Last spring I attended a conference at the newly established St. Olaf Institute for Freedom and Community, which is dedicated to “free inquiry and meaningful debate of important political and social issues.” The institute invited four professors to talk about religious conflict: a well-known Yale theologian about conflict among world religions; an Evangelical from Wheaton about tensions within Evangelicalism; a Palestinian Lutheran leader about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and me about discord and schism in the Lutheran churches. I had high expectations that the Palestinian Lutheran pastor, administrator, and theologian Mitri Raheb would “question easy answers and foster constructive dialogue” about that long-standing Middle East clash in which common ground between contending parties is very rare. As it turned out, his lecture was one of the most alarming that I have experienced in a long academic career.
A hint of what was to come preceded the conference itself. When the speakers arrived on a cold April afternoon, I noticed that Raheb was something of a celebrity on campus. Students and faculty gathered to greet him adoringly, partly because his daughter had recently graduated from St. Olaf, but mainly because many students and faculty had visited Israel and the West Bank under his tutelage. They showed up en masse for his lecture.
In the waiting room, the four of us chatted amiably. But then the Yale professor mentioned to Raheb that he had just read a marvelous put-down of Christian Zionism. The two expected the rest of us to nod in affirmation. Being old enough not to care, I mentioned a recent book edited by Gerald McDermott on The New Christian Zionism, in which I had a chapter on Reinhold Niebuhr. I suggested that it represented another view; the room became very silent.