A twisted, blackened skeleton of steel smolders in the middle of a Jerusalem street. Sirens scream. Onlookers weep. The announcer reports that a suicide bomber has struck again in a crowded bus.
How many times have we seen such images of terror? Have we become immune to such news? It has been going on for years, and yet we know it’s not over. There will be retaliation. People will die.
There will be another attack. More people will die.
Will this cycle of violence never end?
And what does this mean for us?
Karen Alan had finished her errands and was returning to work at the second-floor office of a building on Ben Yehuda Street.
The pedestrian mall was lined with cafes and shops. Local Jerusalem residents and tourists strolled along the cobblestone street and sat at outdoor tables enjoying coffee and the people show. For foreign visitors this was a favorite destination after seeing the Old City, less than a mile east on Jaffa Road. Here tourists shopped for menorahs, mezuzahs, and embroidered yarmulkes or, for more discerning tastes, original Jewish jewelry, art, and pottery.
Within this vibrant section of West Jerusalem sat King of Kings College. 1 Just one month before, Karen had started working there as an editor and translator. She hurried up the stairs after lunch, eager to get back to work.
As Karen entered the office and set her purse on her desk, an explosion nearly knocked her off her feet. She grabbed her desk to steady herself. Almost instantly there was a second explosion, then a third even more powerful blast rocked the building.
For a moment Karen’s ears rang. She braced herself for another last. Then she heard office mates yelling. Oh, my God, this can’t be happening, she thought. She turned and hurried with several others into an office with a window overlooking the street. As she peered out to see what had happened, she could hear shouts and screams rising from the pavement. The sight was horrifying. Bodies, both conscious and unconscious, every one covered with blood, lay in the street and on the sidewalks. One of the victims struggled to his feet and staggered blindly, blood flowing over his eyes from a gash in his head. A few witnesses stood frozen. Others were running frantically.
Karen’s mind could barely process all the sensory information. Her eyes moved toward one spot where she could see the bloody legs of one of the bombers. His torso had been blown apart in the blast. She became aware of sounds. Car and store alarms screamed. A cell phone rang, unanswered. Ambulance and police sirens announced their arrival.
Dust along with the smell of explosives and burned flesh chafed her nasal passages and caused her eyes to water. The first paramedics did triage until additional help arrived. Orders were shouted. Police began corralling the crowd.
Suddenly, Karen remembered her friend Shiri, who should have been returning to her office next door. Where was she? She walked back to her desk and dialed her friend’s cell number, but there was no answer. Impulsively she hurried down the stairs and moved through horrified spectators in the lobby to the main entrance, but a policeman stopped her. A body lay right outside the door. “No one can leave,” said the officer.
In a daze Karen climbed back up the stairs to her office. Again she dialed her friend’s number, but there was no answer. Fear nearly choked her as she tried to think. All she could manage was a prayer, asking for her friend’s safety. Lord, may Shiri not be one of those bodies lying in the street.
Everyone in the office had congregated at the windows to watch the macabre scene. Several right-wing activists had arrived from somewhere and were just outside the police line, chanting, “Death to the Arabs!” She noticed that all of the windows surrounding the mall were shattered, except for those in her office. How many people, she wondered, had been hurt by flying glass?
Karen became aware that she was shivering. Obviously she couldn’t work, but she needed to do something. Every few minutes she called her friend’s cell phone number. Each time there was no answer. Where are the nearest hospitals? She grabbed a phone book and started dialing hospitals. None of them had a record of her friend having been admitted. Looking again out the window, she began thinking the worst: What will I do if one of those scorched bodies is hers? Am I ready for the worst kind of news? No way! She felt panic rising within her. With all her will, she pushed it down.
After watching the evening news, I paced my office, praying for the victims of yet another terrorist attack in Israel. I reminded myself that for every person who died, there were parents, siblings, and friends in mourning. For every injured person, there was a family gathered around a hospital bed weeping and praying. For the witnesses, there were nightmares and the fear that never seems to go away. The people of Israel were reeling from the horrors that have struck them over the last several years.
For years I’d been traveling to the Middle East, visiting churches in Lebanon, Israel, West Bank, and Gaza. Whenever I heard about another attack, I wondered if any believers were caught in it. Christians are not immune from such horrors, of course. The Church cannot avoid the dangers of the society in which it exists, but I wondered how Christians were coping with the physical and emotional trauma.
I recalled another terrifying incident in August 1968, when Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Soviet army. I wondered how the invasion would affect the Church, so I loaded my Citroen station wagon with Russian Bibles and Christian literature and drove all day from Holland to the Czech border. There I met a long stream of cars leaving the country. Thousands of people were fleeing the Soviet army. I was the only person going into Czechoslovakia. Even though I didn’t have a visa, the border guard admitted me into the country, and that next Sunday I preached in Prague.2
I was about to turn seventy years old. People were suggesting that I should retire. Traveling into combat zones was for young people. But how could I retire when my brothers and sisters were hurting and there was a chance that I could help? Many wanted to run away from the conflict in Israel. I wanted to run to it.
It was after dark when Karen reached home and buried herself in her parents’ arms. Television news was on in the living room. For a few minutes she watched the reports, unable to believe that she had been there and had narrowly escaped with her life. The facts hammered themselves into her consciousness. Three bombs had exploded in the crowded pedestrian mall in West Jerusalem. At least 7 people were dead and 192 injured, mostly due to thousands of nails packed in the explosives. Reporters agreed that this had been a particularly vicious attack.
A few minutes later the phone rang. Her father answered, then handed her the receiver. “It’s Shiri!”
“Thank God!” was all Karen could say for a moment. Through her tears, she finally said, “I was so afraid you were out there . . .”
“I was at the post office, just a few hundred yards away,” Shiri explained. “I didn’t try to go back to the office; I just came home.”
It was a short conversation. What a relief and joy to know that her friend was safe! But then Karen felt weak. She turned off the television and slumped into an overstuffed chair. How can I rejoice when so many others are mourning? The initial shock of the horror was wearing off, and now the feelings and questions began to erupt. She spoke some of her thoughts aloud to her parents: “How could these men be driven by such hate? And why?” She looked into her mother’s eyes. “Just two minutes earlier and I would have been in that mall. Why did God spare me?”
She barely slept that night. Trying to force the horrible images from her mind, she made herself focus on any Bible verses she could recall. From Ephesians 6:12, she recited, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood.” Today she had seen real flesh-and-blood casualties in the seemingly never-ending war between Palestinians and Israelis.
With real bodies lying on stone pavement, it was hard to think that this was foremost a spiritual battle. But her faith told her this was a war she couldn’t fight physically. She had to allow God to fight it. Her part was to pray and love and embrace everyone, just as God did her. Did she believe that?
Karen thought about how much she loved her country. Born and raised in Jerusalem, she felt privileged to live in Israel and completely at home within Jewish society. What made her different from most citizens was that her family was Christian. Most people around her were culturally Jewish and religiously secular.
Her parents had taught her to be accepting of everyone, and though she lived in Israel, she had often crossed into Bethlehem and interacted with Palestinians. That had motivated her to take Arabic courses in high school, followed by a year studying the language in Jordan. Then about six months ago, she had participated in a desert encounter designed to build bridges between Messianic believers3 and Palestinian Christians.
It was sponsored by Musalaha, an organization that promotes biblical reconciliation. Karen had enjoyed the opportunity to use her Arabic and develop new relationships with Palestinians. Clearly, not all of them were filled with hate; her Arab friends were compassionate and open to the “other side.” Today’s events could not be allowed to undermine her faith or her relationships. She would not allow it!
Again she asked, “Why, Lord, did You spare me?” She tried to still her mind, but the prayer continued: “Would it not have been better for You to take me in place of someone who did not know You?” In the early morning hours, tears flowed freely. Karen knew there were no answers to her questions. “Lord, please allow me to see this situation with Your eyes.” Somehow she and the Christians around her at church and the Bible College had to be living examples of God’s grace toward humankind. That wouldn’t be easy, but, really, was there any other choice?
One question particularly troubled me after each suicide bombing, one I’d been asking for years: Did anyone present Jesus to that young person who blew himself up? Who was going to the terrorists? Was anyone prepared to confront them and give them a reason to live that was greater than their motivation to die? How can they know about the Prince of Peace if no one goes and tells them?
But are Muslim fundamentalists who are committed to the destruction of Israel really willing to listen to the gospel?
How can we know if we don’t go, if we don’t try?
Gaza, June 9, 2001 Gaza City was a dreary place. In every direction, one could see gray cinder block buildings, most without any architectural embellishments. Half a million people were crammed into apartments, and the only way for most families to expand was to build up, by adding another floor. But extreme poverty, caused by nearly 70 percent unemployment, showed in the skeletons of unfinished floors atop many homes.
Apart from the main thoroughfares, many of the streets consisted of packed dirt. Donkey carts and speeding taxis kicked up a film of dust that covered people’s shoes wherever they walked. There were virtually no parks, few trees, and no playgrounds. Kids, barefoot or wearing worn-out sneakers, played in the streets. Occasionally there was a small, rusty Ferris wheel on a side road. Usually an older brother or uncle turned it by hand as two and sometimes more children filled each of the three wooden seats on the rickety structure.
For years, many residents have called the Gaza Strip the world’s largest prison. Since the start of the second intifada1 in September 2000, virtually no one has been allowed to leave.
The Marna House, an old stately mansion, provided a refreshing retreat from the ubiquitous dust, as well as from the poverty and bitterness of the population. A gentle evening breeze blew off the Mediterranean Sea, just a few blocks to the west, rustling the branches of palm trees inside the walled compound. Narrow dirt paths wound through a garden filled with blooming flowers. A woodpecker tapped loudly near the top of one of the trees, then flew over us with a nut in its mouth. Besides our little team, there was only one other group staying at the stately hotel—a crew from British Broadcasting Corporation. Their armor-plated jeep, painted in blue and white and clearly identifying itself as belonging to the press, was parked in the driveway.
A huge, ancient locust tree provided shade over the patio where we waited to meet with Abdul, a representative of Islamic Jihad. He arrived precisely at 7:00 and walked briskly up the brick walkway, wearing a plain white caftan and sandals with no socks. His gray hair was thinning on top. Much of his bristly beard was white.
Deep wrinkles framed his dark eyes. As we shook hands, those eyes stared intently into mine as though trying to peer into my soul. I introduced him to my friends—Al, a writer from America, and a pastor from Bethlehem, who served as our interpreter.
“Thank you for coming,” I said as we sat on the plastic patio chairs. Abdul nodded to indicate I should quickly state my intentions.
“I want to arrange a meeting with your boss,” I said, referring to Sheikh Abdullah Shami, the leader of Islamic Jihad in Gaza. I mentioned a mutual friend who had connections with Hamas. “I have gotten to know several of the leaders of Hamas, and we have talked openly about Islam and Christianity. I was hoping that I might establish a similar dialogue with Islamic Jihad.”
“Who do you know in Hamas?” Abdul asked.
“I have met with Sheikh Yassin [the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas], Dr. Abdulaziz Rantisi, Mahmoud Zahar, and many others.”
“What do you wish to discuss?” His piercing gaze was unrelenting.
“I represent Christians in Holland and the West. I want to have an exchange of perspectives on faith—Islam and Christianity. I would also like to know his thoughts about the Palestinian situation and about the future for peace.”
Abdul thought for a moment, then reached into his caftan and pulled out a cell phone. He speed dialed a number and talked for a couple of minutes.
While we waited, I thought about the risks involved in meeting with Sheikh al-Shami. I realized that Islamic Jihad, like Hamas, was a sworn enemy of Israel. I was well aware of the terrible acts for which they claimed responsibility. More than once I’d been accused of being anti-Israel because I had befriended her terrorist enemies. My defense was simple: “The best way I can help Israel is by leading her enemies to Jesus Christ.” My purpose was to introduce them to the Prince of Peace, the only One who could cure the rage in their hearts.
How could they possibly meet Jesus Christ if someone in whom He dwells didn’t go to them? Perhaps through my actions I could, in some small way, bridge the gaping chasm between Israel and the Palestinians and between Christians and Muslims. So would the leader of Islamic Jihad meet with me? Abdul flipped his phone shut and announced, “He will see you tomorrow afternoon. I will pick you up at 3:00.”
“Thank you. May my two friends come as well?”
“Of course.” Abdul seemed to relax, his official duties fulfilled.
He leaned back, pulled out a pack of cigarettes, removed one, and tapped it on the table between us as he said, “Now I would like to ask you some questions.”
“What sort of questions?” I asked.
“About Christianity and the Bible,” he replied. “I have spent nineteen years in prison. I was first arrested in 1971. I was freed in 1985 as part of a prisoner exchange. I was arrested again in 1988 and several more times since. When you spend that much time in prison, you have a lot of time to think.”
I wondered if Abdul had been imprisoned for terrorist activities. Or was he kept in administrative detention, as I knew thousands of Palestinians were? Regardless, prisoners had little physical activity, which, unless they determined to use their time productively, provided opportunity for their hatred to fester and grow.
Abdul leaned forward to say, “You talk about the future of peace. The solution is Islam! I reached that conclusion in prison.” He leaned back, lit his cigarette, and added, “I read the Bible in prison. I also read the Quran and that’s when I decided to become a Muslim.”
“You were not a Muslim already?”
“Culturally, I was a Muslim. Not intellectually. However, I have questions about the Bible and Christianity, and maybe you can answer them.”
I opened my hands on the table, inviting him to ask whatever he wished.
He didn’t ask anything at first but rather launched into a passionate speech. “Most people don’t understand Islamic Jihad. We’re not at all how the media represent us. What we’re dealing with is a lot like what Jesus faced.” I must have registered surprise because he quickly added. “That’s right. We revere Jesus. He was a great prophet. But the Jews didn’t listen to Him. Jesus symbolized for us our struggles. When I read the Injil,2 I identified with Jesus. My problem is with the Old Testament. For example, in the book of Joshua, how could God order the Jews to go into Jericho and kill every living person, including women and children and all the animals? And yet we are condemned if one of our people, fighting for our land that was taken from us, kills a few civilians. Can you explain to me the difference?”
My friends and I were surprised by the intensity of Abdul’s words. More calmly than I felt, I tried to answer his question. “You have to understand the context,” I explained, choosing my words carefully. “The people living in the land then were idol worshipers who practiced child sacrifice among their many wicked acts. God gave them four hundred years to change their ways. When they didn’t, being God, He had the right to wipe them out and replace them with the people of His choosing.”
“But that is not the situation today,” Abdul said. “We are not pagans.”
“You are correct that this is not the same situation. The orders God gave Joshua were unique.”
Abdul crushed the remainder of his cigarette and lit another. “Maybe you can explain this to me. Why do the Christian Zionists support Israel so strongly? I would like to understand.”
“You ask me hard questions!” I laughed and for the first time Abdul smiled for an instant. “Let me first say that not all Christians are Zionists. There are two factors at work for many Christians. One is guilt.” Here I briefly explained how, for the most part, the Church in the West didn’t rise up and protest the killing of Jews during the Holocaust. “After the war, many Christians believed that it was necessary to give the Jews a place of their own so that they would no longer be at the mercy of a ruthless tyrant like Hitler.
“The second factor concerns theology. There are many Christians who believe that God is preparing the world for the end times and that the nation of Israel is the fulfillment of many prophecies. They conclude that if they don’t support Israel, they are resisting God’s plans.”
“I have heard that in the book of Zechariah the last two chapters are being fulfilled today. Do you believe that?”
Obviously Abdul had read the Minor Prophets. “Now you ask me to explain one of the toughest passages in the Bible. Those chapters are indeed about the last days. We believe that Jesus will rule over all the earth, as it says in Zechariah 14:9. I don’t need to remind you that Muslims believe this as well. But whether the present state of Israel is referenced in these verses, well, Christians do not agree on that.”
Abdul considered my words. For a moment, I almost felt that I was in a Bible study with an eager and serious university student. This man’s interest in the Bible seemed genuine. Finally, he said, “I do not believe the prophet is talking about this Israel.” Then he added a twist. “If I believed the Old Testament, then I’d be a settler.”
I was surprised by the passion of his statement—similar to the fervor I found in many Jewish settlers in West Bank and Gaza. Abdul stood, preparing to leave. “You know all we want is peace!”
I stood with him and asked, “Do you really believe the ways of Islamic Jihad will produce peace?”
Abdul shrugged. “Inshallah. With help from Allah.” It was a typical Arab response, invoking the name of God when he didn’t really want to answer the question.
I let it pass, saying, “I have a gift for you.” I pulled a book out of my satchel. “I do believe there is hope for real peace, but it is not found in terrorist methods. Real peace is found through the person of Jesus whom you so admire. I’d like you to have this.” I handed him a copy of my book God’s Smuggler in Arabic, saying, “This will tell you more about me and what I do. It may also help you better understand Christianity.”
He accepted the book with a curt nod, saying, “I will read it.”
Then he quickly walked away.
Al and the Palestinian pastor sat in stunned silence. Finally, Al commented that he was amazed at the man’s openness.
“Why?” I asked.
“He’s a thinker. He seems to be genuinely searching.”
“You are surprised that he is a human being like you and me? Perhaps it is easier to think of him as a mindless terrorist. That will do nothing to help solve the problems of the Middle East.”3
Later as I lay on my bed, a ceiling fan trying listlessly to move the hot, humid air in my stuffy room, I thought about how Al’s response was typical of many Western Christians. The news media rarely put a face on Islamic fundamentalist groups in Gaza and West Bank. Therefore few people stopped to think that these men, like people everywhere, had families, dreams, and fears. Abdul was married, and he’d told us that he had seven young children. I could imagine him at home, sitting on his sofa with a toddler snuggled up to him on each side. This wasn’t how most of us chose to think of a senior member of Islamic Jihad. I wondered how many of his colleagues were also struggling to figure out the meaning of life.
For many, their only source of enlightenment was Islam. I thought about my calling in life, how God had reached out and touched me as an angry, frustrated young soldier laid up in a hospital. How had I reached this point of interacting with some of the most feared Islamic organizations in the world? It certainly had been a strange and unexpected journey. Unable to sleep, my mind drifted back more than thirty years to my first trip to the Holy Land.