Exile and the prophetic: the Church of Scotland weighs in

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

The Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland just released a report, “The Inheritance of Abraham?  A Report on the ‘Promised Land.’”  It’s already causing quite a stir in the upper echelons of the Jewish world and no doubt in parts of the Christian world as well. 

We’re back on the churches and BDS with its diverse forms and similar aims.  These church documents are coming one after another now.  In the main, they seek to end the occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank and to free Gaza from its prison-like reality. 

Churches are still up for the Two-State solution, though “The Inheritance of Abraham” mostly emphasizes human and political rights.  The document is short on specifying a particular resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Of course, there are flaws in this document. Ideologically-driven sensibilities skew its theological conclusions.  No matter, it’s certainly a much more honest document than the one the Arab League presented in Washington a few days ago.

Christianity has come a long way.  It has a long way to go.  We all do.

How late to the game of justice the churches are.  But, then, the Jewish community is moving in the opposite direction.  It’s like the Jewish community wants to meet Christian history half-way and then some.   Some Jews are becoming the type of Christians, Christians no longer want to be.

According to the Church of Scotland document, there are three ways of understanding the promises about land in the Bible:  as a territorial guarantee, as a land held in trust and as a land with a universal mission.

Right from the beginning the trajectory of the document is obvious.  If the Promised Land has anything to offer it’s a universal mission.  Thus its theological conclusion: 

From this examination of the various views in the Bible about the relation of land to the people of God, it can be concluded that Christians should not be supporting any claims by Jewish or any other people, to an exclusive or even privileged divine right to possess particular territory. It is a misuse of the Bible to use it as a topographic guide to settle contemporary conflictsover land.

In the Bible, God’s promises extend in hope to all land and people. Focused as they are on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, these promises call for a commitment in every place to justice in a spirit of reconciliation. 

I’m not going to bore you with the report’s specific Biblical arguments.  Some are more sophisticated than others.  Suffice it to say, they’re Christian to the core.  Everything is filtered through Jesus Christ. 

Christian triumphalism, even when it is supposedly limited to Christians, drives me up the proverbial wall.  It’s in the Christian DNA, I suppose.  No matter how far Christians stray from the notion that Christianity has the truth and that this particular truth will set more or less everyone free, it pops up again.

Until you get to liberation theology and beyond, Christian theology is about asserting Christianity’s self-evident truths.  Like the tradition itself, Christian theology even on behalf of the poor and oppressed isn’t big on humility.  Then again the oppressing powers aren’t big on humility either.

To me, Christian theology isn’t an end game.  Contra “The Inheritance of Abraham,” people, including Jews settlers and Christian Zionists, can believe what they want to believe.  Most of what we believe, including what we don’t believe so definitively, is as much a matter of upbringing and religious and cultural inheritance as it is conscious choice and critical evaluation.

All in all, it’s probably best to be an agnostic in most matters.  Nonetheless, we have to take a stand on political issues.  The Church of Scotland document does this when it sums up the Israel/Palestine situation and the responsibility of the churches as follows: 

That the current situation is characterized by an inequality in power and therefore reconciliation can only be possible if the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the blockade of Gaza, are ended. 

The Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are illegal under International Law. 

The Church of Scotland, individuals and civil organisations should urge the UK government and the international community as a matter of urgency to put pressure on Israel to cease from the expansion of these settlements. 

The Church of Scotland must remain in dialogue and fellowship with ecumenical partners to support concerns for justice and peace. 

That the Church of Scotland should do nothing to promote the viability of the illegal settlements on Palestinian land. 

The Church of Scotland should support projects which prioritise peacebuilding, poverty alleviation and the Palestinian economy.

That human rights of all peoples should be respected but this should include the right of return and /or compensation for Palestinian refugees. 

That negotiations between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority about peace with justice must resume at the earliest opportunity and the Church of Scotland should continue to put political pressure on all parties to commence such negotiations, and asking all parties to recognise the inequality in power which characterises this situation. 

That there are safe rights of access to the sacred sites for the main religions in the area. 

How should we judge “The Inheritance of Abraham” in political terms?  Is it precise enough with a strength that calls out for action?  If the actions the document urges were implemented would Palestinians be closer to justice?  Or are these arguments, no matter the controversy engendered, only stop-gap measures that raise the temperature without any specific movement toward a solution?

Since no solution offered has gone anywhere, it may be wrong to ask of a church document more than it can deliver. 

A few days ago Google recognized Palestine – virtually.  Are church documents like “The Inheritance of Abraham” also providing a virtual recognition for a Palestine that still isn’t real?

Questions to ponder:  Can the whole world recognize Palestine and still allow it to disappear?  Or is there a cumulative moment when virtual recognition takes on a political force?

Tipping point, where art thou?

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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