Before I left home for college, people at my church would commonly react in the same way when I told them that I planned to major in Middle East and North Africa Studies: “Wow! Are you going to be a missionary?"
Why was that path seen as the only option for me in this academic field? Though missions and proselytization in the Middle East is a separate issue that I continue to form opinions around, there appears to be a shortage of Christians who are understanding and appreciative of Middle Eastern culture and do not deem a missions-mindset necessary for this approach. The fact that the Middle East’s rich histories, traditions and cultures are not what first came to my fellow church-goers’ minds is indicative of the mainstream sentiment in Western churches today. A predominant ideology within the Church considers the Middle East a comparatively less righteous place than the nation of Israel made up of a less sanctified people than the Jews or Israelites, and of course, those within the Church.
Throughout my upbringing and young adulthood, I have been confronted by Jesus’ amazing and radical love while also witnessing unloving political acts directed at those affiliated with the Middle East. This includes everything from outright prejudice in the media to the glorification of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and other neighboring populations. What I cannot understand is the way that some American evangelicals align themselves with this political ideology that goes against Jesus’ groundbreaking love. The Old Testament does identify Israel as God’s chosen people, and I do not seek to spell out a monolithic stance concerning these passages. The point I make in this article stands regardless of what those passages mean. I believe that there needs to be a change in the way some American Christians associate political Zionism and Israel’s distinction as the Holy Land with anti-Arab sentiment and military action. The Christian supporters of Zionism are wrong to believe that the political project for the modern state of Israel goes hand in hand with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This supposedly Christian stance is reductive, disrespectful and in contrast with Jesus’ clear direction of love and engagement with the vast group of the world’s population that identifies as Arab, Muslim, or Middle Eastern.During His life, Jesus set a countercultural example of cultivating loving relationships with ethnic groups historically marginalized in Israel. In the book of John, Jesus passes through Samaria and begins talking to a Samaritan woman at a well, a big cultural taboo from gender, ethnic and religious standpoints. Their conversation begins with Jesus’ simple request for some water from the well, continues on as they talk about the woman’s past marriages, and ends with a loving promise of belonging. Jesus tells her that a time will come when all people, including both Jews and Samaritans, will be united in spirit and truth (Cf., John 4:1-24). By His example, Jesus directs us to consider all people cherished as God’s children and bound together by His love. Jesus’ love does not include prejudice, bias or discrimination, and neither should the ideology of any Christian. From Jesus’ example, it is clear that xenophobia, Islamophobia, and prejudice against Middle Eastern cultures and ethnicities cannot be part of a truly Christian way of being.
Unfortunately, Americans live in a society that has designated the Middle Eastern region and all that it is affiliated with as political and ideological enemies. For some evangelicals, the estrangement of Arab populations and cultures is equivalent to drawing near to God. Even if this designation were appropriate, Christians would still be required to love Arabs and Muslims since Jesus said to love one’s enemies (Cf., Matthew 5:43-44). However, we would do well to question whether categorizing people, let alone entire groups of people, as the enemy is in line with Jesus’ teachings. Either from the learned culture of treating the other as less than oneself, or specifically from Zionist ideology, there is a harmful tendency to view individuals associated with the Middle East as being opposed to God’s chosen people. Having said this, those who hold this position need to turn the categorical switch and view Arabs as their neighbors, not their enemies. This will help dislodge the widespread misrepresentations that American systems of power endorse. When loving Arabs, Middle Easterners and Muslims becomes central to Christian identity, the enemy label will be erased and all will experience the gentle, compassion-driven love which Jesus says we are to embody.
We especially need to be conscious of misrepresentations influenced by Zionist or American imperialist perspectives. We need to actively reject the way the media treats Arabs. We can’t get used to the token Arab characters on TV, present to speak an exotic language and aid the government intelligence officer in his pursuit of catching the terrorist. We cannot believe that a woman who wears any form of a veil is inherently oppressed, suspicious or asking for help. It is a difficult, ongoing process that needs conscious, intentional effort to break down societal stereotypes. Regardless, we shouldn’t disregard Jesus’ clear, lived example to use Scripture in support of various prejudices.
American Christians must hold fast to the truth that all nations and peoples are worthy of God’s love and are equal in their position as humans on this earth. From Galatians, we read that God’s love reaches beyond the ancient Israelites, his Jewish disciples, and his American supporters of Israel: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Though these verses encompass all nations and break down the designations of Jew and Gentile, we can also understand that Jesus seeks to love each and every person within a nation or ethnic group without the nation or ethnicity itself.
This vision of love and understanding between American Christians like myself and people who identify as Arab, Middle Eastern or Muslim seems to coincide much more strongly with Jesus’ position on cross-cultural interactions. I do not claim to know how to interpret the verses in the Bible that elevate the nation of Israel, but I do believe that Jesus would not lead us to engage in “redemptive violence” and theologically motivated oppression in order to increase peace in the world. I know that there are knowledgeable, sincere Christians who have different interpretations on this topic, but Jesus’ character and the pursuit of emulating His character are incompatible with the use of violence and oppression justified by dogma.
 I do not seek to use terms describing ethnic, religious and regional categorizations interchangeably in this article. However, I think American society and Christian discourse about any or all of these groups often assigns the same connotations and judgments upon these different identity groups.