• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Overstepping? Evangelical Leaders and a Palestinian State

A number of American evangelical leaders, among whom I count several friends, recently wrote an open letter to President Bush urging a Middle East policy that includes “a viable, independent, secure state.” Indeed, they say that their support for such a state is a matter of mere “historical honesty” and is “the only way” to end violence in that region.

I have to raise two cheers for this declaration, but not three.

One cheer for evangelical leaders demonstrating that evangelicals can have different views about how to deal with problems in the Middle East other than automatic and enthusiastic support for whatever policy is touted by whatever government happens to be in charge of Israel today. Indeed, if Israelis can have several views about what is to be done, surely outsiders are entitled to have more than one view. And publicly avowing such a view will help evangelical work among Islamic communities around the world in which being totally supportive of Israel is understood as being totally antagonistic to Islam.

A second cheer for signaling that evangelical leaders care about justice and compassion beyond the narrow agenda of the Dobson-Falwell-Robertson axis. Yes, the signatories of this letter still care about abortion, euthanasia, promiscuity, and the like. But they feel it is important to have a public campaign for an ethic embracing all of life.

I can’t raise the third cheer, however, and for two reasons.

First, I’m not sure how these brothers and sisters can advocate such a particular stance in the way they do. This letter isn’t just indicative of a willingness to be critical of this or that policy of this or that Israeli government. It isn’t just open to a vision of the Middle East that includes, as one negotiable policy, a Palestinian state. It advocates a quite particular position–a sovereign Palestinian state–and does so with what to me is breathtaking moral and epistemological assurance. Such a state, this letter avers, is simply required by both justice and history. Really? It’s as clear as that? Heretofore, I confess I had thought this was actually a somewhat complex issue!

And how is it that each of the signatories believes himself or herself even qualified to render such a judgment? I’ve been to Israel just once, and read a bit of the history of the region, and I’ve also dabbled in Christian ethics. So I’m no expert. But my impression is that the further one gets into these matters, the more complicated they become, not the less! So I’m confused that these people in such different walks of life (as indicated by their organizational affiliations) all believe they have worked through the historical, political, and theological issues involved such that they can speak with this measure of simplicity and confidence. I just don’t see how they can.

Furthermore, I wonder about the wisdom of identifying themselves by their organizations. I realize that this sort of listing is done to identify people. But in such a politically charged matter–and what matter is more politically charged?–I can’t wholeheartedly agree with these leaders connecting their particular views with their organizations in this public way, for their organizations surely don’t necessarily and uniformly share their views, but will nonetheless be affected by this public stance taken by leaders.

In their very quest, that is, to show that at least some evangelical leaders have a broad range of social concerns (hurrah!) and have more than one opinion about this one (hurrah!), I don’t see how they can be quite so positive about this one (hmm…) and link their multi-opinioned organizations to it (hmm, again).

I would have rather they had spoken on behalf of the shared values of evangelicals and gone on to show how those values can lead to a wide range of concerns, and to several opinions about at least some of those concerns. Instead, they have traded one set of certitudes for another.

So I can cheer only twice.