by Allison K. Schmitt
“Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army. And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed in its presence the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur” (Rev. 19:19-20).
Words like these inspired the book from which an ardent and idealistic young man read as he stood in the infamous Valley of Armageddon. It was Dr. Gary Burge’s first of dozens of trips to Israel-Palestine since 1973.
Today Gary, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School in Chicago, is no less passionate about Israel. But he’s turned his attention from end times to current times. Once the Palestinian narrative of the land reached his ears, Gary could no longer hear uncritically the Zionist story.
Among his other advocacy efforts today, Gary is a founding member of Kairos USA. The organization brings something new to the Israel-Palestine conversation, he said.
“Kairos USA wants to champion Kairos Palestine; in other words, we are responding to and being the voice of the Palestinian church to North America, and I think that’s what’s unique,” he said. “Hopefully we are not imposing on the Palestinian church ideas about justice or equity or political solutions that they do not recognize. Hopefully we are good listeners and we are echoing things which they have been saying to us in their Kairos document.”
Like many who advocate for justice in the Middle East, visits to the region have impacted him profoundly.
“I have hiked over darn near every hill in that country,” he said with a laugh, offering an apt illustration of his long journey to gain a broader view of the crisis.
During his college years, the California native became involved with Calvary Chapel. With its ocean-side tents and shoeless worshippers, Calvary was a Christian expression of the social upheaval of the ’60s, he said. Like its secular, “hippie” counterpart, the resulting Jesus Movement rejected cultural norms.
Calvary was “evangelical in tone, charismatic in spirit, they were almost dispensational in how they looked at the Middle East and Israel,” Gary said. “I was completely socialized in a passion for Israel.”
So when, at age 21 he traveled to the Middle East, he took with him “The Late, Great Planet Earth” the 1970 best-selling book that associated Jesus’ Second Coming with an imminent apocalyptic conflagration in a valley in northern Israel.
Standing in the valley of Armageddon, he read the passage and thought, “I’ve got the code book in my hands and the great battle is going to happen right in front of my face,” he recalled.
Just six years after the 1967 Middle East War the political science major studied at the American University in Beirut, which occasioned the visit to the famous valley. Equally formative was the fact that many Palestinian refugees were his school mates, creating a dissonance that was to linger for decades.
In his first teaching job after earning a Ph.D. in New Testament, Gary teamed up with an Old Testament professor to lead student trips to Israel-Palestine. When the First Intifada (“shaking off” in Arabic) began, the nagging feelings returned. One of his Palestinian clergy friends said, “Gary, you have already been to the Holy Land almost a dozen times, but in a sense you’ve been here only once.” If you get off the tourist trail you will see a different world, the pastor said. Gary accepted his invitation to stay with him in Ramallah, where he experienced an Israeli military lock-down on the city.
It was then he realized, “There is a second narrative that isn’t being told in America.” His 2003 book “Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians” was his attempt to lift up Palestinian voices. The book was nominated for awards across the Christian media spectrum.
“Ten years ago, they were far more interested in hearing that second narrative,” he said. But, by that time he was on the Wheaton College faculty and the book brought an avalanche of criticism from the evangelical world.
“They thought I should be predictably pro-Israel and they thought I had betrayed the evangelical church,” he said. “So that’s when I learned you have to be kind of tough to be in this conversation.” This was to be his first—but not last—encounter with the evangelical Zionist network. Some wrote letters to college administrators demanding his dismissal.
Administrators told them, “We would not be a good college if we didn’t allow different opinions on this issue,” he recalled. Now, with 20 years at Wheaton, Gary has written another book on the crisis—“Jesus and the Land.” He places student interns in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel and Egypt—many of whom have devoted their lives to the Arabic-speaking church, he said.
In addition to being on the board of Kairos USA, Gary is active in the evangelical advocacy group, Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, which works to facilitate dialogue between Arab and Western church leaders.
In that spirit, he might choose to read a different verse the next time he’s at Armageddon:
“He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4).