Over the years, organizers and speakers have offered four overarching messages or themes to attendees and to people who watch the proceedings on the Internet.
First, the Palestinians are suffering and it’s all Israel’s fault.
Second, relations between Christians and Muslims are great in the Holy Land and that if you have a problem with religious extremism, look to Christian Zionists and Israeli settlers.
Third, evangelical Christian support for Israel has undermined Christian-Muslim relations and made it impossible for Arab Christians to share the gospel with their Muslim neighbors in the Holy Land and the rest of the Middle East.
And lastly, Israeli Jews have either violated the higher teachings of Judaism (or the strictures imposed on them by the doctrines of Christianity that supercedes Judaism) by establishing for themselves a sovereign state and fighting to protect it.
In addition to listening to speakers, attendees are also taken on field trips run by tour guides from Olive Tree Tours, (a politicized tour company with anti-Zionist leanings), to highlight Palestinian suffering and Israeli misdeeds. Attendees are also invited to attend early-morning tours of the security barrier led by activists from the World Council of Church’s Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine Israel (EAPPI).
All this messaging is offered in front of a large screen displaying a cross standing in opposition to a guard tower, which makes it clear that this conference is about using the gospel to assess or judge Israel’s efforts to protect its citizens. Palestinian efforts to menace Israelis—and the supersessionist ideology used to justify these efforts—are largely downplayed, with two exceptions.
First, while most of the local Christians typically speak about how good Christian-Muslim relations are in Palestinian society, there are times when some local leaders have admitted that the relations are not so good and that their followers are fearful of the hostility directed at them by their Muslim neighbors who call on them to convert to Islam.
This happened at the 2012 CATC conference. And at the 2014 event, scholar Colin Chapman offered second-hand testimony about the fears of Christians in Muslim-majority environments. “We’re wounded,” he quoted one Christian from Lebanon as saying. “We fear them and despise them at the same time,” Chapman quoted his friend as saying.
The horror of anti-Christian violence is downplayed and countered by heavy doses of wish-fulfillment and magical thinking by speakers who say in effect “If only Christians did a better job of showing their love for Muslims, and of ‘finding new ways of relating’ to their Muslim neighbors things wouldn’t be so bad.”
The notion that Muslims need to be held accountable for their extremism and that Christians have the right, and obligation, to investigate the supersessionist foundations of Islamic supremacism is simply not on the agenda.
Keep in mind, this is Christ at the Checkpoint, not Christ at the Beheading, Christ at the Slave Auction, Christ at the Mass Killing, Christ at the Gas Attack or Christ at the Female Genital Mutilation.
The second way organizers address the issue of hostility toward Israel is to invite Messianic Jews to speak at their conference. Their role is offer up a defense of Israel and a refutation of Christian (but not Muslim) supersessionism. Ultimately, however, their presence reminds people that they are talking about Israel, the national home of people who reject Jesus as their Messiah.
The testimony of the Messianic Jews is framed along the lines of, “We are open to listening to our critics.”
In fact, it is a stage-managed show, an example of what theorists call “milieu control.”
The organizers control the environment, package its message, and throw in a bit of dissonance to give it a patina of robustness so that it is palatable to Christians in the West who still have vestiges of remorse over the Holocaust.
At the end of the conference, attendees are encouraged to go home and stay in solidarity with Evangelicals in the West Bank and promote peace in the Holy Land, by which they mean, “Tell everyone how much we suffer, how innocent we are, and how bad (most) Israelis are. And then come back in two years!”
I have left out one of the most important aspects of the conferences — the opening ceremony.
The first night of the CATC conferences are attended by officials from the Palestinian Authority, some in military dress, who smile and applaud when local Christian leaders offer their bayas—expressions of fealty and loyalty—to the people in control of the West Bank.
It is ironic to watch Palestinian Christians who accuse Christian Zionists of betraying Christ with their support of the Jewish state affirming their allegiance a Muslim political movement. But that’s what they do.
The bayas do not have to explicit, but sometimes they are. One of the most shameful expressions came in 2016 when Evangelical leader Munir Kakish told the grandees from the PA that a community of churches is “working on the intellectual and ideological rejection of Zionism and racism against our people.”
Another shameful display of submission came when conference organizer Munther Isaac translated a speech from a PA official declaring that the PA had established a peaceful national movement. Isaac translated this dishonest speech in the midst of a stabbing intifada that had cost dozens of Israelis their lives. Isaac knew it wasn’t true, but allowed himself to be used as a puppet to repeat the lies of the PA.
When the first night’s speeches are over, attendees from the West smile politely while the local Christian community surrounds the officials from the PA who deigned to show up, showering them with admiration like low-status males at a high-school keg party trying to ingratiate themselves with the dominant males who play varsity sports.
It’s a sad spectacle.
The atmosphere changes— substantially changes—the next morning on the first full day of the conference after the PA officials have gone back to their offices in Bethlehem and Ramallah. The day’s sessions begin with a round of worship, singing and bible study led by an ambitious megachurch pastor from the U.S. It is a reorientation that serves to drive away images of the previous night’s bayas from everyone’s memory so that the peacemaking can begin. It’s like a mouthwash.
Despite all the contradictions and the glitches in the narrative offered at CATC conferences, the organizers are able to create a virtual unreality that places attendees in a great moral struggle with the Jewish state. It gives Christians a chance to view themselves as struggling against Christ’s hard-hearted Jewish enemies in the 21st century, just as Jesus’ followers stood in opposition to the Pharisees in first century Jerusalem.
But in order for this virtual unreality to stay standing, attendees must forget about the scene of Palestinian Christian guides offering their bayas to the Palestinian Authority on the first night of the conference. And for one reason or another, that’s exactly what they do. They are caught in an empathy trap in which their concern for the welfare of the Palestinian Christians overwhelms their ability to sustain rational thought.
Why do prominent Christians in Bethlehem reenact this ritual humiliation every two years? Why do they allow the message of the gospel and their integrity as Christian leaders to be mingled with the violence, corruption and deceptions of the Palestinian Authority?
To understand what’s going on, it’s useful to read a 1978 essay written by Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, who was imprisoned for his anti-Soviet writings and eventually became president of the Czech Republic. The essay, titled The Power of the Powerless, describes the plight of an unnamed greengrocer who places a placard displaying the slogan “Workers of the world, unite!” above his produce.
Havel asks why he does it. It’s not as if the greengrocer has any real enthusiasm for the message he displays, it’s just his way of staying out of trouble and telling his neighbors and the powers that be, “I live here and I know what I must do... I am obedient and therefore have the right to be left in peace.”
Of course, this is not what the sign actually says. The greengrocer would have a tougher time, Havel writes, displaying a sign that read, “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient” because such a sign would deprive him of his dignity in too an explicit a manner. Havel writes:
[T]he real meaning of the greengrocer's slogan has nothing to do with what the text of the slogan actually says. Even so, this real meaning is quite clear and generally comprehensible because the code is so familiar: the greengrocer declares his loyalty (and he can do no other if his declaration is to be accepted) in the only way the regime is capable of hearing; that is, by accepting the prescribed ritual, by accepting appearances as reality, by accepting the given rules of the game. In doing so, however, he has himself become a player in the game, thus making it possible for the game to go on, for it to exist in the first place.
By telling the story they narrate about Israel at Christ at the Checkpoint Conference, the clergy and activists associated with the Bethlehem Bible College are following the rules of the game in “Palestine,” a failed state-in-waiting led by elites who use Jew-hatred and anti-Zionism to stay in power. By keeping Israel on perpetual trial, the leaders in the PA avoid being held to account for the crimes they have committed against the people they lead.
The biennial CATC conferences are a ritual to keep this trial going.
In sum, the organizers of the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference are merely doing their part to keep the PA afloat despite its corruption, violence and irredentism. The notion that the Christians who organize Christ at the Checkpoint conferences can speak truth to those who wield power in the West Bank is simply laughable, a bad joke. The only thing they can do in safety is to defame Israel and its supporters in the West.
There are a few Christians in the Holy Land who refuse to play the role of Havel’s green grocer in the West Bank. They preach the gospel, tell the truth about Palestinian society (sometimes quietly) and suffer the consequences. I have written about one such church in the past, but am reluctant to draw any more attention to the community in question, because I simply do not want to set the church up as a target for more violence and harassment from the PA. I enjoy the great moral luck of living in a country where religious freedom is protected and I have no right to set anyone else up for martyrdom.
Still, the shameful manner in which the Bethlehem Bible College, and other Christian institutions have assisted Palestinian efforts to demonize Israel raises a serious question:
Is the presence of established church institutions such as Bethlehem Bible College, World Vision, the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, the Catholic Near East Welfare Agency in the Gaza and the West Bank a good thing or a bad thing?
Maybe it is a bad thing, because the price these institutions pay for being able to operate in Palestinian society is to broadcast misinformation about Israel and assist in the continual demonization of the Jewish state. They are not working to transform “Palestine” but to broadcast anti-Israel hatred into the West.
The long-term price of this behavior is the devaluation and denigration of the gospel by folks who keep trying to tell us they are the next reincarnation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when in fact, they’re just another one of Havel’s greengrocers.
Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). His opinions are his own.