KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Aren’t Christians leaving the Holy Land? Why would you do the reverse?
LELA GILBERT: Actually, Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population is growing. This doesn’t include the Muslim-majority territories under the Palestinian Authority where — as in the rest of the Middle East — Christians are leaving. I am not, of course, part of Israel’s indigenous Christian population, which is comprised primarily of Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Arabs (there are a few Evangelicals but not many). That comprises an entirely different group of believers than the various Western Catholic and Protestant individuals who live and work in Israel for various reasons and for a limited time. As for me, I’ve made many remarkable friendsand it is going to be painfully hard to leave them.
LOPEZ: To what extent do you find the Holy Land holy?
GILBERT: There are guns and land mines, missiles, barbed wire, checkpoints, and an ominous wall dividing Bethlehem from Jerusalem. That’s a depiction of Israel I sometimes heard from people who warned me not to go! In actual fact, most all the places I’ve visited (and, most notably my Jerusalem neighborhood — although it’s not what’d I’d call “holy”) always somehow embody traces of the sacred. There always seems to be a breath of holiness in the Jerusalem air — something energetic, inspiring, and immediate. A presence, perhaps? Maybe — I’m not sure. But on a more mundane level, like much of Israel, Jerusalem is picturesque, quiet, friendly, and populated by peace-loving Israeli families.
Perhaps it’s a little-known fact, but Israelis want peace more than anyone. Why? Because everyone who has lived there for any amount of time has been wounded by the Holocaust, terrorism, and the brutalities of several wars — wars launched by Israel’s neighbors. I don’t know anyone who is untouched by these things. Security issues have cost Israel thousands of lives over the country’s 65-year history, not to mention innumerable horrific injuries. The reason for checkpoints and the security fence lies in these dangers, which continue to be exposed and defused on a daily basis. So the Holy Land is far from holy in its earthly history. It is bloodstained — and whatever holiness may endure exists despite several thousand years of conflict. Yet there’s still something wonderful there. I wish I knew precisely what to call it.
LOPEZ: Is it important for Christians to be there?
GILBERT: I think it’s important for Christians to be everywhere. We are called to reflect God’s light into the world wherever we go. And that’s why, of all people, Christians shouldn’t be driven from the Middle East. Their communities have been around since the first century, and their ancestors were among the first followers of Jesus. These old churches preceded the Muslims by hundreds of years. It’s impossible to overstate their importance.LOPEZ: Most Christians there don’t seem to be as sympathetic to the plight of Jews there as you are. Is that a fair assessment?
GILBERT: I suppose it depends on which Christians you mean. There is a great deal of support for Israel in America and in the developing nations where Christianity is spreading like wildfire. There is less support in some other parts of the world, where anti-Semitism runs deep and, at times, is not corrected because of some problematic theological interpretations, such as replacement theology — the belief that the Christian Church replaced the Jews in God’s sight as His chosen people, so that the Jews are now under an eternal curse. That teaching continues to do great harm to Christian-Jewish relations.