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.