Commentary Magazine


Topic: Jesus

More Christmas Lies from Palestinians

It’s a Christmas tradition in Ramallah. Following the same pattern first established by his predecessor Yasir Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas uses his annual Christmas holiday message to claim that Jesus was a Palestinian and his group is following in his footsteps. But rather than a piece of harmless pandering to the West or a bizarre excess of holiday spirit, this ridiculous assertion tells us more about the Palestinians’ mindset and the prospects for peace than the optimism Secretary of State John Kerry has been slinging recently.

As the Times of Israel reports:

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas released a Christmas greeting Monday, calling Jesus a “Palestinian messenger” and implying that Israel persecutes Christians.

“As we Palestinians strive for our freedom two millennia later,” he wrote in a statement, “we do our best to follow his example. We work with hope, seeking justice, in order to achieve a lasting peace.”

This is a political version of replacement theology in which the Jews were viewed as having been superseded by Christians in their covenant with the Almighty. But this is not merely a matter of faith but an attempt to write the Jews out of their own history. Doing so isn’t just a swipe at the Netanyahu government but an attempt to depict the Palestinians as the true heirs to the Jewish nation that produced Jesus of Nazareth, and thus depict the six million Jews of Israel as colonial usurpers stealing the heritage of others. The use of this lie isn’t merely offensive, it also illustrates how deeply engrained the rejection of Israel’s legitimacy is in Palestinian culture.

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It’s a Christmas tradition in Ramallah. Following the same pattern first established by his predecessor Yasir Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas uses his annual Christmas holiday message to claim that Jesus was a Palestinian and his group is following in his footsteps. But rather than a piece of harmless pandering to the West or a bizarre excess of holiday spirit, this ridiculous assertion tells us more about the Palestinians’ mindset and the prospects for peace than the optimism Secretary of State John Kerry has been slinging recently.

As the Times of Israel reports:

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas released a Christmas greeting Monday, calling Jesus a “Palestinian messenger” and implying that Israel persecutes Christians.

“As we Palestinians strive for our freedom two millennia later,” he wrote in a statement, “we do our best to follow his example. We work with hope, seeking justice, in order to achieve a lasting peace.”

This is a political version of replacement theology in which the Jews were viewed as having been superseded by Christians in their covenant with the Almighty. But this is not merely a matter of faith but an attempt to write the Jews out of their own history. Doing so isn’t just a swipe at the Netanyahu government but an attempt to depict the Palestinians as the true heirs to the Jewish nation that produced Jesus of Nazareth, and thus depict the six million Jews of Israel as colonial usurpers stealing the heritage of others. The use of this lie isn’t merely offensive, it also illustrates how deeply engrained the rejection of Israel’s legitimacy is in Palestinian culture.

However one approaches the narrative about Christianity’s origins, there is no doubt that the historical Jesus was a Jew, not an Arab. The only point of transforming him into a Palestinian Arab is to hijack the history of biblical-era Judaism in order to burnish the myth that current-day Jews have no place in the land of Israel. That this is a transparent and gross falsehood has not prevented this assertion from being a staple of Palestinian propaganda.

Just as false is the other part of Abbas’s message:

Abbas took the occasion to decry Israel’s security policies, saying, “this Christmas Eve, our hearts and prayers will be with the millions who are being denied their right to worship in their homeland.”

“We are thinking of our people in Gaza, trapped under siege, and of those who are prevented from worshiping in Bethlehem,” he said. “Our hearts and prayers are with the people of Al Dbayeh Refugee Camp in Beirut, along with all of our Palestinian refugees — Christians and Muslims uprooted from their hometowns in 1948 and who, since that time, have suffered the vicissitudes of a forced exile.”

The persecution of Christians in the Arab and Muslim world is widespread and has become the subject of increasing concern on the part of Western Christians, such as Britain’s prince of Wales. But the Palestinians have attempted, with the complicity of local Christian authorities desperate to curry favor with the Muslim majority, to deflect responsibility for the way Islamists have marginalized or forced Christians to emigrate from the territories to Israel. Though Christians remain a small minority in Israel, they have full rights even if the Jewish majority is still uncomfortable with the display of Christian symbols, as the Knesset’s reluctance to display a Christmas tree illustrated.

But here again Abbas is playing the rejectionist card by alluding to the descendants of the 1948 refugees that he claims are being prevented from worshipping in “their homeland.” The point of bringing those refugees to Israel isn’t to worship but to attempt to reverse the verdict of history on the events of 1948, another sign that Abbas is too weak to sign a peace deal that would end the conflict, even if he continues to insist that he wants a state along the 1967 lines. Moreover, no one should be fooled into thinking that the Christian Arab minority among Palestinians are equal partners with the Sunni Muslim majority. To them they are nothing more than dhimmi–a protected but unequal minority. For all of the tension between Jews and Arabs, it is only in democratic Israel that Christians have complete religious freedom in the region. The video released by the PLO (that Abbas heads) in which a Christian figure, whether the pope or Jesus, travels the land witnessing supposed Israeli atrocities before smashing through Israel’s security fence is more fodder along these lines.

We can hope that one day Abbas or one of his successors will mean what they say about peace on earth during the Christmas season. We’ll know that they are serious when they stop pretending that Jesus was a Palestinian. Until then, it’s clear that for the Palestinians, Christmas is just another day on the calendar whose purpose is to delegitimize Israel and to deny Jewish history and rights.

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Franklin Graham’s Troubling Theology

On Tuesday, Reverend Franklin Graham gave an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that created a bit of a stir among the political class. At the core of the controversy is what Graham said about President Obama’s Christianity.

When asked directly if the president was a Christian, Graham said, “He’s come out saying that he’s a Christian. The question is, What is a Christian?” At another point Graham said, “If he says he’s a Christian, I’m not going to say he’s not.” But when faced with this direct statement — “So therefore, by your definition, [Obama’s] not a Christian” – the Reverend Graham answered, “You have to ask him. I cannot answer that question for anybody.”

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On Tuesday, Reverend Franklin Graham gave an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that created a bit of a stir among the political class. At the core of the controversy is what Graham said about President Obama’s Christianity.

When asked directly if the president was a Christian, Graham said, “He’s come out saying that he’s a Christian. The question is, What is a Christian?” At another point Graham said, “If he says he’s a Christian, I’m not going to say he’s not.” But when faced with this direct statement — “So therefore, by your definition, [Obama’s] not a Christian” – the Reverend Graham answered, “You have to ask him. I cannot answer that question for anybody.”

Except that in the same interview, when asked if Rick Santorum is a Christian, Graham was able to answer that question for somebody. “Oh, I think so,” Graham said. He added there was “no question, I believe [Santorum is] a man of faith.” The Reverend Graham then chimed in, “I think Newt is a Christian. At least he told me he is.” To which Willie Geist said, “So Newt Gingrich is a Christian, but you’re not sure that President Obama is. And you said based on the way they’ve lived their lives.” And just in case Graham hadn’t said enough, when asked if he could say categorically that President Obama was not a Muslim, Graham said, “I can’t say categorically, because Islam has gotten a free pass under Obama.”

The problem here is Graham is judging President Obama’s faith commitment based on a political, not a theological, basis. What Graham seems to be arguing is that Obama is a liberal, he’s wrong on “moral issues,” and so a question mark has to be put over the faith of the president, who has spoken in moving terms about his own journey to Christianity.

This is dangerous territory for Graham to reside in. For one thing, it sounds as if the Reverend Graham is questioning whether one can be a political liberal and a Christian at the same time. Of course one can be and to suggest otherwise is offensive. (I’m tempted to say some of my closest friends are Christians who are politically liberal.)

For another, what exactly are the political issues that are closest to the heart of Jesus? The issue of war? Concern for the poor? The Global AIDS Initiative? World hunger? Creation care? Abortion? Or perhaps divorce? Does Graham believe he knows what Jesus’s political platform would look like? And while we’re at it, should we use the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament as the basis for that platform? Should our stands on political issues be informed by the Sermon on the Mount? The Book of Acts? Or perhaps the dietary laws found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy? What Franklin Graham is doing is what no minister of the Gospel should do, which is to interpret Christianity through a political lens.

Given the Reverend Graham’s tendencies, he might consider the following as a corrective of sorts. Jesus and His disciples demonstrated a profound mistrust of power, especially political power. Regarding a Christian’s place in the world, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And none of the disciples led anything approaching what we would consider a political movement. In addition, the history of the church offers its own reasons for demarcating Christianity from the sphere of politics. According to the social philosopher Jacques Ellul, every time the church has gotten heavily into the political game, it has been drawn into self-betrayal or apostasy.

There’s also something to be said about creating a little mental distance from the temptations of politics. In 1951, Prime Minister Winston Churchill offered C.S. Lewis the title of Commander of the British Empire, a high and appropriate distinction. But Lewis refused the honor. “I feel greatly obligated to the prime minister,” he responded, “and so far as my personal feelings are concerned this honour would be agreeable. There are always, however, knaves who say, and fools who believe, that my religious writings are all covert anti-Leftist propaganda, and my appearance in the Honours List would of course strengthen their hands. It is therefore better that I should not appear there.”

C.S. Lewis had higher goals and more urgent priorities than politics. So should Franklin Graham.

 

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