Update (May 25, 2017): The author has written a follow-up essay on this subject. Read it here.
I was having Palm Sunday lunch with my family when my sister-in-law told me that Hillsong would be performing in Israel. I’ve always enjoyed their music and performance, which enables me to dial down the outside distractions and focus on what’s inside, dwelling in God’s presence in a way that only music can take you. My sister and I wanted to see them, and we bought tickets with my sister-in-law to attend their second concert in Caesarea.
During the drive there we brushed up on our familiarity with Caesarea and its biblical significance. As locals, we usually visit holy sites when we have friends or relatives come from abroad, and we try to show them some of our country’s famous locations. The visits entail physically taking our cousins to the site, but not really giving them all the information tour guides do. So on the ride to Caesarea, we turned our drive into a biblical history lesson about the city.
“Wasn’t it the place where the first non-Jew becomes a Christian? Maybe a Roman soldier or something?” I asked my sister-in-law.
“I don’t quite know. We usually go there to walk along the beach. The scenery is beautiful with the Roman ruins and all,” she answered.
“Wait, maybe this is where Stephen was stoned to death? I don’t know. Something about martyrdom. That’s what I remember,” my sister-in-law responded.
“I’m sure the hosts of the concert will let us know,” I answered.
“How naive of me to think this concert wouldn’t be one-sided, that I would be welcomed to worship God in a place of mutual recognition.”
We followed the crowds, and there were more than 20 buses of people also waiting for the concert gates to open. As we found out, this Hillsong concert is part of a 2017 Hillsong tour to the Holy Land, and tourists joining in this pilgrimage get to hear their favorite band perform in the Holy Land. This is a great marketing idea! Locals certainly would not be able to fill the Roman amphitheater there. I expected a few hundreds locals would come, and along with the thousands of tourists, the venue filled up quickly.
As we waited for the concert, a couple, Matthew and Laurie Crouch, whom I had never heard of, but the audience seemed to know them, cheered favorably. The Crouches welcomed everyone, and the viewers on TV. As I paid attention to the logos on the screen, TBN was a co-host along with Hillsong. The hosts seemed to know what they are doing and got the audience in a good mood welcoming those coming from Australia, the USA, Canada, Singapore, the U.K. and Mexico. Matthew was (so) delighted by the various nationalities present that he jokingly invited anyone from Madagascar to come on stage. There was no one from Madagascar.
Then Matthew welcomed a special group among the audience saying, “We are delighted to welcome Israeli Messianic Jews that are here with us,” and the crowd cheered and others stood to indicate their belonging to that group. I thought the host would continue to welcome other locals, but he stopped there. I felt unrecognized being a local as well, but not an Israeli Messianic Jew, and I knew other Palestinian Christians were among the audience. I shrugged at the irony of welcoming a Madagascan, but not Palestinians who are among the audience.
The hosts continued to invite another special guest that was also here with his tour group and who seemed well known: Mike Huckabee. I had no idea who he was, and as soon as I Googled him, I couldn’t believe my eyes. He is described as an ardent Christian Zionist, who, among other things, denies the existence of Palestinians. How awkward! My mind starting questioning my attendance. I wondered if they they didn’t welcome Palestinians because they don’t believe we exist at all. I couldn’t believe it. Why didn’t the Hillsong website have this information online so that the audience would have all the relevant information before attending? I could have spared myself the rush of anger, repulsion, and rejection that coursed through me at that time. How naive of me to think this concert wouldn’t be one-sided, that I would be welcomed to worship God in a place of mutual recognition. Perhaps I should have known. Hillsong is only performing in Israel and not in Palestine. They are performing in leading holy sites and venues in Israel, without making any political waves.
“I am extending an open invitation for Taya Smith, Joel Houston, Jonathan Douglas, Jad Gillies, Matt Crocker, and the musicians to come and visit with local Palestinian Christians. We want to exchange with you the treasures and freedom God has given us in our context.”
I don’t know about your city or country, but famous artists (and) musicians do not come to Israel and Palestine very often. And when they do, the local communities jump at the opportunity to go to their concert. We have had artists like Alicia Keys or Lauryn Hill cancel their concerts due to political reasons. From my experience, every artist who comes to either Israel, Palestine or both pays a political cost. Their choice of locations is perceived as their binary view of support to either Israel or Palestine. In the case of Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill, they were unable to satisfy their Palestinian and Israeli fans and preferred to cancel the whole show rather than come at all. Very few manage to maintain a win-win situation for both their Palestinian and Israeli fans, and this reflects the situation on the ground. You cannot perform for an audience of Israelis and Palestinians without being sucked into the sum-zero mentality.
I wanted to leave the concert before the Hillsong band even got on the stage. I hated these discoveries. Why can’t we just go to a concert and enjoy the music? Had the organizers been open about their theological and political views, some locals would have not attended. By the time I realized this, I couldn’t leave. I was the driver and had passengers who weren’t bothered by all these discoveries.
Finally, the band came on stage and started performing. I struggled to sing along:
What fortune lies beyond the stars
Those dazzling heights too vast to climb
I got so high to fall so far
But I found heaven as love swept low
How can I sing these words when that the love has been hijacked by exclusive support and denial of fellow brothers and sisters created in God’s image? My heart was beating and my soul was breathing to feel God’s love despite the rejection I had just experienced. I laid out my anger, repulsion and rejection and prayed for wisdom.
For me the words of the songs resonate with a yearning for God’s dwelling among us, and I write this letter not in a spirit of division but in a spirit of love. I am extending an open invitation for Taya Smith, Joel Houston, Jonathan Douglas, Jad Gillies, Matt Crocker, and the musicians to come and visit with local Palestinian Christians. We want to exchange with you the treasures and freedom God has given us in our context.
What treasure waits within Your scars
This gift of freedom gold can’t buy
As the sun set and the band came close to finishing the concert, I looked around me and wondered what others were thinking or praying. I came to be refreshed, and instead I found myself struggling to exist, in the same place where Christianity became a faith extending across ethnic and racial divides.*
*It is believed that Caesarea is where Cornelius, a Roman centurion, became the first non-Jewish convert to Christianity.
Editor’s note: This essay was first published at Come and See.
Shadia Qubti is a Christian Palestinian with Israeli citizenship and was born and raised in Nazareth. Shadia finished her undergraduate degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and her postgraduate degree in Conflict Resolution and Nonviolence at Trinity College University in Dublin, Ireland. She is engaged with youth and women in various initiatives that promote peace in Israel and Palestine.
Photo by cking