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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.

Edward Snowden has been granted a one year temporary asylum in Russia.  His stay in the Russian airport is over.  But, others might be taking his place, if they have the courage. 

Clearly, our religious leaders don’t have the courage Snowden or, for that matter, Bradley Manning, has.  What a different world it might be if religious leaders joined the growing chorus of justice seekers in our unjust world.

If it’s time for the United States government is to end its addiction to secrecy as a New York Times editorial suggested yesterday, it is time for religious leaders to end their addiction to empty religious-speak where moral and ethical principles are applied in such apolitical ways that religious leaders become enablers of injustice. 

This isn’t happening.  Check out the letter (PDF) that religious leaders of different faiths sent to Secretary of State John Kerry on the eve of the meeting of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Washington:

Dear Mr. Secretary,

We write as members of the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East (NILI), including present and past heads of national denominations and faith organizations.  We support the President’s commitment to make Israeli-Palestinian peace a high priority of U.S. policy. Recognizing, as you do, that the passage of time makes achieving a viable two-state solution increasingly difficult, we have voiced strong support for your determined initiative for peace.

We warmly welcome your announcement on July 19 that agreement has been reached “that establishes the basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.”  Looking forward, we appreciate that over the years there has been intermittent progress toward resolving final status issues in both unofficial talks and formal negotiations.  While these talks and negotiations have yet to yield a blueprint for peace, they have identified ideas for addressing key issues that must be resolved in a manner acceptable to both sides.

As Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders, we are committed to mobilizing broad public support for active, fair and firm U.S. leadership for peace. We offer our prayers for your efforts and we are prepared through the national organizations we represent to activate members of synagogues, churches and mosques across the country to support bold American leadership. 
We know the path to peace is complex and challenging, but peace is possible.  We pledge our support and request a meeting with you to discuss specific ways we can help.

The list of endorsers from all three faiths is chilling – and embarrassing. Their bland words are played out against this backdrop: Israel continues to expand and Palestinian suffering increases; many Jews, Christians and Muslims of Conscience are sticking their necks out for some sanity and justice in Israel/Palestine.  The negotiations are limited to consolidating Israeli expansion where it is and ameliorating only the most egregious of Palestinian suffering.  The issue of justice and a joint future for Jews and Palestinians as equal partners is nowhere to be found.

It isn’t found in the letter of the religious leaders either. “We know the path to peace is complex and challenging, but peace is possible.”  Indeed it is.  But is peace possible without justice?

In the letter peace becomes a mantra.  Justice isn’t mentioned once.  What is faith without the pursuit of justice? 

With the Palestinian people occupied, denied rights, their land taken away and being ruled over by Israel’s military state, our religious leaders are reduced to subservience: “We pledge our support and request a meeting with you to discuss specific ways we can help.”

When religious leaders seek to coordinate with political leaders in situations of injustice – where the proposed remedy is consolidating that injustice – the issue is joined.  There has long been an interreligious and political deal on Israel/Palestine that seals the fate of the Palestinian people.  That deal makes it impossible for people of different faiths to oppose this injustice without seeming to be extremists.  Why not break that deal when the stakes are most obvious?

The various justice movements within the faith communities over the last decades should register in the letter of these religious leaders.  Calls and measures have passed various Christian denominations that commit them to divest in the Israeli occupation – they are silenced in this letter.  For the most part, Jews of Conscience operate outside overt religious affiliation – is this bland letter one of the reasons?  Islamic leaders are overly eager to show their Jewish and Christian colleagues they, too, have a civilized religion.  Since Palestinians are seen by many in the West as irredentist and uncivilized, this may be a reason behind their refusal to identify with the Palestinian people.

When religious leaders want peace they request a meeting.  They become religious enablers. 

When religious leaders pursue justice they speak the truth.  They become religious prophets.

Our religious leaders should check out the prophets and write another letter, this time addressed to the Palestinian people. 

For religious leaders used to bland pronouncements that become enablers of injustice, such a letter would be quite a challenge.  They’d even have to summon up the courage of their convictions, if such convictions can be found.

If their letter to the Palestinian people spoke about justice as the gateway to peace, our religious leaders might be taking Edward Snowden’s place in the Russian airport.  Or Bradley Manning’s place in the American prison cell he is destined to occupy. 

Religious leaders as asylum seekers for justice sake – try that one on and see how it fits the current scene.  It takes a leap of the imagination to see our religious leaders on the run from the powers that be. 

They do have role models to access – the ancient prophets.  After all, they were the first whistle blowers of unjust power.  They could even access the ancient prophet’s contemporary heirs – if they weren’t so afraid. 

Religious leaders as cowards or asylum seekers.  This may be the only – and most important – choice they have in our contemporary world.  On the Israel/Palestine issue, the choice couldn’t be more obvious.

Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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8 Responses

  1. MHughes976 on August 1, 2013, 12:23 pm

    If I try hard to look on the bright side I might say that these faith leaders are at least asking the American political leadership to do something, which may involve easing them away from the idea that all proposals have to come from the two parties and causing Obama to come a bit more clean about what he thinks should happen. Might that be a small step forward?

  2. Citizen on August 1, 2013, 2:04 pm

    Yep, it’s those relatively suddenly discovered “judeo-christian” values at play. Funny how “I was only following orders” was not a thing to praise at Nuremberg, or during the trial of Eichmann. Now it’s the first praise priority of our government, mainline press, Religious Establishment, mostly, and a substantial part of the American people. Those two single, young white males from the lower socio-economic strata of America, Snowden and Manning, are stars of humanity, while what are the rest in the elite and shallow? Ivy league, a new version of the “best and brightest.”

  3. Stephen Shenfield on August 1, 2013, 2:34 pm

    “Peace, peace,” they say, but there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14).

    By “peace” they mean “shut up, stop bothering us, just put up with it.”

    In their “internal” lingo they prefer to say “stability” but “peace” has a prettier sound to it for the plebs.

    • john h on August 1, 2013, 9:35 pm

      By “peace” they mean “shut up, stop bothering us, just put up with it.” [SS]

      More than that, in Zionist lingo it means “let us run all over you and enjoy our ill-gotten gains. And be happy with the few scraps we didn’t take from you”.

  4. just on August 1, 2013, 5:13 pm

    This is what I fear, Marc.

    There is no possibility of peace without justice, and thus far I have never even heard an iota of concern for justice for the Palestinians………… it’s always about safety and security for the Jewish people and Israel. As you wrote the other day, Livni would like the word Nakba erased wrt Palestine and Israel, and used only in reference to Arab states’ treatment of Palestinians. When was the last time that anyone involved spoke about “safety and security”, much less justice, for the Palestinian people???

    These religious “leaders” are indeed cowards. They certainly have not really absorbed the teachings of their respective religions.

    • Erasmus on August 2, 2013, 11:39 am

      Re Just,
      ….These religious “leaders” are indeed COWARDS. They certainly have not really absorbed the teachings of their respective religions.

      YES, 200pc agreed. COWARDS, that is what they are, and – what is worse Pharisees of the concoction of old days, bereft of any fundamental convictions of their respective religious teachings.

      Thank you Marc, that you have so mercilessly named these cowards as ENABLERS
      of INJUSTICE, prostituting themselves shamelessly to the powers that be.

      I wonder, what Papa Paco (Francis) will have up His sleeves on the issue of the I-P-conflict.?????
      He has been very outspoken and called for practical solidarity with the downtrodden and marginalized groups of our earthen societies and showed the princes of the church the way on the basis of the gospel’s teachings. I do hope sincerely, He will consistently follow up in his direction……
      So far He has remained silent.

  5. Xpat on August 1, 2013, 5:15 pm

    This commitment to rally the religious masses is as useless as these clergy are ineffective. Speaking of the Rabbis, who I know best, they have very little clout. Their masters, the financiers of organized Judaism allowed them to speak out on this only because Kerry’s little game is 100% safe. Bland. Pointless. Useless.

  6. HRK on August 1, 2013, 5:26 pm

    I met a Jewish Israeli a few days ago, and he began talking politics. I brought up the settlements, and he defended them. I brought up the point that the Palestinians in the O.T. would never have a chance to vote. He said that that was correct–because it was too dangerous to give them the vote. I said, “Well, then really the only option you’re left with is expulsion.” To that he said that the Palestinians should be in Jordan.

    He said, “You know, I think we won’t have any peace. Not for 100 years.”

    I thought to myself, Yeah, that’s probably right–at least in part because of your politics.

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