As I write these words, one week ago this morning, at this very hour, I was sitting in Bethlehem’s Palestinian Authority police headquarters. I had been sent to a separate room, an adjacent office to the one where phone and passport had been taken and remained. In spite of my objections, in spite of the PA interrogator’s pledge of hospitality, personal texts were being read. Under the watchful eye of a de facto guard, I crossed my legs, shut my eyes, relaxed with deep breaths and wordlessly prayed. It was Thursday morning, 19 June 2014.
For the past six months I have been living in Beit Jala. It is a mostly Christian community in the Bethlehem District. The Church of the Nativity was a fifteen minute walk from my room. Like the little town of Bethlehem, Beit Jala is on the other side of Israel’s security barrier. According to Oslo agreements, it is part of Area A, under governmental control of the Palestinian Authority. Still, it is common to see Westerners on the street. Bethlehem is visited by more than a million tourists every year. Most, I think, do not understand they have left the umbrella of Israel’s sovereign protection. With the exception of a few risk-takers, none of these visitors are Israeli. It is against the law for them to be in the Bethlehem district. Large red signs are posted at area entrances. They read, “This road leads to Area ‘A.’ Entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden. [It is] dangerous to your lives and is against Israeli law.” Surprising to many of my friends, I felt safe. Until last Thursday morning.
I was headed out the door to catch a bus for a meeting in Jerusalem. Five men from the Palestinian Authority were waiting. Their English-speaking member identified who they were and asked, “Are you Brian Schrauger? I need to see your passport.” Looking at it, keeping it, he continued, “We need to talk with you about what you are doing here. We need to talk at headquarters.”
My wonderful Palestinian hosts stood by, eyes wide. They are like family. They gave me a home when I did not have a home; they gave me their hearts when I was alone; they embraced me as one of their own. And they did all this with full knowledge of what I wrote in social media, what I published in conventional press. They do not especially care for Israel. But they cared for me. Regardless my advocacy for the democratic Jewish State, they made me one of their own. They never said the words, but they loved me. The feeling is mutual; I loved, and love, them.
Others in Bethlehem talk about love but never by itself. Love is always wedded with words like occupation, apartheid, nonviolence, justice and reconciliation. In particular, these are fellow evangelical Christians who sponsor and promote “Christ at the Checkpoint, (CatC)” conferences. According to my Palestinian Authority interrogator, Osama, I was in his office because of complaints from unnamed people associated with CatC, both locals and “internationals.”
What is CatC? With pitch-perfect Western evangelical language, three CatC conferences have sold an updated version of Replacement Theology. They are making their pitch to the children of today’s Christian Zionists. Combined with a construct known as Liberation Theology, CatC teaching has its roots deep in the soil of books by England’s Reverend Stephen Sizer and by the founder of Jerusalem’s Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, Father Naim Ateek. As a result, CatC has abandoned historic evangelicalism’s focus on moral redemption at God’s initiative. In its place, the focus is on social-political redemption at human initiative, in this case social justice for Palestinians suffering, they allege, under the jack-booted heal of an Israeli occupying and apartheid state cheered on and enabled by Christian Zionists, people portrayed as duplicitous, naïve and ruthless in CatC’s movie, With God on Our Side, produced by Porter Speakman. Flagship evangelical schools have joined the chorus of this new gospel. Professor Gary Burge of Wheaton College is the movement’s leading U.S. theologian. Faculty at Fuller Theological Seminary have issued an open letter to U.S. Christian Zionists calling on them to repent of their “sinful” view which, for its part, also “produces sin.”
Just inside the walled PA compound in Bethlehem, while walking up the stairs, Osama turned and said, “You are here because of things you write.” Later, after I was invited to return from the office to which I was sent with a guard, Osama told me that he was not happy with things I write. They lack balance, he explained. Inquiring if I am a “real” Christian, Osama lectured me on the Christian mandate to love everyone. He did not like it when I asked if that meant we must like everybody or and endorse what everybody says. If he had agreed, he would have condemned his own conduct. He ignored the question.
You have upset a lot of people, Osama continued. There have been a lot of complaints. Replying to my exclamation, “Really? Who?,” Osama volunteered that complaints had come "from Christ at the Checkpoint people, both here and internationals.”
When I heard these words, names ran through my mind. I attended the last CatC conference three months ago. Tweeting throughout and reporting for The Jewish Press, I became known. Since then, I had written opinion essays and tackled CatC leadership in public social media. The list of probable suspects who complained is small, six maybe seven people. Later two third-party sources indicated that yes, among these few there are those who “said things” making them likely sources for complaints the PA received. Unfortunately, there is no proof. Not yet.
The reason for my invitation to the PA’s walled compound soon became clear. “A lot of people know you are here. They know exactly where you are. Ninety-nine percent of Palestinians are wonderful, peaceful people. But there is that one percent…” The sentence was left hanging. It is not safe; you really should leave, I was told. Several times. As I was taken to a heavily gated exit to walk home alone, Osama returned my phone and passport. Be careful, he admonished.
Perambulating back, passing familiar shops and faces, I realized I agree with Osama. The vast majority of Palestinian citizens are wonderful people. They are wonderful people trapped by those who claim to speak for them; they are wonderful people muted by unofficial censorship from official authorities. It is not safe to speak out against prevailing views by those in charge. Or against those who know how to manipulate them, people like Christ at the Checkpoint’s anti-Israel brand of Christian leadership.
Several hours later, bulging suitcase in tow, I was driven of town. Yes, it was a shock. Yes, there was, and is, adjustment. Motivation to carry on came in part from Reverend Stephen Sizer, an international leader of CatC. Forty-eight hours after leaving my adopted Palestinian home and family, he sent a public message. “Did you enjoy PA hospitality?” he tweeted, copying the blog with which he is associated, HurryUpHarriet.com. “Was it better than IOF – Israel Occupation Force – accommodations?” that blog quickly followed up.
With a rising tide of voices, here and around the world, I call on all to look and see beneath the mask of Christianized duplicity coming out of Bethlehem. And England. And the USA. For such a time as this.
Brian Schrauger is a regular contributor to the Jerusalem Post and its Christian Edition. He has just begun a JPost blog. Its name is Such A Time. Follow him on Twitter @BrianSchrauger