As this Religion News Service story explains, Palestinian Christian leaders have criticized USA recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. So too have other Mideast Christians. Some American church officials and activists critical of Israel for years have long cited views by Mideast Christians as needed corrective counsel for pro-Israel American Christians.
These same Americans who stress Mideast Christian critique of Israel, which syncs with their own politics, are typically or often silent about mistreatment of Mideast Christians in Muslim majority societies, which does not similarly sync.
Should American Christians temper their support for Israel in deference to Mideast Christian views?
The RNS story includes one quote explaining Mideast Christians, especially Palestinians, as very small and shrinking minority groups in often dangerous political cultures, can not afford to be any other than critical of Israel. Any widespread perception they are disloyal to the dominant political assumptions of their cultures would further imperil their already precarious futures in the Mideast. Who can blame them for protecting their own communities?
Mideast Christian communities, when they speak politically to the world, somewhat echo church groups of the old East Bloc that dutifully criticized the West during the Cold War. Often leftist Western church groups, in their own opposition to Western and especially USA political and military policies countering Soviet influence, would cite the “peace” advocacy of Soviet and East European church prelates and groups. East Bloc church delegations routinely visited the USA to urge support for Soviet-espoused disarmament initiatives.
Of course, the East Bloc church groups, struggling to survive under anti-Christian dictatorships, could do no other. Some prelates were directly controlled by their regimes, while others performed likewise so as to protect their already limited church autonomy. Some of these prelates may’ve actually believed their own political rhetoric, especially after decades of indoctrination, as it’s very human to adopt views best conducive to personal survival. After Communism fell, these prelates and church groups had to contend with the impact of their understandably self-protective but corrupting collaboration with the old regimes.
Mideast Christians in some ways have even greater challenges, as their struggle for survival as besieged minorities, often lacking legal equality with the Muslim majority, dates back over 1,000 years. And their vulnerability will continue indefinitely, although we pray and work for a time when Mideast Christians can live without restriction and fear.
Some Mideast Christians, as political and intellectual leaders, over a century ago embraced Arab nationalism as a progressive and liberating alternative to imperialism and theocracy. That narrative further compelled their outspoken opposition to Zionism and to the West. Sadly, most Arab nationalisms have resulted in dictatorship and repression, if also survival for Christian communities that were accorded some protection.
Some American Christian elites like to imagine that Christians of every culture can and should divorce themselves from national and local loyalties in favor of complete allegiance to an idealized universal church impartially touting world peace. But this expectation, at least how it’s presented, is itself very American, and is unrealistic, if not almost gnostic. All Christians belong to particular place and culture, to which they have God-ordained duties.
It’s not plausible nor right to expect Christians of different nations and historical experiences to politically harmonize on all issues that divide their cultures. Christians are often called to bridge building and mediation. But they won’t nor should they necessarily always try to escape their own earthly formations and allegiances.
American Christians have a unique history across centuries of special identification with and sympathy for the Hebrew experience, especially the Exodus, which Thomas Jefferson, himself quietly Unitarian, proposed the great seal of the United States portray, as did religiously similar Benjamin Franklin. The common negative caricatures of supposedly apocalyptic modern evangelical Zionism ignore this rich legacy that shaped not only American Christianity but also America. It’s folly to negate this history or to pretend American Christianity could or should shed its legacy of biblicism and philo-Semitism, which includes appreciation for the Jewish people, with their ancient ties to their homeland and its capital.
It’s also unreasonable to expect Mideast Christians to act completely outside their own historical experience and modern political necessities. We can search for commonalities while also respecting that different Christian communities, even as they belong to the One Body of Christ, still have unique and sometimes ostensibly conflicting vocations. American friendship for Israel is rooted deep in our spiritual and political DNA. We can acknowledge the different, long accumulated experiences of other cultures, with their respective political expectations, without in any way diminishing our own perspective and unique responsibilities.