The global church recently celebrated Pentecost, the moment when the Holy Spirit filled the believers in Jerusalem. In the Acts 2 account, two things stand out. First, “they were all together in one place.” Second, the roster of peoples or places familiar (Egypt, Libya, Jews, Arabs) and unfamiliar (Parthians, Medes, Elamites) reminds us of that moment’s miraculous unity.
Today Christians find it harder than ever to be “together in one place” in Jerusalem. Walls, checkpoints and other restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation not only disrupt people’s lives but divide the body of Christ in the very land where Jesus lived and taught. Jerusalem’s congregations are shrinking, and sometimes dying, because worshipers living just a few miles away are denied entry to the city. Many Palestinian Christians have left the region entirely.
Palestinian Christians who remain often feel forgotten. Alex Awad of Bethlehem Bible College, a Mennonite Central Committee partner, recently said: “We want Christians from around the world to come, see the checkpoint, see the wall, see the occupation as it is. And then open the Bible and say, ‘What does Christ tell us about this?’ ”
Bethlehem Bible College recently hosted a “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference. It included Palestinian and international church leaders, as well as Israeli, Messianic Jewish and Christian Zionist voices. Many testified that God transformed their hearts and minds.
Lynne Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., is one who has come, seen and spoken out. She says: “I was shocked to see the reality of daily life under military occupation — a shattered economy, land seizures and house demolitions, settlement expansion… . I’ve heard stories of Palestinian women giving birth in their cars because of lengthy checkpoint delays, and of critically sick children being denied health care because they can’t get Israeli-issued permits to travel to the hospital in Jerusalem.”
A 60 Minutes report on CBS shared similar testimony from Palestinian Christians. It drew criticism from Israeli officials and Christian Zionist groups who blame Muslim extremism for Christians’ problems in Palestine.
However, according to Munther Isaac, vice academic dean at Bethlehem Bible College: “To insist that radical Islam is the primary struggle for Palestinian Christians undermines the sufferings of Palestinian Christians caused by the occupation and labels these struggles as imagined and unreal.”
While others debate the politics of the occupation, Palestinian churches have endorsed the Kairos Palestine document, which declares: “Christ our Lord has left us an example we must imitate… . Resistance to the evil of occupation is integrated, then, within this Christian love that refuses evil and corrects it. ”
Mennonite Church USA’s official response to the Kairos document asks its members “to study Scripture together within our own church and with you [Palestinians], that we may be released from the grip of unjust ideology and may grasp more fully what God desires for your part of the world and for all of us. Further, we will continue to wrestle with the way our lives are enmeshed in the policies and implementation of occupation through our economic practices and seek to turn from them.”
We need to hear the testimony of Palestinians and listen to the voice of the Spirit as we wrestle with our responsibility and our response.
This article originally appeared in the June 11 issue of Mennonite World Review.