The Rev. Dr. Peter Pettit recently presented a fascinating lecture on Christian attitudes to Israel, which he called “Israel in the Eyes of the Beholder”. The event was held at the ICCI Education Center in Jerusalem for a group of interreligious educators and activists, including Dr. Deborah Weissman, President of the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ), Rabbi Ehud Bandel, Vice-president of ICCJ, Professor John Pawlikowski, past president of ICCJ and professor of Social Ethics at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and other leading Christian and Jewish interreligious leaders from Jerusalem.
Peter A. Pettit, who is a long-time friend of ICCI and has lectured for us in previous years, is a Lutheran minister, associate professor of religion studies, and director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. His doctoral studies included resident fellowships at the Hebrew University (where we first met several decades ago!) and the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, and since 1992 he has been the North American coordinator for the Osher Department of Religious Pluralism of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He currently also co-directs the Hartman initiative entitled “New Paths: Christians Engaging Israel”, and continues as an advisor to the Lutheran church and several international interreligious endeavors.
Dr. Pettit’s talk was based on a lecture that he gave in the series known as “Reclaiming the Center” on “Christian Attachment to Israel”, which was delivered a few months ago at the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, Maryland, one of the veteran centers for Jewish-Christian dialogue and research in the United States. He outlined for us a typography of four kinds of attitudes to Israel which are held by Christians in the world:
Risking oversimplication, one could characterize Israel in these fours senses as Jesus’ Land, Jewish Land, Contested Land, and Land of Hope.
Many of us in the room found this typology both fascinating and fruitful. It helped us make sense of a very complicated and diverse set of views about Israel which are held by a wide variety of Christians in many lands and communities.
The first two categories — Jesus’ Land and Jewish Land—were the more familiar categories known to most of us. Indeed, probably the overwhelming number of Christians who come to Israel do it as a religious pilgrimage, walking in the footsteps of Jesus.
Personally, I found the categories of “Contested Land” and “Land of Hope” of greatest interest — two categories that are more complex, referring to the needs and hopes of both Palestinians and Israelis, if you look at the conflict bi-nationally, or Christians, Muslims and Jews, if you look at the land as one shared by three major religious groups.
What does “Contested Land “mean? In my experience, I believe that it refers to what we call here “the double narrative”, i.e. the Palestinian Liberation movement (the PLO) and the Jewish national liberation movement (Zionism) are challenging each other as to who has the most legitimate claims to the land. For Christians, Dr. Pettit refers to Palestinian Liberation theology:
Liberationist Christians in Palestine and around the world identified with the prophets of Israel who denounced the abuse of power and the neglect of the most marginal people in society by the elites of Biblical Israel. Those who still embrace liberation theology in the cause of the Palestinian people are engaged with modern Israel as an opponent and a renegade.
Indeed, I have found in my dealings with Palestinian liberation theologians in Israel and abroad over the years that not only do they contest Israel’s right to be a state, but they often view Zionism as “original sin” and do not offer any ideas for compromise. In other words, they do not just contest the Jewish claim to the land; they usually delegitimize it totally.
I found Dr. Pettit’s last type of Christian attachment to Israel—Israel as a Land of Hope— to be especially poignant. I have always regarded it as such. He describes one version of this theology as follows:
Christians can relate to Israel throughout history as the paradigm of God’s will for all peoples: that they have a land to which to live out their national life, called to be God’s people, to establish mutual borders with neighboring peoples and a holy society within them.
I really like and appreciate this version. It resonates with the call to Abraham in Genesis in which we are commanded to be a blessing to the world. And, it is in perfect accord with the state of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which strives for Israel to be a Jewish state, which will live in peace with her neighbors. It is just the kind of Israel that I yearn for and struggle to bring to fruition every day in my professional work and in my personal life.