An Open Letter to Pastor John Hagee

Just as Abraham heard a new voice from God and rejected the sacrifice of his son Isaac, we too need to hear a new voice and reject the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

Just as Abraham heard a new voice from God and rejected the sacrifice of his son Isaac, we too need to hear a new voice and reject the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

Dear Pastor Hagee:

Thank you for your invitation to attend the Christians United for Israel Washington Summit July 18-19. I will need to decline your invitation and I am writing to explain why. I understand from your website that you are asking American Christians such as myself to “stand by Israel.” If by that you mean offering Israel unquestioning and uncritical support, I cannot do that. There are already too many American Christians who do. I believe we should instead be offering a prophetic voice of honest criticism to Israel because it is a country which is profoundly off track.

Have you been following the news from Israel? Something is going very wrong there. Racism and the theft of Palestinian land — otherwise known as the building of settlements — are on the rise. An article in the May 24, ’16, New York Times describes a disturbing new documentary called “The Settlers” which gives an up-close look at the radical “hilltop youth” who are a small but potent driving force in the settler movement on the West Bank. One Israeli human rights activist interviewed in the film believes that “large numbers of them participate in arson and vandalism of mosques, churches and olive groves.” In the documentary there are “expressions of virulent racism, a glorification of violence and a desire to replace the modern state of Israel with a full-scale biblical kingdom that would extend as far as Iraq.” Filmmaker Shimon Dotan said of the most radical hilltop youth, “They do justify the killing and murder of non-Jews.…”

Why is the Arab and Muslim world angry at the United States? Our passive tolerance for the continued building of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and the accompanying attacks by Israeli extremists on mosques and churches and olive groves is a key reason why. Pastor Hagee, have you ever been personally insulted? I most surely hope you have not, but if you have, I would guess that you still remember the sting of that insult. What Americans don’t understand — but very much need to — is that the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world identify with the Palestinians who are being displaced by the bullying actions of Israel and feel this as a collective insult. They don’t understand why we Americans continue to support Israel in its abuse of Palestinians. Actions, as the saying goes, speak louder than words, so we should not be surprised that our unwavering support for Israel’s theft of Palestinian land leads many in the Arab and Muslim world to conclude that the U.S. values Jews and Israelis as first class citizens but disrespects Arabs and Muslims as second class citizens. And, if we are absolutely honest, we have to realize that this profound anger at our complicity in the mistreatment of Palestinians is one of several contributing factors which leads a tiny fraction of the Arab and Muslim world to turn to terrorism. The foolish and illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq is another.

Pastor Hagee, perhaps you might say, “These are interesting points, but the bottom line is quite simple: the Bible says that the land the Palestinians are on actually belongs to Israel. The Palestinians are there illegally, according to Scripture. There’s nothing to discuss.” That, incidentally, is what the “hilltop youth” and many other extremist settlers say.

Pastor Hagee, I found your website long on politics and short on theology, so I will have to speculate here. While we both share the same Christian faith — I have served for many years as a Mennonite deacon — I suspect that we disagree theologically on how we understand that faith. A fundamental point of Christian theology is that Christians believe that the Old Testament is, as the name indicates, indeed “old” and while worthy of our study it should not be seen as a rule book for us today. I believe that we should interpret the Bible from the point of view of Jesus in the New Testament Who taught us that all human beings are equally loved by God and deserve equal respect.

Consider the example of Father Abraham. He lived approximately 3,800 years ago in the Bronze Age and some of the customs and laws he observed were quite different from ours. He is a man I profoundly revere for having the courage to end the horrible practice of child sacrifice, but at the same time I most definitely do not believe we should be modeling all of our actions on his. For example, he arranged a marriage for his son, a custom most of us in the West would find outdated, even offensive today (Gen. 24:4 NRSV). He owned slaves (12:16). He took his slave Hagar as a wife at his first wife Sarah’s urging in order to bear an heir (16: 3-4) and thus became a polygamist. He took another wife (25:1) and in addition had an unspecified number of concubines or unmarried sexual partners and with them had sons (25:6). He engaged in the ritualistic killing of animals for sacrifices (15:10), a practice we find repulsive today.

Perhaps the most bizarre and offensive of Abraham’s actions by today’s standards was the fact that he married his half-sister (20:12), an act which we would consider incest. The practice was forbidden several hundred years later in the time of Moses (Deut. 27:22) but this and the other practices listed were apparently acceptable in the Bronze Age when Abraham lived somewhere around the year 1800 BCE.

Christians, Jews and Muslims all revere Abraham for his faith, but we reject many of his practices as antiquated and offensive from an era long gone. So why should we uncritically accept ancient Israel’s Late Bronze Age practice of ethnic cleansing of Philistines as directly applicable for the modern Palestinians as many of the extremist settlers do today? The Bible is a great story of growth and learning. The greatness of Father Abraham is that he was willing to grow and hear a new word from God and reject the horrific practice of child sacrifice and instead sacrifice a ram caught in a thicket.

Pastor Hagee, we shouldn’t get stuck in the Late Bronze Age. Just as Abraham heard a new word, we similarly need to hear a new word from Jesus Who clearly did not teach ethnic cleansing. Instead we should embrace His new vision of a healing community in which Arabs, Jews, Muslims and Palestinians are all treated equally as beloved children of God. That’s what the Prince of Peace would want us to do.

Mel Lehman
July 8, 2016

Illustration: “The Trial of Abraham’s Faith” by Gustave Dore

Mel Lehman

Mel Lehman is the director of of Common Humanity. He has worked in international humanitarian issues for several decades, inducing two decades at the National Council of Churches. He has traveled extensively in the Middle East and has published a number of articles about his experience.