December’s “Impact: Holy Land” conference in Philadelphia had variety. The roster of speakers included Palestinians sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and Messianic Jews sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. In addition, there were impassioned speakers from places like Rochester, N.Y., on home leave from Christian Peacemaker Teams or other faith-based groups that support grassroots resistance to Israel.
The online brochure, which claimed to have “sought Jesus followers from across a wide geographical and theological spectrum,” urged us to “be kind” because “we may hear difficult things this weekend.” But a stroll among the book tables during registration revealed who was in for an earful of “difficult things,” and it was not the Palestinian sympathizers. There were advertisements for tours by “Palestinian Summer Encounters”; books with titles like Letters from Apartheid Street: A Christian Peacemaker in Occupied Palestine; Washington lobbyists for anti-Israeli legislation; and just for the tykes, The Boy and the Wall, about a child living in a refugee camp.
That is to say, the unconscionable oppressiveness of Israel was the starting point of the “conversation,” not a proposition for debate. All that remained to “conversate” about was the means to peace in the Holy Land, through fostering one-on-one friendships between Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans—and notably through dismantling checkpoints; boycotting, divesting, and sanctioning Israeli companies; tearing down the West Bank wall; and returning occupied lands.
The problem for me through three days of Gaza kumbaya was that age-old bugbear of proper evidence-weighing: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17). I do poorly in arriving at truth where there is no one on hand to point out factual or theological error in a presentation, or to offer a different scenario.
No thanks to the 20 speakers at “Impact,” I happened to know that “Palestinian” is not an ethnicity at all but a cobbled invention describing inhabitants of Jordanian, Druze, Syrian, Lebanese, Persian, Jewish, Armenian, and other extractions. Nor was there an attempt to reckon with the reality that tiny Israel (1/19th the size of California) is surrounded on all sides by enemies like Hamas who have vowed her annihilation.
Nor did I hear a peep, in the three days of paean to “friendship,” “brotherhood,” and “solidarity,” about the lack of those qualities displayed by the Arab world during the 1948 war: 539,000 fellow Arabs evacuated Israel at the urging of Arab nations so as to get out of their way while they annihilated the Jews, with the promise of being able to return. The annihilation never happened. To add insult to injury, the Arab nations to which these displaced Palestinians fled refused to receive them.
I was uncomfortable at the incantatory use of words like peace invoked as the supreme good, and words like warfare presumed to be wrong under all circumstances. I see nowhere in Scripture the view that peace (defined as the stripping of all military national defenses) is to be praised. War is a great evil, but it is not the greatest. The highest good is the kingdom of God, and there is plenty in the Old and New Testaments about waging warfare for it, both militarily and spiritually.
What also made me nervous was how Jesus tends to get lost in social justice causes. I am not saying He was lost at “Impact” (self-conscious care was taken to enlist His name now and then in connection with peace-promoting campaigns), but the temptation is always the bear at the edge of the woods. There are people who get so interested in moral social causes that they come to care little for God.
Crafty Screwtape knew this and trained his junior tempters in it: “Quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘Cause,’ in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce. … Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours—and the more ‘religious’ (on those terms), the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here” (The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis).
One returns from the “Impact” conference needing to break free of pretty philosophical cages.