JERUSALEM — Lynne Hybels is revered for her work helping the impoverished around the world, but some people view her as dangerous.
Hybels, cofounder with her husband of one of the nation’s largest churches, has been called a heretic and an anti-Semite for her efforts to build bridges between Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East.
Hybels is among a small number of influential evangelicals who are challenging a decades-long stance of blanket evangelical support for Israel’s government. They are taking trips to the Middle East, not only to visit biblical sites but to engage with modern-day Palestinians and Israelis in conversations centered more around modern politics than ancient texts. They are organizing conferences and writing publicly in an attempt to discern a new role for Christians in bringing an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Gradually, their ideas are taking hold, especially with young evangelicals.
Hybels believes that by promoting Jesus’s message of peace and reconciliation, American evangelicals can promote a solution to the conflict.
“American Christians know so little about the Middle East and yet we form very strong opinions about it,” said Hybels, who takes evangelicals from the Chicago-based Willow Creek Church on tours to both Israeli lands and Palestinian territories.
“It takes care to break out of the polarization to talk about the needs and responsibilities of both sides.”
Evangelicals tend to view Israel through a biblical lense: The place of Jesus’s birth and burial, the place to which God would call the Jews to gather before Jesus could return. Even those who didn’t embrace the theology embraced the conclusion: Support Israel.
A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that 80 percent of evangelicals say they sympathize with Israel, while 61 percent have little or no sympathy for Palestinians.
And yet many evangelicals are not very knowledgeable about Middle Eastern politics, said Mark Amstutz, a political science professor at Wheaton College who studies evangelicals and foreign policy.
“There has been an oversimplified, causal explanation of the beliefs that evangelicals hold,” Amstutz said. “… A lot of evangelicals simply don’t know foreign policy and international politics.”
The focus of Hybels and others on educating evangelicals about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has begun to upend traditional evangelical attitudes about Israel, said Dale Hanson Bourke, who wrote a primer book for evangelicals on the conflict titled “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Tough Questions, Direct Answers.” Bourke’s research for her book began on a trip with Hybels in 2011.
“In the past, something would happen in Israel, Christians would jump on board and say Palestinians are wrong, Israelis have a right to defend themselves,” Bourke said. “Now you see evangelicals who are saying, wait a minute, why is this happening, what are both sides to this?”
A different kind of pilgrimage
In 1975, Hybels and her husband, Bill, co-founded Willow Creek, a 24,000-attendee, non-denominational church in the Chicago area which also oversees a network of 7,000 churches across the globe.
Bill Hybels, who has been called the CEO of evangelicalism due to his consumer-friendly preaching style, has largely shied away from public political involvement. But after focusing in the early 2000s on HIV/AIDS, poverty and other issues in Africa, Lynne Hybels found herself captivated by the struggles of Arab Christians in the Middle East, including those in Palestinian territories.
Criticism of Hybels as anti-Israel began after she spoke at a biennial conference called “Christ at the Checkpoint,” organized in 2010 by Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem. But Hybels insists she does not take sides and instead tries to understand all perspectives.
“I would like American Christians to be willing to educate themselves, to really care for both sides, for Arabs and Israelis, Christians, Muslims and Jews,” she said.
Thus far, Hybels has taken about 100 staff and key leaders from Willow Creek to Israel on tours organized by Telos, a group co-founded by an American evangelical and a Palestinian-American Christian who believe that a two-state solution is the most viable way to promote peace, freedom and security for Israelis and Palestinians.
Hybels’ influence especially seen most clearly among younger evangelicals. For instance, a clear generational divide has surfaced between influential evangelical publishers Steve Strang and his son Cameron. Steve Strang publishes Charisma, an evangelical magazine that regularly promotes Israel. His son Cameron publishes Relevant, a popular magazine among millennial evangelicals. Cameron Strang visited Israel with Telos and published a cover story in 2014 titled “Is Peace Possible?” urging equal civil and political rights for Palestinians or the ability to create their own state. Just a decade ago, the same magazine published a piece on why evangelicals should wholeheartedly back Israel.
I joined Hybels as she co-led a recent Telos-organized trip of influential women, including bloggers, conference organizers and pastors, most of whom were evangelicals connected to Shauna Niequist, Hybels’ daughter who also went on the trip.
The group, which included the popular Canadian blogger Ann Voskamp, Hollywood Housewife blogger Laura Tremaine and Pentecostal Theological Seminary professor Cheryl Bridges Johns, toured many of the same sites Christians might visit during a trip to the Holy Lands, including where Christians believe Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount.
But they also heard stories from Israelis and Palestinians, many of whom were women who faced personal losses as a result of the conflict. The trip focused mostly on Israel as a modern state, rather than Israel as a biblical land.
Several of the evangelical women cried as they heard from women in the Parents Circle, a group of Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children in the conflict.
One Israeli woman, Robi Damelin, noted the recent anniversary of the death of her 28-year-old son David, who was shot in 2002 by a sniper while serving in the Israeli Army. She noted the power of parents who would cook together as a starting point for peace and reconciliation.
“You can have remarkable people on the White House lawn, but that’s not going to bring peace,” Damelin said. “When you cook
together, it goes from advocacy to friendship. It doesn’t mean we agree on national narratives, but it gives us a bond.”
The women then headed to the kitchen, where they started chopping up ingredients to make jam and sent photos of their new
evangelical engagement on social media sites like Instagram to fans back home who may have never seen Palestinians interacting with Israelis.
But can making jam with your political enemies really bring peace?
Many pro-Israel evangelicals are skeptical of the vision promoted by Telos, which organizes a dozen trips each year for groups of influencers ranging from musicians and writers to church leaders like those at Willow Creek and students from Wheaton College in Illinois.
Evangelicals have long been influenced by dispensationalism, a theology that promotes a literal reading of biblical prophecy. Many dispensationalists believe Israelites’ return to the Holy Lands is a requirement for the Second Coming of Jesus. When Israeli troops captured the Old City of Jerusalem in June 1967, some saw it as a sign that Jesus was coming. However, dispensational teaching has been waning in mainstream evangelical circles, even as support for a state of Israel has remained strong.
While some evangelicals subscribe to Christian Zionism, others support Israel’s existence as a place where Jews can live in freedom and security. On the other end of the theological spectrum, several mainline Protestant churches have recently passed resolutions to divest money or boycott products made in Israel because of its occupation of the Palestinian territories.
By declining to take a theological stand at all on Israel, Telos is treated with suspicion by all sides, including evangelicals who interpret their stance as simply anti-Israel.
“This is not your parents’ anti-Israel group,” Christians United for Israel former director David Brog said in an interview on Glenn Beck’s show. “These guys are savvy, these guys are smart.”
Telos’s budget is just $1.3 million with five full-time employees, a relatively small amount compared to many of the large organizations that rally support for Israel with pilgrimage tours to the region that are often politically and theologically intertwined. Christians United for Israel, which, according to The Forward, has a budget that exceeded $7 million in 2014, takes evangelicals on similar kinds of trips with a pro-Israel emphasis. And Hobby Lobby’s Steve Green announced earlier this year he will fund an evangelical version of Birthright Israel, a trip for young Jewish Americans to visit Israel.
Telos co-founder Todd Deatherage, who led the tour of women with Hybel, used to be immersed in Republican politics. When he was chief of staff to Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.), Deatherage said Israel was an easy check-the-box issue.
But after he became chief of staff in the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s Office of Policy Planning at the State Department and visited Israel for the first time in 2004, Deatherage said he began observing more of the region’s complexities.
“There was the absence of a strong Christian approach that would affirm mutual flourishing, the dignity of everyone there
and solutions that work for everyone, both national groups,” Deatherage said.
After his political appointment under President George W. Bush ended, Deatherage founded Telos in 2009 with Gregory Khalil,
a former Palestinian-American legal adviser for Palestinian negotiations, and has taken about 50 trips to Israel since.
As Deatherage explained it to the women on the bus, evangelicals tend to self-identify in one camp, as though they are receiving an assignment from Harry Potter’s sorting hat. Deatherage urges those on his trips to shun labels and become pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-American and pro-peace.
One of the main criticisms he receives is that his approach could embolden enemies of Israel or put all Middle Eastern leaders on equal footing.
“I’m not trying to argue power equivalence, that everybody’s equal, everyone’s the same,” Deatherage said. “We spend too much time fixated on people who are rejectionists. There are people on both sides who want to figure out a way out of this.”
The one-week trip of blogging women touched on everything from the history of Israel to the country’s borders to the region’s political leadership.
Most evangelicals who go to Israel look for a pilgrimage experience, one where they see the sites where biblical figures walked. Few evangelicals talk to people on the ground from both the Palestinian and Israeli perspective, said Lysa TerKeurst, a popular Bible teacher based in North Carolina who was on the trip. Since the trip in March, TerKeurst has been back to Israel twice and is looking for ways to lead future trips that combine the two approaches.
“What I was most interested in was putting faces on the issues. I think there’s a lot of value in not just showing people the land and the sites,” she said. “The experiences I had with the people there adds a richness to my research that you can’t get just from reading black and white articles.”
A few of the women on the Telos trip had preconceived ideas about the region, some leaning towards Israelis while others seemed more sympathetic to Palestinians.
One of the trip’s bloggers, Tsh Oxenreider, said she wasn’t sure what to expect ahead of the trip. She grew up in a Bible church in Texas where church members would return from Holy Land trips with glowing stories.
“I pictured this beautifully-preserved region straight out of the maps from my Bible,” said Oxenreider, who lives in Austin. She said the lasting memories from her trip will include simply learning about Israeli-occupied settlements.
“I don’t yet feel equipped to write about the region,” she said. But when Israel would come up in conversation, she said, “before I’d nod silently, now I feel like I have more of an educated voice. But I’ve still got a lot to learn.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this story said that Cameron Strang was on a trip with Lynne Hybels. They were in Israel at the same time but not traveling with the same group.