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Lutheran activists fear new church leadership will stifle criticism of Israeli occupation

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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.

According to retired church personnel of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America the new presiding bishop, The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, is seeking to retrench the church’s position on Israel/Palestine. And they fear a witch-hunt against those church workers who demand substantive action on Israel-Palestine.

Dissenters in the church want the interfaith ecumenical dialogue trip-wire crossed. They want Jews of Conscience as their new dialogue partners and a Jewish-Christian solidarity based on justice for Palestinians.

Bishop Eaton wants the Jewish-Christian dialogue resurrected as if nothing has changed.

The evidence I’ve seen raises questions about the future policies of the Lutherans regarding Israel and the Palestinians. All of this is filtered through Bishop Eaton’s desire to keep the Jewish fires at home tamped down and to discipline the prophetic.

Bishop Eaton seems afraid that the cost of moving rhetoric surrounding the Palestinians issue into the Jewish-Christian dialogue is too much. She fears the reappearance of her tradition’s anti-Semitic history. But she should also fear abandoning those on the other side of Jewish power. At this point the Bishop sits on her Lutheran-Jewish fence. In doing so she chooses – Jews – in power.

Times have changed. We’re no longer dealing with Martin Luther’s dementia about Jews. Luther had Jews on his brain. Today we’re dealing with real Jews visiting the cycle of violence and atrocity upon others. Bishop Eaton needs a (Jewish and Palestinian) reality check. Rather than retreat, she needs to move her denomination forward.

The first evidence of the Lutheran retreat is Bishop Eaton’s appearance on a television program emanating from Beirut on August 10th, as Israel’s violence in Gaza had already taken a terrible toll.  The critique of her performance within the denomination wasn’t about policy as much her limited knowledge, even ignorance of the issues at hand. At points during the interview, the Bishop fumbles her seemingly rehearsed responses. At other points, she is unsure of herself. Clearly, she is inadequately prepared.

Bishop Eaton doesn’t seem to get the urgency of the situation. As Gaza is being bombed into oblivion – with more to come – Bishop Eaton lifts up the beauty of the monotheistic religions. The Palestinian death count mounts. The Bishop parses the tired Christian trope of love for all.

Although it was strongly suggested to have a representative from the church who knows her stuff, Bishop Eaton demurred. Was this because she wanted to display her authority or set a different, more conciliatory posture toward Israel and the Jewish community? Bishop Eaton does state the official Lutheran position of two states for two peoples. But if she had listened carefully, her denominational advisers would have told her that the two state solution has become a faith statement rather than a political possibility.

Then there is a curious exchange of letters about this very issue with the denomination’s youth group – Young Adults in Global Mission – regarding a religious service on behalf of the victims of the Gaza war that the Lutherans agreed to co-sponsor. Suddenly, the co-sponsorship was unilaterally withdrawn by Bishop Eaton. Some retired church personnel believe that Bishop Eaton’s withdrawal of the co-sponsorship was due to pressures from the Jewish establishment.

An all too familiar story historically. To be continued?

In their response to Bishop Eaton’s decision, the Young Adults in Global Mission, along with others of different denominational affiliation, are quite specific. They hold their ground and highlight what’s at stake. Below are some salient excerpts from their response especially in relation to the church’s dialogue stance with respect to the issue of Israel and the Jewish community:

We, as a church, have a long and special relationship with the Holy Land, with the State of Israel and with Palestine. Unfortunately, much of that relationship has revolved around a conflict that has claimed countless lives and destroyed billions of dollars’ worth of civilian infrastructure over the decades. Sixty-five years of direct involvement — through relief, humanitarian and development aid, and support to schools and churches — and a wealth of expertise among American Lutherans has provided our church with invaluable resources for peace-building. We believe the ELCA has an inherent responsibility to fully utilize the expertise within the ELCA and provide leadership among our ecumenical and interfaith partners.

Broad engagement with a variety of partners and with ministries in the Middle East is one of the things that makes the ELCA a rich environment for discussing the sensitive and complicated issues related to Israel and Palestine. We are proud to be in a church that chooses to renounce the inappropriate and anti-Jewish writings of Martin Luther, reject violence — including suicide bombings and all violence targeting civilians — and stand strongly against the Israeli occupation and the human rights violations necessary to enforce that occupation. Just as we choose to distance ourselves from Luther’s vitriolic writings, so too do many Jewish groups distance themselves from the State of Israel’s illegal actions.

Indeed, criticism of Israel’s policies, like our criticism of Luther’s writings, does not indicate weakness but an ability to distinguish between that which is part of God’s vision for the world and that which is antithetical to both of our religious traditions. Thus, despite all the voices crying out otherwise, criticism of Israel’s policies that prolong and deepen the occupation is not anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian, or any other label than pro-peace and pro-justice. If we believed that actions supporting the end of the occupation were in any way anti-Israeli or anti-Jewish, we would of course want nothing to do with it. But ending the occupation can only serve to strengthen Israel, Judaism and Jewish-Christian/Lutheran relations.

The letter continues:

In this environment we would fully expect input from Jewish partners, but there must also be input from a wide variety of Jewish partners. We encourage the ELCA to listen to diverse voices in the course of its ecumenical and interfaith work. Jewish-Christian relations are certainly important and you mention them clearly as a priority, but we are concerned that you do not mention Muslim-Lutheran relations as a factor in your discernment process. Yes, we are aware of your interview on Al-Mayadeen and that the ELCA has close relationships with the ELCJHL and its Arab Christian partners. The fact remains, however, that 98.5% of Palestinians are Muslim. Muslims constitute the majority in the region and Christian-Muslim relations in the U.S. are equally if not more strained than Jewish-Christian relations at the moment. ELCA Social Policy Resolution CA 13.06.27 adopted at the 2013 Churchwide Assembly reaffirms the commitment of this church to: “Lift up the voices within both communities, especially those of victims of violence that seek peace with justice through nonviolent responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” It is very important to communicate and reach out to our Jewish neighbors as we have in the past, yet this should not inhibit our ability to foster relationships with voices in many different communities. Can we make Muslim-Lutheran relationships an integral part of the discussion too? This should not be an issue resolved only through the lens of Jewish-Christian relations…

The ELCA’s claim to have broad and healthy Jewish relationships would be strengthened if the ELCA would consult equally with segments of the Jewish community representing legitimate and moderate but sometimes opposing voices. Based on the history you mention in your letter, it seems that Jewish-Christian relations are tense now largely because of a controversy with some Jewish partners over the State of Israel’s violations of human rights that we and other denominations have rightly called out in the past. Nevertheless, if we do not directly address the root causes of the conflict, especially settlement expansion, land confiscation, and all of the harsh measures used to maintain the occupation, then the situation will never fundamentally change and those under occupation who we should be accompanying will be left in the dust.

In conclusion:

We understand that the ELCA cannot speak directly to each new event within the conflict, however it was startling that as we were discussing the issue of the prayer service, the Israeli government announced a plan to seize nearly 1,000 acres of West Bank land (the largest land appropriation in thirty years), 110,000 Gazans were living in emergency shelters, 450,000 people were unable to access municipal water in Gaza, and 16 homes were demolished in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. More than five hundred children have been killed by Israel in the two month period leading up to the prayer service of mourning.

The timing and scope of these recent actions by the Netanyahu government make the possibility of two states ever more unlikely. As hopes for a two-state solution disappear, the emotional and physical weight of the occupation deepens. In January 2013, Peace Now released a report stating that Netanyahu’s government, through its policies and action in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, has disclosed, a “clear intention to use settlements to systematically undermine and render impossible a realistic, viable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” This was made evident in the events of the last week with the unprecedented land seizure and the unparalleled attacks on Gaza in July and August…

It is wonderful that the ELCA can support ministries such as Augusta Victoria Hospital, the schools of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land and documents such as Kairos Palestine. But we can do more. Sending aid to Gaza for victims is wise and necessary as a part of our churches calling, but it overlooks the deeper reasons as to why this aid was necessary in the first place. To quote the theologian and courageous witness Dietrich Bonhoeffer again, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” It is good to pray and be thoughtful in our responses through statements and letters, but real change will not come without an upending of the status quo. As young people, we worry that our church may sink into the pitfalls of institutionalism marked by complacency and fear of change. We would prefer to make the choice to be leaders in the march towards peace and justice.

“Let us pray, let us learn, let us act” – that’s how this group of young adults end their powerful and detailed letter. What a challenge to the church hierarchy and specifically to a Bishop who seems intent on hewing to the church’s position while disciplining the prophetic. During and after the war in Gaza, disciplining the prophetic amounts to inaction, retreat and, if truth be known, complicity in the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people.

In fact, the disciplining of the prophetic seems to be Bishop Eaton’s thing these days. Her blog for October hits at the prophetic directly:

This constricted conversation is becoming a habit. It is the default setting for us when our position is challenged or when we challenge someone else. It is a bad habit. And like all bad habits it is, in the short run, a lot easier and more fun to practice than its corresponding good habit. I’ll admit it, there is something satisfying about being so certain. It’s easier to ascribe motive than to engage in an open dialogue with the sincere intent of seeking understanding. Righteous indignation feels good.

In the church this is called “prophetic,” as if being prophetic only takes the form of scolding. I have received letters and emails suggesting I do things that are anatomically impossible and certainly not appropriate to reprint in a church publication. These epistles sometimes end with “In Christian love ….” I know a conversation is going to head south in a hurry when it starts with these words: “With all due respect ….”

There is another way.

In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther gives us this explanation of the Eighth Commandment: “We are to fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”

What a beautiful and generous way of being. The self is no longer at the center. The focus is no longer on justifying or defending one’s own position. All attention and care can be given to the other. As the volume is turned down our sight improves—we now see a precious child of God. Paradoxically this gentle approach makes it more possible to have difficult conversations.

What could Bishop Eaton possibly mean by downing the prophetic in such a trite way and encouraging instead polite conversation when Israel’s aggressive policies continue and the devastation of Gaza remains? Doesn’t injustice, massacre and the cries of the bereaved cry out to heaven?

The young adults remain grounded. They’re focused on the task at hand. Invoking rather than disciplining the prophetic, they quote from a more contemporary Lutheran minister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

Bonhoeffer’s “spoke in the wheel” calls Lutherans and others, including Jews, to speak on behalf of suffering Palestinians rather seek solace from an empowered and culpable Jewish establishment.

In Israel-Palestine the powerful are Jews. In America, the culpable Jewish establishment who argues for Israel is made up of Jews.

Bishop Eaton needs to wake up to this fact, face the Jewish establishment music and get on with her vocation as a church leader.

I could be wrong – I’m willing to be corrected – but since Israel’s invasion of Gaza it seems that some of the churches have gone silent, run out of steam, thought better of their boldness or descended into internal bickering. Are they now retreating to their faded gilded chapels for prayer and reflection?

Yes, the Middle East isn’t easy for the churches in America and Europe. There are so, so many Muslims “out there” and so few Christians in the Middle East.

The state of Israel casts a long shadow over Christian history – Christianity’s relations with Jews marks Christian history in the most negative of ways. To preserve their own sense of righteousness, churches in the West don’t want to be seen as beating up on the Jews.

Better to take a break and let the Palestinians lick their wounds. Front and center for some Christians is repairing broken relations with the mainstream Jewish community. Jews of Conscience are left out in the cold.

Gaza was an especially difficult issue for the churches – precisely because Israel’s devastating aggression was crystal clear. Before Gaza, some of the churches were speaking more and more boldly on behalf of Palestinians. This was true despite having to fight the Jewish establishment every step of the way.

With Israel’s invasion of Gaza, a moment of decision appeared. A radical break with the Jewish establishment had to occur in the face of Israel’s aggression.

The churches didn’t pull their ethical trigger. The cost to their self-image was too high.

Rhetorically, yes, during the Gaza war some church denominations and those affiliated with them appealed to international law, spoke about war crimes and even questioned US aid to Israel. But breaking with the Jewish establishment that enables Israel’s policies and American aid to continue? Not even close.

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In other news from America’s mainline Protestant establishment, the United Church of Christ appears on the right path: “The Steering Committee of the United Church of Christ Palestine Israel Network, on Sunday, called on the United Church of Christ Board, United Church of Christ Pension Boards, United Church Funds, Conferences, local churches, members and other related United Church of Christ entities to divest any holdings in companies profiting from the occupation of the Palestinian Territories… Read more »

“Front and center for some Christians is repairing broken relations with the mainstream Jewish community. ”

the ultra extremist mainstream Jewish community

I mean, there it is. If you were a high-echelon Lutheran who suddenly realized the human commonalities of Martin Luther and Portnoy’s dad, and went looking for a Jewish community to repair relations with, what would you be likely to find? Who would welcome you with a hail-fellow-well-met and a firm handshake, ready to agree with your guilt, and detail it’s expiation?

“The churches didn’t pull their ethical trigger. The cost to their self-image was too high.” I don’t know much about the Lutheran Church, but I’m wondering if it was their self-image that was at stake or was it the image that others would have manufactured for it — i.e., being anti-Semitic. I’m not sure it’s exactly the same thing. In our political realm, the same moral cowardice is at work every day, and not just… Read more »

Yes, Bp. Eaton blog post against the prophetic didn’t have substance except to just ask people to respect each other and care about each other’s views.

I didn’t notice anything I seriously disagreed with in M. Ellis’ writing this time. Luther really did have an intolerant side.