Am I my neighbour’s keeper?
Between 26 and 29 May this year, a colleague from the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence and I were privileged to attend the sixth Christ at the Checkpoint Conference held at Bethlehem Bible College, writes Helen Paynter.
I believe I was the only British Baptist in attendance, and so I thought it might be helpful to offer a brief report and some personal reflections.
Bethlehem Bible College was established in 1979 by Bishara Awad, who as a child was one of tens of thousands of Palestinians evicted from their ancestral homes in the 1948 Nakba (the ‘great catastrophe’, of which more later). The College is an evangelical, ecumenical centre for the theological education of Palestinian Christians, many of whom go on to become church leaders in the region. The College’s Christ at the Checkpoint conference, which began in 2010, has the aim of offering a truthful, peaceable theology of hope in the Palestinian context.
Watchtower in the Bethlehem wall, May 2022
The theme of the conference this year connected with Genesis 4:9 and Matthew 22:37-39, and was summarised in the title ‘Am I My Neighbor’s Keeper?’. The four days of the event offered a rich exploration of this theme, including sessions on the impact of Covid-19 on Palestine, the place of women in Palestinian society, and what loving the ideological or theological ‘Other’ looks like.
Of particular note were a number of sessions led by South Africans and African Americans, who drew on their experience of apartheid and American racial discrimination respectively to speak very powerfully into the Palestinian situation. Also of note this year was the prominence of young voices – the emerging generation of Palestinian theologians – who showed both continuity with, and a challenge to, the work begun by their forebears. (A link to the videos from the conference can be found here and at the bottom of this article.)
Delegates were also taken on a number of field trips: to Palestinian East Jerusalem; to a refugee camp in Bethlehem; and to one of the checkpoints which Bethlehemites who work beyond the wall that surrounds their city have to cross on a daily basis.
On the East Jerusalem trip we met a family in the district of Silwan whose house (a small apartment block which accommodated five families and a health centre) had been pulled down a fortnight previously. They had not been permitted to take any possessions out of the house – even schoolbooks, family photos or a baby buggy – before the demolition commenced. They were then handed a bill for the demolition work and will have to clear the land at their own expense.
We were told that the pretext for the demolition was that they did not have the necessary permissions to build, although their legal ownership of the land is not in dispute. However, it is almost impossible for Palestinians living in that area to obtain a building permit and most resort to building without one, and keep their fingers crossed.
The following day we visited one of the refugee camps within Bethlehem. This began 74 years ago when thousands of Palestinian families were displaced in the Nakba – the great eviction of Palestinians by Israeli troops during and following the Arab-Israel war of 1947-9. Many of the families evicted had lived in those homes for centuries. They fled, often with the barest of essentials, hoping to return in a few weeks. They never did.
Over the decades, the tents in the refugee camps were replaced by informal buildings, and the third and even fourth generation of IDPs (Internally Displaced Peoples) are now living in the camps. They still assert their ownership of the homes they were evicted from, and many still hold onto their keys as a symbol of that. We visited a treatment centre set up for children with disabilities, and were impressed by the resilience and hopefulness of the people living in such difficult circumstances.
Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem, May 2022
My first real exposure to the Church’s role in the plight of Palestinians came years ago when I heard one of Bethlehem Bible College’s theologians speak at a conference. He began by saying this: ‘I am a Palestinian Christian… and for many Christians in the world today, that is considered a contradiction in terms.’ Those words broke my heart. How could any Christian imagine that someone is beyond the saving love of God because of their ethnicity?
Tragically, there is a whole theological movement today which leads in that direction. It is called Christian Zionism. At its best, it is a well-intentioned movement based upon a misunderstanding of parts of the Bible, which includes an erroneous conflation of the ‘Israel’ of the Old Testament with the geopolitical entity that has that same name today. At other times it employs a self-serving instrumentalization of Israel, driven by the belief that God will bless (i.e. prosper) those who bless Israel. At its worst, it has elements in common with White Supremacism.
Driven by Zionism, some Western Christians have promoted the ongoing expulsion of Palestinians from their homes by funding illegal Israeli settlements. They have pressured their governments to support rather than challenge illegal and unjust actions by the Israeli government. They have dismissed and minimised the very real suffering of Palestinians, who exist as second-class citizens in their own land.
It is true that there has been terrible suffering by people on both sides of the conflict, and the situation in Israel-Palestine is complex. There are clearly rights and wrongs on both sides, although it must be noted that there is an enormous imbalance of power and resources in the land today. But the Zionist claim that Palestine was ‘a land without a people’, vacant and available for the ‘people without a land’ who emerged from the unspeakable atrocity of the Holocaust, is a historically verifiable lie. Palestinians – both Muslim and Christian – have lived in the land for generations. Many can track their ancestry back to the early centuries of the first millennium AD; some trace their family story back to the conversion of their ancestors on the day of Pentecost.
The enthusiastic and uncritical endorsement of the actions of the state of Israel by parts of the Western church is problematic on a whole range of levels. The organisers of the Christ at the Checkpoint conference are committed to doing something better – by presenting a loving challenge to those who might be regarded as their enemies. Through this commitment, they are able to offer peaceable, truthful theology in the Palestinian context, and to provide resources to help those of us outside that context to learn more.
I would urge us all to grapple with the issues, to find ways of supporting truth, peace and hope in that troubled land, and to take care that the theology we espouse does not promote oppression and perpetuate injustice.
All the videos from the conference can be found here.
Helen Paynter is Tutor in Biblical Studies at Bristol Baptist College and director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the College.
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