Recently, a group of scholars – both religious and academic – met at the presidential conference in Jerusalem to discuss whether “tomorrow’s religion” was “part of the problem or part of the solution.”
During the conference, one esteemed participant in interfaith work expressed his willingness to open a peace dialogue with confirmed jihadists – a feat of rare courage and optimism.
However, the true surprise came when the speaker voiced the limits of his tolerance by dismissing the Mideast peace efforts of evangelical Christians.
For this panel, evangelical Christians were simply part of the problem.
This would by no means be the first time that evangelical Christians have been brushed off and labeled a barrier to peace. But it should be the last.
Academics are trained to be suspicious of the things we tend to take for granted. They are charged with investigating the assumptions that underlay our ideas and practices. Academics are supposed to be critical. Why, then, might a group of academics choose to remain quiet when the fastest growing Christian movement in the world is so easily cast aside?
It is not clear to me how academics can so easily perpetuate – or fail to reject – such cheap and stereotypical rhetoric without understanding how it functions to confirm the worst fears of evangelical Christians.
Furthermore, it is simply inaccurate to paint all evangelicals in contemporary America with a single brush – there are an estimated 60 to 80 million evangelical Christians in America alone.
Do we honestly believe that all Evangelicals have the same beliefs about Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict?
It is disingenuous for critics to suggest that that all evangelicals share a single, universal opinion, while at the same time, taking great pains to assert that not all Muslims think alike. There is an obvious agenda at work when we recognize the diversity within some religious groups, but not others.
Evangelical Christians, just like Jews and Muslims, disagree among themselves about the best path to peace, about how to balance issues of justice with security concerns, and about how to deal with the legacy of their sacred texts.
One year ago, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life surveyed evangelical Protestant leaders from around the world. The results from over 2000 respondents reveal a far more nuanced scenario than the one suggested at the presidential conference.
While more evangelical leaders sympathized more with Israel (34 percent) than with the Palestinians (11 percent), the largest group (39 percent) sympathized equally with both sides – 13 percent sympathized with neither side.
Simply put, there is no single 'evangelical' attitude towards Israel. Even among those labeled Christian Zionists, there is a wide range of opinions.
Finally, we must consider ethics.
The concept of religious tolerance loses its meaning if a major religious group is deemed useless in the search for peace.
We should know by now that this is not an either/or equation. It is not that simple. Groups, movements, ideas, and people are not either part of the solution or part of the problem.
In the real world, it is a question of which problems we choose to bear, in exchange for which solutions. On the road to peace, evangelical Christians, like all religious groups, can cause some problems and solve others.
They must be heard in the search for peace.
Stacking the deck does not lead to real dialogue. If we make universal agreement a precondition for a seat at the interfaith table, the table will be deserted.
The writer is the Director for the Center for Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations at Yezreel Valley College in Afula. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.