Supporting “Israel”

Supporting “Israel”

A letter to President Bush made public last week, signed by a group of evangelicals, myself included, is getting some attention. The letter encourages our government to work for a two-state solution in Israel.

I am receiving some positive feedback, but also a few angry denunciations. The Palestinian-Israeli situation is notoriously complex, and it is especially difficult for evangelicals to address calmly because of the prominent strand of “Bible prophecy” thinking in our midst. John Hagee is causing some of the fuss these days on that score. For him, the borders of Israel promised in the Old Testament are inviolable, and we need to support Israel’s right to all of that territory without compromise. He sees no place for any criticism of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians.

Several years ago, the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington brought together about 30 evangelicals for a closed-door session on these matters. Several of us who signed last week’s letter were there, along with a number of the more vocal defenders of the policies of recent Israeli governments. We did not make much headway, but for me the discussion revealed a key theological issue that needs to be addressed: the question of our theological understanding of Palestinian Christians.

This is a big subject, so I can only briefly outline my own take on it here. I do not support a “replacement” theology regarding the theological identity of “Israel”–I did earlier in my career, but I have changed my view in recent years. God’s original covenant was with the ethnic people, Israel, and that covenant has not been cancelled. We Gentile Christians are not a “new Israel” in a replacement sense. Rather we have been grafted onto Israel. In these latter days, the Lord now says also to Gentile Christians, “but you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (I Peter 2:9).

On this view, then, Palestinian Christians are a part of Israel,
theologically speaking. To support the cause of Israel in the Middle East is to understand “Israel” to be a broader entity than the nation that presently goes by that name.

When we posed these issues in Washington, our evangelical friends who give strong political support to the Israeli government had no good theological answer to our question: How do you understand, theologically, the Palestinian Christians, and what are God’s promises to them? The irony is, of course, that on a practical level, many of these same defenders of Israeli policies are also outspoken defenders of religious freedom–and rightly so. If the Egyptian government persecutes Christians they are quick to protest. But we hear nothing from them about the plight of the Palestinian Christians at the hands of the Israeli government.

This silence has much to do with a tendency to depict the tensions in the Middle East as Jews versus Muslims. What gets lost in this depiction is the plight of Arab Christians, who get shot at from both sides.

I have said this privately to my Jewish friends on many occasions: on the big issues of Israel versus the Muslim-dominated nations, I am a supporter of Israel. But the Palestinian Christian poses for me very special theological and spiritual questions. Those questions ought to be high on the theological agenda of evangelicalism. Unfortunately, they get no serious attention in the circles where people claim to be basing their views on “God’s plan for Israel.”


  1. Dr. Mouw
    Your words above betray you. You still seem to be a replacement theologian by your statement that Palestinian Christians are part of “Israel”.
    Also, I do not follow your reasoning. If your intent is to protect them I would think that you would want them to stay in Israel where they, for the most part, have been protected instead of being being put into a separate Muslim Palestinian state where they would indeed be persecuted as history bears out.
    The land in which Israel now resides is a small fraction of what God originally gave to them and they are surrounded by Arab/Muslim countries over 600 times their size! They should certainly keep what they now have and let the Muslim Palestinians go to one of these countries. The problem is that these countries do not want their Muslim bretren so Israel is being asked to bear the brunt.
    I would need many more pages to properly respond to this.
    Raymond J. Carpenter

    Comment by Raymond J. Carpenter — August 4, 2007 @ 11:40 am

  2. Thank you, Dr. Mouw, for continuing to be a public evangelical who is both thoughtful and faithful to the gospel. It’s wonderful that an evangelical can publicly admit that his thinking on a matter has changed. I’m sure that it’s difficult at times to maintain your composure and integrity when you are so vehemently denounced by other evangelicals more committed to the bad news in the good news than the good news in the good news. Keep up the good work.

    Casey Taylor

    Comment by Casey Taylor — August 7, 2007 @ 4:59 pm

  3. Hmmm…I’m not exactly sure from this post how exactly the plight and theological status of Palestinian/Arab Christians is relevant to the issue of land, which seems to me the central issue that Evangelicals divide over with respect to Israel. Many Evangelicals “support Israel” in the sense of supporting the claim of modern-day Jews to land within the biblically-articulated borders of Israel, justifying this support by what they view as an inviolable promise from God, also evidenced in the Bible (as Dr. Mouw has pointed out). Other Evangelicals reject this sort of unconditional support for modern Israel as missing the conditional nature of God’s promise of land to the Jews–specifically, that the land could be held on the condition that the Jews treated each other and outsiders with justice, and were faithful to God. (This group often points to the biblical narrative in which God expelled the Jews from the land for their unfaithfulness and injustice as evidence for the view.) On this second viewpoint, many Evangelicals see modern-day Israel falling short on both counts (i.e., being unfaithful to God and unjust to outsiders), and so for these Evangelicals it is not clear that modern Israelis have a biblical warrant for holding the land, and certainly not if holding the land is achieved by means of continued injustice (I do not mean to imply here that there are no injustices committed by Palestinians/Arabs on the other side, but only that the injust acts of modern Israel are fairly plain to see). Though I tend to fall into the second camp of evangelicals on this issue of “supporting Israel”, this central issue of how we support Israel with respect to the land seems to me entirely separate from the issue of how we think about Palestinian/Arab Christians. I’m just not sure why we ought to think of them any differently from any other group of non-Jewish/Gentile Christians. As Dr. Mouw says, they (like many Gentile Christians in the U.S. and around the world) have been grafted into the new Israel. But this doesn’t give them any special claim on the land of Israel does it? What gives them special status with respect to the land is the fact that they live there and are being treated unjustly! But, then, we ought not to think of them any differently than we think of any other Gentile group suffering injustice and (in some cases) being pushed off the land that they inhabit. Where people of any sort are suffering injustice and being pushed from their land, Evangelicals ought to have compassion and do what they can to help. All this to say, I’m not sure what the theological issue is here. I’m not sure why there is a THEOLOGICAL question to be answered about the Palestinian/Arab Christians. I would welcome any clarification/enlightenment.


    Comment by Aaron Mead — August 8, 2007 @ 5:52 pm

  4. A good point you are making here, Dr Mouw. I’d like to comment, if I may, based on direct experience.

    The first point to make is that the Israeli government has not manifested a policy of discrimination against Christians living in Israel proper or in the Palestinian territories. In context, for you to write of the “plight of the Palestinian Christians at the hands of the Israeli government” suggests that the government of Israel treats Christians the way the government of Egypt treats Christians. That is simply not the case and in large ways and small, living in Israel full-time as a Christian, one sees that Israelis are generally welcoming and tolerant.

    And if the first point is that the Israeli government is tolerant, the second point is that the vocal orthodox Jewish element is not. But discrimination against Palestinian Christians specifically because they are Christian is a hard case to make.

    The third point to make is that the suffering of our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters is real and quite overwhelming. In drawing attention to it you do them (and us) a great service. They are indeed “shot at from both sides” and in fact, when you live among them, you could make the argument that they are actually shot at from a half-dozen sides (their Muslim neighbors, the Israelis, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, interdenominational strife, harshly critical Christian bretheren in Arab countries, and so on). Their pain needs to be part of the picture, and you have made it so.

    The last point to make is that although, indeed, by virtue of being in Christ, “Palestinian Christians are a part of Israel theologically speaking”, that is a topic fraught with immense problems. You and I, as Western Christians, play with fire if we tread here. Christian Palestinians are suspected by their Muslim neighbors of being “in alliance with Crusaders and Zionists” simply because of their faith.

    In Muslim terms there is no divide between religious and political spheres as we see it in the West. For you to blithely announce that the discussion will now turn to talking about how Palestinians believers in Jesus are “grafted into Israel” puts them in an extraordinarily awkward position because there is no gap in which to have that particular conversation. The point may have theological merit, but just to make it is a good way to ratchet up the sufferings of our bretheren. And that, of course, brings us to the subject of what it’s like to live as a Christian under Muslim rule, which is the subject for another post.

    You are right in your main point – supporting Israel with a view informed by Christian faith means taking an extraordinarily complicated stance and holding in theological tension three separate entities called “Israel”: ethnic Israel, national Israel, and the “new Israel” in which you, I and our Palestinian Christian bretheren find ourselves.

    Comment by KB Smith — August 8, 2007 @ 7:20 pm

  5. Thank you for the illumination.
    It seems to me that if all faith groups felt the way they did at the beginning of their faith’s inception, then all groups would want a larger geographic territory. The difficulty is not in a state for faithful Jewish people, Palestinian Christians, or Muslims. The issues is much more basic: we must co-mingle, we must live side by side with our fellow human being-with regard for their choice to practice their faith-whatever that faith is–the challenge for the evangelical Christian is simple: how are we representing the love that knows no boundary to those who insist that a boundary changes the sacredness of life and the planet? No matter how far away the geographic boundary-they are all still my neighbor; this is the fact that dictates my response.

    Geographic resources and from the archeological view; we would be opening a pandora’s box…but from the Spiritual and the limited inhabitable space view-we have the task of being neighborly-which should entail us building the communication bridge.
    Still wondering if evangelical encompasses all that I know the Creator to be.
    Nancy Bird

    Comment by Nancy Bird — August 8, 2007 @ 9:49 pm

  6. First comment above is indicative of ignorance of facts. Palestinian Christians have not been protected by Zionist Israel. They have throughout Muslim rule been protected by Muslims. Actually, the key-holders of Christianity’s holiest shrine, the Holy Sepulchre, are Muslims chosen by true Christians since the 7th Century AD – no offence in using AD to those thugs who resent its use, the so-called chosen people.
    As for the Christian Bible, it seems to have escaped most Christians that there is a valid reason why the Old Testament was described as ‘Old’. I would have thought anyone with an ounce of intelligence would have understood that; i.e. old, superseded by the New. It was never meant for the feeble minded to think the numerous contradictions it contains when compared to the New to ‘take your pick’. Take a look at Amos 7.17 and tell me, does anyone of sane mind believe that God would say “Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city….”??? Wake up and see for yourselves, what type of faith is Talmudic Judaism which preaches that Jesus is burning in hell in a cauldron of excrement? Is that Christian Israel which is the Kingdom of God or some demonic geographically entity created by man?

    Comment by Emmanuel St John — August 17, 2007 @ 4:15 am

  7. Much like the saying that we should not be more secular than Jesus and not be more sacred than God, a true and honest Chriatian cannot support (spiritual and/or physical)Israel more than God himself does – tough love. Any meaningful evangelical reflection on this topic ought to and should take God’s model of support for Israel as its starting point.

    Comment by Sunday A — August 31, 2007 @ 8:12 am

  8. Thank you, Dr. Mouw, for posting this blog! I am a first generation Palestinian Christian. In my upbringing I am more American than Arab and though I was raised Orthodox, I accepted Christ and evangelical non-denominational Christianity during college. Since then, I have grappled with this very issue – how to theologically address Palestinian Christians – namely, myself.

    My mother’s family is still in 2 Christian populated areas in “Palestine”. I have tasted the bitterness of media portrayals of the events in Israel/Palestine that strongly contrasted the actuality of firsthand reports from family members. My relatives have the physical and emotional scars of humiliation, threats and losses incurred due to the choices of the state of Israel. Suffering and injustice are the first issue, but the denial of their situation/existence is a deeper pain, especially the denial by Christian brethren. Sometimes, I feel like it is only recently that people are aware that Christian Arabs exist. In fact, many evangelicals are not even aware that Palestinian Christian heritage goes back to the original Gentiles and Hebrews who were converted to believers in Christ during his ministry and the time of the early church in Palestine. Now, Palestinian Christians comprise a rapidly shrinking population of less than 3% of Palestinians. How sad that the blood descendants of original Christians are fleeing the Holy Land!

    So, how can we see Palestinian Christians from God’s eyes? What does He see? For me, this question is so incredibly comforting because God sees it all. I will address some theological questions that Palestinian Christians need answered. When our government and evangelical advocates for Israel turn a blind eye during military acts of retaliation for suicide bombings, Palestinians living and suffering the “collateral damage” ask, “Why has God abandoned us?” (He hasn’t, but this is what many Christian Palestinians feel). What is one’s worth when you are a race of people in the opposition to the Chosen Ones of God? The majority of Jews are not believers in Christ, so why do evangelical Christians support them without questioning their ethics? If the Jews have not accepted Christ as their messiah, then how can Zion be established? Are Palestinian Christians included in the inheritance since they are now included in the “covenants of the promise”? Do the Jews inherit the land and believers in Christ claim heaven (so should the Christian Arabs relinquish their homes to the occupying Jews so that they can live as refugees until Christ returns)? And my personal question is, once we theologically understand Palestinian Christians, will it change the quality of their lives and their access to equal civil rights?

    In his book, “Light Force: A Stirring Account of the Church Caught in the Middle East Crossfire”, Brother Andrew addresses the circumstances and the theological questions of the “living stones of the Holy Land”. I cried through half of this book because I’ve never read something more accurate, loving and BIBLICAL! For the first time in my life, I felt like an evangelical gave the Arab Christians a voice. At one point in the book he acknowledges that just because God loves Israel and we love Israel, doesn’t mean that they are above criticism. For those seeking a better understanding of this issue, this book is an absolute MUST READ.

    Eph 2:11-16 “Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth…remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.”

    2 Cor 5:17-19 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

    Philippians 3:20 “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

    Therefore, my theological understanding of myself as a Palestinian Christian is that after I accepted Christ I’m neither Israeli, Palestinian nor American. We are all citizens of heaven when we are made into a new creation as believers in Christ.

    Comment by Anne K — September 7, 2007 @ 11:54 pm