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Toothless Lutheran statement on Israel/Palestine enables the 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.

Well, it seems that Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, affirms that Barack Obama is not a Muslim. She’s signed her October 22 letter of support for his policies on Israel-Palestine – “Your Sister in Christ.”

Sister in Christ – rather than brother – is an advance. In theory. But progress isn’t always what we think it is. Bishop Eaton is a cautious guardian of the patriarchal order within her church and it seems in Israel-Palestine, too.

Other than that affirmation, her letter is weak and avoids the real issues. Moving away from the politically correct strategy of backing the only horse in the race, it’s time to state it bluntly: despite it protestations, under Bishop Eaton’s leadership, the Lutheran church is an enabler of the destruction of Palestine. But, with all due respect, this course was set long ago. What is particularly grating is her intentional denigration of the prophetic.

Such a denigration is an affront to all those within her denomination who are putting their lives on the line around the world. It also has consequences for the churches stance in the world. And for the Palestinian people. Even the future of an ethical Jewishness, if it has a future.

But calling out the Lutherans is only part of the story. The reckoning that had to come decades ago still hasn’t happened even after Gaza. What are we to do with the wake-up call that never comes?

Bishop Eaton’s text is short but chock full of bows to the state, reiteration of decade’s old platitudes and Christian pieties that should send Palestinians to the barricades.

The text is important. Below is the text and my commentary paragraph by paragraph.

Dear Mr. President,

As the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a church which calls for a cessation of all settlement activities and withdrawal from settlements on Palestinian territory to the 1967 boundaries, I commend your Administration for urging the Israeli Government to reverse its recent declaration as “state land” the estimated 988 acres in the Gush Etzion Jewish settlement bloc in the occupied West Bank. We hope your Administration will continue to pursue this reversal.

Bishop Eaton starts on an ingratiating note. She (re)announces the church’s official position – a position that has become a rote recital of almost everyone that has no intention on following through with it. Moreover, she encourages the President to block only Israel’s latest provocation.

Similarly, we share your Administration’s concern regarding the Israeli Government’s reportedly recent move to advance the settlement planning process in the sensitive area of Givat Hamatos in East Jerusalem. This plan for a new neighborhood, comprising 2,610 housing units, would cut the territorial continuity between the Palestinian neighborhoods in South Jerusalem and the future Palestinian state.

Again, in tandem with the President, another “latest move” by Israel needs to be addressed. On these two items the President can count on the Bishop and her church to support him. Translated politically: the Lutheran church has the President’s back on protesting the latest Israeli moves. But the President hasn’t announced any means to effectively oppose Israel’s settlement expansion. The Bishop doesn’t push. Nor does she say whether she will have his back if he actually does something about the injustice.

We also share your Administration’s assessment that the recent occupation of six residential buildings, consisting of approximately 20 housing units in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem, is a provocative act that only serves to escalate tensions at a moment when those tensions already have been high. This new occupation, the largest since 1991, could expand the settler presence by about 35% from the number of settlers currently in the area.

Another example of simply extending what is already fact. Everyone, including the Bishop, knows Israel isn’t withdrawing to the 1967 borders. So we are into symbolic protest – without any bite. The real protest in the American context would be breaking with the President and the Jewish establishment. But Bishop Eaton and the Lutheran church don’t want to stray into the line of fire. Play it safe. Look like you’re doing something. Above all, don’t sacrifice anything, especially your prestige by seeming anti-American or anti-Semitic.

It is deeply distressing to us that these kinds of actions, which seek to create new “facts on the ground,” continue unabated. Along with Jewish organizations like Peace Now and B’Tselem, we fully agree with your Administration that such actions are counter-productive to achieving a comprehensive and sustainable peace based upon a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, where international human rights and humanitarian law are respected and upheld. Moreover, such actions reinforce despondency among the Palestinian people, limiting optimism that a political solution will be found.

Yes it is distressing isn’t it, those facts on the ground continuing unabated. But what about the facts on the ground that are already there and mean so much more? Appealing to the possibility of the two-state solution is weaker than weak. No one – I repeat no one – believes that the two-state is going to happen. The Bishop’s letter confirms this. Thus the letter concentrates on the latest trespass with no remedy for the real and extensive crimes against the Palestinian people.

Notice, too, the tip of the Bishop’s hat to Peace Now and B’Tselem – she’s aligning the Lutherans with Jewish groups that don’t press the political envelop either. Peace Now seems to exist as a series of press releases while B’Tselem advertises itself as being in service to the best interest of the state of Israel. Jewish Voice for Peace? They’re not mentioned. Because they have actively opposed the administration’s policies and the Jewish establishment?

Therefore, we urge you to call upon all parties to the conflict to refrain from violent or provocative actions that could lead to more casualties and further exacerbate the existing barriers toward a return to negotiations and a just final status agreement that results in two viable, secure states living side-by-side in peace.

“All parties” – to refrain from provocation, lest another slaughter commence. Are the sides equally provocative? Equally at fault? Equal in power? Equally culpable in the slaughter?

Yet, as a church grounded in hope (1 Peter 3:15), we pray that the current truce, following the recent war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, will hold so that hope might begin to be restored. It is imperative that, with the help of the international community, both Palestinian and Israeli leaders return to negotiations to identify and constructively address the underlying causes of continued tension, so that God’s peace and justice will prevail.

The church may be grounded in hope – when it isn’t actively enabling oppression – but if I was a Palestinian reading this letter, I wouldn’t invest my future in Lutheran hope. In fact, I would admonish Bishop Eaton and the Lutherans for wanting the respectable ear of the President more than embracing the active reckoning needed as Palestinian hope for a real state and real freedom continues to recede.

After the “recent war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza” – another equalizer. And who is this statement for? The President? The Jewish establishment that Bishop Eaton and the Lutherans continue to court? After all, with Martin Luther’s shadow in the background, the Lutherans are on shaky ground. How long can that shaky ground be an excuse for Christian cowardice?

We re-commit ourselves to this vision, and continue to pray for you and all people of good will for their efforts to this end.

What vision is found in this letter? Better, what action other than vision is found in this letter? Where are the teeth – yes, prophetic teeth, that says the President’s lack of action – as the people of Gaza were slaughtered – or rather his enablement of their slaughter – is unacceptable and that his protest around the edges is contrary to what is needed – as a matter of urgency?

And by the way, just as a point of interest, does Bishop Eaton and the Lutheran church see itself as part of the discerning fabric of the American government or does it have a different calling that moves beyond even Brother Barack Obama and American foreign policy?

Take notice of who is copied on the letter to the President: The Honorable John F. Kerry, Secretary of State; The Honorable Anne Patterson, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs; The Honorable Michael Ratney, Consul General and Chief of Mission, Jerusalem; Mr. Denis McDonough, Chief of Staff, Executive Office of the President; Mr. Philip Gordon, Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region, National Security Council.

Perhaps Bishop Eaton should write a letter to the Palestinian people explaining her “vision”?

Imagine that, Bishop Eaton, Sister in Christ – the thought that the first people to address are the ones the American government, Israel and the Jewish establishment presume to be the last.

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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5 Responses

  1. W.Jones
    October 27, 2014, 1:16 pm

    Sister in Christ – rather than brother – is an advance. In theory.
    Some Christian denominations have had female monasteries with “mothers” and “sisters” for centuries.

    “. Jewish Voice for Peace? They’re not mentioned. Because they have actively opposed the administration’s policies and the Jewish establishment? ”

  2. sawah
    October 27, 2014, 2:12 pm

    A recent article on Mondoweiss indicated activists within the bishop’s church were worried about the possibility of the new Bishop stiffling criticism of the Israeli occupation.

    If this is her inaugural letter on the subject matter, then, I think the activists and the bishop for that matter, are moving the tanker forward…not perfect, but not sure one needs to take her to
    task so harshly..or perhaps I missed something….

    • Horizontal
      October 27, 2014, 8:48 pm

      sawah ~

      When I think of harsh, visions of the ongoing occupation come to mind. What are we, 60 plus years into it, and what’s new?

      The words the bishop spoke are fine words — in and of themselves. The trouble is, used as they are in addressing this slow-motion genocide, only serve to drain them of any initial meaning they may once have had, and actually give a patina of approbation where none in fact exists. For more of the same, read any recent State Department handout regarding the actions of Israel in Gaza or the murder of an American teenager.

      Put another way, can you name me one new thing that the Obama Administration is pursuing as a result of Israel’s latest land grab? I can’t either; yet this phantom action is the thing that the bishop is supposedly standing shoulder-to-shoulder with. I hope she doesn’t fall over, leaning against nothing.

      It all smacks of keeping the peace, and is pretty lame, coming from someone representing a guy who supposedly gave money-changers the bum’s rush, condemned the publicly pious as empty sepulchres, and was willing to die for it.

      I’m not asking her to walk on water, but it would be nice if she could rock the boat a little.

  3. michelle
    October 27, 2014, 11:45 pm

    a lie is a blasphem to G-d
    G-d Bless

  4. Citizen
    October 28, 2014, 11:23 am

    So, Luther has no more teeth, but neither does the reformed Lutheran Church? Sister or Brother, where art thou?

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