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Unintended consequences

Israel/Palestine
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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.

People of all faith persuasions – including many Christians of Conscience – must be glad to see the Christmas season disappear into our collective rearview mirror. We know it will return, more or less by August and September, but the trivialization of Christianity is mind-boggling. Judaism isn’t far behind. Jewish leadership seems hell-bent on catching up with Santa’s reindeer-drawn sled.

My alternative image of contemporary Jewish life remains Star of David helicopter gunships in the Ark of the Covenant. What, dear Christians of Conscience, is your alternative image of Christianity?

But then, when all seems at an end, yet another image comes into view – one of unintended consequences.

I thought of this morning while reading a New York Times, “On Religion” article on the ambiguous legacy of mission schools that were established and flourished as a form of Western Christian colonialism. The focus is on South Africa – and Nelson Mandela.

Mandela’s death has occasioned many tributes and criticisms. New information – or disinformation – has surfaced. One such dispute is the claim that in the early 1960s, Mandela was trained by Israel’s Mossad. Regardless of the back and forth on this issue, the truth about Israel’s Africa policy during that time is complex. It also had unintended consequences. Seeing itself as a liberation movement and courting Africans under colonial rule to support Israel on the ground and in international forums, Israel also had a small hand in undermining the very colonial rulers that supported Israel. This ultimately gave way to leaders like Mandela who supported the Palestinian cause.

This was true of Christian missionary unintended consequences as well. Samuel Freedman frames the issue in relation to Mandela who was himself educated at a Methodist university and recorded in his autobiography his ambivalent feelings:

The mixed emotions that Mandela expressed were far from his alone. The entire enterprise of mission schools in Africa stood at an ambiguous, contested crossroads. It was part of colonialism, yet it educated students who opposed colonialism. It avoided political involvement, yet inspired the quest for racial equality through its religious ideals.

Freedman quotes Olufemi Taiwo, author of How Colonialism Preempted Modernity in Africa:

Under colonialism, there’s a tension between the missions and the colonial authorities. There was a missionary idea that black people could be modern. And most churches cannot come out and say some people are not human. So you might have a patronizing attitude, but if you don’t think Africans can benefit from education, why would you set up schools?

Freedman cites Mandela’s autobiography where he reflects on his university experience: “For young black South Africans like myself, it was Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, all rolled into one.” During his time at university, Mandela studied Latin and Physics, participated in the drama society, ran cross country and lived in a multiracial hostel. He saw life from a different perspective.

This isn’t an attempt to romanticize Christianity and its enablement of colonialism. No Jew in their right mind would pursue such a course. To this end, Freedman cites Richard Elphick, author of The Equality of Believers:

I’m not making missionaries heroes. Missionaries and other white Christians were alarmed by the idea that the equality of all people before God means they should be equal in public life. But the equality of believers is an idea they dropped into South Africa. And it was constantly reinforced in the schools. And that made it a dangerous idea.

The upshot of all of this is that Christianity worked against its own grain – at least how Christianity perceived itself. Christianity’s form of colonialism held within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

In a different era but not so far removed historically, are we seeing these same unintended consequences in Israel and Jewish life? After all, Israel is nowhere seen anymore, even within large parts of Israel, as a liberation movement. Israel conquering Jerusalem and the West Bank, while sealing off Gaza, has made Israel less and less popular among Jews. Meanwhile Israeli colonialism has become the major contemporary breeding ground for the Jewish prophetic.

Just some years after Mandela’s education, the major thrust in Jewish life was the necessity of Jewish empowerment in Israel in light of the Holocaust. Decades later the question is whether Israel can survive the explosion of the Jewish prophetic.

On the Christian side today, itself an inheritor of Christianity’s ambiguous legacy, the involvement in the Holocaust and support in Israel has waned. Today mainstream Christian denominational support is for various forms of BDS. This shift has to do with the unintended consequences of Israel’s military success. Large parts of the Christian world have undergone a de-colonial shift precisely at the time that Israel has become a major colonial power.

Unintended consequences. Will this also apply to the extreme pressure being placed on Palestinians for signing away their birthright?

The approaching New Year will tell us much about the unintended consequences of Israel’s unbridled violence and power. The question is which side of history we are on and what we can do when the consequences become clear-cut.

Marc H. Ellis
About 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. W.Jones
    W.Jones
    December 28, 2013, 3:12 pm

    I’m not making missionaries heroes. Missionaries and other white Christians were alarmed by the idea that the equality of all people before God means they should be equal in public life.
    No not heroes, but maybe he is making generalizations about missionaries.

    Did you know Livingstone the missionary actually preferred to live among Africans and was not in a hurry to return to “civilization”?

  2. libra
    libra
    December 28, 2013, 3:36 pm

    Professor Ellis: What, dear Christians of Conscience, is your alternative image of Christianity?

    A word of advice Professor; if someone introduces themselves as a ‘Christian of Conscience’ you can be sure you are dealing with a self-righteous fraud and should run a mile.

    • amigo
      amigo
      December 29, 2013, 10:12 am

      “A word of advice Professor; if someone introduces themselves as a ‘Christian of Conscience’ you can be sure you are dealing with a self-righteous fraud and should run a mile.”libra

      Much like meeting someone who tells you they are a member of “The Most Moral Army” or a citizen of “The only Democracy ” in the middle East”.

      But do not run a mile.Just stand your ground lest they steal it.

  3. Daniel Rich
    Daniel Rich
    December 28, 2013, 6:18 pm

    ‘Christian of Conscience’ = Volvo + gun-rack – [RW]

  4. David Doppler
    David Doppler
    December 28, 2013, 7:30 pm

    “The upshot of all of this is that Christianity worked against its own grain – at least how Christianity perceived itself. Christianity’s form of colonialism held within itself the seeds of its own destruction.”

    I think you’re making unwarranted generalizations about Christians and how they perceive their self-interest as Christians, which is to build up treasure in Heaven (I’m not saying that they don’t focus on building up treasure in their bank accounts on Monday, but on Sunday it’s all about Jesus telling the rich man to give it all away.) The whole Abolitionist movement was deeply embraced by many Christian churches, in England and the US, even while other churches embraced whites only. Taking the side of the downtrodden is a basic Christian tenet, just as it is for some Jews and Jewish institutions. Think of Jesus ministering to the lepers.

    When I think of the negative role of Christian Missionaries in colonialism, it is not mainly to oppress the individuals, but to suppress their culture, turn them into Christians, and extend to them the “benefits” of Western culture, with a chauvinistic disregard for any values that might reside in the culture to be replaced.

    I always thought it was interesting that Mandela and his school-mates were given English “Christian” names, and that his was “Nelson,” after the exemplary naval admiral who led the British fleet that defeated the superior French fleet at Trafalgar. I believe the Mandela family name implied leadership in his native language, I’m sure he had some presence about him, even as a child, and giving him such a name as Nelson seems like a well-meaning teacher’s effort to help him master and put to good use the educational benefits she and her school intended to deliver to the primitives. I suspect that that name resonated to his advantage among his white political opponents (kind of the opposite of Barack Hussein Obama).

    Your assertions about generalized Christian missionary intent seem off. The “alternative images” I see of Christianity today include Pope Francis staying in Spartan guest quarters, complaining about priestly narcissism, while that German Arch-bishop who spent $30M on his house gets publicly shamed and disciplined.

  5. Parity
    Parity
    December 28, 2013, 10:33 pm

    The missionaries I know, including my parents, assumed that everyone had a right to an education, good health, and freedom. There were no hidden agendas that I know of. My father supported Gandhi while living in colonial India. He also worked hard to train Indians to take over the leadership of the church. Don’t forget: In this day and age, Christians are supposed to be able to read the Bible. Leaders need to be educated.

    • Betsy
      Betsy
      December 29, 2013, 10:26 am

      If Marc Ellis would ground his ideas in concrete practices of diverse spiritual communities, maybe he would not fall into such generalizations. When he critiques something in contemporary Judaism, he seems to feel the need to simultaneously set up a “Christianity” as its twin — so bad or good things are equally said about both. The problem with that is that this dualism trends toward simplified broad brush strokes, that lose historical context. And, the great ethical challenges tend to be precisely in those historical particularities. @Parity — my experience is similar to yours. Many mission co-workers [the word ‘missionary’ has been long abandoned, btw] supported anticolonial struggles. There’s a lot of diversity within global Christianity. And change. And dialogue. The cross-cultural, international encounters that have emerged from the exchanges within Christianity over the past several centuries changed “Western” Christianity. It’s been a mutually changing dialogue — marked by inequalities & cultural misunderstanding, but in complex & always changing ways, with unforeseen consequences that are more multifaceted than he suggests. For a more accurate view of the sensibility of those he lumps together as ‘missionaries’, see http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Through-Middle-Eastern-Eyes/dp/0830825681/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1304016650&sr=1-1

  6. Citizen
    Citizen
    December 29, 2013, 9:56 am

    “My alternative image of contemporary Jewish life remains Star of David helicopter gunships in the Ark of the Covenant. What, dear Christians of Conscience, is your alternative image of Christianity?”

    Well, I was reared as a Christian, but now I don’t subscribe to any religion. Do I count? I like to think I have a conscience anyway. Assuming so, how about a five-pointed white star (not a cross) helicopter gunships in the Declaration Of Independence?

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