I grew up in an evangelical Lutheran world that celebrated Israel relentlessly. I was in high school in 1967 and we cheered Israel’s 6-day victory. In 1972-1973 I spent an academic year in the Middle East (Beirut), traveled widely, and brought with me two books: Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth and Dr. John Walvoord’s dispensational commentary on the Book of Revelation. On a trip to Israel, I literally stood in the Valley of Armageddon holding a copy of Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth. I read the paragraph about the final battle in Lindsay and looked it up it in the Book of Revelation in my Bible. I underlined it with an orange felt-tip Flair. I stood on the hill of Megiddo and imagined the carnage.
I was a junior in college in the fall of 1973 when we heard stories in church about angels backing up Israeli troops during the Yom Kippur war. In those days, I attended the enormous Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, and regularly heard Pastor Chuck Smith tell all of us in the Jesus Movement to prepare for the rapture. After I finished seminary and more graduate school in Europe, I settled into my career as a professor and along with a colleague began teaching the historical geography of Israel in Israel. This meant hiking and bussing all over the country with about 30 college students, explaining the geography, and retelling the biblical stories at the right locations. Occasionally we met “the locals” but the Arab was usually the bus driver and
the Jew was at the airport security desk. We ran these trips countless times so that even today I can imagine driving almost anywhere in Israel.
When the first Palestinian uprising broke out in 1987 I wondered what all the fuss was about. This was Israel and the Palestinians were visitors in the Holy Land. The conflicts accelerated in the late 1980s and into the 1990s and they became troublesome to us and our academic tour program. By accident I met a young Palestinian guy in his 20s
whose father was a pastor in Ramallah and this started all of my problems. First, how could anybody be Palestinian and Christian? And second, how could anyone say that this uprising was legitimate?
I then met his father and he invited me to send my group of students home after this trip, change my ticket, and stay in Ramallah while it was under occupation. I did. We spent long nights talking about theology and sneaking out after curfew to watch what was happening on the ground. And here is the truest thing I can say: You can’t understand a story of occupation and oppression or the violence it requires unless you’ve seen it up close — or made friends with those who live it.
This Arab pastor told me that even though I thought I had been to the Holy Land a dozen times, I had only been there once. I had been on the “tourist trail” and never gone astray. He was right. This tourist trail kept people from seeing behind the scenes in order to protect the Israeli tourism industry. But now I had peeked behind that curtain. And there was no going back.
I asked to meet other pastors. And this led to a network of friendships. And more experiences in the second uprising of 2000. I wrote a book about this in 2003 (Whose Land? Whose Promise?) and while it became a best seller my momentary fame evaporated quickly: I foolishly thought my evangelical friends would like to learn what was going on. They did not. By then I was a tenured professor at evangelical Wheaton College, still taking students to “Israel/Palestine” and feeling the growing resentment of my evangelical world. Which culminated in a formal letter from the college that prohibited me from taking any of our students to a Palestinian theology conference because “it was dangerous.” It would be “upsetting.” Some might need counseling afterward. Actually, it was inconvenient for Wheaton’s constituency.
I have returned to Israel/Palestine and about a half dozen Arab countries many times over the years. I have tried to read widely and thoughtfully and discovered that the views of Israel – the theological views promoted by Christian Zionism — are ill-informed and simply not biblical (see my analysis of this in Jesus and the Land). But worse, they
are dangerous. I became convinced that there was a severe moral flaw in my evangelical church’s commitments. We were promoting harm and not representing the gospel or the love and truth of Christ in this part of the world. Our zeal for prophecy, our excitement about Israel and our hope in end times had blinded us. In a word, Christian Zionism had betrayed us.
About Gary Burge: A respected authority on the context of the New Testament, Dr. Gary Burge has authored numerous books on an academic level as well as books for laypeople. His technical works generally focus on the Gospel of John as well as the Israel/Palestine conflict. Gary is Professor of New Testament and Dean of the Faculty at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI (USA). His works include Life Questions Every Students Asks (edited by Gary Burge and David Lauber), Interpreting the Gospel of John, and John: the NIV Application Commentary.