For the second year running a unique event took place in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem this week. Christian evangelicals that many consider as most ardent supporters for Israel (often more so than many Israelis) were guests of a Palestinian Christian gathering.
The "Christ at the Checkpoint" conference, sponsored by Bethlehem Bible College, hosted over 600 evangelicals from around the world, but primarily from the US. Among the leading evangelicals attending this Palestinian-sponsored event were Rev. Joel Hunter, the spiritual adviser to US President Barack Obama, theologian Tony Campollo, social activists Ron Sider and Lyn Hybes, British pastor Stephen Sizer, community leader Shahen Claiborne, Messianic leader Wayne Hilsden and Asian reverend Sang-Bok David Kim.
Before it opened at the Jacir Palace InterContinental Hotel, the conference (both organisers and guests) was the subject of multi-pronged attacks. Speakers were pressured not to attend with hundreds of e-mails and phone calls, with accusations that by participating they are giving legitimacy to an anti-Israel and anti-Semitic gathering.
Two rabbis who work on interfaith issues at the Wiesenthal Centre scathingly attacked the conference as potentially shaking up the foundations of the most effective supporters to Israel. Writing in The Jerusalem Post, rabbis Abraham Cooper and Yitzchok Adlerstein said that the conference is "taking dead aim at Israel’s single largest and most reliable supporter: Tens of millions of evangelical Christians who have stood with the Jewish state since day one."
They concluded that if the conference achieves even some of its aims, "the consequences will be disastrous for Israel and world Jewry".
Those articles and more produced a level of intellectual terrorism not known within Christian circles that believe in dialogue amongst fellow believers.
Perhaps the hardest hit group were Christian leaders of Jewish origin. Messianic Jews intending to attend were severely targeted and accused of giving legitimacy to an anti-Israel event. They came nevertheless and said that they felt welcomed and respected.
The conference was not an anti-Israel event by any means. Its power derived more from challenging some current theological interpretations than from being a political discourse.
Most of the sessions included debates over rather complicated terminology (for example, of strict versus progressive dispensationalism — a system of prophetic theology in which Israel is greatly featured as part of God’s will in the end times) or answers to questions (like do Palestinian Christians cause a problem to Christian Zionism, what is the biblical theology of the land, is the opposite of Christian Zionism replacement theology, how does theology affect policy).
Not that the conference ignored the Palestinian reality. Opening the conference, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Mayor of Bethlehem Victor Batarseh welcomed the international guests and impressed on them the Palestinians’ aspiration to live in freedom and peace alongside Israel. Fayyad talked about the importance of nonviolence and the need to support peace with justice.
The speakers were disarming. An olive branch was extended especially to Israeli messianic leaders and it seemed to produce an unusually warm atmosphere.
Besides attending the conference, most of the international guests were given alternative tours that including visits to various Palestinian communities affected by the Israeli occupation, including families whose land is off-limits because of the Israeli wall and Christian Palestinian families who are suffering because of the continued Israeli occupation.
Most of the participants who attended the conference appeared to have reached the conclusion that it is unacceptable to mix theology with politics and to try to use some isolated texts from the Bible to justify Israeli actions. But what the conference seems to have done is to strengthen and sharpen various arguments that debunk the myths that many consider is the stereotypical position of Christian evangelicals.
In addition to theological discussions, the conference gave participants a unique perspective on Palestine and Palestinian Christians. To many evangelicals, the conference provided a powerful human aspect that makes it impossible for them to continue to divorce some interpretations of Christian theology from their effect on real people, in fact on people who share similar biblical beliefs.
Hardcore evangelicals, televangelists and generally Christian Zionists will undoubtedly continue exhibiting clear bias vis-Ã -vis Palestinians and be in favour of some messianic solution to the conflict, that does not include any Palestinian, whether Christian or Muslim. However, the ability to deny the suffering and to claim that "we didn’t know" is becoming increasingly more difficult.
The "Christ at the Checkpoint" conference was streamed live and participants will no doubt return to their churches in the West with a different message: that to have peace is to have justice and that peace and justice are the cornerstone of the Christian faith, irrespective of the theological spin Christian Zionists have tried to put on it.