An evangelical intifada? A young woman’s pilgrimage to Palestine solidarity
Megan Giesecke grew up in Dallas, Texas, the heart of conservative evangelical Christian America. She shares her hometown with Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS), once a major force in promoting the doctrine of “premillennial dispensationalism” - the belief that Christians would be “raptured” from the earth before the final judgment at Armageddon. A key element of that belief holds that the modern state of Israel is a fulfilment of Bible prophecy and a harbinger of the imminent return of Jesus Christ.
Such beliefs spread through best-selling books, such as Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series that was recently turned into a movie starring Nicholas Cage. While dispensationalist theology has since been left behind by many churches, its popularity helped to create a reflexive Zionism that continues to pervade America’s evangelical subculture.
Raised in that default Zionist context, Giesecke’s beliefs about Israel started to take a very different shape during her second year at Wheaton College, one of the US’s foremost evangelical universities. That year, a friend studied abroad and lived with a Palestinian Christian host family in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
“When he returned to campus, he invited a bunch of us over to eat hummus, drink tea, see his pictures, and talk about the situation,” recalls Giesecke. “I remember asking very confused questions about what ‘West Bank’ meant and what languages people spoke. But my friend patiently answered our questions and encouraged all of us to investigate for ourselves what was happening over there.”
His testimony led her to start attending campus documentary screenings and discussion groups on the topic. By her final year of college, Giesecke had her own opportunity to visit Palestine as one of her professors, Gary Burge, led a group to attend the Christ at the Checkpoint (CATC) conference in Bethlehem in 2012.
Once in the West Bank, she was shocked to visit places like Hebron with its segregated roads, and to meet with an ideological settler from the US who was proud to be staking the Jewish claim to “Judea and Samaria”.
“After those sorts of experiences, after seeing the separation wall, going through a checkpoint at 6am and chatting with the people who live through it all,” Giesecke says she concluded that supporting Zionism - especially as expressed by the modern state of Israel and its military occupation - was “no longer an option” for anyone claiming to follow “a God of love”.
Since those transformative encounters, she’s seen - and helped to facilitate - that change in others. When Giesecke’s experience inspired her to spend a year volunteering with a Palestinian organisation in Jerusalem, both of her parents were very concerned, with her mother declaring that as Christians they were supporters of Israel.
“Despite their discomfort with my choice, I accepted the position,” recalls Giesecke. “Gradually things began to change. By the time I left for Jerusalem, my parents were supportive of my decision, but still ambivalent about supporting the Palestinian people.”
After eight months of emails and Skype calls, they visited her and witnessed the occupation first hand.
“My mom, who is quite a rule-follower, was absolutely appalled to learn that Israel was breaking international law and started comparing Israel to ‘a spoiled child’,” recalls Giesecke. “My dad still had hesitations - he felt he hadn’t clearly heard Israeli perspectives - but both my parents abandoned the idea that we needed to unquestioningly support Israel.”
For Giesecke, her journey and that of her parents illustrates a pattern that she has seen in many evangelicals who have developed new perspectives on Palestine.
“The most profound and most likely change occurs in those who become invested through friends who have visited or in those who have visited for themselves,” says Giesecke. “My parents are a prime example of this, and I’ve heard it continually repeated by people I’ve met since.”
She has advice for those wanting to challenge evangelicals’ common perceptions: “One of the most powerful ways to relate to family, friends or church members who think differently is simply to share stories. Stories replay in our heads days and even months after hearing them. Explaining unjust realities in Palestine through story rather than political arguments seems to be much more effective.”
According to Dale Hanson Bourke, author of The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Tough Questions, Direct Answers, testimonies like Gieseke’s are indicative of a growing trend: “I've noticed a big difference among younger evangelicals. They simply don't see Israel the way their parents did.”
Conservative US Christians have long been a bulwark of political support for Israel. A 2013 Pew Research Center poll showed that white evangelicals are twice as likely as Jews to believe that “Israel was given to the Jewish people by God” (82 percent versus 40 percent).
But now even David Brog, the director of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the largest Zionist organisation of any kind in the US, is sounding the alarm: “The days of taking evangelical support for Israel for granted are over.”
“Young believers (roughly ages 18 to 30) are rebelling against what they perceive as the excessive biblical literalism and political conservatism of their parents,” wrote Brog in Middle East Quarterly last spring. “As they strive with a renewed vigour to imitate Jesus’ stand with the oppressed and downtrodden, they want to decide for themselves which party is being oppressed in the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
It’s one of the few points on which Brog might find himself in agreement with Palestinian evangelical Christians like Munther Isaac, vice academic dean at Bethlehem Bible College and director of the biannual CATC conference that Giesecke attended in 2012.
“The younger evangelical generation are different from their parents and grandparents,” says Isaac. “They’re not obsessed with prophecy anymore - they're action-oriented.”
“They come on these student tours to Palestine and to Israel, they become very concerned about what they see, and they want to do something. And they take that and return to their campuses.”
But while this change in evangelical attitudes toward Israel may be strongest among the youth, the trend doesn’t stop there. A National Association of Evangelicals poll last year showed that 40 percent of US evangelical leaders have experienced a “change in their thinking about Israel and Palestine”. The most common change: “a greater awareness of the struggles faced by the Palestinian people”.
Part of that awareness stems from the fact that, like students who’ve had the chance to study abroad, many church leaders are having contact with their Palestinian evangelical counterparts during tours of the Holy Land.
“There are definitely people changing their minds,” says Isaac. “Now even Christian leaders who used to come and visit Israel without being exposed are now asking to meet with Palestinian Christian leaders.”
Isaac has even been invited to speak with tour groups sponsored by CUFI and other Christian Zionist organisations. “In the past they ignored us, and we were excluded from many evangelical circles,” says Isaac. “They've realised they can no longer ignore the Palestinian side.”
“Christian values demand that our young people stand with the Jewish state. Millennials are focused on Jesus’ love and compassion. And Israel is the only country in the Middle East living out this love - including the love of one’s enemies - on a daily basis. Millennials stand with the oppressed. And Israel provides the only safe haven for oppressed Arab Christians and Muslims in the entire region. Millennials love diversity. And Israel is the most diverse country in the Middle East, if not the planet.”
CUFI’s message describes a very different version of reality than that expressed by Palestinian Christians. Isaac’s colleague, Reverend Alex Awad, is a Jerusalem-born pastor educated at a Pentecostal Christian college in Tennessee. At last year’s CATC event, he turned criticism of evangelical sympathy for Palestinians into a call to action:
“Our critics have recently accused Bethlehem Bible College and Christ at the Checkpoint of starting an intifada - an uprising - in the evangelical church. I hope they are right. We want to see an intifada against injustice. We want to see an intifada against violence and terrorism. We want to see an intifada against racism. We want to see an intifada against theologies that promote war and bloodshed. I want from this podium to call on evangelicals everywhere to re-examine these detrimental theologies and shake them off.”
Only time will tell which movement will win the battle for evangelicals’ hearts and minds.