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A Zionist Crosses the Wall

Louise Morse

As a fundamentalist taught to believe that the destruction of Palestine would hasten the 'end times', Linda Ramsden was in for a shock when she met her first real Palestinian.

One evening in October 2001, I made a phone call from my home in Surrey to my Palestinian Christian friend, Grace, in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem. The entire conversation was surreal. While I sat in the peace and quiet of my office, Grace, speaking from her mobile phone, was huddled beside her husband and young baby as they lay on the floor in the middle of their ground floor apartment.  As we spoke I could hear explosions from rockets launched from Gilo, the Israeli settlement across the valley, and I worried frantically for the life of my friends. I burst out crying.

'Don't worry,' was Grace's reply. 'We're glad you understand what's happening to Palestinians. God is looking after us. This is our life. We're together, and that's what's important; there's nothing more we can do.'  

I couldn't believe that Grace was telling me not to worry! The Second Intifada (Arabic for 'shaking off') was more than a year old. Bethlehem was experiencing attacks by sophisticated tanks and Apache helicopters developed and sold by the USA to Israel. The area was under curfew, buildings were being reduced to rubble, and civilians were dying. Thoughts of Bethlehem and my new-found Palestinian Christian friends were dominating my daily thoughts.  
I remember sinking back in my chair after my emotional conversation with Grace and reflecting on what had happened that had caused the entire foundation for my life to change so dramatically, beginning the day that I met a Palestinian for the first time.

My childhood and youth on a small farm in Minnesota had been idyllic. Life revolved around our extended family, the tight-knit community where everyone knew everyone else, and the Lutheran Church, where I served as church organist. I'd done well at school and was involved in many activities.  
However I wasn't prepared for moving away to the big city to attend university, thus when I arrived I felt lost. It was at the end of the civil rights movement and during the Vietnam War. My parents, staunch Republicans and fiercely patriotic, warned against involvement in the peace movement, drugs and 'liberal ideas' and having been brought up to respect my elders without question, I was afraid to defy them. Neither at home nor at school was there any meaningful discussion about the challenges that the US government was facing as a result of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the hippies who challenged the status quo, to say nothing of the world at large. It was all so far away and too easy for us to live in our comfortable bubble on the farm where we were more concerned about keeping up appearances in the community, hog prices and rainfall for the crops.

I was increasingly sickened by materialism and the craze for the latest fashions or new inventions and believed that it was one's character that really mattered. I was sure that if I found Christians with whom I could connect, it would give me the identity and purpose that I sought in the big city. I found what I was looking for when I was invited to attend Bible study sessions held on campus.

I'd never heard teaching like it. The leader explained the scriptures in a way that brought the Bible to life for me. Soon I had my own 'born-again' experience which was followed by a full immersion baptism in a Minneapolis lake. I adopted an overtly literal interpretation of the scriptures and a great deal of emphasis in our studies was put on prophecies about the 'end times'.

Our fervent leader persuaded me that it was a waste of time and money to complete the final year of my four year degree course because I should be out converting people to Christ so that they could be saved from hell and damnation. He also took a group of us to a Bible study centre over in Ohio where families and young adults lived in a community that attempted to be self-sufficient as they waited for Christ's imminent return.

I found life at the commune exciting and after a few visits I was offered a job, enabling me to stay. A regular guest speaker was Hal Lindsey, a modern-day 'prophet'. I literally sat at the feet of this man who went on to become one of the top-selling authors of the last century with his books which include The Late Great Planet Earth (sales exceed 28 million copies) and Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth.

Hal used the establishment of the state of Israel, in 1948, as the basis for his writing and believed that it was the signal to the world that we were in the last days and that the countdown to Armageddon, the last great battle, had begun. His beliefs seemed to be confirmed during Israel's Six Day War in June 1967, which enabled Israel to occupy East Jerusalem, with access once again to the Western (or Wailing Wall) in the Old City, and the rest of the land to the east towards the west bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip to the south which borders on Egypt.  

In those days, we prayed for revival to come to the USA and for more evangelical Christians to be in political positions. Hal Lindsey was a long-time friend of Ronald Reagan, who quoted Lindsey's books; Lindsey gave seminars at the Pentagon and is recognized today as one of the leaders of the Christian Zionist movement which has influenced US Foreign Policy.  Many people believe that the rise of the Christian right wing and the state of the world today are proof of God's answer to those prayers of 40 years ago. Because they are convinced that we are living in the last days, there is no urgency to deal with climate change or to work for peace with justice in the Middle East; rather, they are generous funders of the provocative and illegal building of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land to help Jews populate the land they believe was promised to them by God.

Fundamentalist Christian Zionism is composed of seven tenets:

1. An ultra-literal reading of the Bible, as opposed to an allegorical interpretation of biblical passages lending to a unique revelation of conditioned events.  Special emphasis is placed on the verses that predict future events, especially concerning the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus Christ.

2. The Jews remain God's chosen people thus they continue to enjoy a special relationship with him. God blesses those who bless the Jews and curses whoever curses the Jews.

3. The land God promised to his chosen people through Abraham and the Patriarchs is 'Eretz Israel', from the Nile to the Euphrates in modern-day Iraq. Christian Zionists believe this promise still applies today and therefore the modern day state of Israel is a miracle of God and fulfilment of Bible prophecy. The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the occupation of Palestine after victory in 1967 demonstrate that God continues to favour the Jewish people, that he protects them and that they have every right to this land.  Jews from around the world must return to live in the land God chose for them.  

4. Jerusalem (or Zion) is the eternal and exclusive capital of the State of Israel, which must remain under its sovereignty and must never be divided.

5. A replica of the Jewish Temple built by King Solomon must be rebuilt on Temple Mount. This means that the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, Muslim holy sites, must be destroyed.

6. Christian Zionists believe that Arabs do not have the same status or rights to the land in Eretz Israel as the Jews.  

7. Believers will be 'raptured' to heaven before the last battle - Armageddon. Therefore Jesus will return twice: first secretly to rescue his true believers out of this world; and then his second return will be visible, when he will be accompanied by all his saints, to judge the world.  

While at the commune in Ohio, I'd met and married an Englishman who felt that we should begin our marriage in his country, away from the community. He insisted that it was biblical to have a year away to establish our marriage before sharing a home with others where there would be little privacy. We lived in Surrey and joined an evangelical, charismatic community that was part of the house church movement. It became clear that my husband was content here and didn't want to return to Ohio. Within two years he began a business of his own which meant we put down roots in England. We had children and I cherished the time I had with them. My ultimate goal had been to be a wife and mother and I hoped that I would be able to have several years with the children to see them grow up before the rapture happened and we'd be whisked from the earth.

Over the years, my time spent following happenings in Israel diminished as it revolved more around reaching the nation for Christ, however I still believed the tenants of Christian Zionism. I was challenged about continuing down this path when I met a Palestinian for the very first time. It was July 1988 and not only was he a Palestinian, but he was a Anglican vicar from Nablus! Until then I thought that all Palestinians were terrorists and I never realized that Palestinian Christians still existed.

On that occasion I had the opportunity to spend some time with him over four memorable days. He told us the story of his family being made refugees when the state of Israel was established. Learning the details of the injustice experienced by a Christian family didn't align with my understanding of a loving and righteous God, and for the first time I began examining what I'd been taught without question all those years ago by Hal Lindsey. It took me another ten years to make the journey to the Holy Land to witness the situation, which then turned my life completely upside down.

We signed up to join a small pilgrimage group that was being led by someone from our church. During the flight I read through the AA travel guide to Israel. It warned against going into most areas of the West Bank because of two 'well-supported, well-funded and well-armed Palestinian guerrilla organisations' based there which are 'at war' with Israel.

Of course it's important to warn naive travellers about what might be in store for them when visiting new locations. However after reading through the guidebook, I became nervous because I'd been given the impression, rightly or wrongly, that it's best to get in and out of Arab areas as quickly as possible due to it being unsafe, noisy and dirty and we certainly didn't want to put our lives at risk!

Our itinerary included the usual pilgrimage stops - Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Massada, the Dead Sea, the Galilee area and Caesarea. As our journey progressed, I found myself drawn deeper into serious contemplation of Jesus' life and the message he sought to convey to the world. On the penultimate day, I turned to our guide and questioned him about his background. When he revealed that he was a Palestinian Muslim, I gasped with embarrassment. I told him that his knowledge of the Bible was incredible and considering the way he could quote verses from both the Old and New Testament, it was better than some of our church leaders.

I was also staggered by this revelation because I came from a church that demonized Muslims. I remembered the Sunday that our leader encouraged us to join in prayer about the growth of Islam. The Communist system had collapsed but now with the influx of Muslims to the UK, this was the next great threat to Christianity and we needed to pray against its expansion.

My husband and I enjoyed staying at the hotel in Bethlehem and as our evenings were free, we went exploring. We walked up and down the streets and in and out of shops and cafes. Everybody we met was so warm and welcoming. The friendly service in our hotel was not to be faulted and not once did we worry about our safety.

Despite the pastoral beauty of the Galilee area and the stunning Mediterranean Sea coastline,  the real connection for me was Bethlehem, with its hustle and bustle: crowded narrow streets not built for the amount of traffic in the town centre; the variety of people, some in traditional garb - with keffiyahs and long embroidered dresses - and others in modern Western attire; the exotic smells: spices in the Old City Market, the qahawa - Arabic coffee with cardamom, apple with mint tobacco wafting from the nargilla (water pipes), smoked by men over games of backgammon. I didn't mind the fact that there were no green lawns. The autumn rain hadn't arrived and with Bethlehem located on the edge of Judean Desert, it was dry and dusty. But the town was alive with its vibrant culture and rich heritage!  

I witnessed Christians and Muslims living and working together and spirituality amongst Muslims that I never knew existed. I pondered on what I'd been taught and wholeheartedly embraced throughout my life; not only my 'black and white' interpretation of scripture but also the way I esteemed the USA, the world's greatest democracy and super power. Therefore by the time the tour drew to a close, I felt the foundation for my life begin to crumble.

I entered a period of inner turmoil and my previously confident strides faltered.  Here I was aged 48 when for the first time I began questioning my outlook on life. I knew that British people had called me gullible and a 'Pollyanna'. But their opposites of cynicism and negativity were not attributes to which I aspired and felt I'd rather be known as being generous of spirit. Yet if I wanted to convince others of my change of heart, I knew that I had to tread carefully and with facts. I sought to discover as much as I could through reading, exposing myself to a different circle of people and by returning to the Holy Land to witness more of the reality and to hear from the locals.
I devoured books frequently reading until the early hours of the morning. Often these were emotional times, and as I discovered the errors of my ways, I sobbed.

Blood Brothers by Abuna Elias Chacour told the story of the demolition of his village when the state of Israel was established. All the residents were forced out and became refugees. As Christians they were challenged on how to respond in a godly way to those who had done them such injustice. The book confronted not only the theology that I'd held about the Jews still being the 'chosen' people but also the 'prosperity gospel' which teaches that if humans have faith in God, he will honour them with security and financial blessing. The experience of Palestinian Christians flattened that doctrine.  

Abuna Chacour dares his readers to 'get your hands dirty' by engaging with issues and to take risks, despite the cost. He helped me to understand what I later learned is called the 'social gospel' where the emphasis is on the importance of extending dignity to every human being, despite their race or creed, and on Jesus' words as he instructs his followers to reach out to the poor, the needy, the oppressed, the orphans and widows.

I was challenged when I read Abuna's description of the Christian, Palestinian, Israeli, Arabs of Galilee as 'living stones' and people who wrestle for an identity, role and place of acceptance inside the modern Israel but who are abandoned by the Western church as they ride by in air-conditioned coaches looking for the 'holy stones'.

I found myself in a seminar given by Afif Safieh, a Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem who represented the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in the UK. I had only known the PLO as a terrorist organisation but Afif cut through my naive assumption as if with a knife. He explained that Palestinians experience administrative problems throughout life and suffer daily harassment. Afif explained that forced displacement continues and that the majority of Palestinians live under conditions of complete destitution. He ended his presentation by stating that being Palestinian means helplessly witnessing the gradual Judaization of one's homeland.

I realized that although the pilgrimage in which I had participated was great on a personal level, we did not connect in any significant way with any of the local people, whether they be Christians, Muslims or Jews. I felt driven to explore further what I might do to help facilitate ways for people to see the history, experience the culture and meet the locals on both sides of the divide.

As I continued to learn more about the injustice experienced by the Palestinian people, my feeling of heaviness and perplexity was compounded. It became difficult for me to sing some of the worship songs or join in the exuberant dancing during our church meetings. It all seemed simplistic; to me its joyfulness was hollow in its disconnection from the pain of the world. Eventually we moved away and now we share our lives with people of all faith and none who are committed to peace based on justice.

I have made a 180 degree change in my understanding of Israel/Palestine. I believe that believers in Christian Zionism need to be challenged. Having them witness the reality on the ground can help them let go of a belief which is embedded in judgementalism and bad theology.  

The change in my life has been dramatic and traumatic. However it has also been liberating. Considering where I've come from, perhaps it can be said that miracles still do happen.

Linda Ramsden