By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
10 Jan 2013
Some months ago, I happened to attend a public lecture by a visiting Palestinian Christian scholar-activist. He was on a trip around India, speaking principally to groups of Indian Christians to try to convince them that, or so he argued, their Christian faith demanded that they side with the Palestinian people (who include both Christians and Muslims) in opposing Israeli brutalities. His task was by no means an easy one, for many Christians, especially those influenced by fundamentalist evangelists, are passionately pro-Israel—not because they love the Jews (whom they’ve historically despised) but simply because they have been told that supporting Israel is mandated by their religion. Jesus’ Second Coming, pro-Zionist Christian fundamentalists believe, depends pretty much on the continued existence of the Israeli state and the expulsion of the Palestinians from their land.
Invoking the very same scriptures that pro-Israeli Christian evangelists do, the Palestinian Christian scholar-activist argued for precisely the opposite conclusions. No, it wasn’t, as the Christian right-wing argues, that the Bible demands that Christians should back Zionist Jews in Palestine. No, it wasn’t, unlike what they say, that the Bible indicates that God had confiscated Palestine from the Palestinians and had gifted it to the Jews for all time to come. No, it wasn’t, unlike what many other Christians believe, that the return of the Jews to Israel is decreed by God in the Bible or that the Bible proclaims that Jesus will return to the world after the Jews return to Palestine. On the contrary, the man insisted, because the Bible was the ‘Good News’ for all it was ‘good news’ for the Palestinians, too—in which case, it definitely could not call for the expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland, as Zionist Christians, echoing Zionist Jews, insisted it did. Nowhere in the Bible, he claimed, did it say that the ‘holy land’ must be given to the Jews on a platter.
If you had heard the activist speak, you would think that he and his right-wing Christian opponents believe in and quote from two entirely different, mutually-contradictory, scriptures. But the fact of the matter is that they passionately invoke the very same book—only to arrive at diametrically opposite conclusions, however. Each would readily accuse the other of falsely reading the scriptures, of twisting them to mean the opposite of what they supposedly actually do. Each would charge the other of attributing false claims to God and wrongly claiming to know His intention. Even though they may not recognize it, their respective interpretation of the scripture which they revere in common is essentially determined by their own prejudices, interests and political positions. They read into the very same Bible their mutually-opposed political agendas, suitably interpreting the texts to conform to and support the preconceived conclusions they wish to defend, which they label as the will of God. They would be shocked if you told them that what, in effect, they are doing is to seek to pass off their own personal views as God’s definite will.
The matter under discussion becomes infinitely more complex if you remember that bickering sets of Christians are not the only ones to marshal religious or scriptural arguments to back diverse political stances on a matter as complicated as the Israel-Palestine dispute. Many Jews will, of course, quote their scriptures to argue that God wills that what they call the ‘holy land’ remain under Israeli control and that all Arabs be expelled from the land. But there are other Jews, including some very orthodox ones, who argue precisely to the contrary, and insist, on the basis of their reading of the same Jewish texts, that to set up a Jewish state before the arrival of the expected messiah is to defy the will of God. According to them, there is no scriptural sanction whatsoever for the Israeli state, as it presently exists. Then, of course, many Muslims see the destruction of the Jewish state and the establishment of Islamic rule in Palestine as something that the Islamic scriptures and traditions will or warrant, but I know of at least one Muslim cleric (not surprisingly, he is bitterly opposed by many of his co-religionists) who, on the basis of his own reading of the same scriptures, defends Israel and denounces its Islamist opponents.
Notwithstanding their sharp differences, the actors in this complicated dispute actually aren’t as different as they think they are or as you might suppose them to be. Each is convinced that it alone knows the will or mind of God, and that its particular stand on the Israel/Palestine question represents exactly the Divine intention. Now, since these stands are all mutually contradictory, it stands to reason that, supposing God does exist (as these religionists believe), either all but one of them are wrong or else that all of them are. If God doesn’t exist, then obviously all of them are deluded. A neutral observer would probably conclude that each of them is actually engaged, whether consciously or otherwise, in reading into their own scriptures the political conclusion that it desires or thinks is most advantageous to itself, and then, in order to give this conclusion theological legitimacy it insists that this is not its own private opinion, but, rather, the very will of God. Dragging God into a dispute of this sort and declaring that one’s position represents God’s plan is a clever way to muster support and gain legitimacy. Camouflaging an agenda that promotes one’s own interests as a divinely-mandated one is a smart move to avoid being branded by others, or even by one’s own conscience, as being driven by selfish motives.
Since God almost definitely isn’t going to appear to publicly announce His will in a manner that would be clear to everyone, these actors can go about claiming pretty much what they like in His name and will probably continue squabbling with each other, each claiming to represent His supposed will, till Judgment Day (assuming there is indeed such a thing) finally dawns.
I’ve taken the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the convoluted claims of knowing the mind of God that different parties to this dispute articulate to illustrate a more general point: of how, throughout history and even today, rival sets of religious people have routinely dared to claim to know God’s will and to speak for Him and in His name in order to pursue a wide range of agendas and projects that they think suit and serve their interests best. That is how all manner of brutalities—caste oppression, slavery, genocide, sati, the subjugation of women, ‘holy’ wars of conquest, colonialism, imperialism and so on—have all along been sought to be legitimised—in almost all the religious traditions that I can think of.