The Checkpoint-Christian’s way to God

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Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac speaking at Christ at the Checkpoint conference 2018 (Photo: screenshot)

The exchanges between Jewish Messianic teacher Dr. Michael Brown and Palestinian Christian teacher Dr. Munther Isaac at the 2018 Christ at the Checkpoint (CATC) conference in Bethlehem were a rare event. The two expressed opposite views candidly – even bluntly – yet each was able to embrace his opponent as an esteemed brother in the faith. Although the complete sessions are not available for public viewing,[1] it’s doubtful that any new footage would change this impression, which was reinforced by Dr. Brown’s later reports on his blog.

But that interpersonal achievement, against the background of a Replacement Theology that Dr. Brown described as “much worse” than he expected, combined to eclipse a deeper, more desperate theological problem surfacing at Bethlehem Bible College. Michael Brown didn’t mention it; independent evangelical journalist Brian Schrauger did.

Schrauger attends CATC conferences as a critic. This report focused on an announcement by the organizers that CATC will soon replicate itself in Oklahoma City. We might debate his view that their plan to challenge Christian Zionism in the American Bible Belt is a declaration of “war”. Far less arguable was his alarm when Munther Isaac challenged the evangelical conviction that Yeshua is the only way to God: “‘When Jesus said, I am the way, he did not mean to exclude other ways,’ Isaac said. ‘He meant that his way is the way of sacrificial life.’”

It was a faith reversal that Brian rightly – even understatedly – called “startling”. The context and implications of that mostly unreported bombshell are the focus of my article.

A few days earlier, I had also gone “Wait–What?” after hearing Dr. Isaac make this statement on video. It was part of his response to Dr. Brown on May 29, Day 2 of the conference.

By that point, Munther had already proposed some confusing ideas. He explained (time-mark 31:00) that Abraham’s “offspring” who received the promises in Gal.3:14 was strictly singular: Christ, “the only legitimate recipient of the Abrahamic promises… denying in essence any other claim by any… people group.” Reaching verse 29, however, he changed “Abraham’s offspring” to an “inclusive” people group: all Gentiles who believe in Jesus. Thus, “the church today in Christ inherits the story of Israel,” which is “nothing less than the full inheritance that had belonged exclusively – but temporarily – to Israel before.” (Of course, he didn’t really mean Israel’s full inheritance or whole story; the promises of punishment for disobedience remain the uncontested property of Israel until today.)

Dr. Isaac also redefined Replacement Theology (the church replacing Israel) as a Christian error that “places Israel at the center of the Biblical narrative” in the Law and Prophets, instead of Jesus. He later shared how “troubled” he is when the Jews are spoken of “as a separate distinct entity from all other nations” simply because in the Old Testament “we are told” that they are.

These were familiar elements of CATC theology and not surprising. The shock came as Dr. Isaac explained (mark 33:25) what he meant by “Jesus Christ: the center of my belief system.”

The beginning was reassuring enough, based on that bedrock salvation statement by Yeshua in John 14:6: “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” Dr. Isaac: “We approach God through Him; He is the way, the truth and the life – do I need to say more about this?”

Apparently, he did indeed.

After complaining (34:20) that Bethlehem Bible College had lost financial support and invitations to gatherings because of the Zionism issue, “not because we do not accept the Trinity or the deity of Jesus,” he continued: “But let’s go back to that, you know, Jesus being the center of our belief system.” After again quoting John 14:6, the Palestinian pastor and Bible teacher said this:

“See, when Jesus said, I am the way, I believe He meant more than simply, Believe in Me as the only way of salvation. I do not believe that Jesus meant this to be a dogmatic statement that has actually become a divisive statement. It’s not as if He meant to say that Christianity is right and all other religions are false.

“When He said, I am the way, I believe He probably meant: My way, the sacrificial love way, is the way to God. Jesus is the way – His sacrificial way of love – is the way to God. The way to God is the Jesus way, it’s the way of love. It is by loving God and by loving neighbor that we are close to God; and Jesus models this, He embodies this. That’s why He is the way.”

To remove all doubt about his meaning, he went on to also redefine “the Truth and the Life” from the Person to a code of conduct:

“Jesus is also the truth-teller, the truth revealer…. In other words, this is not a statement, a condescending dogma statement in which we challenge other peoples. This is about our lifestyle… our way of living. And the world today needs this way of Jesus, the sacrificial way of Jesus, the life that Jesus offers.”

From there it was a short jump to redefining the “love” of Jesus as an “ethical system” favoring Palestinians (37:00). Tellingly, here Dr. Isaac turned away from the New Testament, where he could have found abundant material commanding social justice for all. Instead he appealed to the Kairos Palestine Document (KPD).

For the uninformed, the KPD is a political manifesto calling for Christians to take action against the mistreatment of Palestinians, but only where Israelis are involved. The main “injustice” they are opposing is the establishment of Israel, by which “the West sought to make amends for what Jews had endured in the countries of Europe…. They tried to correct an injustice and the result was a new injustice.” (KPD, section 2.3.2) Facing no real threats to its existence, Israel has been oppressing the Palestinians with security measures while “pretending that it is a battle against terrorism” (4.3). On the other hand, Palestinian “armed resistance” is acknowledged, but that is “legal” and not terrorism (1.5). Despite its widespread use of firebombs, grenades and rocks against Israeli soldiers and civilians, the first Intifada was a “peaceful struggle” (4.2.2). All these methods of “resistance to the evil of occupation” are expressions of “Christian love” (4.2.5).

Other KPD falsehoods: Jerusalem is being “emptied of its Palestinian citizens, Christians and Muslims” (1.1.8); Israeli Arabs do not have “full rights and equality” in Israeli society (1.2.1); and “the shrinking number of Christians, particularly [but not only] in Palestine,” is because of Israel’s refusal to make peace (1.3). Section 4.2.6 explicitly calls for BDS, with the boycott targets vaguely identified as “everything produced by the occupation [sic]”. This is later clarified as pressure “to be applied against Israel” without distinction, until the Israeli government not only surrenders Palestine but “other Arab territories” as well (7)… effectively erasing Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

In short, by citing the KPD as an application of Christ-like ethics, Munther Isaac endorsed a call for Israel’s disappearance – by peaceful means if possible, by violence if necessary – in Jesus’ name.

As a contributor to the Kairos Palestine site, Dr. Isaac doesn’t mind the organization’s extremist position. But many in his CATC audience probably would… if they knew. Although the KPD mentions “love” more than 50 times, its message is too one-sided, militant and factually challenged to be presented unaltered to honest peace-seeking Christians. For their sake, the lecturer had to edit his chosen excerpt in ways that some would consider deceptive.

This was Dr. Isaac’s version projected on the screen (mark 27:30), with his omissions preserved:

“Resistance [to injustice] is a right and a duty for the Christian. But it is resistance with love as its logic. It is thus a creative resistance for it must find human ways that engage the humanity of the enemy… Christ our Lord has left us an example we must imitate. We must resist evil but he taught us that we cannot resist evil with evil. This is a difficult commandment, particularly when the enemy is determined to impose himself and deny our right to remain here in our land. It is a difficult commandment…”

Here is the original quote, in context (censored parts highlighted):

“4.2.3 We say that our option as Christians in the face of the Israeli occupation is to resist. Resistance is a right and a duty for the Christian. But it is resistance with love as its logic. It is thus a creative resistance for it must find human ways that engage the humanity of the enemy. Seeing the image of God in the face of the enemy means taking up positions in the light of this vision of active resistance to stop the injustice and oblige the perpetrator to end his aggression and thus achieve the desired goal, which is getting back the land, freedom, dignity and independence.
4.2.4 Christ our Lord has left us an example we must imitate. We must resist evil but he taught us that we cannot resist evil with evil. This is a difficult commandment, particularly when the enemy is determined to impose himself and deny our right to remain here in our land. It is a difficult commandment yet it alone can stand firm in the face of the clear declarations of the occupation authorities that refuse our existence and the many excuses these authorities use to continue imposing occupation upon us.”

Having hidden that last whopper of a lie behind three dots, Munther invented a completely different ending. Looking down at his notes, he gave the impression that he was reading the part omitted on the screen: “It is a difficult commandment… but it is a commandment.”

CATC’s “Jesus lifestyle of truth-telling” apparently contains remarkable elastic properties.

In explaining how Jesus is “the center of my activism,” Dr. Isaac freely rewrote the Sermon on the Mount to fit the Kairos-Palestine Christ (41:40): “Love your enemy. Stand up and face the oppressor and turn your other cheek…. Engage with the humanity of your occupier by walking the extra mile… Blessed are those who are thirsty for justice, who suffer for justice’s sake.”

He then testified that he and his household “have accepted the political agenda of Jesus” which he had just described – replacing his declaration of unconditional love for Jews as “neighbors” with love calculated to gain a political goal. What’s more, he implied that the Lord Himself used love for political motives.[2]

The irony of the conference theme is rich. “Jesus at the Center” was meant as a rebuke to Christian Zionists, all of whom (according to CATC) have placed the state of Israel at the center of their faith instead of Jesus. Yet we see that the CATC leaders don’t have “Jesus at the Center” of their faith either. More accurately, the “Jesus” at their center is not the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament.

As happens with unbalanced Israel supporters, these Palestinians became selective in their embrace of truth. Something became more important to them than faithfulness to God’s Word. We will now survey the slippery path of compromise that started with this choice.

The CATC brand of Christian faith is rooted in a “political agenda” so alien to the New Testament Jesus that reconciling the two requires a significant amount of Scripture rewriting, agenda censorship and theological contradiction – only a few of which were documented here. But why was that even necessary? Numerous honest, humble and loving Palestinian Christians have succeeding in accepting the plain Scriptures about Israel, while also keeping “Jesus at the Center.” We must conclude that the CATC rejection of this position was driven at least partly by seeing the price their fellow Christians in Bethlehem have paid for affirming it. The presumed benefit of CATC’s politically biased and contradictory “Jesus” is political lenience for the Palestinian Christians who adopt it.

This is the most charitable explanation for the tradition of catering to the PA officials attending CATC opening ceremonies by bashing Israel’s very existence (1:43:15): “This year marks 70 years of the Palestinian catastrophe.” Among other damage, Dr. Isaac’s declaration here falsifies the CATC claim to reject “the delegitimization of the State of Israel.” (Conference Manifesto, no. 10)

But the sell-out doesn’t end with Israel. The spirit of the age in general, and the PA political system in particular, will not tolerate Jesus even as a resistance leader if he resists Palestinian glorification of violence, anti-Jewish bigotry or mistreatment of their own citizens. Palestinians protesting these wrongs, even if they also condemn “the Israeli occupation,” have been forcibly silenced both by PA government harassment and by pressure from local Christians (reportedly including CATC leaders).

Unconditional political submission also requires CATC to betray its own peacemaking principles with a double standard. The Palestinian national anthem that opened the CATC conference (mark 28:15) was applauded as a patriotic expression by Christians who knew its harsh lyrics about sacrificial warriors venting their “inflaming rage” and “volcanic revenge” on Israel. Meanwhile, to Israeli Christians expressing patriotism by volunteering to defend their country, Dr. Isaac has preached pacifism: army service “does not reflect a Christian attitude” and is “against the teachings of Jesus.”

The downhill slide continues. In a Shari’a-based society, the demand for Christian compromise never stops with politics. Years ago, Bethlehem pastor Steven Khoury provoked PA displeasure simply by advertising Jesus as the reason for Christmas. In so-called inclusive secular society, Christian-Messianic faith is condemned worldwide for its conviction that salvation is gained only through Messiah’s atonement. The price of acceptance in both camps requires a new-edition Son of God: Friend of all and Judge of none (except those who take the Bible literally).

Hence, the latest CATC concession: their Jesus now denies any unique standing with God, pointing instead to a loving lifestyle as The Way to God – for himself and for us all. No more “divisive dogma” to upset other religions. Especially the world’s most easily offended religion, which rules all Palestinian territories and recognizes only two categories: the house of war and the house of submission.

To soothe self-righteous universalists, CATC implicitly pledges to ignore Acts 4:12: “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” No more “stone of stumbling and rock of offense” (Rom.9:33) in their gospel.

No more gospel.

Since Jesus isn’t the only way to receive salvation, giving His life on the cross wasn’t necessary for mankind’s deliverance from the power of sin.[3] It was just one more act of sacrificial love, like the heroes of other faiths, to show us The Way of godlike conduct. So, let’s follow the idea to its logical conclusion: If all we needed to be “close to God” was to imitate the loving lifestyle of Jesus, then his untimely death was a tragedy that deprived us of a complete lifelong model![4]

Be sure that this latest heresy promoted by the Academic Dean of Bethlehem Bible College did not develop in a vacuum. It’s a by-product of his “theology of the land.”[5]

Takeaway point: Any theology that rewrites the Scripture truth about Israel will eventually be found rewriting the Scripture truth about Israel’s Messiah, and about Israel’s God.

In the process of abandoning the Truth Personified, that theology will also lose its grip on ordinary truth and logic. Witness Dr. Isaac’s remarks about “Jesus Christ: the center of my theology of the land.” Drawing on his 2014 doctoral thesis, he summed it up in a series of contradictions:

The tiny land claimed by the Jews as their historic homeland belongs to God, not to them. Regardless of what’s written in the Old Testament (God’s Word), God would never give His land to one specific people. God’s Holy Land thus belongs to “all of us,” but ownership rights go to one specific people: the Palestinians. As for the two-state solution, “this land is too small to be divided,” but the CATC vision is to share it with everyone… including the Jews, who are barred from Palestine by the government that Dr. Isaac supports without challenging that apartheid policy.

The Lutheran theologian presented this hopeless tangle as “the only way forward” to peace in the Holy Land.

Conclusion: Munther Isaac’s convoluted “theology of the land” is not new; in one form or another it has guided CATC since 2010. But to the best of my knowledge, his redefinition of “the Way, the Truth and the Life” from the person of Messiah to an ethical lifestyle IS new. It calls for a new and separate reassessment.

Evangelical Christians and Messianic Jews, regardless of where they stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will now need to consider whether they can still call the CATC organizers brothers in the faith. That includes Dr. Michael Brown.


NOTES:

[1] The video of Dr. Brown’s talk on the CATC “livestream” account begins in mid-sentence; missing are the first 10 minutes of important context (see another video uploaded by “TruNews in Israel”, mark 1:07:45). Conversely, the TruNews recording of Dr. Isaac’s response to Dr. Brown (1:38:38 in that video) begins more than 10 minutes into his introduction, also removing important context (see the CATC video, mark 19:50). Day 3’s debate between Dr. Brown and Dr. Isaac was uploaded by TruNews without the Q&A, but it’s not available at all from CATC.

[2] I tried to contact Dr. Isaac via Bethlehem Bible College to discuss the implications of his CATC comments, but no one responded.

[3] In Dr. Isaac’s PhD thesis on “theology of the land”, the benefit of Messiah’s death was concisely stated (p.378) as a return to Eden rather than deliverance from sin: “…a God who in meekness died in that land [of Israel] in order to restore every land, so that we can inherit the land again.” In over 400 pages of theological discussion, his only references to the consequences of “sin” were related to Adam (the loss of Eden) or to Israel (the loss of Canaan).

[4] It’s unclear how the Lord’s resurrection fits into the CATC gospel. Dr. Isaac’s PhD thesis appeared to ignore its significance as the seal or hope of our physical resurrection. Instead, he portrayed it as the final “Jesus-event” that “relativized” ownership of Israel’s land from the Jews to the Christians (p.202); the confirmation of Jesus as God’s king over all the earth (p.265, 281, 299); and the proof that “the land of Canaan has served its purpose” (p.295) and was “universalized”, meaning that now “any land has the potential to become a holy land” (p.363). The “death” conquered by Jesus’ resurrection was man’s expulsion from Eden (p.328), and the resulting “life” is that “human beings are restored to their original role as God’s vicegerents [vice-regents] on earth” (p.333).

[5] Years before downgrading Jesus from being the Way, Dr. Isaac’s theology had subtly downgraded His deity. His thesis proposed (p.296-7) that Jesus was not fully the Son of God until He was “appointed” to that position at His resurrection. Where Scripture explicitly describes Yeshua as “His Son, whom He [God] appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world” (Heb. 1:2), Munther argued (p.301), “This is not a general statement about the identity of Jesus as the Son [of] God from eternity.” He asserted instead that the Lord underwent a “gradual historical and salvific process which culminated in this appointment.”