The largely uncritical support of a large percentage of white evangelicals of U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s policies toward Israel is deeply distressing. These evangelicals have affirmed the Trump administration’s move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the identification of the city of Jerusalem as the “undivided capital” of the Jewish people, the annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria, the cutting off of hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. government funds meant for the United Nations Relief and
Works Agency (UNRWA) and Palestinian humanitarian assistance, and the recent “Peace to Prosperity” plan that was announced in January. Each of these policies further perpetuates the elevation of the aspirations of one people over another. It is possible to laud and esteem Jewish human rights and self-determination and to also uphold the same rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians living in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Even the American and global Jewish communities have divergent views about the efficacy of certain U.S. policy positions vis-à-vis Israel. Numerous Jewish groups have strongly opposed Trump’s policies toward Israel, including J Street, Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), If Not Now and Americans for Peace Now. Why is the same diversity of thought and perspective not upheld within most evangelical circles in the United States?
It is important to understand the core tenets of evangelicalism before seeking to understand how evangelical theological traditions are being abused in the support of Trump’s policies toward the Middle East. Evangelical Christians believe in a theology of Good News. Centered in the person of Jesus Christ, evangelicals believe God desires to bless and respond to the needs of His creation (Matthew 6:25-34). Evangelicals uphold the teachings of Scripture, both the New Testament and the Old Testament (also known as the Hebrew Scriptures) (2 Timothy 3:16-17). We seek to live a life that is “born again” in acknowledging the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives as we seek to be transformed more into the image and likeness of Christ (John 3:3-8). Conservative Christians of the evangelical tradition believe humankind has sinned and “fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and thus the need for faith in Christ’s death on the cross (John 3:16). And finally, evangelicals believe in the “mission” of sharing Good News in the world (Acts 1:8) by responding to the needs of the poor (Proverbs 19:17) and loving one’s neighbor (and enemy) (Matthew 5:43).
A Minority of Evangelicals Continues to Believe in Holistic Perspectives of Peace and Justice
I am an evangelical pastor ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). I believe in the theological presuppositions above. However, I am a minority when it comes to white evangelical perspectives on Trump’s policies toward the Middle East. Nonetheless, there are many white and evangelicals of color who believe that any pursuit of peace must acknowledge anti-Semitism and Jewish perspectives and aspirations while also addressing Palestinian needs and autonomy. For example, former President Jimmy Carter made history in 2006 when he published his telling book Peace, Not Apartheid and claimed that the continual building of settlements and Israeli control of Palestinian territory was detrimental to peace. Several evangelicals wrote about their opinions regarding the history, geopolitics and theological viewpoints in a book I edited called A Land Full of God: Christian Perspectives toward the Holy Land. Pastors, historians and Christian leaders like Andrea Smith, Bob Roberts, Carolyn Custis James, Dale Hanson Bourke, Jim Wallis, Joel Hunter, Rich Nathan, Shane Claiborne, David Anderson and Tony Campolo write about perspectives that challenge the evangelical status quo in their experiences, relationships and perspectives toward Israelis and Palestinians. While these leaders are often the exception, they represent a strong and often overlooked minority of evangelicals who maintain more holistic perspectives about peace and justice between Jews, Muslims, and Christians and Israelis and Palestinians.
Despite these alternative voices, the strong support of predominantly white evangelicals for the Trump administration’s policies toward Israel remains problematic. One might ask in light of the above religious beliefs how so many white evangelicals could support the actions of a president whose policies vis-à-vis Israel are not only detrimental to the Palestinian people but ultimately to the majority of Jewish citizens of Israel as well? A just consideration of the proposed Trump plan must also take into consideration the roughly 20% of Palestinian citizens of Israel and how according to the “Peace to Prosperity” plan they might be under threat of disenfranchisement. Any effective plan for peace must be one that acknowledges and protects the human rights and rights of self-determination for all people, including both Jews and Palestinians in Israel and the OPT.
One of the primary theological problems with evangelical support of the “Peace to Prosperity” plan is the false equivocation of Jewish people of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures and the modern nation-state of Israel that was established in 1948. The book of Genesis tells how Jacob, the son of Isaac, wrestled with God and was renamed “Israel” because he struggled with God and humans and overcame (32:28). Later, Israel came to be the name used to identify geographic political territories under Kings Saul (1 Samuel 13:1), David (1 Samuel 16:1), and Solomon (1 Kings 1:30) or the northern Kingdom of Israel under Jeroboam I (I Kings 15:9) and other kings. The political establishment of the nation-state of Israel in 1948 maintains a very different history than the “Israel” identified in the Scriptures. One must truly question whether the promises of God to the Israelites of the Old Testament should be applied to the modern geopolitical nation-state of Israel today.
Mainline Protestant Christians Were the First Supporters of the State of Israel
When looking at the history of U.S. Christian support for Israel, it is important to acknowledge that it was not conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists who lauded the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948; rather, it was the support of a group of predominantly Mainline Protestant Christians who were the loudest voices in behalf of the founding of the state. The American Christian Palestine Committee (ACPC) was led by influential Christians who were progressive theologically but believed the Jewish people should be restored to their historical homeland. Christian Zionists’ aspirations were further fueled when revelations of the Jewish Holocaust (Shoah) came to light and millions of Jewish survivors became refugees in need of a safe and secure place to live. Christian anti-Semitism was also prevalent in the U.S. in the early 20th century and was one of the factors that led to the abhorrently small number of Jewish refugees allowed into the country during WWII and after the defeat of the Nazi regime.
After the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, many American Mainline Protestants turned their attention to the resulting Palestinian refugee crisis when three-quarters of a million Arab refugees who were displaced. This marked the beginning of the shift for increased progressive Christian support toward the Arab community. The 1967 war was also a significant turning point for many American Christians because restorationists and Christian Zionists viewed Israeli’s territorial triumph over the Sinai Peninsula, East Jerusalem and the West Bank and the Golan Heights as evidence of prophetic fulfillment and a sign that the second coming of Christ was imminent. Conservative Christian and evangelical support of the state of Israel increased significantly during this time. This eschatological fervor of evangelicals became further perpetuated by authors like Hal Lindsey, whose book This Late Great Planet Earth explained the signs of the times in prophetic language foretelling of the End Times. Thus, the mid-20th century marked a significant turning point toward the ongoing allegiance of American Christian Zionists to the state of Israel.
Troubling Unilateral Evangelical Support in the 21st Century
Christian Zionists in the 21st century, many of whom are evangelicals, believe the scriptural teachings vis-à-vis Israel must be translated into unilateral support of the modern state of Israel today. Consider the mantra of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem: “Support Israel: Stand with the Jewish People.” In other words, for these Christian Zionists, support of the Jewish people and support of the political actions of the state of Israel are one and the same. The ICEJ website states: “For over 30 years the ICEJ has stood by Israel, showing our support in a variety of ways, both in the land and around the world. We administer several aid projects, engage in advocacy for Israel, and assist in Aliyah to the Jewish homeland.”1 This belief system of unilateral support of any geopolitical entity, and the enmeshment of religious convictions and such ardent political expressions, is deeply troubling.
Christians, and all people, should stand with the Jewish people. Thousands of years of anti-Semitism and the growing threat of increased incidents of hatred toward Jews today represent some of the greatest perils to the common good of all humanity. Christians must do all we can to acknowledge the horrific anti-Semitism of our past and to root out anti-Semitism when we encounter it today. We must also distinguish between anti-Semitism and the legitimate criticism of Israeli policies. ICEJ’s position equating support of the state of Israel with support for the Jewish people ignores the vast diversity and perspectives from within the Jewish community, which is anything but monolithic.
Peace Cannot Be Achieved with Only One Side in the Room
One of the most problematic aspects of the Trump administration’s plan is the elevation of the needs and aspirations of one people over another. The very snapshot of the people in the room and those making the January announcement, which did not include one representative of the Palestinian people, is just a glimpse of how significantly the Palestinian government and civil society were left out of the peace process. When Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas sought support from the UN Security Council in deeming the Trump plan illegal according to international law, the Trump administration “thwarted” the UN resolution and threatened to cut further economic support as a means of applying “diplomatic pressure.”2 How can peace be achieved between
two peoples when one of them is not even in the room?
During the presentation of the proposed Trump plan at the White House, Judeo and Christian religious and spiritual imagery were used frequently to justify political aims and the plan’s agenda. During the January 28, 2020 announcement by President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the use of religious symbolism in the presentation of the plan was rampant. Referring to the modern geopolitical state of Israel as “a light unto the world” and glorifying “places inscribed in the pages of the Bible,” without seriously addressing the injustices suffered by those who have lived under decades of occupation, flies in the face of the teachings of Jesus. The Trump administration’s appropriation of religious ideals diminishes the true spiritual significance of the land we call the Holy Land and is a betrayal of the Christian faith.3
An additional problematic policy of the Trump administration has been to largely eradicate the use of the word “occupation” from U.S. government documents and its human rights report. The title of the 2018 human rights report referred to “Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza”4 whereas previous reports including 2016 identified the report as “Israel and the Occupied Territories.”5 The occupation of the Palestinian people and the continual building of settlements are illegal by international law. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” The Fourth Geneva Convention also prohibits the “individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory.” The Trump plan’s lack of acknowledgment of the occupation and the problematic nature of continued Israeli settlement presence and expansion in East Jerusalem and the West Bank stands in violation of international law.
Another effect of the proposed Trump plan would be the further entrenchment of the Israeli security establishment, which would ensure that generations of Israeli young men and women would continue to serve in a military tasked with continual control over the Palestinian people. How is this in the best interest of Israelis, let alone Palestinians? The inevitable result of the implementation of this plan would be more human rights abuses, trauma and violence.
Finally, the Trump plan completely lacks an acknowledgment of the detrimental effects of the occupation on the Palestinian people. For evangelical Christians, who choose to follow the “Prince of Peace,” care for those who are living in poverty and oppression is a spiritual mandate. Jesus taught in the Gospel of Matthew: “Whatever you do unto the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you do unto me” (Matthew 25:40-45). Evangelicals would do well to support and respond to the needs of both Jewish and Palestinian suffering and not ignore the day-to-day effects of the occupation of the Palestinian people that has been in effect since 1967.
True Peace Rests on a Just Solution for Both Peoples
On January 29, 2020, I wrote these words to the CMEP constituents: “As Christians, we must not stand by and let our faith be perverted. It is clear that Christian values are being weaponized in an attempt to give a veneer of moral legitimacy to a plan that is, in fact, meant to facilitate further Israeli control over Palestinian lives, land, and resources.”6 If implemented, the Trump plan would clearly be detrimental to the aspirations and future autonomy of the Palestinian people. This will, of course, have devastating effects on Palestinians, but ultimately it is not in the best interest of Israelis — or Americans — either. In order for there to ever be true peace, a just solution must be presented that addresses the self-determination, liberties and human rights of all Israelis and Palestinians living in the land.
If we truly want to pursue a just solution that allows for freedom and equality for both Israelis and Palestinians, we must have an approach that seeks to address the needs and aspirations of both peoples. Even the Israeli security establishment agrees that the occupation of the Palestinian people is not in the long-term best interests of the state of Israel. At the same time, I hope that we can respond to the current realities affecting the Palestinian community for their own sake — seeing Palestinians, including our Christian brothers and sisters in Palestine, as deserving of human dignity and equality in their own right.7 The current allegiance of American evangelicals toward the Trump administration’s Israeli-Palestinian policies does not ultimately serve the best interest of the Jewish people or their Palestinian neighbors. Only when American evangelicals become courageous in standing up against all forms of hatred and bigotry, including anti-Semitism and anti-Palestinian U.S. policies, will human dignity and equality for all of the
people of the Holy Land be fully realized.
1 Support Israel: Stand with the Jewish People. “International Christian Embassy.” Accessed March 6, 2020. https://int.icej.org/support-israel.
2 Lynch, Colum, and Robbie Gramer. “Trump Pressures Palestinians and Allies Over Peace Plan.” Foreign Policy, February 11, 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/02/11/trump-pressurespalestinians-over-middle-east-peace-plan-israel-netanyahu-abbas-olmert-united-nationsdiplomacy/.
3 Cannon, Mae Elise. “Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).” CMEP’s Executive Director Responds to the Trump “Peace” Plan. Accessed March 6, 2020. https://cmep.org/2020/01/29/response_trump_plan/.
4 ISRAEL 2018 HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT. https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1181641/download. Accessed March 6, 2020.
5 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016. https://il.usembassy.gov/country-reportshuman-rights-practices-2016/. Accessed March 6, 2020.
6 Cannon, Mae Elise. “Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).” CMEP’s Executive Director Responds to the Trump “Peace” Plan. Accessed March 6, 2020. https://cmep.org/2020/01/29/response_trump_plan/.
7 Cannon, Mae Elise. “Returning to the Heart of the Gospel: A Practical Evangelical Theology of Liberation and Call to Action for Christians Engaged in Peacebuilding in Israel and Palestine.” presented at the North Park Theological Seminary Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture. The Holy Land: Biblical Perspectives and Contemporary Conflicts, Chicago, IL, September 26, 2019.