Sami Awad, Palestinian, street activist, and born-again Christian began to wrap up his presentation to a packed room of Pentecostal and charismatic believers: “I know many of you here are Christian Zionists. I don’t ask that you give any of that up, not for one moment. But I also know that you are Spirit-filled believers, and that the Holy Spirit has increased the size of your heart. I know that the Israelis are in your heart. I hope you can find room for the Palestinians as well.” A standing ovation erupted. It was a job well done.
These comments were made recently at Converge21, a conference held at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, home of televangelist Pat Robertson. Present were heads of America’s Pentecostal denominations, universities, seminaries, and churches.
It was not the usual combination, but that’s what you get when you merge conventions.
The Society for Pentecostal Studies (SPS) had long scheduled their 2012 conference for Virginia Beach. This group of intellectuals and scholars gather once a year to develop and promote academia within the Pentecostal-charismatic movement. The theme for this year was Pentecostalism, Peacemaking, and Social Justice/Righteousness.
Then along came Empowered21, an organization focusing on the future of the Pentecostal-charismatic movement. Born out of Oral Roberts University, Empowered21 seeks not only to reach the world for Jesus Christ, but also to introduce other movements within Christianity to the power of the Holy Spirit.
When Empowered21 looked for a place to hold their gathering, they turned to Regent University. Finding that SPS was already having their gathering at Regent on the same week, Empowered21 sought to have their convention both alongside and with SPS.
Empowered21 leadership discovered that Sami was to be a keynote speaker with SPS. They were okay with Sami speaking at a joint session, but then the emails and phone calls started coming in. CBN and TBN pulled their live television coverage of the entire conference. Concessions were made; the title of the evening was changed to reflect a broader topic, and Wayne Hilsden, pastor of a Pentecostal church within Israel, was added to the bill.
Sami began his lecture by tracing his family’s Christian heritage. They are Palestinian Christians. He told in detail about his decision to follow Jesus Christ and his subsequent receiving of the gift of tongues.
Telling the story of the 1948 war in which the nation of Israel was created, Sami recalled the death of his grandfather. The war had begun, and the Jewish soldiers came to his family’s village, a neighborhood where Jews, Christians, and Muslims were all living together. “My father went outside our home to place a white flag on our house, showing that we were in support of neither side. He was killed by a sniper’s bullet.”
Sami continued to tell the story of his life from the viewpoint of someone who was on the other side of the founding of Israel. He spoke of the 1967 war when the remainder of what once was called Palestine was taken over and occupied by the nation of Israel. His family had become refugees in their own land.
He continued on with accounts of fighting, oppression, and land confiscation, all executed on the Palestinians by the Israelis. “I knew that Jesus calls me to love my enemies. Who are my enemies? The Israeli Defense Force and the Jewish settlers.”
Of course, this is not the most common lecture to be heard at a conference of this sort. Present in the crowd were leaders of a theology known as Christian Zionism, the belief that God had caused the rebirth of Israel as a nation in 1948, and, as the Bible says in Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you (Israel) and curse those who treat you with contempt.”
Sami then described his work as a Palestinian street activist. His cause? The independence of a free and secure Palestine as a nation alongside a free and secure nation of Israel. His method? Nonviolent social change. He shared that he had come to a place where he promotes only nonviolence as a method for social change, this in contrast with his beliefs earlier in life that independence may come through a variety of methods, including both nonviolence and armed struggle. He called Jesus the “Prince of Peace.”
The conference continued for several more days. It is feasible that SPS, like Empowered21, is dominated by those who would aspire to the theology of Christian Zionism. Pentecostalism and “Last Days” theology almost always walk hand-in-hand. Among the presentations included topics of Israel, the last days, and Messianic Judaism.
One scholar from England was there to present his dissertation on world Pentecostalism, the last days, and the rebirth of Israel. He systematically proved that Pentecostals from around the globe believe that God’s hand is with Israel, and that they believe this whether or not they have been influenced by North American Pentecostalism. His figures were solid.
Toward the end of his presentation, fully embracing all the major beliefs of Christian Zionism, he began to talk about gross injustices occurring within the Palestinian Territories. He talked about a number of views within Christian Zionism on the issue of land, specifically the trading of land in exchange for peace. He noted that different Christian Zionist scholars have a variety of beliefs concerning the amount of land that is to constitute Israel in order to usher in the Last Days. Some have relatively no parameters, while the extremes believe Israel will take over massive amounts of land currently belonging to nearby Arab nations.
He then went on to discuss the movement within Christianity, including Pentecostalism, toward social justice. (He even used the words “social justice.”) Reflecting the lectures given through Empowered21, he stated that Pentecostalism must change in order to be relevant to the younger generation. And the younger generation won’t buy a faith that says, “Israel wrong or right;” rather, the renaissance in the social justice movement will demand that any faith, to be relevant, cannot promote inhumane conditions of occupied people groups.
The suggestion was then made that Christian Zionism and social justice are compatible. If those Christian faithful that promote Israel are willing to accept an Israel that is smaller than the one in existence today, it will satisfy the concerns of those young people, including young Pentecostals, that justice for the poor is done.
I was as amazed to hear this. As a human rights worker, I have seen firsthand the persecution experienced daily by Palestinians in the West Bank. Although my particular Pentecostal church back at home is silent on issues of Israel, I know that I belong to a movement that, in my estimation, gives its blessing to the continued confiscation of Palestinian land to make room for Jewish settlements. We also turn a blind eye to the daily home invasions, beatings, and detentions in the West Bank.
I long for the day when this war is over, when all are living in relative peace and justice, and when Palestine is its own nation. No more shootings, no more suicide bombs, no more missile attacks. Just people going about their lives, going to work, feeding their families. Both Israeli and Palestinian.
And the blessings continued. Two Christian women, representing a Jewish/Christian Zionist organization, told me that, for the first time, Sami Awad was someone that they could work with. A Jewish attendee from the same organization mentioned that he had been on the phone that morning with Pastor John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), trying to explain to John Hagee that Sami’s lecture was not something to be alarmed about. Sami Awad and Wayne Hilsden got to know each other on a more personal basis, and both spoke the next week at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference in Bethlehem.
More notable was a multi-hour conversation between Sami Awad and Steve Strang, owner of Charisma Magazine, the largest Christian magazine in America. In their time together, Sami told Steve about a recurring dream he is having which he calls “Five Minutes with John Hagee.” The dream is about what he would say if he had five minutes to say anything to John Hagee. Steve, delighted by the story, picked up his cell phone and said, Let’s call him.” Sami wasn’t quite ready for that. I haven’t heard where that has gone, but I am praying.
Outside a recent gathering of CUFI, activist Medea Benjamin asked John Hagee if he loves Palestinians. John gave a respectful answer and continued on into the conference. There they were, the most outspoken Christian Zionist leader and one of America’s most prominent social justice advocates, unable to create a table for open dialogue.
Upon viewing this conversation recently on the web, I was drawn back to the lecture incorporating Christian Zionism with social justice. It brought me such joy.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” What is significant here is the word “maker” found here. We must recognize that peace is not something that just happens, it must be made. Ask anyone who is married. It has been said many times that peace is not the absence of violence; it is the presence of justice. I know that God is so big that he can use a Medea Benjamin and a John Hagee to bring about peace. He can use a Sami Awad and a Jewish Zionist to help bring justice.
Let us continue to pray for peace in the Middle East. Let us continue to make peace.
John Harris lives in Altadena, California, where he attends Eagle Rock Christian Assembly, a Foursquare church. He has spent parts of the last five summers working with Christian Peacemaker Teams in the city of Hebron, Palestinian Territories. He leads delegations through Palestine and Israel with the group Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice.