From Personal to Political New Book about the Middle East May Challenge Some Christians

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Smith Daily Herald Staff Writer

Nature shows us that things can grow even in unforgiving, natural conditions.

For Gary Burge of Wheaton, that harsh environment was a civil war.

"In 1973, I was studying politics and Islam for 12 months as an undergraduate exchange student at the American University of Beirut in Beirut, Lebanon," Burge said.

The Lebanese Civil War - a war that would destroy Beirut and last for 15 years - broke out that same year.

"There was rioting all around the university almost daily in the spring," Burge said. "A Lebanese tank was parked in front of my dorm just to keep things quiet."

Classes were regularly canceled, and Burge used his down time to travel to Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Israel.

Living in a dorm where half the residents were Palestinian helped him grow to know people invested in all sides of the conflict.

Burge, now a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, has written a book titled "Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians."

He will discuss the origin of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and offer his ideas of some of the more promising solutions for peace during a breakfast and book signing at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at the First Presbyterian Church of Wheaton.

Burge, 50, said the seed for the book was planted all those years ago.

"The story in the book took me by surprise," said Burge, a 12- year member of the Wheaton College faculty. "It's a synthesis of my personal experiences in the Middle East with my theological background."

When he began his career as a professor, Burge found himself teaching the history and geography of Israel and leading yearly student trips to the Middle East as part of his duties.

He became increasingly interested in the political issues of the area and, when the first Palestinian uprising began in 1989, a number of Arab pastors at Christian churches made him an offer.

"They told me it was time to leave the 'tourist trail' and come experience life under occupation," said Burge, noting that about 8 percent of Palestinians worldwide are Christian.

Taking up the challenge, he stayed in the city of Ramallah, 10 miles north of Jerusalem.

"No tourist goes to Ramallah," Burge said. "It was under full Israeli occupation at the time, and there were demonstrations going on. It was a real eye-opener to me."

During his stay, Burge was befriended by a network of Christian clergy in the occupied areas and Israel.

He began to believe there was a story in Israel that Christians in America hadn't been told.

He tells that story in his book as a Christian theologian speaking to American Christians who want to view the Middle East through the lens of the Bible. His goal is to inspire Christians to ask more questions regarding the Middle East conflict and U.S. policies toward Israel.

"Christians assume that prophecy is being fulfilled in Israel today, and they see a continuity between biblical Israel and modern Israel," Burge said.

"I suggest we reopen these questions and, at the very least, say this: If Israel is going to make a biblical claim for nationhood, then Israel is required to live by biblical standards of nation- building."

In other words, Burge is asking Christians to revisit the idea that Middle East politics should be interpreted through the pages of the Bible.

"My first word is a word of caution," Burge said. "There has always been ambiguity when it comes to biblical prophecies and the future.

"Secondly, the prophets of the Old Testament had much more to say about justice than they did about fulfillment of prophecy."

For instance, Burge mentions the prophet Isaiah was more devoted to the question of the quality of Israel's life than in predicting the future. …