Monday, November 28, 2011
INTERVIEW: PORTER SPEAKMAN, JR.
A few months ago I saw the documentary, "With God On Our Side" for the first time and I've never been the same since.
The Director of the film, Porter Speakman, Jr. was kind enough to spend about half an hour with me on the phone to talk more about this important film.
KEITH: Forgive me for saying so, but the quality of your documentary caught me off guard. By that I mean that it was so well done that I didn’t expect it to be something made by Christians and for a Christian audience.
PORTER: Thanks. It was made by Christians and our target audience was the Church.
KEITH: So, what sort of reaction has the film received so far?
PORTER: The feedback overall has been positive. I think the phrase we’ve heard most often is ‘I had no idea’ so I think there’s a certain perspective on the events that are happening between Israel and Palestine that we hear all the time, but we don’t hear the other side. Of course, there has been pushback from various Christian Zionists groups and others who actually don’t want this story to be heard. But, aside from that the feedback has been very good.
KEITH: It was quite a huge score to land someone like John Hagee for this film. I’m wondering if he had any idea where you were going with this documentary when he agreed to appear?
PORTER: Well, I haven’t heard anything directly from pastor Hagee about the documentary. When we set up the interview we told him we were doing a film about the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories and what the Christian response should be. So, we kept our questions very basic because we just wanted to hear from him and other Christian Zionists to get their point of view. Rather than us telling the audience what that position is we decided to let them speak for themselves.
KEITH: I totally agree. Actually, it’s one of the things I really appreciate about the film. I feel that your documentary was very balanced and no one side was misrepresented in any way. Kudos to you for providing an open forum for both Hagee and other Zionists in the film to speak their minds without prejudice.
PORTER: Thank you. We were very careful about that. We wanted to make sure that not only were their opinions and perspectives heard, but that we kept their comments in the context of our subject matter. So, for example, if we’re talking about the Palestinian Settlements and we get a response from John Hagee, that response had to do with the Settlements.
KEITH: Can you provide any sort of a background on yourself personally? Did you have any sort of past experience with Christian Zionism that made you feel like you needed to make a film about the topic?
PORTER: The film itself is pretty much my story and my journey. I think a lot of people who grow up in an Evangelical home, if you ask them about Israel and the End Times would pretty much give you the manifesto for Christian Zionism. But at the same time, they would have no idea what a Christian Zionist actually is. The theology is just kind of ingrained in us. I mean, we all are told we’re supposed to support Israel, the Palestinians are trying to take the land that belongs to the Jews, etcetera, and then you put all your theological framework and grab scriptures to support those ideas. So, I grew up like that. But then my wife and I got to spend some time in Israel doing a Bible Study Course and very quickly all the stereotypes and ideas that I had were quickly challenged.
The main thing was that Palestinians as a people weren’t who I thought they were. Then, also seeing the situation for ourselves, firsthand, really changed our ideas. At the time we were over there in Israel, during the second Infitada, we saw the checkpoints, we experienced the curfews, and seeing the wall being built, all of that changed us. Then we saw the Christian justification for many of these injustices and that began to really disturb me. It challenged me to think critically and to examine my theology more.
So, I set out to make the documentary for a couple of reasons; one to express a perspective that isn’t heard very often by Christians in the West, and secondly to demonstrate that we have to be very careful about the way that we handle scripture and interpret certain things when it really has a negative impact on people. I really don’t think we understand the implications of some of our unfounded beliefs on people groups – namely Muslims and Palestinians.
KEITH: I agree. It’s been a slow process for me. Like you, I had always heard growing up – from the pulpit and from my parents and from Christian mentors – that it just wasn’t up for debate that America (and the Church) must bless Israel because there’s this verse where God says to Abraham “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you”. Therefore, this means that we as a nation, and we as Christians, must bless Israel the nation or we won’t be blessed of God. So, as a young Christian no one ever questions any of that. ‘Well of course,” we say. Of course we’re going to bless Israel and we move on with our lives without really questioning where that may take us, or really what that verse even means – and if it even means what we’re told that it means.
PORTER: Exactly. And I think that’s the separation, even when you’re talking about people who want to love and bless the Jewish people. Most of the time they’re overlooking the actual people themselves and they’re looking to a political situation – secular Jewish nation state. So, we’re supposed to bless people but our support for this State can have implications which are negative for the Jewish people.
Even with the verse in Genesis 12:3 that you mentioned, and we talk about this in the film, this verse is God speaking to Abraham. It is not a mandate that we have to then always support the geo-politically, ethically pure State of Israel.
KEITH: After watching your documentary I went back and re-read those scriptures again and it just seemed very much like – taking it at face value – that this promise isn’t something that God seems to have intended to be for every generation to come after Abraham. It really seems like God is simply saying to Abraham that, as I send you out into these foreign lands, those who receive you I will bless and those who make trouble for you along the way I will deal with. That’s it. Nothing about every person from now until the end of time supporting everything that any Jewish person ever does or else they’ll be cursed. It’s just not in there.
Thinking about all of this in the existing situation we have today in Israel – and I don’t know if you specifically intended to wrap this into your film or not – but in America today there is this very dominant theology called Dispensationalism that pulls the story of Israel into this version of the End Times and really, really confuses the issue for a lot of Christians. So, if you’re a Dispensationalist you’re probably a Christian Zionist because there are certain things you’d believe about Israel – like that the Jewish Temple needs to be rebuilt and the daily sacrifice needs to be reinstated so that the Anti-Christ can show up and put an end to that and make a treaty with Israel for seven years and then set up the Abomination of Desolation and all of that, which is really just a major misunderstanding of the Seventy Weeks of Daniel and the teachings of Jesus from the Olivet Discourse. But, if you accept that whole Dispensational story (and I know many who do even though they can’t even spell ‘Dispensationalism’), then you have a de-facto acceptance of Christian Zionism – and it’s all based on erroneous theology and bad teaching which only showed up on the Christian scene in the last 500 years.
PORTER: Dispensationalism is the foundation for Christian Zionism, and I agree with you that if you’re accepting of one then you’re most likely the other. Now, I do also have friends who would call themselves Christian Zionists and would reject Dispensationalism as well. So, it’s not always the same thing. Sometimes it’s a Messianic Christian congregation and similar groups.
All it takes is an earthquake here and a hurricane there and what’s going on with the Palestinians applying for Statehood at the U.N., and you see the Christian Zionists websites and e-mails and articles saying “Here we go”! So, they relate any current events to End Times prophecy and stick a Bible verse with it and it’s been going on for over 200 years now.
KEITH: I was talking last night to a friend of mine who’s a journalist. In fact, he’s the same guy who initially screened your film for me. Anyway, we were talking about how if you say someone is a Palestinian here in America there’s an immediate mental picture of a guy with a turban covering his face and a rocket launcher slung over his shoulder and he’s a member of Hamas or Hezbollah. Basically, “Palestinian” means “Terrorist” to us, so to have that idea broken is wonderful. It’s one of the amazing things about your film, Porter. The idea that someone can be a Palestinian and at the same time be my brother or sister in Christ is phenomenal. Not just because it’s likely to be true, but also because no one else is painting that picture for us.
Those who watch your film will no doubt come away from this documentary saying to themselves – as I did – “Oh my goodness. I have brothers and sisters in Palestine who are being oppressed by the state of Israel and they’re suffering horribly on a daily basis.” My family is Christ is under the thumb of a secular Jewish nation. I mean, the one question I asked myself after watching “With God on Our Side” was, “What is the fundamental difference between a secular Jewish Israel and the Pharisees of Jesus day?” They both reject Jesus as the Messiah, and they both persecute Christians and the Church in Palestine. Yet Christians in America are told that they are bound by the Scriptures to support this secular government as it oppresses an entire people group. That just seems so screwed up to me.
PORTER: Yeah. The thing is most of us just don’t know about any of that or the effects of the occupation. That’s really why we felt like this film had to be made. What I saw again and again on this whole subject of Israel and Palestine is that once they saw it, once they understood what was really going on, their paradigm was blown. Again, most of them respond by saying, “I just didn’t know.” That’s one of the things I wanted to do with the film. I wanted to get these stories out. Not just the current events and the political realities but more about how all of these things are affecting real people on the ground in Palestine. I believe personally that a majority of American Christians, when they can see the true situation, they will begin to change the way they engage it.
KEITH: I agree. I mean, I hope so, anyway. I wanted to say that one of the most impactful scenes in your film is when the Palestinian Christian pastor, Salim Munayer, recalls being shunned by fellow Christians in America once he tells them that he’s from Israel but he’s not a Jew. That really grieved me. I just wanted so badly to apologize to this brother for such horrible treatment from the Church here in America.
I looked up his website afterwards and re-published some of his writing on my blog to share his heart with people here in the States.
So, let me ask you, Porter, what practically can we do to support our Christian brothers and sisters in Palestine today?
PORTER: There’s a couple of different ways. The first is to be a voice for them. Speak up for their suffering. Most Christians in Palestine feel that they just don’t have a voice. No one is telling their story. Not only is their story not being told, it’s not allowed to be told. So, we need to educate ourselves first of all, about what’s going on and to be more aware, and then sharing their stories with others in our church or on our blog. There are a few organizations where people can get involved listed over on our website at www.WithGodOnOurSide.com.
Next I’d recommend people to actually go visit Palestine, visit Bethlehem and meet Palestinian Christians yourself. Listen to their stories. Tell their stories to others. Ask them how you can partner with them. Of course, you may have to fight to get your tour to go into Bethlehem and into the Palestinian territories because they’ll tell you that it’s too dangerous, but that’s just propaganda really to keep you on the accepted Jewish tourism trail. Make your way into Bethlehem and spend time there.
KEITH: I think those are excellent suggestions. The upcoming event at the Bethlehem Bible College called “Christ at the Checkpoint” looks amazing. I wish I could attend.
PORTER: That’s the kind of conference where people can not only see the situation for themselves but meet Palestinian Christians in person. There will be Messianic Jews and American Theologians and Palestinian Christians all coming together to discuss these issues. But our overall goal is to find better ways to build bridges and connections to the Palestinian Church.
KEITH: I think that’s wonderful, Porter. Let me ask you if you’ve had anyone radically change their views after seeing the film?
PORTER: Maybe not radical changes, but most people who come to the screening and see the film are blown away to hear this unheard perspective. But rather than just base your entire theology on our little film we encourage people to let this be the beginning of the learning process.
We’ve had people come up afterwards and say that they’re still Christian Zionists, but they want to help find a more peaceful approach to the occupation. So, I believe that most Christian Zionists have pure motives and they believe they’re following the Word of God, and many (after watching the film) are realizing that you bless the Jewish people without it being at the expense of others. If nothing else their beliefs are challenged.
KEITH: I do think it’s possible to watch the film without renouncing your Zionism and still realize that there is a more Christ-like way to bless the Jewish people in the nation of Israel without oppressing our brothers and sisters in Palestine.
PORTER: The Old Testament is full of that sort of thing. God constantly addressed ideas of justice with the Jews all the time. Even the King of Israel couldn’t oppress non-Jews without incurring God’s wrath. Today we want to give Israel carte blanche and allow them to do whatever they want without ever questioning what is being done, and frankly that’s not being a very good friend to Israel.
KEITH: No it’s not.
PORTER: We need to love them enough to say that what they’re doing is wrong and try to help them find better responses.
KEITH: In Psalms 50 God calls the Jews “my Holy Ones” and later he says to the same people, “you wicked” because they cast God’s words aside. So, “chosen ones” or not, the whole point of being blessed of God is to bless all the Nations. Even as Jesus pointed out, there were many lepers in Israel but the prophets were sent to the pagans.
PORTER: Yes, it’s not just that Christ was the Messiah, but that he was the Messiah for all nations and not just for the Jewish people.
KEITH: Let me ask you some practical things. How can people see your film right now? Are you looking to get this on Hulu or Netflix or Redbox eventually? Is it only available through your website or through Amazon? Any upcoming screenings?
PORTER: We’re trying to get on Netflix but as an independent filmmaker it’s really difficult. The movie is available on the iTunes store and there’s also an iPad application with a study guide as well as the film. We’re also working on an online viewing option down the line as well so people can look out for that coming up, as well as Amazon and the website for DVD sales.
We don’t have any screenings planned but if anyone would like to host one at their church or seminary with a Q&A afterwards we’re always open to that and people can contact us on our website to request that.
KEITH: I really want to do anything I can to help spread the word, Porter. It’s an important film and Christians in America need to see this documentary and repent.
PORTER: I appreciate that, Keith. If your readers want to find us on Facebook or Twitter and follow us to learn more that would also be wonderful.
KEITH: Are you very much involved with promoting the film, but are you thinking about any sort of follow up to this film?
PORTER: Right now I’m working on short documentaries to further explore the stories of what’s happening over there. Right now those short films and the upcoming “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference are my main focus. Plus, we also help set up tours for Church groups in America to visit Palestine.
KEITH: There’s a brother in our house church family who has been very instrumental in making friends with Muslim students where he teaches college locally. He’s even brought some to visit our church and we’ve had an amazing opportunity to put a face to the stereotypes and we’ve found that many of them are very open to learning more about Jesus.
PORTER: Awareness is the biggest thing. Keeping Jesus in the center is so important and finding ways to love others without excluding people groups.
KEITH: I’d be very interested in meeting more Palestinian Christians and finding ways to encourage them, because so many Christians in America are not only ignoring their suffering, but we’re actively supporting the government that is trying to snuff them out.
PORTER: So much of the pain and rejection in the Muslim community comes from this as well. They see this and they think that this is how Jesus is. So as followers of Jesus we have to demonstrate that we see their suffering and their persecution and we need to say that we do not agree with using the Bible and using Jesus to justify this kind of injustice.
KEITH: Let me ask you how Christians on the ground there in Palestine are responding to the oppression. It seems like this situation is ripe for a non-violent response, much like what Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. did to address similar injustices in their day.
PORTER: Actually the non-violent Christian response is quite strong there and we just don’t hear about that over here. There are many Ghandi’s and MLK’s over there protesting non-violently every week. In fact, the Israeli government doesn’t know how to handle that. I agree, it’s the perfect opportunity to respond in this way, and there are even many Jews who are standing with the Palestinians and participating in these non-violent protests for peace and trying to help get their stories out.
KEITH: That’s very exciting to me. Maybe down the road you can help me get in touch with some of those people, Porter. I’d really like to help tell those stories too.
PORTER: Thanks for your support, Keith and helping us to get the word out.
Note: Those interested in learning more about Christ at the Checkpoint 2012 can go
Learn more about the film at www.WithGodOnOurSide.com
*This blog is part of an online contest promoting the event "Christ at the Checkpoint 2012".