A Mennonite perspective on Christ at the Checkpoint

Bethlehem Bible College held its fourth annual Christ at the Checkpoint Conference March 7 to 10, here in the town of Christ’s birth. The theme this year was “The Gospel in the Face of Religious Extremism”—a topic that aptly reflects the current context of the Middle East but has special meaning for Palestinian Christians. The number of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza has diminished significantly in the last two decades as the churches face the injustices of Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands, a choked economy, and violence between Palestinians and Israelis.

The conference, named to highlight the barriers Israel has erected along the borders and within the occupied territories, brought together over 500 participants from 24 countries. About 80 participants were locals from the West Bank and another 40 from neighbouring Israel.

In plenary sessions, worship times, and intervening meet-the-speaker conversations, delegates wrestled with theological and practical responses to religious violence, whether by Christians, Muslims, or Jews. An impressive array of more than 25 speakers included Fuller Theological Seminary’s president, Mark Labberton, who gave daily Bible studies on the Sermon on the Mount.

At least half the speakers were Palestinian or Israel-based theologians and peace activists, including Dr. Munther Isaac, Salim Munayer, Jonathan Kuttab, Yohanna Katanacho, and Jack Sara of BBC, and Jesuit theologian David Neuhaus. Others were visiting professors and church leaders from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the US (including African Americans Regina Henderson and Lisa Sharon Harper, speaking out of the context of the civil rights movement). There were also representatives of Messianic Jewish communities who are seeking common ground with Palestinian Christians.

More than previous conferences, this one also included voices from outside the mainstream Christian community, including: Muslim theologian Mustafa Abu Sway; American activist and Jewish rabbi, Arik Ascherman; and Lisa Loden, a Messianic Jew from Israel.

Sherri, from Edmonton, came because she wanted to understand first-hand “what was going on here between Israel and Palestine.” Meeting Palestinians and hearing their stories “has helped to shed light on why it’s so complicated—more complicated than I had imagined.” A number of participants were intrigued, even surprised at the conference’s consistent emphasis on “peace, nonviolence, humility, and love.” John found it “most encouraging” that the Palestinian Christians attending and hosting the conference showed so little spirit of revenge in their biblical teaching and in the stories they shared.  “I was really struck by the emphasis on nonviolence, love of enemy, and the search for a way of peace and not becoming what we hate,” added Esther. David, a veteran speaker and author on Christian-Muslim relationships, agreed. He was particularly encouraged by the presence of other Christians who share the desire to be peacemakers.

Further to this, Scott, a pastor, wants to take the Palestinians’ hopeful spirit back to his own congregation, which worships in a neighbourhood where there is poverty and violence.“I want to bring encouragement from Palestine that says, “Don’t give up; there is reconciliation.” Epp-Tiessen summed up the resolve that many of the participants expressed at the end of the conference:  “Palestinian Christians are getting smaller in number and yet they are a vibrant community with a vibrant faith; they are brothers and sisters in Christ. I want to amplify their voice and share their hope.”

This story is a condensed version of an article that BBC volunteer Byron Rempel-Burkholder wrote for the March 28 issue of  Mennonite Weekly Review. The original highlighted the involvement of 33 Mennonites and Brethren in Christ in the recent Christ at the Checkpoint Conference.