The Middle East—Where is Jesus?

May 26, 2002



The Middle East—Where is Jesus? (5/26/02)

University Congregational Church—Wichita, Kansas

Rev. Gary Cox

It’s been over a year since I delivered a sermon on the state of the church. When I use the term “Church,” I’m not talking about our little corner of the world here at University Congregational Church, but rather that worldwide collection of men, women and children who group themselves under the heading of “Christian.”

I will tell you this. It would be easier to discuss the state of University Congregational Church. We’re doing just fine, thank you. In fact, I could spend the morning counting the many blessings I hope we never take for granted. We have a beautiful place to worship. We have a music program that is simply the best. That is a mixed blessing for Bob Meyers and me, as we often feel a bit inadequate approaching this pulpit after hearing what the choir has done that morning. They are a hard act to follow.

We have a Christian Education program that is nothing but top-notch. We have talented and faithful people serving on our boards—Trustees, Deacons, CE, Outreach, Music, and Church Council. We have a Women’s Guild that not only provides us with one of our great traditions—Cook’s Night Out—but which also performs countless acts of charity both for our church and for the community. And we have a paid staff and a group of volunteers that are the joy of my life to work with.

Sadly, the wider church is not in such great shape. In fact, for those of us who follow the day-to-day happenings in the worldwide church, it is easy to think our beloved church is coming apart at the seams. Of course, this is not the case. In his book entitled Manifest Your Destiny, self-help guru Wayne Dyer writes, “Remember, for every act of evil there are a million acts of kindness. This universe runs on the energy of harmony and balance.” I think we can apply that thinking to the church. For every horrendous headline, there are a million good deeds, none of which is sensational enough to make the news, but each of which is important enough to make this world a worthwhile place.

The best way I have found to follow the movements of the church is a publication called Christian Century. It is a biweekly publication that many mainline ministers read at least as religiously as the Bible, and it does a fair and evenhanded job of presenting the state of the church. There are two issues that have dominated Christian Century over the past several months, and many of you have asked me to write a sermon on these issues.

The two dominant issues with regard to the state of the church are, first, the Israeli—Palestinian dilemma; and second, the crisis in the Catholic Church regarding the abuse of young boys by Catholic priests. Both of these subjects are big enough and complex enough to fill an entire morning, so today we’ll look at the Middle East, and next week we’ll consider the outrageous problem currently confronting the Catholic Church.

We spent some time on this Middle East situation a few weeks back, and I have gained no new knowledge in the meantime that would allow me to set forth a solution to problem. The approach I want to take this morning is to consider the role of the church in that seemingly hopeless battle between the Jews and the Palestinians.

The church is divided on this issue. When I go to various meetings of local clergy, there is a clear divide between those who lean toward the cause of the Palestinians and those who side with Israel. Generally speaking, the more liberal churches tend to sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians, although they abhor the violence to which many of the Palestinians have resorted. And the more conservative churches tend to be aligned with Israel.

This is such a complex issue! I said a few weeks back that I was having trouble figuring out who the good guys are in that conflict, and my thinking remains as fuzzy today as it was then. There are several issues that keep coming up with regard to this problem, both in the news media and in the conversations I’ve heard among local clergy. Oil is a frequent issue. The Christian world, which due to the unpredictable currents of world history turns out to be the Western world—the center of which is the United States—needs oil. There is no doubt about that. And the figures I’ve seen reveal that only about 3% of the world’s oil reserves are beneath American soil. The United States cannot be energy independent as long as crude oil is our primary source of energy.

But this does nothing to clarify our role in the Middle East. For those who feel oil is the major factor in this situation, some say we should side with Israel, since they provide us with a military foothold in that region. Others say we should be sympathetic to the Palestinians, since we need to remain in the good graces of all their oil-rich Arab allies.

So scratch “oil” as a means of determining the Christian role, or even the American role, in the Middle East. Related to that issue is the issue of economics. The reason I place this in a different category from oil is that it includes the production of military weaponry, and is one of the most common topics of discussion among my friends in the clergy. Israel is the major recipient of American foreign aid, and almost all of that aid is in the form of military equipment. And when we send planes, bombs and tanks to Israel, it keeps a lot of people in our own nation employed. It keeps our very large defense industry happy. Many of those who benefit from these expenditures of our tax dollars speak out against the welfare state, and tax money being used to help the poor; but they have no problem with our tax dollars going to the defense industry.

If you have ever been to the Eisenhower library in Abilene, Kansas, you have seen the unforgettable words that are carved on the giant stone above his grave. They are the words from his final address to the nation. President Eisenhower, who was no dove when it comes to matters of the military, thought that one of the greatest threats to the United States of America was our own military-industrial complex.

These are Eisenhower’s words, from his farewell address in 1961: In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
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Now, especially in light of the fact that this is Memorial Day weekend, I want to be clear that when we talk about the military industrial complex, we are not talking about men and women in uniform who so faithfully serve our country. We are talking about the industry that builds the armaments and munitions for our military. That industry is necessary, and serves a vital function, but Eisenhower was noting that we need to keep a close eye on that industry, because it is economically fueled by war, and the threat of war.

Whether or not one believes those words of President Eisenhower, the fact is, as a society, we benefit when other nations arm themselves. For example, in 1997 President Clinton lifted the ban on sales of advanced weaponry to South American nations. Now we see the beginning of an arms race in our neighboring continent. Chile buys some advanced-technology F-16’s, so Brazil must have them too, and Peru has little choice but to keep up with their neighbors.

Who wins in this situation? Every dollar spent on advanced weaponry in struggling nations is a dollar that could be invested in business, or spent on the hungry, or used for medicine. Who comes out ahead in this South American arms race? We do—Americans. Nobody else. But our economy thrives as people from the assembly line workers to the major investors in our companies are enriched at the expense of the world’s poor. That is, in part, what Eisenhower was talking about.

And as our missiles, bombs and tanks roll through Palestinian towns and refugee camps, we can’t pretend we’re not involved. When that missile lands in the town square and blows up a person’s loved ones, it has USA written on the side of it. We gave it to Israel. We can argue whether or not it should have been launched, but we can’t argue who paid for it. We did.

Another issue that keeps popping up is the idea of anti-Semitism. Many of us feel a great deal of shame about the way people who have called themselves “Christians” have treated Jews over the centuries. We do not have a proud record in this area. And we find it difficult to criticize Israel, for fear of appearing to give in to anti-Semitism. And we all remember that when the state of Israel was established only a half-century ago, its Arab neighbors vowed to march the people of Israel into the sea. I mean, if you are a Jew living in Israel and don’t have a sense of paranoia, you just haven’t been paying attention.

At the same time, as Christians, we always try to anchor ourselves on the great truth revealed by Jesus. Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred. When Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers in the Sermon on the Mount, he knew that peacemaking was not a popular business. And the fact is, it is easier to make war than to make peace. It is easier to draw a line in the sand, especially when you have a military advantage, than it is to negotiate through all the details involved in making peace. And in this Israeli—Palestinian dilemma, peacemakers die. Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin—if you move your people toward peace, you get killed—by your own people.

And last but not least, there is the religious angle to the Middle East situation. Isn’t it odd that all the problems we’ve discussed so far are economic and political? And those problems are difficult enough to work through, but now let’s throw in the fact that religious differences lie at the foundation of all those other problems.

To say the religious problem is deep-rooted is an understatement. If we were to attempt to put a time frame on when this all started, we would have to go back about four thousand years. According the biblical account, it was then that a 75-year-old man named Abram, later known as Abraham, was traveling with his wife Sarah and his nephew Lot across the land of Canaan. I’ll quote from the 12th chapter of Genesis:

At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” Okay, there is no question about what land it was Abraham was promised. It was the “Promised Land”—which today is alternately called Israel and Palestine. The problem is the “offspring” part of the Lord’s promise. Who are the offspring of Abraham to whom the Lord promised the Promised Land?

You’ve all heard the story, but let’s go over it one more time. Abraham believes the Lord. Even though he and his wife were very old and had no children, somehow a great nation would arise through his descendents. After a time, Sarah agreed to allow her husband Abraham to conceive a child through her slave, Hagar. The child was named Ishmael.

That would pretty much settle things if not for the fact that Sarah then became pregnant. And Isaac is born soon thereafter. After the birth of Isaac, Abraham gives in to Sarah’s jealousy and sends Hagar and their son, Ishmael, out into the desert to die. But the Lord intervenes, saves Ishmael, and promises to make a great nation of his descendents.

Okay. Who gets the Promised Land? The descendents of Isaac or Ishmael? Both of them had twelve sons. Both of them had lots of descendents. And even today, the people of the Arab world believe they are the direct descendents of Ishmael, and the Hebrew people believe they are the direct descendents of Isaac.

Never mind that Bible scholars almost unanimously agree that all of these characters—Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael—are not really historical people. And never mind that when this story from Genesis reveals the Lord’s promise to Abraham, it clearly states that there were already people living there—the Canaanites. None of that matters. It is the Hatfields and the McCoys taken to the extreme, and there is no rational argument that I can see which will make these people stop hating each other.

Those non-Jewish nomadic tribes that claimed lineage to Abraham through Ishmael were ultimately united under the Islamic faith. And ever since that time—around 600 AD—there have been three religions who call the same little piece of real estate the Promised Land—the Holy Land—and all three have been convinced that God is on their side to the exclusion of the other two.

There is nothing in this world more dangerous than a person who thinks he is a warrior for God. And don’t think these folks are only found in the Muslim and Jewish world. Several weeks ago, as the adult Sunday School class met before church, we had an interesting visitor. I saw this guy walk in, looking lost and wandering around, so I left the discussion to see what he was up to. He started spewing forth some of the most amazing religious garbage regarding Israel, the Second Coming of Christ, and our Christian role in bringing about the end of the world that I had heard in a long time.

Now, I confess to having a bit of an ornery streak in me from time to time, so I told this guy that I felt confident the Adult Sunday School class would love to hear what he had to say. So we gave him about twenty minutes, and got a real lesson in the dangers of religious fanaticism.

He was not entirely coherent, but he had his facts down pat. We soon learned that he was not a part of any organized Christian group; that he did not read the newspaper; and that he had every confidence that the end of the world was imminent, and it was the job of modern American Christians to do what God was calling them to do: assist Israel in the current struggle so they could rebuild the Temple, which would house the antichrist, which would bring about the Second Coming, which would bring about the end of the world.

He further went into some detail about the Jesus we would see at the Second Coming. And this new Jesus was the exact opposite of the Jesus who walked the earth two thousand years ago. Remember Jesus of Nazareth, who told us never to return evil for evil; to turn the other cheek, to do to others as we would have them do to us; to love God with our heart, soul and mind; to love our neighbors as ourselves?

What we get at the Second Coming is his evil twin. We get an angry and bloodthirsty Jesus whose greatest joy comes in seeing the vast majority of God’s creation sent to eternal torment. I’ve always said, and I truly believe, that people who are obsessed with the Second Coming of Christ are the people who just can’t stand the Jesus we got the first time around.

So back to the original question—the state of the church in the world today—what is the appropriate role for the sincere Christian with regard to the Middle East quagmire? Well, I believe we have to look for Jesus in this situation. Where is Jesus in all of this? If Jesus was alive and well in our world today, where would he be?

We know where he would not be. Looking at Israel, he would not be fighting in the Israeli army. He would not be dropping bombs on refugee camps. He would not be leveling homes with American tanks. Likewise, looking at Palestine, he would not be sneaking into Jerusalem with a homemade bomb strapped around his waist. He would not be raising money for the making of those bombs. He would not be delivering hate-filled rhetoric from some hideout in the West Bank. Looking at America, he would not be stirring up hatred on talk radio. He would not be finding ways to enrich himself through the military industrial complex. And he would not be trying to find ways to twist the Bible and the Christian faith into a joyful hope for the end of the world.

Where is Jesus in all this? We know. We know in our hearts. Jesus is where the true church is. Jesus is in the broken heart of the Palestinian woman whose children have died in Ramallah. Jesus is in the anguished cries of the Jewish man whose wife was blown to pieces while riding on a bus in Jerusalem. And Jesus is right here, right now, in our silent prayers, as we pray that somehow, some way, God’s love will break through the madness and stop the insanity.