The mission of the Church in the shadow of the Israeli election
The events of the last Israeli election are a wake-up call to the church, a challenge to find ways to be more effective in its mission, argues Azar Ajaj
The famous theologian Karl Barth once said, “We should carry the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other hand”.
This will help us, on the one hand, to understand what challenges our community is going through, and, on the other, to consider how the Word of God might help the church relate to the challenges. However we as evangelicals have often failed to carry this through; instead we have carried the Bible with both hands.
We are well acquainted with Scripture, but are strangers to our people, community, and country. As a result, our message is often seen as irrelevant, and we are unable to give answers to the questions and needs of the people. With respect to the current needs of society, the events of the last Israeli election, in my opinion, are a wake-up call to the church, a challenge to find ways to be more effective in its mission.
Many friends from abroad have asked my opinion about the elections. My answer is that these elections were significant: what happened before the elections, as well as the results, should have a direct effect on the mission of the church in Israel.
There are two major points from the elections that I would like to identify and reflect on.
First, the unity of all the Arab parties under what was called the “Joint List”. Almost 80 per cent of the Israeli Arabs who voted in this election voted for this party, and in my opinion most of those who abstained from voting did so not out of disagreement with the platform of the Joint List, but out of disenchantment with the political system itself. But, what were the main issues of the Joint List agenda that motivated Arab voters to vote for this party?
Many said that the fact that four major parties united for the List was itself the main achievement; this unity attracted many people to vote. The next important issue on the agenda was a Two State Solution to bring peace and dignity to both Israelis and Palestinians.
The issue of equal rights for the Arabs in Israel and the fight against racism and discrimination was also a major item on the agenda. All this together, plus other social issues, made the Arab people believe that the Joint List is the best party to represent them in the Israeli parliament.
what happened before the elections, as well as the results, should have a direct effect on the mission of the church in Israel.
Second, the “victory” of the right wing parties. In fact, this is not unprecedented; they have long been here, and, unless a deep change happens in Israeli society, they will be there for many years to come. What was different this time was the competition between the right wing parties to bolster one’s credentials as “least tolerant” to the Palestinian Israeli community. This sadly included, a few times, the use of racist expressions, and certainly involved using words that do not promote respect to Arab citizens, words which present them as strangers and enemies of the country.
Furthermore, they were vying with one another in more adamantly opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state and in defiantly working to increase the number of Israeli settlements. This attitude was prominent among the leaders of the right wing parties, including Prime Minister Netanyahu himself. The election campaign struck a distinctively negative chord.
Having said that, the question the Church (and I here relate more to the evangelical churches) in Israel should ask herself is how can we better serve the Arab Israeli community in particular, and the Israeli community in general, in the light of these elections?
I believe the Church in Israel is doing a good job on the spiritual level by presenting the Gospel message of salvation and hope we have in Christ. However, we have very little involvement on the social level and almost nothing on the political one. Just to make it clear, I am not saying the church should be directly delving into the politics of the country; rather she has to have a prophetic voice in the following directions:
First, the church should identify with the pain, the suffering, and the challenges of its own people, in order to be able serve them. In fact, this is exactly what Christ did with His incarnation--He became one of us. That does not necessarily mean that we agree with everything our people do to face their challenges and solve their problems, not at all. At times we need the courage to criticize what we believe is wrong. But “identification” gives us the right, as part of the people, to relate to the challenges in a Christian way and with Christian values.
Second, as Christians we are called to “act justly and to love mercy” (Micah 6:8). When the prophets of Israel raised their voices against injustice and the oppression of the poor, they were not called “politicians” but “prophets”. I believe the church should have the same prophetic voice today. We should be advocates for justice and call and act for mercy for the oppressed and the poor. We are called to pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1 Tim 2:1-2)
But might we not, besides praying with them, also have the opportunity and the right to share with God’s heart, love, mercy and justice with our leaders? It seems, according to these verses, that Paul teaches us that we have a role in achieving “peaceful and quiet lives”. Why should we withhold this blessing from our leaders, our people, and our country?
If we want a better future for ourselves and for our children, a future built on respecting and loving “the other”, then let us take part in building it.
Third, as I mentioned before, much hatred was promoted during this election campaign. A major part of the election’s propaganda was calculated to frighten people, to alienate one’s constituents from an alleged “enemy”. This shocked me as well as many people. Nevertheless, are we not asked to be the “light and salt of the earth”?
How important, then, in such circumstances to promote and show love to those who have been styled as our “enemies”. In fact we are asked to be peacemakers. Therefore, it would be important that the church at this dark time seek to build relationships and establish a dialogue with the Jewish community in Israel, as well as the Muslim one. If we want a better future for ourselves and for our children, a future built on respecting and loving “the other”, then let us take part in building it. Otherwise, those with other values will determine what this future will be.
Finally, among other reasons, the issue of unity between the different Arab parties was an important reason for the support they enjoyed.
Clearly, Arab people in Israel were looking for such a development. Arab Israelis have been a divided minority for many years, and this division has not helped their case. And I wonder, “Is there not a lesson here for the church too?”
We as evangelicals are a minority within a minority within a minority; yet still we manage to divide from one another. Is not this lesson of unity a lesson for us, the people of Jesus? I believe it is, and I hope we will seek more and more ways of uniting in order to be a light, salt, and a blessing to the Arabs and Jews in Israel. God willing, one day we will speak of an election in the shadow of justice, mercy, love, and respect.
The Revd Azar Ajaj is a Baptist minister and President of the Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary