"Palestine, Solidarity, and Christian Zionism with Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac" Transcript
Season 1, Episode 7
Munther Isaac: I live in Bethlehem and we watch the many numbers of pilgrims who visit the Nativity Church where Jesus was born on a daily basis. Thousands. But to visit the Nativity Church, you have to cross the checkpoint, drive by the ugly separation wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem and takes most of the agricultural land in Bethlehem, and you drive by a refugee camp. And I've always wondered, do these pilgrims who come and visit us, do they care about what's happening?
[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]
Jonathan Walton: Welcome to Shake the Dust, leaving colonized faith for the Kingdom of God, a podcast of KTF Press. My name is Jonathan Walton, and I'm here with Suzie Lahoud and Sy Hoekstra.
Suzie, tell us about our guest.
Suzie Lahoud: So today we're sitting down with Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac. Reverend Munther is the pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem. He's also the academic dean of Bethlehem Bible College and the director of the Christ at the Checkpoint conference. He has published numerous articles on issues related to the theology of the land, Palestinian Christians and theology, holistic missions, and reconciliation. He is the author of the books The Other Side of the Wall and From Land to Lands, from Eden to the Renewed Earth.
He has also written a couple books in Arabic, like An Introduction to Palestinian Theology, as well as a commentary on the book of Daniel. Reverend Munther originally studied civil engineering at Birzeit University in Palestine. He then obtained a Master's in Biblical Studies from Westminster Theological Seminary and a PhD from the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies.
We talk to him about the recent violence in Palestine, the growing support for Palestinian human rights, Christian Zionism, the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, anti-Semitism, and a whole lot more.
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Jonathan Walton: And now that that's out of the way, let's get right to it with Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac.
[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in briefly, then fades out.]
Suzie Lahoud: Pastor Munther, thank you so much for joining us on Shake the Dust today. It's an honor to have you.
Munther Isaac: Thank you. It's my pleasure to join you.
Suzie Lahoud: And just to start off our conversation, there are a lot of things that we want to dig into today and just take advantage of this opportunity to benefit from your vast expertise and experience. But before we launch into all of that, we want to acknowledge the recent trauma and violence that you and our brothers and sisters in Palestine have experienced recently. And so, could you just give our listeners a sense of what the feeling is currently among Christians and others on the ground in Palestine regarding the recent spate of violence? Is it sort of a similar sense to other previous escalations? Just what are people feeling right now? How are they grappling with what's happened?
Munther Isaac: If I can summarize it in one word or two, it’s that “here we go again,” unfortunately. And just to be clear, our emotions are, Christians are not different to the emotions or how the rest of Palestinians feels, because we are Palestinians at the end of the day and we all go through this together. And so when more cycles of violence, especially in Gaza, happen again, that's, you know, you just think, “Lord have mercy” and “How long? How much more can people endure so much suffering and how much more can this land endure injustice?” I mean, the attack on Gaza has ended, but the siege hasn't ended. And certainly the threat of forcibly evacuating people from their homes in Jerusalem, whether in Sheikh Jarrakh or in Silwan, is still there. Hundreds of people sleep tonight with the fear that this could be their last night in their homes.
And that still goes on and you wonder, “How much more, Lord? Can we endure this much? Where are you, Lord, in all of this?” And honestly, you know, the more you read about what's happening and you feel the pain of families who lost their loved ones, for example, in Gaza, and children, the sentiment is the world does not care, it seems, to stop this. And we are easy to shift the blame against the victim, and to rationalize what's happening. And at the end of the day, as I said, the siege is still there and it makes us wonder, do people care? And this much of anger and frustration, and if I now, just to speak briefly as a Christian, here the Christian community, my fear is that more and more people will leave thinking that there is no future in this land, that this cycle of violence will never end. And that we are doomed as Palestinians to live under occupation. So we continue to see people leaving and, you know, as if all of this is not enough, we're still dealing with COVID, we're still dealing with high unemployment. These are not good days, if I may put it this way, for Palestinians.
Suzie Lahoud: Do you feel that the sense of despair is increasing or is there any sort of sense of a glimmer of hope with regards to international solidarity with the Palestinian people? And specifically I'm thinking of instances, you know, in light of the recent atrocities, The New York Times cover page with, you know, 65 Palestinian children who were killed in Gaza and things like that. Do those offer any sense of greater support? Do you see any shifts in even the evangelical church in the United States or is it still very much a sense of isolation and erasure and just being forgotten by the world?
Munther Isaac: There is certainly a change. But before that, I think the real change is happening, I think, among Palestinians who, we are beginning to recognize that our destiny, if I may say, relies more upon us and what we can do rather than on our political leadership or on the leaders of the world. The latest events has shown Palestinians coming together, unified more than ever, including Palestinians who are citizens in the State of Israel, which was a very interesting and surprising development. And Palestinians using the social media to communicate their stories that we are not simply fighting Jews because we hate Jews and want to destroy Israel, but we’re simply seeking our rights to live in our homes, we’re seeking our God-given right for freedom and dignity. And Palestinians in Jerusalem, in particular, were able to stand up in the face of so many attempts to, not just force them out of their homes, but to subdue them.
And all of this, I think, is resonating with many oppressed people around the world. And young people, especially, are increasingly beginning to understand the plight of Palestinian, of the Palestinian people. And certainly, you are right, Suzie, in the sense that I've never seen so much support of Palestinian rights in the streets around the world. We've seen huge demonstrations. I'm so much encouraged by the increasing Jewish voices around the world, particularly in the United States, who are saying, “Not in our name.” And even, you know, there are some articles about a small shift among evangelicals. I'm not holding my hopes high, to be honest, but yes, we're beginning to see at least a discussion happening among evangelicals that, yes, it's been too long for Palestinians and it's time to listen to the plight.
I'm not sure if you've followed, but many Palestinian Christian leaders have spoken up very loudly about this. We've written articles. We've done interviews. We've been saying this for a while and we've been trying to speak on behalf of Palestinians, especially among Christians around the world, feeling that we have a voice among churches. And as I said, it's time, it's time that we recognize the plights of Palestinians.
And again, this is not one voice over the other. We're not saying support Palestinians against Israelis. We're simply saying, recognize our rights as Palestinians to live in dignity in our homeland. To live in our homes- literally our homes- and to have the right for self-determination and live in dignity in our land.
Suzie Lahoud: Absolutely. And with regards to what's been coming out, your piece in Sojourners, your open letter, was, in particular, I think, so powerful. We'll definitely include that in the show notes, but yeah, thank you. Thank you for sharing that.
Sy Hoekstra: And we hope we can be whatever small part of shifting the conversation among evangelicals that we can. But, so we, we appreciate you being here with us for that reason.
Munther Isaac: No, thank you. Many times, all we ask people is to amplify our voices. We want to be heard and we want, especially Christians, to take our perspective and even our existence. I feel oftentimes, churches, especially evangelicals, but not just evangelicals, pray for the peace of Jerusalem, as I said in the article, write prophecy books, preach about this land, and you get the impression that it's empty. And I always think, we exist, we live on this land, as Palestinians, but also as Palestinian Christians. We are your sisters and brothers in Christ. The least you could do is take our perspective and consider it. You might disagree with us. That's fine. But at least consider our existence.
And that's something we've been lamenting for a while. Many Christians speak about our land, even today, as if it's empty. And see only one side of the story. And celebrate, for example, what they perceive, you know, or how they speak about the faithfulness of God towards the Jewish people, bringing them back to their land. Even that language, “bringing them back to their land” gives the impression that I now, as a Palestinian who have been living here for a long time, have taken someone else's land. Because apparently Palestinians didn’t get the memo that God promised this land, 4,000 years ago, to the ancestors of Abraham who are the Jews today. I mean, if you think of that perspective today, it's unthinkable, but that's the reality we're facing.
Sy Hoekstra: Can you, you've written a lot about Christian Zionism in your scholarship and elsewhere. Can you just define that? Because I think, especially in the West, a lot of times it's just sort of the air that we breathe. And so I think naming it and defining what it is could be helpful for a lot of people.
Munther Isaac: Christian Zionism, I mean, it's better not to try to give a scientific or academic definition because most people, as you said, who we might characterize as Christian Zionists don't even recognize it. They think that, to them, this is the only way of being a Christian- to them to be a Christian is to support Israel. They read the Bible, they read about Israel, God's people, and they assume that we should support Israel today. So simply speaking, it's the belief that the Bible commands us to support Israel, the modern State of Israel. And in the minds of most people, they don't differentiate between the secular State of Israel and, of today, and the Israel of the Bible.
They, you know, many Christians, I always say, have this romantic view of the land, as if it's like the biblical land, the ancient, you know, you think as if nothing happened between biblical times and today, and that the Israel of today is the exact people and extension of the Israelites in the Bible. And then when you have preachers who feed this with statements like, “If you bless Israel, God will bless you. And if you stand against Israel, God will curse you,” which is a very common belief among many Christians, or statement that the modern State of Israel is the fulfillment of prophecy.
And again, these statements go unchallenged in churches and they are the default positions of many Christians who don't even question these beliefs. And so at the end, Christian Zionism becomes more than just believing this about Israel because it's supporting Israel politically and financially because you feel God will bless you when you do it and that this is the right thing to do. And one way to rationalize all of this is to connect it to a global battle between good and evil, with the forces of good being the Judeo-Christian tradition, which is honestly a code for cultural superiority, especially when opposed to Islam, the Arabs. And that's how many Christians view the axis of evil today.
To me, this is a very unhealthy way of thinking. To me, this is a very un-Christian way of thinking where, you know, Jesus commanded us to love all people equally and to love even our enemies and to seek to always build bridges. This polarization is so unhelpful. And in many ways, so dehumanizing towards Palestinians. We’re always just the wrong, on the wrong side. We’re always to be blamed. We are the ones who started all of this, and so on. And so if you analyze carefully the whole issue of Christian Zionism, it's more than just “the Bible tells us to support Israel,” but it's more that there are the bad guys that we should be careful of, and this is all a matter of good versus evil.
And that explains why many evangelicals are so passionately supporting Israel, giving billions of dollars over the last few years. I'm saying billions, not millions. And lobbying on behalf of Israel. And it's no surprise that when the previous American President, Trump, made the move of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he was clear that he made this, or he did this, for the evangelicals, to please them because they were such a political force in the United States during his administration.
Sy Hoekstra: Can you explain- I mean, you've already touched on this a little bit- but kind of why you reject the thinking that the modern State of Israel and the biblical Israel are the same and sort of what your approach is, your alternative approach, to thinking about human rights issues in Palestine from a biblical perspective?
Munther Isaac: There are different reasons why I cannot support Christian Zionism, not just as a Palestinian, but as a Bible-believing Christian. And before I try to explain this, I just want us to understand what we’re talking about. We ask Christians if those, at least, who believe in this, are advocating that we solve a very complicated conflict- which is translated into, today, an occupation and even an oppression of one people by another- we are advocating to solve this by going back to the Bible and trying to answer the question, to whom did God promise the land? And who are the ancestors of Abraham? And thinking that the right way of solving this is to determine who the right ancestors of Abraham are and they have a divine right to the land. And I’m thinking, honestly, is this the most creative we can be as Christians and as peacemakers?
And just try to get outside of this and look from the outside in. And to help you understand: imagine if a people from Mexico today show up in Texas and say, “Well, we have this, for example, tribal religion, and 4,000 years ago, we have a text, and our God promised us Texas. So you Texans get out. This is our land.” But this is precisely what people are asking Palestinians to accept- that the land belongs to the Jews because the Bible said 4,000 years ago that it belongs to Abraham and his offspring and the Jews are his offspring. And this is how we are to solve a political conflict today.
Put aside human rights. Put aside international law. Put aside historical facts that people have been living in this land for hundreds of years and thousands of years. Put aside, you know, so many other things about descendency and who came from who, and just accept this naive, sorry to say, assumption that the Jews of today are the direct descendants of Abraham, and because of that, this is their land. And again, I think, as a Christian who lives here, is this the best Christians can offer us to solve this conflict, honestly? And so, as I said, before I begin answering the question, I want us to understand what we're talking about.
And second, now let's talk about, you know, what Christian Zionism is saying, because one of the things I always tell Christian Zionists, “Let us assume that you’re right- that the Bible says this. That, you know, what you're saying the Bible says actually applies. And this is the, God promised this land as an eternal possession and Jews have a divine right to the land, and every Jew, wherever he's born, he has a divine right to come to this land and call it home. So what should I do as a Palestinian? That's my question. Should I, you know, leave? Should I accept to live as a second-class citizen in my homeland? What's your proposition? Because, you know, you are not talking about an empty land.” And you would notice, most people don't know what to say or simply to say, “Well, international law.” But that doesn't work, you know, because you're just giving a certain group of people a divine right to the land.
If Muslims, by the way, use the same language, we would not allow that. But now we're using the same language. And more importantly, we want to say, what about justice? Does it matter? What about human rights? Are you fine with Palestinians being expelled from their homes? I mean, when Israel was created, between 7-800,000 Palestinians became refugees. Now let that sink in. We're talking about 7-800,000 Palestinians became refugees. Is that fair?
And don't say, “Well, war, and this is the nature of war.” Because we, Christians, should be merciful and passionate and we should care. And second, these were not people who, you know, flee because of war. They were expelled from their homes. History says that. Is this fair? So we cannot, as Christians, simply read our Bibles, apply one verse to the modern State of Israel, and say they have the right without dealing with the consequences.
One of the questions we always say, “What is the gospel to Palestinians?” How do you then communicate to Palestinians that God so loved the world? Does that include us or, because we have the wrong postal address, that's our fault? And, you know, over the years I've spent much deal of time studying this question: does the Bible actually say that? And believe me, it's not that simple. And we've written a lot as Palestinian theologians and others, from the Bible, trying to answer this question. For example, one of the things that I always ask, “What about the New Testament's claims about the descendants of Abraham- that in Christ there are neither no Jew nor Greek, that actually Abraham has one offspring who is Christ, and that in Christ, we are heirs according to the promise? What about the many promises of an expansion of universal promises of the whole land and so on? Were the promises conditional or unconditional?” In other words, I'm not just speaking as a Palestinian here. I think many biblical scholars have easily shown that it's not that simple, you know.
And, as I said, we can delve so much deeper into these questions about the descendants of Abraham, who they are, what is the land that they inherit? Do we actually possess anything as humans, you know? In the Bible, God emphasized that, “The land is mine.” It does not become a possession. That's in Leviticus 25. You cannot sell it as if it's your property. The land in the Bible, and I'm talking only from the Hebrew scripture- I mean, I'm not even going to the New Testament- demands justice. If there is no justice in the land, you know, Deuteronomy 16:20 is one verse that comes to mind: “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” So in other words, without justice, no one can claim any right to any land. Leviticus says, if you do certain abominations, the land will vomit you out.
Because this is the way I write about it always- this is a land that demands holiness. This is a land that demands justice. This is a land that demands that you are faithful to the covenantal obligations, and on top of these covenantal obligations is to care for the poor, for the widow, for the orphan, for the oppressed. I mean, there are so many wonderful things in the Bible about the ethics of the land and then how we translate them, I think, as Christians, as the Kingdom ethics.
And one of the things I wish Christians, and especially evangelicals, invest in is rather than trying to predict the end times and looking at our land in the lens of prophecy, that they look at it through the lens of peacemaking, through the lens of Kingdom ethics, the Sermon on the Mountain. Imagine if we have invested in this rather than, I mean, I always say the book, the Left Behind series. I think- it sold more than 60 million copies or more- I think that's, I mean, I wish 60 million copies are sold from a book on peacemaking or on justice or on mission, but we're fast obsessed the evangelical community with prophecy.
And if this energy was invested in peacemaking, you know, I actually believe we could have made a difference. I actually believe the church, the global church, could have made a difference. And that's why we continue to lament here. If you talk to many Christian activists and theologians and leaders, we would say that the global church has been part of the problem rather than trying to be part of the solution.
Sy Hoekstra: If you could recommend to listeners a couple of Palestinian theologians, if they wanted to go deeper on this subject, who would you recommend?
Munther Isaac: Well, I would certainly recommend, my dear friend, Yohanna Katanacho. He’s from Jerusalem now, originally from Nazareth, and he's written so many good books. The Land of Christ is one that immediately comes to mind. Again, the name is Yohanna Katanacho.
I have, as I said, written several books on these topics. I would also recommend a very good book by my good friend, Salim Munayer, who, he has written with a messianic Jewish believer- her name is Lisa Loden, Through My Enemy’s Eyes. Who start to bring the two perspective in dialogue and propose a vision for peacemaking. And, of course, a very, you know, important voice, I would say, and challenging voice, to many Christians today that has, you know, made so many Christians rethink the whole way they read the Bible is Mitri Raheb, who has written several books. I am a Palestinian Christian is an old one, but it's still a good one. And more recently, Faith in the Face of Empire.
You're asking me to speak about my favorite topic, which is, you know, Christian theology in the Palestinian context. So I can give so many other suggestions. Maybe just one more or two more- Justice and Only Justice is a wonderful book by Naim Ateek. And probably one of the most influential books by Palestinian Christians is the story of Father Chacour, Blood Brothers. It's a must-read for most Christians,
Sy Hoekstra: I'm going to put, I have just decided I'm going to put links to all of those in the show notes for this episode. So listeners, if you want a convenient way to order those books, they will be in your podcast player.
Munther Isaac: Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate it.
Sy Hoekstra: No, no. It's, you just gave us like a whole syllabus, so we’ll pass it along.
Suzie Lahoud: Yeah, what a great opportunity to decolonize your library.
Sy Hoekstra: Right. Totally.
Jonathan Walton: Yes, I have so many thoughts, but mostly just deep, deep appreciation. As we, you know, pull back, you know, or I guess, go deeper, into like, how the present day connects with just so much theology and history that you were sharing, what I'm wondering is, how does that all connect to why you started Christ at the Checkpoint, and the conference, and what its goals are? Because I think there's just a lot of richness there that you've turned into something very practical and ongoing. And so could you unpack Christ at the Checkpoint, the conference, and what its goals are?
Munther Isaac: Yeah, sure. So, Christ at the Checkpoint, for those who don't know, is a conference and a movement, I would say, more than just a conference, that we do every two years. We as the Bethlehem Bible college. The Bethlehem Bible College is where I am now the academic dean, and I lead this conference.
This started, I mean, the first conference took place in 2010, but this started before. We, as a Bible College in Bethlehem, started by Palestinians, by the way, and led by Palestinians, but, Palestinians with, we had, the way we describe it, an evangelical DNA. We're an interdenominational Bible college, but we're not, you know, affiliated with one particular church or denomination. And over the years, because of this, we would attract many visitors from around the world, many evangelical visitors who are, you know, very warm, good intentions. They want to support us. They want to help us teach the Bible to our students, but at the same time, they want to educate us that this land belongs to Israel.
And oftentimes we engage in discussions about the Bible and that leads to discussions about the modern-day reality. And we've discovered that so many Christian leaders have strong opinions about this land, but very, very limited knowledge about the reality on the ground. And they have not just, not even, you know, been to the Palestinian side and tried to see things the way we see them and live in our shoes. But also, they have never thought or pondered the concept of a different way of reading scripture. And so this led, over the years, to many, first private conversations, then discussions, then the Bible College developed the idea of hosting church groups and seminary students to lectures. And ultimately, we decided to hold the conference.
I remember very well, I thought, “Let's have a conference on the theology of the land.” And the idea came from Alex Awad, who's a Baptist pastor. And that's another name you want to search for. He has a book called, Palestinian Memories. So, one more book to add to the library: Alex Awad’s book. And I remember Reverend Alex said, “Let's have a discussion about the theology of the land. Let's invite our evangelical friends, and discuss the Bible, but not discuss it in a vacuum. Discuss it in light of the context.” And hence the idea “Christ at the Checkpoint.” We wanted to ask, what would Christ say or do if he is to stand in front of a checkpoint today? What would he say to the Palestinians crossing the checkpoint or to the Israeli soldier stopping him at the checkpoint?
So the idea was, let's study the Bible at the checkpoint. And more importantly, let's invite all groups to this. So we invited Christian Zionists. We didn't just talk among ourselves. We wanted to have a conversation and say, “Listen, your theology is having an actual impact on our lives. So try to understand the reality.” And as I said, what about the way Jesus reads these promises? What about justice? What about is, you know… So we wanted also to challenge the theology of Christian Zionism.
The conference grew and we've had one every two years, with the exception of last year, obviously, because of COVID-19. And at some conferences we've had, I would say, between 5-600 participants. So it became a major international conference that I think made many Christians, and especially evangelicals, you know, begin to question their beliefs and listen more seriously to Palestinian Christians. But also made so many others, and maybe more evangelical Christians, honestly, more hostile and attacking us in writing and in lobbying and encouraging people not to come to Bethlehem or not to visit the Bible College and certainly not to attend Bethlehem Bible College.
You would be shocked by the amount of attacks we've received from Christians and the sense of hostility in these attacks calling us all sorts of things. From all of this, you know, came my idea of, you know, in my book, The Other Side of the Wall, in that people try to encourage, you know, discourage people from crossing the wall to engaging with those on the other side. And by the other side, I don't just mean physically, but I mean, in that we, as Palestinians, have always been marginalized, whether in theology books, in the way pilgrimage is done, in the way, you know, we think of people as, as classes. And, you know, it's as if we write on one side of the wall, “terrorists,” “replacement theologians,” “anti-Semites,” theological, you know, “socialists,” we've been called, political or theological terrorism, and so many things we've been called so that people don't talk to us.
But despite that, we continue to have these conversations. We continue to challenge beliefs that discriminate against people. We continue to challenge beliefs that really give the impression that people are classes. Or that God cares about certain people more than others because of their nationality or ethnicity. And we're grateful for the many leaders, and especially younger leaders, who join us in these conferences who are beginning to understand our perspective and promote it in, especially in the sense that, as I said, and I will continue to repeat: our message is not destroy Israel or it's not against the Jews. Our messages is simply against the modern Zionist movement in its exclusive, and even, let's call it racist, policies against non-Jews. And our end goal is to live side by side with Israelis. But we believe that the occupation is the problem. And we believe that certain laws in the State of Israel are racist and are creating a reality of discrimination. They are to be challenged. And I think it's because of that, that many people are drawn to our message because it's not simply a message of victimization, but a message of hope about a reality in which we share the land.
Jonathan Walton: If you were to describe any changes or an arc or more opposition, less opposition, more comradery, what, are there any patterns that have emerged in the last decade that you've been engaged with the conference and speakers from around the world?
Munther Isaac: We certainly sense some change among many Christian leaders, evangelical leaders, more so among the younger generation, among seminary students and many pastors. I wouldn't claim that we changed all evangelicals. We are a small college in Bethlehem who are blessed to have this opportunity to engage with hundreds of evangelical leaders and students every two years. And I think that I believe in, in how Jesus put it in that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. And sometimes we say that we should be encouraged by small changes here and there, but I think it's more than we should be encouraged. It's that this is how things happen. You know, like a small mustard seed that grows and that multiplies gradually. So my hope is that we are creating a movement.
And we've always knew that it's not going to be easy. We've always knew that it takes time. Actually, we've lost supporters as a Bible college. We've lost so much financial support from previous partners who all of a sudden think we are political and we shouldn't say these things. Of course, they can be political, but we cannot. And I think, and here is the irony to me, is that the biggest change, the way at least I see it, happened among us as Palestinians because we realized that we are more than capable of challenging the global church with a grassroot theology.
You know, I used to think of Palestinian theology as this, you know, small contextual attempts to read the Bible, but more so I'm beginning to think, “No, we, you know, every theology is dealing, trying to understand its context. Every theology is as legitimate.” And I think we felt a sense of empowerment as a Palestinian church, again, despite our small numbers, despite our very, very limited resources.
But I feel that we are beginning to embrace our calling. And we are beginning to embrace that, the idea that we have a message and that message is not only to our people. And believe me, we are doing the best we can with what we have and with God's grace and spirit to be a good witnesses to the gospel in our land.
But we also feel we have a message to the world. And to the global church. And we have accepted, if I may say it, this calling to try to help and challenge perspectives around the world. There are so many things that we are now challenging. It's not simply about Palestine and Israel to me. It's about our compassion to justice as Christians. It’s the fact that so many Christians have become apathetic, if I may use this word. We don't care about the suffering.
And my situation in Palestine opened my eyes to this reality. You know, I live in Bethlehem and we watch the many numbers of pilgrims who visit the Nativity Church where Jesus was born on a daily basis. Thousands. And, of course, if it wasn't for the Church of the Nativity, most of these pilgrims wouldn't even think of coming to a Palestinian town or city. But to visit the Nativity Church you have to cross the checkpoint, drive by the ugly separation wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem and takes most of the agricultural land in Bethlehem, confiscates it. And you drive by a refugee camp.
And I've always wondered, do these pilgrims who come and visit us, do they care about what's happening? And it's just a reminder that we, Christians, can be sometimes too religious, but not care and not have concern for the oppressed and for justice. And, as I said, you know, Jesus said blessed are the merciful, but we just want to do a religious duty.
And my point is that we feel today that we have a message to the world that we should be concerned. We should lament. I write a lot about lamenting and a church that has lost the capacity or the, God's gift to us of lamentation. And I say gift because it's a gift that moves us to action and to do our best to change things and so far.
So yes, on the one hand we manage to challenge perspectives and to bring the Palestinian voice to many new circles. And also, I feel we have been empowered by the Spirit to challenge the church and to feel that we have a message to give.
Jonathan Walton: Thank you. Thank you for expounding on that. I really appreciate it.
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah.
Suzie Lahoud: And I know I can certainly share firsthand experiences from friends that I've spoken to who attended the Christ at the Checkpoint conference and found it to be deeply, deeply transformative. So again, thank you for the important work that you're doing and for the, on top of everything else that you have to experience and go through, that you're making this additional sacrifice to be faithful to that calling. Yeah. Thank you.
And one thing I wanted to touch on that you sort of hit on briefly that I think is so important is, as we seek to grapple with this as Christians, having a sense of history and that many of these ideas are so recent. You mentioned the theology of the rapture and that's a fairly new theology, even though it's very much in vogue right now in American white evangelicalism.
And I remember, to Sy’s point about how Christian Zionism has become, unfortunately, just sort of the air that we breathe in a lot of white evangelical churches in the United States, that the first time that my eyes were sort of opened to the fact that I had been brought up in that atmosphere was in a course that I took in college taught by a phenomenal Jewish anthropologist who opened my eyes to the other side of the story that I had completely missed. And so again, I just encourage our listeners to dig into these rich resources that Pastor Munther has shared; to dig into the history; to dig into the theology; to ask good, hard questions.
And one final question that we want to ask you, Pastor Munther- and this is a challenging one for a lot of folks, but I think that's why it's important to address it directly- is, again, looking at recent history over the past decade or so, we've seen this rise of far-right nationalism in Europe and in the United States. And that has corresponded to a rise in horrific forms of racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia and also, anti-Semitism.
And so, historically it's been the case, and remains today, that a lot of people who would otherwise sympathize with the plight of the Palestinian people are nervous or afraid to criticize the State of Israel for fear of falling into anti-Semitism, or even just being labeled as anti-Semitic. So could you, could you respond to that fear? Because I feel like this is something you try to address through your work.
Munther Isaac: Yes. I think this is a very important question and issue. And let me just begin by saying, it's actually good to have this fear or sentiment and, because it's a legitimate concern. Anti-Semitism is real. And I think you are right when you say that it's on the rise.
This compels us as Christians to- who want to be faithful to Jesus, his commandments to love our neighbors as ourselves, and not to fall into the sin of racism- this compels us to always examine not just our language, but our motivations. With that said, I think it's also important that we differentiate between criticism of Israel, legitimate criticism of Israel, and anti-Semitism. Not only does, Israel is not a representation of all Jews, but we’re here talking about a secular state that wants to abide within the international law. And if they don't, then we have every right to call them out. And we have every right to even resist their policy if they are not legal.
And I think there is a big difference between, you know, criticizing Israel and anti-Zionism. Even, you know, opposing Zionism to me is not anti-Semitism because Zionism not only does not represent all Jews, but Zionism is a political movement. And we should be clear, we should be clear about that.
My biggest concern today is that many people use anti-Semitism to silence any criticism or anybody who's sympathetic with the Palestinians. And we should not allow that. And actually, there are today many Jewish voices that are speaking out against this notion that anti-Zionism or criticizing Israel is anti-Semitism, and saying that this actually undermines the horrors of anti-Semitism. More recently, the Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism, just a few months ago, actually emphasizes that not only criticism against Israel, but even nonviolent resistance and boycotting goods and calling for sanctions on Israel, even though the authors of this declaration might not agree with this, but to them, that's not anti-Semitism. And I think it's important, and brave, for these many, many Jewish leaders and organizations to say this, to say this openly.
And I mean, this topic, I want to add at least two or three things. First, you know, as I said earlier in the podcast, some of the strongest voices supporting Palestinian rights today are actually Jewish voices. And my second point on this question on anti-Semitism, my other point, is that, have people actually analyzed and studied carefully what Christian Zionists are saying about Jews? Because many, many expression of Christian Zionism is actually, can be described as anti-Semitic. You know, among the many, you know, some of the prominent Christian Zionist leaders or theologians or books, to them, the end times scenario is that two-thirds of the Jews will be massacred. And then the other third will convert to Christianity. And I think, how is that a Jewish-friendly theology?
You know, can you imagine if I, as a Palestinian pastor, stand in a conference and say, “I predict that one day two-thirds of the Jews will be massacred, and the other third will convert to Christianity.” I will be crucified and labeled anti-Semitic for saying such a thing. But this is the exact thing that many Christian Zionists are saying today. And I can't help but think, how's this, you know, how are these friends to Israel or to Jews? And certainly to many Christians, Jews are merely an object in their eschatology or end time theology.
Again, this is not helpful. To me, the right way, the Christian way to deal with all people groups is love your neighbor as yourself. And I think if we fail to see this as Christians and apply it, and just relate to our Jewish neighbors in how we perceive their future is in our eschatology, I think we're committing, to be honest, I think we’re committing a sin towards these, to our Jewish neighbors. You know, with, as you said, with the rise of anti-Semitism, many Christians are speaking out and I just want to show and give two examples of why I don't think, why I think that there still is a problem within many evangelical voices, even those who want to support Jews, but yet, in my opinion, have a misguided approach.
In my book, I deal with two examples in the wake of an attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh that happened a few years ago. And 11 Jews were killed, murdered while praying in a synagogue. There was two articles that caught my attention. The titles of these two articles were almost identical. One said, “If you hate Jews, you hate Jesus,” with the rationale that Jesus was Jewish. He was risen from the dead and ascended as a Jew. And so, if you hate Jews today, you hate one of the Jews, who's Jesus. The other article was, “If you love Jesus, you would love Jews because, based on Romans 11, all Israel shall be saved. This means that at one day, Jews will come to Jesus because he loves them. So if you love Jesus, you should love all Jews.” And I support the conclusions, but I don't like how we got there.
And this explains how many evangelicals view the Jewish people. With the first article- “If you hate Jews, you hate Jesus”- I say, what if, for the sake of argument and for the sake of argument only, Jesus was not Jewish? Would it then be okay for us to hate the Jewish people? You see the, why do we have to use this logic that, because Jesus was Jewish, we have to love the Jewish people? And the second article, you know, what if Romans 11 actually does not predict that Jews will come to faith in Christ? What if actually, you know, this is a wrong interpretation and we discover that we were wrong and that no, Jews will not come to faith in Christ. Then we don't have to love them? Is that the logic? And the idea that if you love Jesus, you love Jews as well- shouldn't that apply to all people? If you love Jesus, you love Hindus and Muslims and native people and all people groups, right? Or if you hate all people groups, any people group, you hate Jesus as well.
And I hope, I hope you get my idea here is that in many circles who seem, or give the impression that they are promoting a theology that is favorable to the Jews, I fear we're actually still looking at Jews as this special category and we have to justify why we have to support them or love them.
And just maybe one final comment on this question. I know I give too many points on this, but I think it's important. To me, supporting Palestinians and supporting Palestinians get their right and live in peace, side-by-side by the Israelis, is actually in the best interest of Israelis as well. And so we don't, as I said, we don't want people to support Palestinians and, you know, stand against Israel and call for the destruction of Israel. And I hope people, as I said, see it, that it is for the best interest of all people of this land, that there is peace in this land. South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, won a Nobel prize for his fight against apartheid, you know, says that the sustainability of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people has always been dependent on its ability to deliver justice to the Palestinians. And I think this is so important to grasp with. The idea that it is for the best interest of everyone that there is justice and equality in this land. And it's certainly not anti-Semitic to support Palestinian rights and Palestinian freedom.
Jonathan Walton: I'm wondering, so, Reverend Munther, you asked people to pray for Jerusalem. And I'm wondering if, Suzie, you could pray for Jerusalem to kinda close, like, one way of closing us. And then, Munther, you also talked about, just the church in America. And I'm wondering if you could also pray for us, because I do think there are, the seas are shifting and I think it's only the Spirit of God that will allow the seas to continue to shift. My prayer is that we would be able to stay in it and engage for a long time. And I'd like to ask for your intercession in that.
Munther Isaac: Sure.
Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. Let's, let's do it. Go for it, Suzie.
Suzie Lahoud: Okay. Let's pray.
Jonathan Walton: Of course, I want you to do it in Arabic FYI, but go ahead.
Suzie Lahoud: [laughs] Pastor Munther, you'll have to forgive my Arabic. But yeah, let's pray together.
[Prays in Arabic. Translation: Our Father, we thank you for this opportunity to speak with Pastor Munther. We thank you for his wisdom, for his ministry, and we want to pray a special blessing over his life and over the Palestine people. We thank you because you are close to every broken heart and every oppressed people. And we beseech you, grant peace, and justice, and healing in Palestine and Israel. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.]
Munther Isaac: Ameen.
And Lord, I pray that you raise voices and prophets among Christians here and everywhere, and especially in the United States, who are compassionate for justice, who are merciful and thirsty for righteousness and truth and justice, and who takes seriously your commandment to be peacemakers. For this is how we are called your children, your daughters and sons.
And I pray that the church realizes its potential to make change and impact lives through the work of the Kingdom, through mission, and through investing in peace and in a vision of a shared land where all of God's people live in dignity and peace and harmony.
May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And in your name, we pray. Amen.
Sy Hoekstra: Amen.
Suzie Lahoud: Ameen.
Jonathan Walton: Amen.
Sy Hoekstra: Thank you so much, Pastor Munther, for being with us today. We really appreciate it.
Munther Isaac: Thank you.
[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in briefly, then fades out.]
Jonathan Walton: Thank you so much for listening to this podcast today. Check out the links to all the resources in our show notes from Palestinian theologians mentioned in the episode, subscribe to our blog at KTFPress.com, and follow us on social media to keep up with everything that's happening @KTFPress.
And, as Sy mentioned at the top of the show, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions, written or recorded as a voice memo. We'd love to hear from you.
Our theme song is by Jon Guerra. It's called “Citizens.” And our amazing podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam.
Thank you so much again, and we will see you next week!
[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades back in. Lyrics: “Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” Song fades out.]