Book Review: An American Evangelical Christian Man’s Awakening to Palestine

“This is all we ask. Go back and tell the truth.”

The author of this memoir, Rev. Don Wagner, is a longtime friend. Back in the day, Rev. Wagner was based in Chicago, Illinois and I was in Youngstown, Ohio. We both were engaged in the same struggle for Palestine. Subsequently, when I relocated to Palestine, I would speak to the various eyewitness delegations he led to the Holy Land, or what he prefers to call the “unholy land” — which, he writes, “serves as a place of injustice that awaits the arc of the moral universe bending to usher in justice, peace, and reconciliation.”

In the mid 1980’s, as a student and campus activist with the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) at Youngstown State University, I remember being thrilled when Rev. Don Wagner accepted our invitation to be a guest speaker on campus. He was one of the first non-Palestinians whose knowledge of Palestine increased my own. I was intrigued by this American who was not only impressively well-informed but who was also, and more importantly, courageous enough to speak out on Palestine before it was kosher to do so on US campuses. His informed advocacy and its impact on me helped motivate me to become better informed myself about Palestine’s struggle so that I could educate others effectively.

In October 2013, still going strong, Rev. Wagner invited me to Chicago to speak at a conference of the Friends of Sabeel and the Chicago Faith Coalition on Middle East Policy (36-minute video here). Although we eventually crossed paths on both sides of the Atlantic, until now I had never heard his own story in detail. I am delighted that he has written this memoir to share his “transformation from an apathetic, conservative evangelical Christian to someone with a progressive political and religious consciousness.”

Little had I known earlier of his long and painful quest to emerge from his comfort zone concerning Palestine. The Evangelical Christian community and beyond have much to learn from Rev. Wagner’s account of his journey.

Donald E. Wagner received a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry degree from McCormick Theological Seminary. He was Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Chicago’s North Park University. He served as National Director of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (1980–89), was Director of Middle East Programs for Mercy Corps International (1990–94), and was co-founder of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding. He is the author of five previous books on Palestinian rights.

At the outset he explains the book’s title, Glory to God in the Lowest, drawing on “an ancient Jewish theme, the akida (binding) as in Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. The theme is reiterated in the kenosis (emptying) passage of Philippians 2, a metaphor of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection as a pattern for a meaningful life. The Qur’an has the same message as the Prophet Muhammad faced death threats on the eve of his secret hegira flight from Mecca to Medina, only to return victorious a few years later.”

His road to political maturity encompassed direct action in marches with Martin Luther King and Rev. Andrew Young of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; engaging the poorest of America’s Black community; reading Malcolm X’s autobiography and conversing with the Black Panthers, among other experiences. His memoir clearly reveals that Rev. Wagner was engaged in “advocacy for anti-war, anti-racism, and Palestinian rights” based on intersectionality long before intersectionality was even a thing.

Palestine painfully discovered

A four-year stint as pastor at Elmwood Presbyterian Church in East Orange/Newark, NJ, a Black community, where he was further sensitized to the lived realities of some of the poorest communities in the US, proved revelatory. He started to connect the dots between his anti-war efforts against the US’s war on Vietnam, poverty in America’s inner city and the dynamics of the White supremacy that lingered everywhere.

On emerging from this experience, Rev. Wagner found himself at the starting point of a parallel journey of discovery regarding Palestine: “I was a Christian supporter of Israel but at this point I was a liberal Protestant and a “post-Holocaust” supporter of zionism, having jettisoned the evangelical/fundamentalist narrative.”

“This memoir,” he tells us, “is my journey of trying to “tell the truth about the injustices inflicted on the Palestinian people over the previous 100 years. The memoir follows my journey from apathy toward political injustices to a dramatic change in the mid-1960s that set my life on a different course.”

Rev. Wagner opted for a path less traveled these days: He set out to research the issues and to listen to others. His education as it then unfolded involved a lot of old-style (read: effective) organizing. He attended lectures, proactively engaged in conversations, read books and pamphlets, participated in activities, etc. Ultimately, his learning process culminated in a trip to visit the region firsthand and see for himself. This theme of first-hand encounter would be so powerful for his evolving understanding that he has continued ever since to facilitate and encourage others to come to Palestine and likewise see for themselves.

Rev. Wagner’s personal entry point to the experience of engaging with Palestinians upfront involved refugees in Lebanon.

The hardest chapter to read was Chapter 16: Their Blood Cries Out! The Sabra/Shatila Massacre. Rev. Wagner was physically present at the site of that massacre the day after it was perpetrated. This changed his life indelibly, forever. His eyewitness account is bone-chilling.

“It was Monday morning, September 20, 1982. I was sitting on a pile of dirt from a mass grave as we watched Red Cross and Red Crescent workers bury Palestinians below us. When I arrived at the camp an hour earlier, I was quickly overcome by the emotional overload and intense heat. Palestinian families were returning for the first time since the massacre ended the previous day and were dreading finding the remains of loved ones still under the rubble of their bulldozed homes.

“A few minutes earlier I watched as workers pulled the decaying bodies of two small children from the rubble. Their mother cried out in Arabic: “Why, O Allah, why, why, why?” The piercing screams cut through to my heart and soul. Then I saw the parade of body bags, possibly 300–400, taking the victims to their final resting place. We had to cover our mouth and nose with handkerchiefs doused in cheap cologne to offset the intense stench of death that permeated the destroyed refugee camp.

“I had never witnessed such a concentration of death and suffering in one place and hope I never will again.”

I felt his deep pain and have written about my own pain surrounding that “gut-wrenching day” (see: That Massacre Was Personal).

Rev. Donald E. Wagner with his wife wife Linda Kateeb. Credit: Glory to God in the Lowest

On that terrible day, Rev. Wagner encountered a fellow clergyman, a Muslim sheik, an imam, at the site. The imam urged him to “[j]ust go back and tell what you have seen here.” This would be easier said than done in the United States, but Rev. Wagner resolved to dedicate the rest of his life to exactly that task — speaking truth to power on Palestine, no matter how difficult.

Question everything

One of Rev. Wagner’s mentors, the Princeton director of the Colorado-based Young Life movement, advised him to keep questioning everything, saying: “By all means, question your evangelical assumptions about God, Jesus’ divinity, the Resurrection, the Bible, and everything else.” Rev. Wagner also quotes Mark Twain: “Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.” Engaging with liberation theology would be an important medium for his unlearning and relearning process about what was important and meaningful in life.

Some of what Rev. Wagner recalls from his travels in the region provides a humorous note. While on a visit to Egypt, he writes, “In the middle of the night I was awakened by a man screaming at the top of his lungs and it seemed to be coming from the hallway. I jumped out of bed, half awake, and went to the door to see who was making all the noise. No one was there. Then I realized it was the first call to prayer, prior to sunrise, coming from a mosque. I looked out my window and sure enough, my room was twenty-five feet from the large loudspeaker on the minaret.”

Throughout his years of questioning everything, not all went as planned. At several stops along the way he found himself a victim of today’s all too prevalent “cancel culture.” From having small events cancelled all the way to losing his tenure and ultimately his job, at North Park University in Chicago. The same happened with his Mercy Corps job, too. His account of the details makes infuriating reading, especially since similar scenarios are repeated all too frequently today.

Being in the crosshairs of pro-Israel forces in the US never stopped Rev. Wagner from focusing on a basic question: Why, he asked, was the US Arms Export Control Act, adopted by the US Congress in 1976, not being applied to Israel? He could not understand it, especially after having witnessed firsthand Israeli-flown US-made warplanes rain death and destruction on Lebanon.

One of the boldest examples of Rev. Wagner’s tenacity for questioning is the account he gives of a meeting with Uri Mor, then the director of Israel’s Ministry ​of Religious Affairs. The meeting’s agenda was to address reports that Mor was utilizing to make the case that the Palestinian Authority (PA) was torturing or abusing Palestinian Christians. These reports would later prove false. Dr. Wagner explains,

“At the outset of our meeting, Mr. Mor spoke as if the reports ​of PA torture were true, citing the International Christian Embassy and Bridges ​of Faith reports. We informed him we met with both organizations but they ​could not verify their sources. To the contrary, the human rights organizations ​al-Haq and the Israel group B’Tselem had evidence the allegations were false. ​A smile came over Mor’s face. He sat back and admitted the case was ​fabricated by the Prime Minister’s Information Office. He admitted he was ​impressed by our research and added, “Honestly, from time to time, Prime ​Minister Netanyahu’s people like to do this to keep the PA on the defensive.” We ​asked him to confirm it was propaganda and make a public statement to clarify ​the fabrication, but he said he could not do this. We issued a press release and it ​received significant coverage, including the BBC World Service and Christianity ​Today.”

Of course, he also got the push back that he was “antisemitic,” a claim casually thrown around today to delegitimize critical thought about Israel. Rev. Wagner writes, “It took me several years to work through my Christian guilt about possible antisemitism whenever I criticized Israel. By the early 1990s I realized Israel was like any nation-state and it was acceptable to hold it accountable to the standards of international law. My study of Palestinian liberation theology provided me with [the] theological platform that guided my analysis.”

A way forward

Rev. Wagner is by no means ready to give up.

Some of Rev. Wagner’s past efforts are still functioning, such as the website, which he notes “is still in operation to this day with an anonymous editorial committee of evangelicals working to reach evangelical constituencies with critical articles, interpretative tools, and personal stories in the section “Why I Am Not a Christian Zionist.””

As impetus to his continuing activism, Rev. Wagner recalls, “As Theodor Herzl, founding father of Zionism, observed in his allegorical manifesto/novel, “If I wish to substitute a new building for an old one, I must demolish before I construct.”” Rev. Wagner is not about to accept such a strategy because it amounts to wholesale racism: the “old” being demolished in this case is not a mere “building”, it is Palestinian society, the Palestinian people!

He notes that, “In the midst of the escalating tension, a group of Palestinian Christian leaders met in Bethlehem on July 1, 2020, to consider an urgent global Christian appeal. Titled “Cry for Hope,” theirs was a “beyond urgent” message demanding serious political and even economic steps to respond to Israel’s extreme policies.” In the book, he lists the “seven types of strategic actions needed from the global church immediately.” But he adds to them, writing: “In addition to the action appeals from “Cry for Hope” and various responses worldwide, I propose three calls to action to complement the “Cry for Hope” strategies: 1) Declare Christian Zionism a Heresy; 2) Close Tax-Exempt Loopholes Currently Exploited by Christian and Jewish Zionist Organizations; and 3) Decolonizing Palestine Through Global Grassroots Advocacy.” All noble goals indeed.

I will conclude with a quote that Rev. Wagner shares from a mutual friend, the American Jewish theologian Mark Braverman, who “warns us about the false path of zionism for the Jewish people:”

“We must acknowledge that zionism was a mistake — an understandable but catastrophic wrong turn in our quest for safety and dignity. Until then, we will continue to build a state on top of a lie and a crime. Until then, the Palestinians will continue to resist by steadfastly refusing to relinquish their identity, their way of life, and their connection to their homeland — occupied, harassed, imprisoned, blockaded, bombarded, starved, and betrayed by their political leaders, but proud, unbowed, and refusing to disappear. Jews must recognize that our story today is not what was done to us, but what we are now doing to others. This is our tragedy, our catastrophe. This is what we must mourn.”

May we all have the same kind of strength to correct our mistakes and be the change that we desire to see.

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on July 6, 2022 on ePalestine, a website featuring commentary by Sam Bahour.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Bahour.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Anti-Spam Quiz: