Sara Barton: Several months ago, I heard that Lynne Hybels would be speaking at a local community church where I live in Michigan. I knew of Hybels as co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church and author of Nice Girls Don’t Change the World, but she was not scheduled to speak about church growth or women’s issues. She was, instead, slated to speak about her ministry engagement in the Holy Land. I was immediately intrigued that Hybels had the courage to undertake not only the ministry itself but also public discussion of a topic so fraught with explosive realities.
Hybels’s speech lasted about one hour and was carefully crafted to challenge an American Christian audience to think anew about a topic we might think we already know. Her presentation represented not only her ability to speak; it represented her ability to listen. She had obviously listened, hour upon hour, to Palestinian Christians and Muslims, Israeli Jews, Christian Zionists, and American politicians. She found a way to honor all the groups during her speech, and her challenge to listeners has stayed with me. Because she brought it to my attention, I have joined Lynne Hybels in prayer for the Holy Land, that the acts of violent people will be thwarted, that people committed to nonviolence will be protected, that reconcilers will be sustained as they seek friendship among former enemies, and that politicians involved will be true moral leaders.
I was blessed to share breakfast with Lynne the next morning, where I found her enthusiasm for peace to be contagious. I am thankful she agreed to this interview for Missio Dei.
SB: Lynne, thank you for your ministry of engagement in the Holy Land. Can you provide our readers with a summary of your work over the past several years?
Lynne Hybels: I’ve travelled repeatedly to Israel and Palestine, listening to and learning from Israelis and Palestinians, from Christians, Muslims, and Jews, who are committed to relationship, reconciliation, and the freedom and dignity of all the people in the Holy Land. My desire is to stand in solidarity with the peacemakers, to tell their stories, and to give more Americans an opportunity to learn from them.
SB: Some critics have labeled you a Palestinianist and leveled charges that you work against Christian Zionism. How do you answer these charges?
LH: I am a Zionist to the extent that I wholeheartedly support a homeland for the Jewish people where they can live in peace and security, free from the threat of suicide bombers or rockets from Gaza. I am a Palestinianist to the extent that I wholeheartedly support freedom, human rights, and self-determination for the Palestinian people. I hold to a theology of the kingdom of God that, I believe, leaves theological and geographical space for Jews and Arabs to live as neighbors in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
SB: Scripture calls Christians to seek peace. Is peace possible in the Holy Land?
LH: In the Holy Land I’ve met Christians, Muslims, and Jews (both secular and religious) who are working for peace. In whatever I say or do I want to honor their work and their commitment. As a Christian, of course, I believe followers of Jesus are uniquely called and empowered to be peacemakers. Consequently, I see the shrinking of the Christian community in the Holy Land as a great threat to peace, and the active encouragement of Christians in the Holy Land as a significant means of supporting peace.
SB: How do our shared Abrahamic histories provide resources for the peace process? Reflect on the interfaith dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
LH: At various times, each of the three Abrahamic faiths has been co-opted by extremists who support separation, hostility, violence, and/or death. However, there is a truer manifestation (in my opinion) of each faith that calls for respect for the others. I do not believe that all religions are created equal; I believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Merciful One, the fulfillment of everything. So, I’m not suggesting that the differences between religions don’t matter. However, each of the three Abrahamic faiths acknowledges the image of God in every human being, despite our differences in culture, race, or religion, which is an extremely important belief to share. I also believe that when we build relationships of respect and friendship between people of different faiths we create space in which God can work out God’s purposes, including peace.
SB: As an Evangelical, how have your experiences affected your views on evangelism and Christian mission?
LH: I am saddened when we Christians talk about “reaching people for Christ” when we don’t even know those people. We think it’s enough to know what we believe and to boldly speak it, though we sometimes wonder why nobody seems to be listening. What might happen if we sat and listened and became friends and shared not just “our faith” but our lives with others? How might God work in our midst?
SB: How can American Christians engage in dialogue about Israeli-Palestinian conflict and simultaneously honor the dignity of both Jews and Palestinians in our conversations?
LH: First, we need to genuinely believe in the dignity of both Jews and Palestinians. I don’t think that’s generally true for American Christians. It wasn’t true for me.
During my early engagement in the Holy Land, my sympathies and my conversation shifted depending on what part of history or current events I was studying. Was I focused on Holocaust studies? Then I would speak of the incomprehensible suffering of the Jews, and I would tend to place the white hats on their heads. Was I walking through the rubble of an Arab village destroyed in 1948 or an Arab home demolished last year? Then I would sympathize with the displaced Palestinians, and I would tend to put the white hats on their heads. Was I focused on the horror of Palestinian violence during the Second Intifada? Then I would mourn the losses of the Jews. Was I focused on the unrelenting oppressiveness of the Israeli military occupation? Then I would grieve the injustices of Palestinian daily life.
Only when I can hold in tension both these realities, that two peoples are suffering in different ways, can I speak honestly about the conflict while honoring both Jews and Arabs.
Sara Gaston Barton is an assistant professor of religion at Rochester College in Rochester Hills, Michigan. She is married to John and they have two children, Nate (20) and Brynn (17). The Barton family lived and worked in Jinja, Uganda, East Africa, from 1994 to 2002 as part of a church-planting mission team. Sara is currently working toward a Doctor of Ministry at Lipscomb University and is the author of A Woman Called: Piecing Together the Ministry Puzzle (Abilene, TX: Leafwood, 2012).