A Red Letter Christian Speaks to the Palestinian Church

Taking the red letters of the Bible seriously means putting religious values into practice. Here, members of Christian Peacemaker Teams deliver aid to a Palestinian village. Credit: Najeh Hashlamoun/Flash90.

Politics alone will not solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—a deep, collective, psychological healing must also occur to sustain a lasting peace. I believe Palestinian Christians are uniquely situated to facilitate this healing process.

Like Palestinian Muslims, Palestinian Christians as a group bear the strain of post-traumatic stress associated with the violence of the conflict. They are well positioned to follow the teachings of Henri Nouwen and become “wounded healers,” presenting to other Palestinians an empathy that no other group can offer. They know the sufferings of the Palestinian people and their empathy could make the Palestinian Church an ideal psychotherapist.

I deepened my thinking about the Palestinian Church this year as I prepared for a conference at Bethlehem Bible College. The college, which is located between the Bethlehem checkpoint and Manger Square in the West Bank, was founded in 1979 by local Arab Christians and has now brought evangelicals from around the world together twice—once in 2010 and once in 2012—for conferences on the “Christ at the Checkpoint” theme.

While I formulated the thoughts below to share with a Palestinian Christian audience, I am hopeful that sharing it with a broader audience here in Tikkun will inspire people of all faiths and backgrounds to think in new ways about the ways in which they too can serve as wounded healers in their own communities and support healing in other settings, too.

My “Red Letter Christian” Perspective

The perspective I bring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that of a Red Letter Christian sociologist. “Red Letter Christian” is a label that a group of us progressive Evangelicals adopted for ourselves four years ago while discussing whether it still made sense to identify as Evangelical. Our new label refers to the fact that, in many Bibles, the words of Jesus are highlighted in red letters. By taking this name, we commit ourselves to taking the words of Jesus seriously and doing our best to live them out. That, of course, turns us into radical Christians.

Our theology was, and continues to be, as evangelical as ever. We hold to the doctrines spelled out in the Apostle’s Creed; we believe that Scripture is divinely inspired and is an infallible guide for faith and practice; and we affirm that salvation comes from having a mystical encounter with the resurrected Jesus in which our lives are pervaded by his spirit, transforming us into new people. We still believe these essential elements of what it means to be an Evangelical, but we have become sadly aware that the label has acquired a great deal of undesirable baggage. To employ the Evangelical label is to be designated as a person who is anti-women, anti-gay, anti-Arab, anti-environmentalism, anti-immigration, and pro-war. Each of us who is a progressive Evangelical is likely to stand back and say, “That’s not who I am!”

My colleague at Eastern University, Ron Sider, calls us to consider what those red letters of the Bible teach us by raising outstanding questions such as these: What does it mean to love our enemies? What does it mean to return good for evil? And when Jesus in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) tells us to be merciful and then goes on to reject the moral principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth in favor of overcoming evil with good, does not that preclude capital punishment? How seriously are we to take the words of Jesus, who once told a rich, young ruler that if anyone would be his disciple, that person would have to sell everything he had and give to the poor (Mark 10:17-27)?

One day the father of a young graduate from Eastern University dragged his son into my office. This man shoved his son, who had become committed to living out the red letters of the Bible, into a chair and then shouted at me: “You got him into all of this! He’s taking the red letters of the Bible far too seriously. These days he’s out on the streets in the slums of Philadelphia, giving away his money to poor people, and spending his time with pimps and whores.” The father went on to say: “Don’t get me wrong, Campolo. I don’t mind being Christian up to a point!” Consider how many of us are like that father. Aren’t all progressive Christians willing to be followers of Jesus up to a point? How willing are we to recognize the truth of the Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said, “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die”?

A Progressive Christian Lens on Israel/Palestine

Having glimpsed some of the challenges that the hard sayings of Jesus raise for would-be disciples, I want to explore how a Red Letter sociologist might look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

First let’s remember the traumas of the Palestinian people. As Michael Lerner has stated in his new book, Embracing Israel/Palestine, the Palestinians were outraged by the realization that representatives of other nations had met in New York without consulting them and decided that land the Palestinians thought was theirs should be taken from them and given to another people for the creation of a new nation. Many Palestinians found it unbelievable that this could happen. They were traumatized.

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