A reverend sermonizes justice in Jerusalem

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

Palestine is occupied by Israel. Al Aqsa is occupied by Israel. Can the churches in Jerusalem and throughout the land escape that same occupation?

Not in the least. And, thinking globally, at least with reference to Israel-Palestine, especially in the United States, the churches are also occupied. Mostly by their history and their limited ability to think Muslim. After a long tumultuous and annihilationist history toward Jews, it turns out that Christianity has become Jewishly identified. Which means tangled up in Israel.

Rev. Páraic Réamonn

Rev. Páraic Réamonn

Last Sunday, though, a sermon in Jerusalem promised a breakthrough. The sermon was preached by Rev. Páraic Réamonn from the Church of Scotland at St. Andrews.

It seems our good reverend has received quite an education since stepping off the plane at Ben Gurion airport two months ago.

Reverend Réamonn starts with his overall interpretation of the Gospel – God loves us. Then it’s on the Bible that has all sorts of views and trajectories other than love.

Here is Reverend Réamonn:

Our Bibles tell us that God loves us, but they also tell us things that are not so easily reconciled with this good news.

We say that scripture is the word of God, and so it is: a book, or rather a collection of books, in which God speaks to us. But like Jesus of Nazareth, it is the word of God in human form. And unlike Jesus of Nazareth, it is not without sin.

In my first service we read Psalm 149, which includes these words:

Let the faithful exult in glory;
let them sing for joy on their couches.
Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,
to execute vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters
and their nobles with chains of iron,
to execute on them the judgement decreed.
Decreed, that is, by God.

A week after the shooting stopped in Gaza, it was hard to read these words. When two-edged swords translate as 32,000 artillery shells fired into one of the most crowded areas on God’s earth, when “vengeance on the nations” results in more than 2,000 dead, it is hard to hear this as good news.

Reverend Réamonn continues with reference to the Exodus story:

Traditionally, people have read the story of the exodus as good news: “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” (Deuteronomy 6.21) As Robert Allen Warrior notes, Jews in exile and then in the diaspora read this story and were reminded of God’s faithfulness. Black slaves in America, given Bibles to read by their owners, began at the beginning and found in the Pentateuch a God who was obviously on their side, even if that God was the God of their oppressors. Later, in the civil rights struggle, Martin Luther King went to the mountaintop, like Moses on Mount Nebo, and saw the promised land. And in the same decade, the struggles of Latin American communities for justice spawned a theology of liberation in which the story of the exodus was central. “The exodus, with its picture of a God who takes the side of the oppressed and powerless, has been a beacon of hope for many in despair.”

Read this story on Mount Nebo, read it on the east bank of the Jordan, and it is good news. But cross the Jordan with dry feet and enter the promised land, and it becomes a much more ambiguous tale. For the story of the exodus is also the story of the conquest – a story in which God drives out before the slaves liberated in Egypt the peoples who dwell in the land, a story, indeed, in which God commands these liberated slaves to exterminate the peoples who dwell in the land.

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you… and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them.” (Deuteronomy 7.1f)

Reverend Réamonn’s conclusion may seem obvious. Spoken in the center of Occupied Jerusalem it is explosive: “Ethnic cleansing is not good news. Genocide is not good news.”

Then an addendum:

Scholars try to smooth our ruffled feathers by telling us it didn’t happen like that – that this is not a story written by a triumphant Israel that has driven out and destroyed its enemies, that, on the contrary, the book of Joshua was put together when the leading families of Judah were in exile in Babyon or even later, when they returned to head up the small and insignificant Persian province of Yehud, that it is, in short, the book not of a triumphant people but of a defeated people.

But that doesn’t change the storyline.

And when this storyline is used in our day to vindicate the view that this land is a land promised to the Jews – that it is their divine calling to build here a Jewish state for a Jewish people, driving out before them the people who live here – then it becomes not good news but a text of terror.

Fortunately, Reverend Réamonn is an equal opportunity critic of Biblical texts. Well almost.

With a sense of Christian triumphalism shadowing almost every Christian sermon, there needs to be another addendum, Jesus’ cautionary note about dealing with one’s own sin before overcommitting to the sins of others. Matthew 7 does it succinctly: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” Reverend Réamonn adds: “For our Gospel reading is no better than our reading from what we call the Old Testament.”

So right! Especially if we see the New Testament as I do, stretching more or less the same number of years as the Hebrew Bible does. If so noted, the New Testament stretches from Jesus to Auschwitz. The difference is that while the history of the Hebrew Bible, including its violence, lacks historical verification, the history of Christianity is quite well documented.

The log in the Christian eye becomes larger, especially if we name the Gospels that are carried forth by Christians in the world. I think especially of the Gospel of Colonialism and the Gospel of Treblinka but there are many, many more.

Visualizing Christian history, think of the Christian Bible through illustrations. Start with the unusually handsome and white Jesus and end with Pope Benedict in his long flowing robes at Auschwitz. Pope Benedict himself a member of the Nazi Youth.

The sermon does go on and a variety of topics are covered, including the value added of the rabbis, the scourge of anti-Semitism and alike. However the kernel is already there – ethnic cleansing and genocide in the Hebrew Bible. In Israel today?

The closing is Reverend Réamonn’s weakest point. He does say that comparisons – whose log is bigger – don’t get us very far. But the call for prayer, perhaps appropriate in the church setting, is anti-climactic. Under occupation, prayer for one’s own sins and the sins of your community is a luxury. Such a ritual cleansing when repeated every Sunday often partakes of another sin – the sin of inaction. Confession can freeze Christians in their sins, historical and otherwise, rather than urging them to confront the sins of ethnic cleansing and genocide that are happening outside their wonderful church windows.

After Gaza and with Jerusalem reaching the boiling point as I write, prayer and introspection won’t do. But, then, if the churches throw off the occupation and are willing to pay the price perhaps others will follow.

Texts of terror, thought again and through. Is this the way through the impasse that threatens Jew and Palestinian alike?

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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27 Responses

  1. just
    November 5, 2014, 12:04 pm

    more please, Reverend Réamonn.

    would that your inspiration cross the seas to the ‘houses of worship’ on this side of the world.

  2. Horizontal
    November 5, 2014, 12:35 pm

    I suppose that’s why I could never accept Christianity growing up.

    For every nice idea that got repeated every Sunday in church, there were ten outrageous, ugly & murderous ideas that were in the Bible right next to them. It struck me as cherry-picking to only repeat the nice ones, so I decided that the notion of God had to be bigger than any Bible or any church. That text — both the good and the bad — was Man’s doing, that’s all.

    I think the Reverend does well to point out that one group’s liberation is another group’s subjugation, especially as it applies to modern-day Israel. Too bad he’s unwilling to follow this line of thought to where it needs to go, past simple prayer to larger action, even if that action entails the rejection of Biblical veracity.

  3. W.Jones
    November 5, 2014, 12:44 pm

    With a sense of Christian triumphalism shadowing almost every Christian sermon
    “What’s Christian triumphalism?” The belief that Christ “triumphed” over death?

    And why use a negative term like “shadowing?” Why not “shining”?

    Reverend Réamonn adds: “For our Gospel reading is no better than our reading from what we call the Old Testament.” So right!

    I tend to think that the New Testament is “better”. Ancient Israel believed that the Messiah would come. If the Messiah came and brought God’s grace directly to people, wouldn’t His book be in any way “better” than the books that preceded it? If the Messiah comes and does all kinds of amazing things, isn’t that “better” than what happened before?

    • Mooser
      November 5, 2014, 7:12 pm

      “I tend to think that the New Testament is “better”. Ancient Israel believed that the Messiah would come. If the Messiah came and brought God’s grace directly to people, wouldn’t His book be in any way “better” than the books that preceded it? If the Messiah comes and does all kinds of amazing things, isn’t that “better” than what happened before?”

      Big day for the precocious ten-year-old set around here today.

      “If the Messiah comes and does all kinds of amazing things…”

      Video, or it didn’t happen.

      • piotr
        November 5, 2014, 8:02 pm

        How about selfies?

      • W.Jones
        November 5, 2014, 10:15 pm

  4. W.Jones
    November 5, 2014, 12:52 pm

    The log in the Christian eye becomes larger, especially if we name the Gospels that are carried forth by Christians in the world. I think especially of the Gospel of Treblinka but there are many, many more.

    I missed the “Gospel of Treblinka” in Sunday School, but then at Catholic Middle school we all took a half year course on the Holocaust and went to the Holocaust museum.

  5. pabelmont
    November 5, 2014, 12:56 pm

    Historically (20th century) the Liberation ideas in South America got short shrift from the established Catholic Church. Presumably the trouble was that they were not satisfied with getting the poor into heaven but wanted to shake things up here on earth in a way which battered the privileged. The privileged weren’t having that.

    The current essay announces the sin of inactivity as if in Christianity there were a mandate for activity. Christians have acted qua Christians over history, especially against heresy and other perceived threats to Christianity, as in the Crusades. But although Christians often act, they do so less often qua Christians. The holocaust may have been carried out by Christians (or nominal Christians, but who am I to get all picky?), but the holocaust was not carried out by Christians acting as such.

    In Israel, Israel plays the role that the church and wealthy played in South America, the role of owner oppressor over the poor. The Palestinians play the role of the poor. The church (apart from people like MLK Jr.) aren’t much in the “active” game.

    Turn the other cheek and render to Ceasar are Christian ideas which (in I/P) leave Israel in the driver’s seat.

    • Horizontal
      November 5, 2014, 4:33 pm

      Your mention of Liberation Christianity reminded me of the Maryknoll Sisters murdered in El Salvador in 1980. They ran afoul of the powers that be in the United States at the time, which were supporting the repressive Duarte regime.

      From a Human Rights Watch report:

      During the Reagan years in particular, not only did the United States fail to press for improvements … but, in an effort to maintain backing for U.S. policy, it misrepresented the record of the Salvadoran government, and smeared critics who challenged that record. In so doing, the Administration needlessly polarized the debate in the United States, and did a grave injustice to the thousands of civilian victims of government terror in El Salvador.

      Despite the El Mozote Massacre that year, Reagan continued certifying (per the 1974 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act) that the Salvadoran government was progressing in respecting and guaranteeing the human rights of its people, and in reducing National Guard abuses against them.

      Sounds depressingly like what’s going on today re Israel, where we should be helping the oppressed, but instead, we’re aiding the oppressor.

      en.wikipedia.org

    • Mooser
      November 5, 2014, 7:17 pm

      Okay, but when you compare the Catholic Church in South America with the historically Black Protestant denominations in the US, through which MLK did some of his work, you make my head spin.

  6. W.Jones
    November 5, 2014, 1:05 pm

    if we see the New Testament as I do, stretching more or less the same number of years as the Hebrew Bible does. If so noted, the New Testament stretches from Jesus to Auschwitz.

    (1) The Church fathers and the canonical Churches have not made a doctrine saying to kill Jews.

    (2) The Nazis were occultists and anti-Christian in reality.

    (3) 5 million gentiles, typically Christian, were genocided by the Nazis.

    (4) Other “Christian” societies fought the Nazis and stopped the Holocaust.

    Conclusion: the “Gospel of Treblinka” is not part of the New Testament.

    Israelis are becoming more and more prejudiced against Christianity. Increasingly a significant minority in the younger generations think there is no right to practice Christianity there. Is it really a surprise that, having divided the population based on religious lines they would mistreat the “Arabs” with this kind of thinking that blames Christianity for the Holocaust?

  7. Interested Bystander
    November 5, 2014, 1:57 pm

    I attended a Donniel Hartman/Abdulah Antelpi event last night at the San Francisco JCCC. Along the lines of this sermon, they made the point that “The devil quotes scripture.” The devil does not need to misquote scripture. In other words, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have both “good news” and great evil within them. Antelpi likened this to a fight between two wolves. You have to feed the good wolf and starve the bad wolf. Hartman stressed the importance of an “inner cultural war” within each religion.

    This is obviously a problem for religion, on the order of the problem of evil. If we can pick and choose between good and bad parts as we see fit, maybe we’re better off chucking the whole thing and focusing on Enlightenment universal democratic values and common decency.

    The one point Hartman made on that is that if one does not engage, promoting the positive parts of the religious tradition and battling the evil parts, it leaves the abusers of religion comfortable because we are not engaging with them. Maybe we have to engage in religion as part of normal political process as long as there are people out there abusing religion.

    • just
      November 5, 2014, 2:00 pm

      interesting, IB. thank you.

    • Horizontal
      November 5, 2014, 4:06 pm

      If we can pick and choose between good and bad parts as we see fit, maybe we’re better off chucking the whole thing and focusing on Enlightenment universal democratic values and common decency.

      That’s the off-ramp I ended up taking. Too bad it’s such a road less traveled.

      • surewin
        November 5, 2014, 8:12 pm

        The Abrahamic religions haven’t worked out very well, have they? The whole diverse edifice is built on top of a defective foundation, giving the foundation an exalted place in the scheme of things. The fact that the later religions propose to update and correct the source (the foundation) is a lame, half-baked enterprise. This is no way to develop a valid worldview. If you want to get it right, how can you start with Yahweh, the chosen people, and the promised land, on a random planet in the universe? It’s laughable.

  8. ckg
    November 5, 2014, 2:11 pm

    Scholars try to smooth our ruffled feathers by telling us it didn’t happen like that… Try telling that to literalists John Hagee, Pat Robertson, Mike Huckabee, Alan Keyes, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Ted Cruz. They will tell you that it did happen like that, and that it is what a good and just God demanded. A jackdaw’s feathers never ruffle.

    • Horizontal
      November 5, 2014, 4:13 pm

      It’s always disheartening to realize that grown-ups who literally believe in allegories continue to enact legislation that the rest of us have to live under.

      Realize, too, that if Obama woke up one morning and announced some course of action based on a dream or a vision, these same Christians would be the first to demand he be locked up, but in the Bible, which they claim to literally believe, things like that happened all the time.

      As I said, it’s disheartening.

  9. just
    November 5, 2014, 2:14 pm

    it occurs to me that Reverend Shipman and Rabbi Rosen were both forced out from their congregations for speaking about P/I in an honest way (away from the standard script/scripture)

    what will happen to Rev. Páraic Réamonn ?

    • W.Jones
      November 5, 2014, 4:29 pm

      Don’t forget that there is more openness allowed when you are in Israel. Don’t try to make sense of it.

      • just
        November 5, 2014, 5:01 pm

        is that why Gideon Levy receives constant death threats and needs bodyguards?

        or why Haneen Zoabi is banned from speaking @ the Knesset and has received death threats and also had a bodyguard?

        or why Jewish Israelis were hunted down & attacked during the Gaza massacre because they spoke against it?

        http://mondoweiss.net/2014/07/fascists-occupation-activists

      • W.Jones
        November 5, 2014, 5:14 pm

        He was speaking at a church, and the churches there are more aware of what is happening than the ones in America, on average. So it’s unlikely that his parish will fire him. not that it would happen in America for sure, though.

        Sure, there is more respect for Christians in America than over there. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that the churches there have the same level of enforcing PC-ness that ours often do about the conflict.

    • Rusty Pipes
      November 5, 2014, 8:11 pm

      In recent years, Israel has tightened its control over the access of International church workers by only issuing short-term visas and making it difficult for them to renew them. In many cases, this has made it difficult for churches and agencies to keep long-term church workers if they are admitted to Israel at all. A few years ago, Israel made if very difficult for the Palestinian-American Episcopal bishop to assume his post in Jerusalem. This power to deport makes life very tenous for international religious workers in Palestine. Israel could make life difficult for Rev. Reamonn.

  10. JLewisDickerson
    November 5, 2014, 2:52 pm

    RE: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” Reverend Réamonn adds: “For our Gospel reading is no better than our reading from what we call the Old Testament.” ~ Marc Ellis

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  11. W.Jones
    November 6, 2014, 1:16 am

    I definitely don’t like that Pope Benedict was pressed into the Wehrmacht But he was not a camp guard or wore a papal garb at Treblinka either. Meanwhile, the future Pope John Paul II really was saving thousands of Jews from the Holocaust. Why doesn’t that deserve mention?

    I like that Marc takes the side of the oppressed in the IP conflict, and I want to see interfaith tolerance between both religions. I find many of Ellis’ characterizations of Christianity to be incorrect. Marc’s strong point is as a Jewish theologian – I’ve said repeatedly that one of the best contributions he could make would be to explain an egalitarian or non-nationalist theology based on the centuries of rabbinical and Biblical writings in the Jewish tradition and then relate it to the land of Zion as well as to things in the news. For example, how do policies compare with moral teachings that we read in the Tanach or other sacred writings?

  12. Walid
    November 6, 2014, 12:06 pm

    “Especially if we see the New Testament as I do, stretching more or less the same number of years as the Hebrew Bible does. If so noted, the New Testament stretches from Jesus to Auschwitz. ” (Marc Ellis)

    Marc is back with his Christians thing about the giant holocaust logs in their eyes. Seeing that the NT stretches from Jesus to Auschwitz/Treblinka is as absurd as saying it covers the same number of years at the Hebrew Bible and he completes the picture by recalling Pope Benedict’s youth as a young Nazi. Must be smoking the same stuff as John of Patmos. Now he is sermonizing the good reverend about his holocaust omissions. Still can’t figure out which bugs him most, Christians or Muslims.

    • W.Jones
      November 6, 2014, 6:33 pm

      Walid,

      Definitely the Germans are the worst. After that, wouldn’t it be Christians because he considers them responsible for the Holocaust?

      One question is why he doesn’t write more about the famous rabbis and traditions and try to interpret them in the way he wants when it comes to IP. I think it would be one of the most constructive, positive things he could bring as a religious scholar to the discourse. Maybe the reason is that they actually bug him too.

      Too bad. Overall Ellis is good and has a humanitarian approach he brings to the discussion, except when it comes to Christian religion, in which case it is “colonialism” because its Jewish Christian expounders based it on Jewish ideas.

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