A CATC among the pigeons
Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! (psalm 133:1)
Christian Witness to Israel is first and foremost an evangelistic ministry to the Jewish people, and it is rare for us to comment on matters ‘political’. As Christians, we have a ‘worldview,’ and our way of looking at the world affects everything we think and do. That includes politics. However, our biblical worldview should inform our political opinions, not the other way round. If political opinions dominate our understanding of Scripture, the effects will be disastrous. Nowhere is this danger more apparent than when Christians pontificate on the powder-keg politics of the Middle East. The much-publicised Christ at the Checkpoint conference is a case in point. Ostensibly organised with a view to promoting peace and reconciliation, the conference was creating division between Israeli and Palestinian believers even before it took place. The conference has left in its wake an even greater suspicion of evangelicals among Jewish observers, further division among believers in the region, increased opposition to Israel among evangelicals and persecution of Christians in the Palestinian Authority.
Brethren in unity
Among the few encouragements emerging from the seemingly intractable problems of the Middle East conflict are the stories of personal reconciliation between Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians. It is thrilling to hear of an Israeli Arab pastoring a Messianic Jewish congregation in the north of Israel. It is wonderful to hear of fellowship between Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians and the care they have been showing to each other for decades. In Israel there are initiatives such as ‘King’s Kids,’ ‘The Galilee Gatherings,’ ‘Israel College of the Bible,’ ‘Sitting at Yeshua’s Feet’ (SAYF), and cooperative outreaches organised by the National Evangelism Committee and various Arab congregations that bring Jewish and Arab disciples together.
Conferences at which Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians have fellowship together on the common ground of their faith are taking place. Israel Pochtar, a Messianic Jewish pastor from Ashdod in Israel reports on one such conference: ‘I had the privilege to attend [a special Middle East conference] in Istanbul, Turkey. We heard some amazing reports and testimonies from pastors and leaders from countries like: Syria, Sudan, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan and even Iran.
‘We worshipped together, prayed for one another, encouraged each other. It was such a precious and blessed time we could spend together. They shared about how God is moving in their countries, all over the Middle East, and despite terrible persecutions of Christians in Muslim countries.’
Sowing discord among brethren
However, in the last two years the unity of Jewish and Palestinian Arab believers in Israel and the Palestinian Authority has been undermined and politicised in the name of peace and reconciliation. The latest manifestation of what amounts to a hijacking of the peace and unity that already exists in the land is the heavily publicised Christ at the Checkpoint conference that took place under the auspices of Bethlehem Bible College during the Jewish festival of Purim in March.
An Israeli evangelist told me that following the first CATC conference, which took place in 2010, a deterioration in relationships between Jewish and Arab brethren resulted, not an improvement. The 2010 conference, has ostensibly furnished Arab Christians with a Western theological and political justification for the pervasive anti-Jewish sentiment that exists within the wider Palestinian Muslim culture.
Six hundred delegates from around the globe attended CATC 2012, including a sizeable number of students from Wheaton College and Eastern University in America. The organisers worked particularly hard to attract theological students to the conference, no doubt with a view to diminishing support for Israel among the up-and-coming generation of American evangelical leaders. Because of the intense controversy generated by the anti-Semitic sentiments of some of the speakers at CATC 2010, speakers at the 2012 event took greater care to avoid some of the cruder utterances of two years ago.
Among this year’s speakers were some well-known names in the evangelical world, including President Obama’s spiritual advisor John Ortberg, Chris Wright, Tony Campolo, Lynne Hybels, Shane Claiborne and Ron Sider. The organisers sought to indemnify themselves against the charge of theological and actual anti-Semitism by inviting a token number of Messianic Jews, including a British theologian, and a moderate Christian Zionist speaker. Although they made it clear they were not representing the Messianic Jewish community but were present in a personal capacity, the presence of Jewish believers at the conference is being exploited to prove that CATC is not institutionally anti-Semitic.
Nevertheless, major Messianic Jewish representative groups1 uniformly condemned2 the anti-Semitism and supercessionist theology that marked the previous conference and expressed deep concern that some Messianic Jews had agreed to lend credibility to what was a one-sided conference. A number of Messianic leaders made public3 their opposition to CATC.
Noam Hendren’s critique4 of what he sees as CATC’s liberal compromise is worthy of particular attention, and a Messianic ministry in Israel denounced CATC’s ‘sophisticated attack against the existence of Israel,’ categorising Palestinian Christianity as the latest weapon to be wielded against Israel5. Two American Messianic Jewish leaders addressed their concerns about CATC on an internet radio discussion.
The wider Jewish world has expressed concern at the anti-Israel stance of CATC. Britain’s Jewish Chronicle carried an article headlined, ‘Evangelicals against Israel: a grave trendʼ6. The Jerusalem Post wrote: ‘CATC’s [sic] fuels its outreach on a growing mix of toxic theology and politics.’ It went on to say that CATC was ‘taking dead aim at Israel’s single largest and most reliable supporter: tens of millions of evangelical Christians who have stood with the Jewish state since day one. If it achieves even some of its aims, the consequences will be disastrous for Israel and world Jewry.ʼ7
Reconciling who to whom?
If CATC was about reconciliation, who, one wonders, were the organisers seeking to reconcile to whom? The New Testament teaching is that humans must first be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ before they can be reconciled to others. However, as I watched the live-streamed broadcasts of the conference, it was obvious that CATC was not about preaching the gospel to Jews and Arabs.
Were the objects of CATC’s peace and reconciliation efforts Messianic Jews and Arab Christians? As we have already noted, a successful programme of reconciliation already exists at a grassroots level in Israel without the hindrance of a weighty political agenda.
Was CATC’s idea of reconciliation helping Christian Zionists and Christian Palestinianists to find a common ground in Jesus? Hardly, because the majority of speakers were deeply antagonistic to the very existence of the State of Israel, claiming as justification that Israel is not a fulfilment of biblical prophecy. Indeed, the one speaker who defended Israel’s place in the purposes of God was immediately ridiculed. However, a logic that delegitimises a country because it is not a fulfilment of Bible prophecy would call into question the existence of every nation on earth, including a Palestinian state.
Even if the organisers of CATC were well intentioned and sincere, the conference hindered rather than helped the reconciliation process. The CATC sessions reminded me of the old Soviet show trials in which the outcome had been determined before the trial even started.
2. www.mjaa.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id= 7535&security=1&news_iv_ctrl=1581
3. www.kehila.org/en/articles/355-the-abc-s-of-replacementtheology- palestinian-style
5. www.maozisrael.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id= 9224
6. www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/analysis/ 65177/evangelicals-against-israel-a-grave-trend
7. www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-EdContributors/ Article.aspx?id=259936