, the racism that fuels and justifies it, the settling and downright grabbing of native land, the gradual but violent encirclement resulting in devastating poverty, malnutrition, and despair—ethnic cleansing in all its hideousness—all of this could be taken from a page of our own history.

In 2Chronicles 19, Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, returns from assisting Ahab, the wicked king of Israel, in battle. Jehoshaphat was supposedly one of the “good kings” but he made a grave mistake in allying himself with the house of Ahab, not only marrying his son to that dynasty but also sending military support. The alliance would prove poisonous and almost fatal to the kingdom of Judah for generations to come. Indeed, it almost got Jehoshaphat killed. Then, upon his arrival home, he receives a rebuke from the prophet Jehu, who asks, “Should you help the wicked and make an alliance with those who hate the Lord? Because of this the wrath of the Lord is upon you…”

Yes, the Lord did promise Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you;” yet this was not a command to enter into treaties with wicked kings like Ahab, who stole land that was not his. In this instance, Jehoshaphat blessed his cousin Israel and came under the Lord’s judgment instead. Fancy that. In this case “blessing Israel” should have included a stern rebuke, which would have been more loving than the enabling support Jehoshaphat gave.

I remind my fellow Christians of this passage, since it offers a much needed counterbalance to a belief that has permeated the church through Christian media: that the nations will be judged on the basis of how they treat the nation of Israel in the last days. (Such is one interpretation of the “least of these” in Mt 25:31-46. Actually, if we are to follow the consensus of New Testament scholarship, Jesus’ reference here is most likely to poor and suffering Christians. If that is the case, where do the Palestinians Christians fit in?)

It is an oft-repeated tragedy of history that the persecuted can just as easily become the persecutor. Such was certainly the case with the church in late antiquity, and, ironically, with modern day Israel, created as a haven for Jews who had suffered centuries of pogroms and the Holocaust. How sadly tragic. “Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice…Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this” (Dt 24:17,18) This is a frequent refrain in the Law of Moses. As the late journalist I.F. Stone wrote following the Six-Day War in 1967:

Stripped of propaganda and sentiment, the Palestine problem is, simply, the struggle of two different peoples for the same strip of land…For me the Arab problem is also the No. 1 Jewish problem. How we act toward the Arabs will determine what kind of people we become—either oppressors and racists in our turn like those from whom we have suffered, or a nobler race able to transcend the tribal xenophobias that afflict mankind.[vi]

Back in 2010 General David Petraeus himself contacted the Joint Chiefs of Staff to register his concern that Israeli intransigence endangers American lives in Afghanistan (he failed to mention American lives at home, too). That at least was helpful; the Pentagon carries a big stick in Washington. But the only way to restrain Israel in its mad rush over the precipice (and taking us with it) is to establish consequences for such behavior—consequences mean dollars. Such discipline has not been used since the elder Bush Administration but would be in Israel’s own self-interest as well as our own, since their current course is nothing short of self-destructive, stirring up Muslim hatred for both themselves and us worldwide. There can be no real or lasting peace or security for Israel (or the US) without addressing the injustice.

So massive is the fist of the Israel lobby in Washington, however, (given even greater heft by the economic and political support of much of American conservative evangelicalism) that hope for change is bleak. Unless…

If Christians start caring enough to register their objections and clamor for a less lopsided and more just approach to peace in the region, both Congress and the Administration will have to take notice. Or let me put it more bluntly: We can be either part of the problem and a persecutor of the church (remember Palestinian Christians suffer just as much as their Muslim neighbors), or part of God’s solution to bring justice and lasting peace to a troubled region. Unless, of course, like many Americans, we don’t give a hoot but are hell-bent on stirring up Armageddon so Jesus will beam us out of here. In that case, I can only hope that the pre-tribulationists are right.

Something There Is That Doesn’t Love A Wall

Today, there is a “security wall” that supposedly separates Israeli settlers from Palestinian terrorists. Although the American public believes the purpose of the wall is for security only, darker motives are also at work. The wall does not follow the border between Israel and Palestine (the land given by U.N. mandate to the Palestinians, much of which is being rapidly settled by Israelis). It cuts a wide swath through Palestinian land, through towns and even churches, cutting families off from one another, cutting the faithful off from places where they have worshiped for thousands of years. The wall is meant to protect Israeli settlers occupying Palestinian land. It also separates a prosperous Israel from the increasingly impoverished Palestinians, who, because of the wall and no access to new roads, have little hope of finding employment. Health care, too, in the Occupied Territories is of great humanitarian concern, as the level of health, nutrition, and access to clean water continues to drop. Smuggling is for many communities the only way of survival.

How can Christians allow this to continue? And how can Jews, who have suffered so many similar tragedies, and worse, allow this to happen to another people group? Remember the Warsaw Ghetto?

Although most Israelis want peace, two decades of conservative party rule has made a mockery of past peace initiatives. Their leaders may say they want peace, but their actions clearly demonstrate that they feel a manifest destiny to possess all Palestinian lands, paying lip service to the peace process, but all the while slowly encircling the indigenous people like a noose, leaving them to starve or die of disease—until, perhaps, all that is left will be tiny reservations where tourists can visit and buy souvenirs. Does this all sound familiar to us in the U.S.? It should. We are a very good teacher. And we are helping to make it all possible, since Israel receives one quarter of all U.S. foreign aid.

“But,” you say, “the Palestinians must recognize Israel’s right to exist.” Yes, but which Israel must they recognize? The pre-1967 Israel that agrees with U.N. mandates, or the Israel that has settled and now claims Palestinian land and threatens to swallow them up? “But the Palestinians must renounce terrorism.” Yes, absolutely, they should. But when people have no hope, history shows us, they do desperate things. When it comes to peace, both parties are their own worst enemies. For there to be enduring peace, Israel must vacate Palestinian land, and the Palestinians must teach their people to renounce terror. But since Israel has no inclination to vacate, there is little hope of convincing Palestinian youths that launching rockets or blowing themselves up is not heroic.

Or is there another way?

Exit the Holy Land’s Indigenous Christians

Israel wants them out of the equation. America ignores them entirely. After all, to most Americans fed by mainstream media, most Palestinians are terrorists. Yet ironically, it is the Palestinian Christians who are seeking a peaceful, non-violent solution to the crisis. That’s right, they take the teachings of Christ seriously and try to apply them to their real life situation. They seek peace, not Armageddon. Following their example, many Palestinian Muslims are rejecting violence in favor of more peaceful forms of resistance.

Palestinian Christians are part of an ancient culture and tradition that stretch back two thousand years. Many are direct descendants of Jews and Gentiles who converted to Christianity in the first century AD. They are a witness for Christ in what has been a very bitter struggle over land. The majority live in the West Bank and Israel. And we are helping to get rid of them!

In 1948-49 the newly created Israeli Defense Force (IDF) forcibly expelled up to 80% of the region’s indigenous Christians. In 1950 Christians made up approximately 21% of Israel’s Arab population. Today, that number has shrunk to about 9%, mostly due to emigration. Christians are also on the decline in other Arab countries, owing to Muslim hostility stirred up by Western (especially American) interference in the region. Yet Palestinian Christian emigrants (78% of them) generally cite the continued Israeli occupation as the main reason for their leaving. (In a 2006 poll, a majority of Americans mistakenly blamed Islamic fundamentalism for the emigration.)[vii]

As usual it is the more liberal churches in the U.S. that are taking the lead and speaking out about this injustice. The Religious Right, meanwhile, continues to help pump money and arms into Israel to prepare her for Armageddon, an event they believe must bring about Jesus’ return. My question is, will he know us when he does come? Did he not say, “Depart from me…for I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat…I was a stranger and you did not invite me in…”? Did he not promise, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”?

Religious extremism is the same, whether it is Christian, Muslim, or Jewish. As Bob Dylan wrote, “You don’t count the bodies when God’s on your side.”[viii] Or as a friend of mine so wisely said, “If our interpretation of Scripture causes us to devalue other people groups or to treat them with disrespect, then we need to get a new interpretation. For we are not walking in the way of Christ.”

One solution would be for an American President to speak firmly to Israel: “If you don’t remove these settlements, all U.S. aid will be cut off.” Most Israeli politicians would tremble, since they rely so heavily on U.S. support. Is it likely that any American President would say such a thing, even if he wanted to? No. Because he knows the powerful Israel lobby in Washington—of which these evangelicals form a major part—would not wear it.

So for the time being, the situation will probably get worse, conditions in the West Bank and Gaza continue to deteriorate, tensions in the Middle East continue to boil, providing more and more fodder for Jihad against the West, until the U.S., too, like Israel, becomes an armed camp.

What can you do? Write your elected representatives and the President. Tell them you do not support Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory and that oppression of Palestinians must cease for there to be lasting peace. Tell them Israel does not have to be abandoned to be held accountable and you do not want your hard-earned tax dollars used in this way to prop up such a regime.

Support financial divestment efforts: removing your or your institution’s investments from corporations that support the Israeli occupation.

And pray for God to raise up politicians both here and there who are serious about peace and who have the courage to do the right thing. Pray that the power of the Israel lobby in Washington would begin to collapse, allowing a real and lasting peace in that war-torn land.

 

[i] Waiting for Armageddon (2009), dir. Kate Davis, Heilbroner, Frank Sacchi. 74 min.

[ii] “Full Text of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Christmas Message,” Belfast Telegraph, (25 December, 2008). Web. BelfastTelegraph.co.uk.

[iii] “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid…Jimmy Carter in His Own Words,” Democracy Now, (30 November 2006). Web. DemocracyNow.org.

[iv] Jimmy Carter, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 216.

[v] “Israelis and Palestinians Killed in the Current Violence,” If Americans Knew: What Every American Needs to Know about Israel/Palestine. Web. ifamericansknew.org.

[vi] I. F. Stone, “Holy War,” New York Review of Books, (3 August 1967). Web. nybooks.com

[vii] “Americans Not Sure Where Bethlehem Is, Survey Shows,” Ekklesia, 20 December 2006. Web.

[viii] “With God on Our Side,” lyrics by Bob Dylan, 1963.

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What We Can Teach the Russians about Propaganda

While the US media goes after their Russian counterparts for whitewashing Putin’s role in the recent downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, subservient major American news outlets, like NBC, can hardly throw stones. A case in point is this article by The Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald.

When it comes to towing the government’s line on issues, nothing strikes more cringing fear in the hearts of establishment journalists than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. NBC recently recalled its star reporter in Gaza because, presumably, he was getting too even-handed with his reporting, veering from the established, one-eyed pro-Israel propaganda we normally ingest with our morning frappuccino.

Apparently, the reporter, Mohyeldin, committed a serious mea culpa by not only reporting the news, but actually witnessing it. I’m referring to Israel’s senseless and savage targeting of four Palestinian boys on a Gaza beach. Mohyeldin not only watched the boys’ being blown apart from his balcony; he had actually played soccer with them only an hour before.

There’s nothing that makes the bowels of Washington pols and their media lapdogs looser than the Israel lobby in high dudgeon. Of course, what terrifies them even more is the possibility of the American public’s learning what is really going on in Gaza.

Ironically, if you want to read a tougher journalistic line on Israel, you have to go to (guess where) Israel, where freedom of the press actually still exists.

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Veep Says a Mouthful

This week Vice President Joe Biden visited Kiev and had this to say about Russia’s annexation of Crimea:

“No nation has the right to simply grab land from another nation. No nation has that right. And we will never recognize Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, and neither will the world.”

Perhaps what he meant to add is, “However, when I say, ‘no nation has the right to grab land from another nation,’ I am of course not including the US or its ally Israel. Such international standards do not apply to us, nor should we be held accountable.”

This is why the US is mocked as hypocritical not just by Russia, but even by our closest allies. This is also why we are fighting a so-called “war on terror.” The world (and particularly the Muslim world) sees that our words are merely self-serving propaganda, without any real basis in integrity or a concern for justice and human rights.

 

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Call It “Trickle-down Tyranny”

Here’s an old article that’s even more true today. I recommend it. I’m not sure where the author is coming from on a few points, but the general premise is psychologically sound and very important for us to grasp as we try to make sense of the violence and lawlessness around us. If the chief executive feels he can execute citizens, then it’s not such a leap for Albuquerque policeman to do the same. (Note: The article is from 2011 and is not to be confused with the 2013 book by conservative talk-show host Michael Savage.)

 

 

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Great Teaching Resource: Zinn Education Project

Here’s a great resource for teachers, homeschoolers, and parents who want to offer their children an alternative to the often whitewashed history available in textbooks. Because American history is more than just a list of presidents and battles; it is also a story of movements, of ordinary people who banded together to demand and effect change. As the late historian Howard Zinn believed, most history textbooks teach our children to be passive, waiting for the next “great leader” to appear on the stage or thinking that voting every four years is the sum of democracy. In truth, a country that teaches history to its children in this way effectively castrates them, dooming them to sit on the sidelines instead of encouraging their full involvement as an informed and educated citizenry aware of its own enormous power.

The site offers many inspiring and eye-opening articles, as well as projects, films, and other media to help bring America’s past into our present.

Here is Zinn’s own take on why we should study history and how educators and parents can help to make it a process that builds critical thinking skills, beyond just memorizing dates.

 

 

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The Real War on Christmas

In a recent article radio commentator and activist Jim Hightower contends that shock-jocks like Bill O’Reilly have cooked up a phony War on Christmas, while at the same time, they are the very ones who have recently launched the real war on Jesus by labeling the new pope a Marxist.

195px-Papst_Leo_XIIIShrill voices like O’Reilly’s are hard to take seriously; they often seem more to resemble a carnival sideshow than to reflect the true face of conservative American evangelicalism. Yet perhaps we could say that they are a true caricature of us. A caricature is a distorted, exaggerated image, but at the same time it reflects real blemishes, a something out of balance in the original.

As the prophet of privileged white victimhood, O’Reilly perfectly demonstrates how political forces have become adept at distracting American evangelicals from the real issues that plague our society. As Billy Graham warned in a 1981 interview, “It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.” The War on Christmas is a good example, as it seeks to misdirect evangelical frustrations and energy.

Instead of helping the church to focus on the yawning chasm between rich and poor in this country, or the arrogance of greed run amok, this war has us demonizing non-Christians and punching store employees who dare to wish us “Happy Holidays,” as though they were the Red Menace. Here again Christianity seems to be reduced to a cartoon of itself, anathematizing bewildered and underpaid store clerks, instead of calling to account the very economic forces and political system that have brought us a banking crisis, a Great Recession, growing inequalities, and a return to the economic conditions, legislated greed, and racism of the Gilded Age.

Let’s face it. To economic elites, Jesus’ real teaching on poverty and riches is a meddlesome interference. That is why Greed loves to wear a religious mask, using the language of piety while denying its true power and message. Such campaigns as the War on Christmas are extremely cost-effective, a very cheap way of distracting Christians from a truly New Testament agenda. They do cost the church dearly in looking ridiculous and petty, but cost us nothing in terms of our having to look at ourselves, our selfish lifestyles, and the corrupt systems we support.

Yet perhaps Hightower goes too far in calling this war a “hoax.” For such skirmishes are certainly part of a larger cultural shift in this country: not simply away from Christmas, but away from white Protestant Christianity. For the first time in American history, Protestants now find themselves in the minority, and soon, within the next decade, whites will find themselves in the same boat. Such kvetching as O’Reilly’s is part of a swan song. America is rapidly diversifying. We are already the most religiously diverse nation in the world, and the white-dominated society most of us grew up in, too, is almost a memory. Yet many refuse to adapt, preferring to go down kicking and screaming. Ironically, however, it is not Christianity that is most threatened, but Christendom—the geopolitical power that dominated the world from the Middle Ages through the last century, or in this country specifically, the dominant white power structure that identifies itself as Christian.

Not content with leading the crusade against diversity, however, O’Reilly tips his hand too much by attacking the pronouncements of Pope Francis, teachings that are in keeping not only with Catholic social doctrine over the past 120 years, but also with the New Testament itself. Francis’ recent encyclical, in which he castigates predatory capitalism and chides the church for taking its eyes off the poor, is hardly new, but merely one in a long line of papal declarations, going back to Leo XIII.

In his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) Pope Leo responded to the growing desperation of the working classes as they groaned under the various social maladies engendered by the Industrial Revolution. Yet, while taking unrestrained capitalism to task for its exploitation of workers and its savage indifference to the cries of the poor, he also rejects communism and upholds the individual’s right to property. Instead, he calls both labor and capital to mutual responsibilities, while also recognizing that God is unmistakably on the side of the poor. He also calls governments to work with the church in ameliorating the inequities and sufferings of poverty, for it is the primary duty of the State to promote both justice and the general welfare. The document did much to offer both a rational and theological argument for the formation of labor unions, social safety nets, the right to collective bargaining and a living wage, as well as the role of the church as a voice for social justice in a rapidly changing modern world. Far from being Marxist, by addressing such inequities and injustices, Leo was trying to avoid the very kind of cataclysmic crisis that would soon take hold in Russia, an upheaval that would bring its own kind of injustice and repression. (Leo’s encyclical is definitely worth a read: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Rerum_Novarum)

If Leo’s or Francis’ words seem “Marxist” to us, its goes to show how far we have drifted from the norms of New Testament teaching and of reason itself, as well as from the excruciating lessons of modern history.

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