Errant Bible interpretation causes many American Christians to side with Israel against Lebanon, an Arab Baptist scholar said amid reports this weekend that Israeli air strikes killed dozens of children in the southern Lebanese village of Qana.
Martin Accad, academic dean at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, charged "unquestioning identification of the modern state of Israel with biblical Israel" leads some Christians to misread the Bible.
"Christians are not able to differentiate between 'biblical Israel' and today's political State of Israel," Accad told EthicsDaily.com. "As soon as you are able to make the difference between these two entities, your readings of history and of the Bible begin to be straightened up."
Accad said the "new Israel" prophesied in the New Testament does not refer to modern Israel but rather to the worldwide community of Christ's followers. "The church is Israel renewed and restored," he said, quoting 1 Peter 2:9-10. "All of God's eternal promises, beginning with his promises to Abraham, are fulfilled in Christ."
Stranded in the United States due to fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Accad said conservative evangelical Christians in the U.S. are often equated with Zionist Christians, but he thinks there is a difference between the two.
"I am myself a 'conservative evangelical Christian' believer in the Bible's absolute authority in all matters of life," he said. Zionism, on the other hand, he said, "is a secularist, largely atheistic ideology" that emerged in the late 19th century.
Accad termed Christian Zionism, a belief by some Christians that the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was prophesied in Scripture and is a precursor for Christ's return, a "contradiction in terms." Rather, he said, "There are only certain Christians that have adopted a Zionist ideology."
Those people, he said, "would do well to read some historical accounts of the rise of Zionism in the late 19th century and to read about this ideology's early promoters."
Accad said America has "blurred the lines between its own political and economic interests, on the one hand, and divine justice, on the other."
"I have heard numerous American Christians speak of American foreign policy as just, fair and as the hand of God doing God's will on earth," he said. "This always leaves me in stupefied disbelief."
Part of the problem, he said, is that American political leadership has expressed itself in such terms, using expressions such as "crusade," "divine justice," "judgment," conflict between "good and evil" and the "axis of evil" to describe enemies of the United States. With such talk, Accad asked, "How can Muslims and even Arab Christians view these foreign interventions as other than just another crusade?"
The Lebanese Baptist leader said American Christians today "have a unique chance to make a difference by not falling for deceptive and manipulative political rhetoric. They can actually receive an open ear when they are willing to question the use of force and demonstrate that they really seek after justice, mercy and humility."
Born in Lebanon and holding dual citizenship in Lebanon and Switzerland, Accad earned a Ph.D. degree from Oxford University. Ironically, he defended his Ph.D. dissertation on Sept. 11, 2001, the day terrorists attacked targets in the New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. A few days later, Accad returned to Lebanon and took up his job at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also founded and directs the ABTS Institute of Middle East Studies.
Accad wrote his doctoral dissertation on the history of interaction between Christianity and Islam and is writing a book on Christian-Muslim dialogue, hoping to find constructive ways to crack the ancient deadlock between these faith traditions.
He wrote two columns that appeared on the Christianity Today Web site to offer perspective on the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, challenging both American Christian prejudice against Arabs and Muslims and Israel's current attacks in Lebanon.
While expecting 90 percent criticism, he said, response has been overwhelmingly positive. "I got not more than five negative e-mails out of over 100 e-mails," he said.
But critics didn't mince words. "Shame on you, foolish little man," said one negative e-mail. "You are one of Satan's moronic helpers and don't even know it."
A similar response came from a blogger who self-identified as a conservative Christian fundamentalist.
"Mr. Martin Accad, dean of Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, blames Israel for just about everything that is happening in Lebanon--and blames the Americans, too," the blogger wrote. "Heeeeeee-hawwwwwww! Didn't he read Genesis 16 and sundry other passages that speak of Ishmael and his descendants as being like wild donkeys? He is certainly braying like one."
Accad said he was shocked at such insulting words.
"The fact that Islam is prone to using violence is no secret to anyone, and so are Western nations," he said. "But that these nations consider they are using violence in the name of Christ or Christianity is quite shocking to me, and that people who claim to be followers of Christ would be willing to use such aggressive talk is also shocking to me."
"I can find no justification whatsoever for the use of violence in Christ's name. If Muslims want to do it in God's name, we need to deal with it and address this with Muslim leadership," he wrote. "It is, however, deeply distressing that so many in the church around the world are just as willing to carry arms and insult in Jesus' name."
Accad told EthicsDaily.com that his wife, a filmmaker, had been evacuated to Cyprus, but that his parents, two siblings and eight nephews and nieces were still in Lebanon.
He said he has given consideration on being smuggled back into Lebanon through Syria.
"But the routes into Lebanon are all being bombed by Israeli jet planes on a regular basis. My friends and family, who have been using the roads between Beirut and the Bekaa Valley close to the eastern border with Syria, have described to me the scenes of horror. Multitudes of cars and trucks and human bodies burnt up on the roadsides. They have had to use a 4x4 [vehicles] in order to go and check on friends that are living in bombed up areas. Roads that used to be highways are now dirt tracks and practically inaccessible with normal cars," he said.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
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