The conflicts of Israel and Palestine, always simmering and recently boiling over, have entered our awareness again. Again, we confront the tensions of viewpoints and the complexities of opinion about whom to hold responsible and what to do. Academics wax on about complexities. Pragmatists and advocates demand action. Most of us, as usual, are caught somewhere between.
Israel divides us. The controversy shows another way in which United Methodists find themselves differing dramatically. Some call for divestment from any companies doing business with Israel. Others, probably influenced some by certain forms of evangelical eschatology, believe in upholding Israel at all costs. How do we sort it all out? As usual, by examining not only what we think, but how.
I can do little in a brief blog post, but maybe the following is worth considering.
The first step is to notice that we use the word “Israel” in two distinct ways: (1) Israel, the modern nation state and (2) Israel, the biblical people of God. The two references do not overlay each other. They are not identical. So, for starters, we must ask ourselves when arguing about what to do, “What Israel are we talking about?”
When those referring to Israel have in mind the modern state controlled currently by the Likud Party and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, they think in essentially modern historical, political and ethical categories, especially with regard to the treatment of Palestinians. This approach largely avoids theological and biblical references, assuming that these sources have nothing to do with the current difficulties.
Other people look at Israel and see – predominantly – God’s people, Israel. They do so on the basis of a certain way of interpreting the Bible, especially biblical prophecy. They thus think primarily in biblical and theological terms.
I’m generalizing, of course. Opinions almost always involve smudgier boundaries than my neat distinctions. But I do think people lead with one way of thinking, one set of concepts over another, in a way that tends to overwhelm the other. (I’m thinking, for example about how United Methodists disagree with one another over our denominational posture toward Israel.)
How do I think (if it matters)?
I do not equate (a purposefully chosen word) the modern nation state of Israel with biblical Israel, the people of God. Modern Israel is a democratic – even secular – state; biblical Israel a theocracy (or a monarchy). But I also cannot help but think of biblical Israel as I do so. As usual, we need to resist the either-or and consider the both-and. If we want to understand what is going on in the region, it would be foolish of us to avoid thinking with both sets of categories. They don’t have to produce equal impact – a stand-off of sorts. But we should consider both. It’s a matter of taking theology (the nature and ways of God) with utmost seriousness, something many in our world naively refuse to do.
Christians, must pay attention to contemporary geo-political forces. But Christians also need to consider what God might be doing presently – if we think that God is doing anything – and this is part of our modern problem. How we think requires allowing modern historical categories and ancient theological ones to touch and interact with each other.
Maybe I’m talking about a version of Karl Barth’s advice that we hold the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other, paying proper attention to both (and not necessarily in that order).
If you want a searingly personal view of the tragic struggle, read The Lemon Tree. Doing so is a sobering and salutary exercise.