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May 30, 2004

Dear Friends,

We are in the final leg of our journey across the U.S., speaking about Christians in Palestine, and sharing our film Salt of the Earth.   We hope that those of you living in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts will be able to come to our June events, and those of you in the Chicago area might be able to attend the Chicago Palestine Film Festival, which will show six of the nine chapters of Salt of the Earth on June 20 and 27.  Details for our upcoming programs, film clips, links, and a host of resources of how to get involved are available on our renovated website.  If you haven’t visited in a while, we encourage you to check it out.

The past five months of our coast-to-coast tour have been challenging and fulfilling. We have especially enjoyed traveling with Zababdeh’s clergy. Fr. Firas (Melkite), Fr. Toma (Orthodox), and Fr. Aktham (Roman Catholic), have all been able to accompany us on parts of our journey, and we look forward to the Episcopal priest Fr. Fadi joining us in June.  We were pleased not only because we miss our friends in Zababdeh, but also because it gave so many folks here the opportunity to get to know these Palestinian Christian leaders. And it gave us the opportunity to return a bit of the hospitality we received in Palestine; between programs, we managed to give them a bit of American-style fun, ranging from putt-putt to roller coasters, from feeding baby alligators to visiting the Lincoln Memorial.

Not everything here has been so innocent or fun, however. While our talks are often met with enthusiasm and interest, we also encounter hopelessness and helpless frustration with the cycle of violence, with the atrocities on our TV screens.  At times we’ve been met with an almost visceral anger, accused of being hateful and bigoted. And other times we have received comments like these:

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“Well, you know, the real problem over there is that Jews are greedy. That’s why they’ve had problems throughout history.”
“We don’t hear the true story of the Middle East here because Jews control the media and the money – just like it was in Germany.”

It is a chilling experience to hear these assertions here in U.S., where we prefer to pretend that such hateful and ignorant prejudice are no longer accepted in the mainstream.  These who have felt free to share their anti-Jewish sentiments with us have assumed that we must agree. Presumably, the thinking goes, anyone who cares about Palestinians must hate Jews.  This anti-Semitism is one manifestation of a binary thinking, a “friend or foe – with us or against us” mentality infecting a large part of our nation.  Commonly, it can be heard driving much of the political discourse on our airwaves; in its extreme, it can lead to dehumanizing atrocities, as those our military committed at Abu Ghraib.

Scripture points squarely away from such logic.  We are all created in the image of God, but we’re also all children of Adam and Eve.  Each and every human being, regardless of confession, race, nationality, or even political party, is capable of both sin and grace.  We are a full-spectrum creation, and God has given us the ability to see all its wonder and horror in all its color and nuance.  We have the ability and the responsibility to observe and struggle with the complexities and subtleties of our world, of our neighbors, of our enemies, and of our own hearts.  It is not only unethical, but fundamentally unfaithful for believers to dismiss Jews as greedy, Muslims as blood-thirsty; Israelis as wicked, Palestinians as terrorists, Americans as callous. But the reverse is true as well, and the faithful should never assert that “we” (whoever we are) are above reproach while “they” are beyond care.  Rather than choosing to be pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, faithful people should be discerning how to be pro-gospel and therefore pro-justice, pro-mercy, pro-grace, and pro-peace, standing alongside the many brave Palestinians and Israelis, Jews, Muslims, and Christians, who daily and doggedly strive together for a shared future.

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“We have to support Israel because scripture says so. If the entirety of the Holy Land isn’t in Jewish hands, how can Jesus come back?”
“I’ve seen the suffering of Palestinians, but that’s God’s will for fulfillment of prophesy – war was foretold in the end days, so if we fight it, we will be fighting God Himself.”

At the heart of such understanding is the school of theology known as dispensationalism.  Simply put, dispensationalism assumes that salvation history is laid out in different eras, during each of which God places different demands on faithful people. It is commonly held by many dispensationalists that we have emerged from the era of the Church, when the demands on the faithful were to be disciples of Christ and his Body on earth, and are headed into the era of the tribulation, when the demand is to ensure the fulfillment of prophesy for the end times. The timing of the Rapture (an imaginative interpretation of I Corinthians 15:52 whereby all the faithful will be whisked up to heaven leaving the rest of the world to suffer —basis for the popular Left Behind film and book series) and other particulars vary, but a constant is the focus on fulfillment of prophesy played out as unconditional allegiance to the modern state of Israel.  Dubbed Christian Zionism, this theology contradicts many of the foundations of the Christian faith.  First, unconditional allegiance to anything other than God is idolatry. Second, central to Christianity is the understanding that God is constant, unchanging, and faithful.  Dispensationalism threatens to make God fickle.  Even more offensive is the notion that we can speed up or hinder God’s actions, making the Creation more powerful than the Creator, reducing God to our puppet or wind-up-toy. The notion that we can know exactly how and when God’s prophesy will be fulfilled is the ultimate in arrogance and pride. We dare not presume to know, much less predict, the mind of God; this was the first sin in Eden; it was the folly of the Tower of Babel; it was Peter drawing his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane.  If fulfillment of prophesy in Scripture has shown us anything, it shows us that divine prophesy is fulfilled, but in ways we don’t expect and can hardly imagine. Christ was not the political ruler that even his disciples expected, the Messiah come to oust the Roman occupiers and reestablishing the Davidic throne.  Rather, Scripture was fulfilled with a Prince of Peace whose crown was of thorns and whose throne was a cross.  What makes us so sure we can or should know the designs of God’s plan for the end of days?

In its treatment of Jews and Arabs, Christian Zionism is guilty of a more inclusive anti-Semitism than the hateful prejudice mentioned earlier. Its certitude of future events looks toward final battles rather than peaceful coexistence; Pat Robertson has gone so far as to declare weather patterns as evidence of God’s displeasure with any peace negotiations in the Middle East. Christian Zionists not only ignore the distress of their fellow believers in Israel and Palestine, but treat Muslims and Jews there as pawns in holy war-games, whose victory is a salvation from which they are excluded.

On this holy day of Pentecost, it is our ardent prayer that the American Church be gifted with open ears to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit rather than the voice of man.  May the Church arise from arrogance and complacency to shape disciples of Christ, humble servants of our Lord who loves all of Creation and called it good, who called us to be peacemakers and to serve as instruments of justice and mercy and peace throughout the world, for all those created in the image of God.  As we hear the many languages of the Church throughout the world, including Palestine and Israel and Iraq and the United States, may we all leave behind our nationalistic idolatries and return to our one allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Thus united, and serving Christ, may we hear his voice anew, calling us to love our enemies.  Let us not make Peter’s mistake in the Garden; let us put our swords away and follow the Prince of Peace.

Grace and Peace,
Marthame and Elizabeth

PS  We expect that the full video series of Salt of the Earth will be completed in the Fall.  We will send another email when it is ready for distribution.  Please make sure we have your up-to-date email address.