The passing of each Christmas season gives the small but highly symbolic Palestinian Christian community a brief moment in the sun to highlight the difficult yoke of life in modern Bethlehem. Some use it to decry the lawless acts of radical Islamic neighbours, others the restrictive shadow of the Israeli security wall.
At a recent holiday reception for the Christian communities of the Holy Land hosted by Israel's Minister of Tourism, Lutheran Bishop of Jerusalem Munib Younan used his moment at the podium to plead this Christmas for "peace and justice, for without justice there cannot be peace."
For decades now, such appeals for "justice" have been a familiar refrain from Palestinian voices Muslim and Christian. For their part, Palestinian Christian clerics often construct their calls for "justice" in biblical terms, with a particular attachment to the words of the Hebrew prophet Micah.
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6:8
This very passage headlined a statement released this past summer by Younan and three other Arab bishops of Jerusalem that sharply denounced evangelical Christian supporters of Israel. That declaration, in turn, was taken verbatim from the proclamation of an April 2004 conference of the Sabeel Center for Palestinian Liberation Theology, convened specifically to "challenge" the "heretical teaching" of Christian Zionism.
The founder and director of Sabeel, an Arab Anglican priest named Rev. Naim Ateek, has even written a book on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict entitled Justice, and Only Justice.
But what exactly do they mean by "justice"?
For the bulk of the Palestinian people, 98% of whom happen to be Muslim, it means Israel taking responsibility for and completely reversing the Arab al-Nakba ("Disaster") suffered in the 1948 War of Independence. From that conflict emerged a Jewish state on 'sacred' Palestinian land, as well as a festering Palestinian refugee problem that now numbers in the millions. Though it was a war launched by the Arabs, they now want Israel to 'unscramble their eggs.'
In one camp, the 'radical' Hamas is unwilling to compromise on the refugee issue, nor on the armed struggle to recover all the waqf of Palestine, which they would Islamicize.
The more 'moderate' Fatah could accept a reversal in stages a Palestinian mini-state for now but also insisting on a significant return of refugees to the Jewish state. In time, they envision the two states merging into one Arab state between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea due to their higher birth rate.
Sometimes they can be coy about these goals. Speaking at a recent international conference on Palestinian refugees, prominent Palestinian spokesman Nabil Shaath said in a conciliatory manner, "Any settlement has to have relative justice and not absolute justice."
But what does the tiny Palestinian Christian minority mean by "justice"?
To some, it may be defined as narrowly as lifting the IDF closures and checkpoints to allow freedom of movement, or recovering their own homes lost in the fighting of 1948, such as the seven Christian villages evacuated by Jewish forces along the frontier with Lebanon. Several Jewish communities have since been built in this border area, no doubt presenting Israel with a difficult moral dilemma.
Most, however, have in mind a one-state solution, whereby the land between "the River and the Sea" becomes one bi-national, democratic state in which everyone Jew or Arab gets one vote. In short, "one state for two peoples and three religions."
Many Palestinian Christians have trouble accepting a sovereign Jewish state for theological reasons, but they also do not want to live in an authoritarian or strictly Islamic state. Thus their preferred option is one democratic nation with a slight Arab majority but enough Jews to ensure the protection of minority rights.
As a means to that end, Palestinian Christian leaders and their allies abroad have led the pursuit of the Durban strategy of drawing apartheid comparisons to de-legitimize Israel and its policies. This has spawned the twin campaigns of divestment from Israel and dismantlement of the "apartheid wall." Former US president Jimmy Carter has earnestly joined this effort in his new book Israel: Peace not Apartheid, while South Africa's celebrated Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu hopes to do his part with an upcoming visit to Gaza under the auspices of the new UN Human Rights Committee.
A Righteous Judge
Still, at the heart of the Palestinian Christian cry for "justice" is a struggle over their very concept of God from a New Testament perspective. Some liken the Palestinian situation today to the ancient Canaanite people in the land when it was conquered under Joshua, and do not consider that to be the handiwork of the same God of mercy revealed in Jesus Christ. Is God just, they ask, to bring the Jewish people back into the land in our day in a manner that has resulted in such loss and dispossession for fellow humans equally loved in His sight?
In approaching this question on biblical terms, it is first worth noting a distinction between moral uprightness as an individual duty versus its obligation on a collective or national scale. The former addresses one's conduct as it relates to eternal salvation or damnation, while the latter invokes the sovereignty and purposes of God over the nations in the course of human history.
Micah 6:8, for instance, speaks primarily of the individual charge placed upon every man to act justly with their fellow human, and the Bible has much to say in this regard more than we have room for here. Suffice to say that, ultimately, there is no person that has been just enough in God's sight to stand before Him (Psalm 130:3-4; Romans 3:10); but we were given Christ not only as the means to our justification by faith (Romans 4:5), but also as our example of someone who suffered unjustly in silence, "entrust[ing] himself to Him who judges justly." (1 Peter 2:21-23)
Now as for "justice" on the national level, the Bible clearly teaches, first, that God is sovereign over the nations and indeed deals with them as He wills based on questions of righteous and justice as He defines them not in human terms (Jeremiah 18:5-10; Isaiah 40:12-24).
Secondly, God has given Israel as a "light to the nations" to show us what it means to walk uprightly before Him and know His blessing or in disobedience and know His loving correction. The blessing of obedience was the right to live in the land bequeathed to Abraham's descendants as an "everlasting possession" (Genesis 17:8), while the curse of disobedience was exile among the nations (see Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28).
How poetically the prophet Isaiah describes Israel as a "vineyard" carefully planted by God that He then had to uproot, because "He looked for justice, but behold, oppression; For righteousness, but behold, a cry for help." Isaiah 5:1-7
Thus did a righteous God deal severely with His own people Israel down through the centuries. In fact, He actually made them pay “double” for all their sins (Isaiah 40:1-3; Jeremiah 16:18). This means that if anyone has a legitimate cry for "justice," it is the Jews, who have suffered far more than any other peoples in history.
Yet the Apostle Paul, with regard to these very sufferings inflicted by God upon His elect, asks in Romans 3:1-8 essentially the same tough questions being posed by pro-Palestinian Christians today, namely:
“But if our [Israel’s] unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.) May it never be! For otherwise how will God judge the world?”
In other words, if God ever did anything to the Israelites that they did not deserve, then He has no right to judge the rest of the world.
This same God also promised a time of favor upon Israel (Psalm 102:13), in which "He who scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him as a shepherd does his flock." Jeremiah 31:10
God scattered them as a corrective measure, but also with a redemptive purpose, in that with their dispersion the Gospel went out to all the world (Romans 11:11-12, 15). It is His prerogative to now gather them within that same redemptive purpose.
Though this modern-day ingathering may make some Christians uncomfortable from a humanistic perspective, it is actually the ultimate justice of God that He should recover this people who have suffered for the sake of the nations and redeem them back in the land.
This does not mean, however, that everything Israel does today is right or that her moral shortcomings can be overlooked. She does need to act justly but in His sight and not necessarily at the bar of nations that have always treated her unfairly, if not cruelly.
In the end, we are assured that this process will bring God's correction and justice to Israel and to the nations. For as Jeremiah says of this present Ingathering: "Though I make a full end of all nations where I have scattered you, yet I will not make a complete end of you. But I will correct you in justice, and will not let you go altogether unpunished." (Jeremiah 30:10-11)
Indeed, "Zion shall be redeemed with justice and her penitents with righteousness." (Isaiah 1:27)
International Christian Embassy Jerusalem