Over May 28-June 1, pro-Palestinian Evangelicals and Palestinian Christians are gathered for the “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference at Bethlehem Bible College in the West Bank. While conference organizers state they aim to “find Jesus at the center of everything” and “finding courageous love for Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews alike,” the event has a controversial reputation.
Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) staff who attended the conference in the past found the event’s overwhelming pro-Palestine sympathies lend to the vilification of Israel and her American Evangelical supporters, especially among younger attendees. IRD President Mark Tooley previously identified “Checkpoint” as “a wider movement, mostly confined to Evangelical elites, to neutralize a key pro-Israel constituency in America.”
For all its flaws, “Checkpoint” organizers did invite one pro-Israel voice, Dr. Michael Brown, a Messianic Jewish leader, and conservative commentator. Standing before his audience, Brown maintained an affectionate tone as he noted how the “Checkpoint” event had bred contempt among some of its past attendees towards the nation-state of Israel.
“As a friend, I have to say many who come to this conference leave embittered towards Israel. I will find this as a common root when I talk to people who are hostile to Israel in an angry way and when I find out where it goes back to it was this conference,” said Brown. “And I don’t believe that’s your heart or intent. So it grieves me to see participants of the conference return home with outright hostility towards Israel produced in part by this dangerous theology.”
Brown’s candid address also called out “Checkpoint” organizers and supporters for failing to denounce the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) terrorist activities. “I wonder how many speakers here will decry the hundreds of millions of dollars that Hamas has spent on building terrorist tunnels to kidnap and kill Israelis, including kindergarteners, by their intent,” he exclaimed.
After recounting the horrific details of the 2011 Itamar terrorist attack in which a family of five, including a 3-month-old baby boy, was slaughtered in their home, Brown noted the families of the murderers, Amjad Awad and Hakim Awad, receive regular payments form the PA. “In fact, it’s reported that PA payments to families of terrorists and prisoners amount to roughly ten percent of the PA budget,“ he shared.
“If you care about justice, if you care about putting Jesus at the center, surely you have to renounce these things with me today,” Brown pleaded. “The least you could do as followers of Jesus is stand with me in denouncing your government’s celebration of terrorism.”
Such open discussion about the shortcomings of the “Checkpoint” gathering is refreshing. However, it is interesting to note directly after his speech conference organizer, and Palestinian Christian Pastor Munther Issac acknowledged that Brown had submitted his speech for review before the event. Issac then proceeded to challenge Brown’s address point by point, lest anyone should be persuaded by the pro-Israel sentiments.
Predictably other “Checkpoint” speakers went on to lament Israel’s injustices and paint Palestinians as the oppressed underdog. To do this, Pro-Palestinian activist and professor at Calvin Theological Seminary, Gary Burge, cited Luke chapter 4 where Jesus is rejected in Nazareth after explaining “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” Like those in the Nazareth synagogue, Burge acknowledged there might be some rattled by what they hear at the “Checkpoint” conference. “We’d rather toss Jesus off a cliff than change, which just may describe some of my Evangelical and Zionist friends,” he said.
Burge never mentioned President Donald Trump’s name during his speech. But anyone listening could hear the parallels Burge was drawing between those angry with Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue and the American president and his supporters. Mentions of walls, foreigners, and an emphasis on Jesus challenging our national priorities were not missed.
“Jesus is upending the geographical and ethnic priorities of Judaism,” Burge declared. “Jesus is up-ending all of these priorities. His ministry, the dawn of the Messianic age, meant something was going to shift. God’s new plan included Syrians and Phoenicians, and maybe even Palestinians.”
At one point Burge seemed to express his support for open borders. Switching geographical locations, he told a story about visiting a church in Laredo, Texas. He soon discovered many of the worshipers and church leaders were illegal immigrants. “There I was in the Nazareth synagogue, and I had to answer the question: Did I have eyes to see what God was doing?” asked Burge. “Or instead was I going to interpret everything I was doing through the lens of American politics? Was I blind or was I going to be sighted?”
Luke Moon, Deputy Director of the Philos Project and former IRD staff member, is currently attending the “Checkpoint” conference. Moon has tweeted:
I’m at a conference in Bethlehem with the theme of Jesus Christ at the Center where the former bishop of the Lutheran church claims that evangelism of Muslims is extremism. And people wonder why the church here is in decline. #CATC5
— Luke Moon (@lukemoon1) May 30, 2018
Brian Zandh is speaking prophetically to Christians attending Christ at the Checkpoint in Bethlehem about vilifying and scapegoating US white Evangelicals and Jews in Israel… jk @BrianZahnd just confirmed the bias of the attendees that US Evangelical are the problem. #CATC5
— Luke Moon (@lukemoon1) May 30, 2018
I reached out to Moon for his observations of the event. “Gary Burge and Brian Zahnd both spoke from the same passage in Luke,” shared Moon. “They argued that the crowd got angry at Jesus because he challenged their nationalism. It could be that they got angry because he refused to do miracles.”
As troubling as the political bias is at the “Checkpoint” gathering, we can all agree the Gospel is indeed meant for all, including Palestinians and Jews. We can and should pray for peace. At the same time, the temptation to reduce the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a David versus Goliath narrative must be avoided.
And while it might be easy to use American Evangelicals as a convenient scapegoat of such a complex tension, a new Christian Zionism is emerging. One where faithful Believers support Israel because it remains the only stable democracy in the Middle East, upholding women’s rights and freedom of religion for example. For further reading on this arising movement, please consider reading The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land edited by Gerald R. McDermott.
You can watch the “Christ at the Checkpoint” live stream here: https://livestream.com/accounts/27359188/events/8225460Google+