After the £30,000 replica wall of Bethlehem came down in the courtyard of St James’s Church Piccadilly, just before the Quakers sent their 12th year of Ecumenical Accompaniers into Palestinian villages at a cost of over £5,000 per observer, and right around the time that the Methodist Church engaged a cadre of its leading ministers and its top staffer on poverty and justice, for months of consultation on a full boycott of Israel, my 10-year-old daughter asked me why Christians hated Israel.
Though I don’t recall my answer, I have been gnawing over her question. Or, rather, this version of it: why are certain churches willing to spend so much time, energy and money on criticising the Jewish state?
The answer, I think, is that many Christians believe that Jesus Christ is a Palestinian.
This may strike you as absurd; after all, Jesus was a Jewish man, born from a Jewish mother, who lived and preached to Jews in the Galilee some 2,000 years ago. No one rationally disputes these details. But details do not a belief make, and the deeper I venture into the rabbit-hole of liberal church dogmatics, things indeed become curiouser and curiouser. I do not wish to be flippant or offensive with the term Jesus and the sensitive theological complications that arise when a rabbi employs this name in public discourse. I simply have no other plausible explanation for the sneer I encounter in certain church circles when we talk about Israel. Let me explain through some all-too frequent illustrations why I have reached this conclusion.
Exhibit A: A picture of Joseph and the pregnant Mary attempting to enter Bethlehem surrounded by That Wall. A large picture in this same set adorns the mantelpiece in the office of the rector of St James Piccadilly. I found this image quite distressing, and spent most of my time in the rector’s office just staring at it.
What’s the underlying implication here? Clearly Joseph and Mary are anathema to the state of Israel, clearly Israel is oblivious to the unfolding miracle of the birth of Christ.
Are we back to the old canard, in which Jews are the most despised of all because they had the first and best opportunity of all to appreciate the true divinity of Jesus, and instead they scored an own goal and turned their back on the Lord?
Is that the message? The most miraculous moment all, and the Jews build a wall of stone to stop it. It’s a disturbing start to our story.
Exhibit B : A poster entitled The Baby Jesus: Made in Palestine. I first saw this image, designed by Bristol artist Wilf Whitty, adorning a tent at the Christian Greenbelt Festival.
The tent had a name: the Jenin Tent, which is odd as Greenbelt is in Cheltenham. Near the tent, four or five laughing families were playing a gigantic board game called Occupation! A Game of Life. I stayed only long enough to watch one young boy roll large dice and moan to his elder sister that indeed he had been caught by the Israelis without a permit —again!
Exhibit C: A cover image for a book that grew out of a 2010 conference in Bethlehem. A Palestinian child is atop a slide with That Wall as the scenic backdrop. The book and the conference are both called Christ at the Checkpoint. At first glance, there is no obvious checkpoint, and no Christ. Except there is: the boy’s arms are outspread as though he were being crucified. And there’s That Wall again. I guess we all know who is killing Christ.
Exhibit D : A painting entitled Christ Returns as a Palestinian Freedom Fighter by German artist Jan Zaremba. Honestly, it did not have to be this portrait, it’s a pretty ubiquitous concept on the web. I chose this one because Zaremba was born in 1941 in Leipzig, and I feel in some inchoate way, that he just should have known better.
When the white man crucifies a black Christ, or the rich man crucifies the poor Christ, it’s merely an evocative new symbol. But when the Jewish state crucifies the Palestinian Christ, it sounds a lot like Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians: “… those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out.
They displease God and are hostile to everyone.”
Not such a new trend after all.