The United Church of Christ and divestment

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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.

In less than two weeks the General Synod of the United Church of Christ will be meeting in Cleveland, Ohio. Among the resolutions includes a divestment resolution regarding Israel-Palestine: “A Call for the United Church of Christ to Take Actions Toward a Just Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”

The resolution and the accompanying theological justification for it is quite interesting on a variety of levels. In many ways the resolution and theological justification is revolutionary. The advance is clear and substantive. Yet there are areas that warrant further attention. The question the resolution poses is important: Whether the UCC wants to remain where it has been, a liberal light that is also a minor bench player, or a trailblazer that might change the internal and public church debate on Israel-Palestine.

Does the UCC want to continue to engage in symbolic justice or risk a dangerous limelight and move the discussion forward? The UCC divestment resolution tips toward the dangerous limelight. Credit where credit is due.

On the theological level, the UCC is itching for a fight. The resolution’s supporting language is strong and moves beyond the two rights/two wrongs sensibility that makes most recent church divestment resolutions a two-faced platform for enabling injustice. Crucially, parsing politics and theology, the supporters of the resolution opt for Israel as a political entity, thus to be addressed and judged in the political arena:

The modern State of Israel is, of course, a political rather than a theological entity, birthed through the imposition of partition by international structures and enforced by unsanctioned violence. As such, Israel’s responsibilities toward its citizens and neighbors are duties defined by international law and its own claims to democratic principles. During nearly twenty years of partition and an ensuing half a century of occupation, those duties have been ignored and those principles mocked by a pattern of behavior designed to privilege Israel at the expense of its Arab and Palestinian citizens and neighbors. While this has been defended as a response to violent aggression, often it has reflected little more than the brazen exercise of power to extend control over the land and its people for the sake of possession. The warning of Isaiah has eerie resonance with the relentless expansion of settlements, the appropriation of resources, and the removal of Palestinian populations and homes.

Fascinating it is, since few if any church discussions of Israel-Palestine, let alone resolutions for divestment, view Israel within a strictly political framework. Instead most resolutions and their justifications are replete with disclaimers about the history of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and, of course, the justice call of the Abrahamic faiths. Instead, those pushing the UCC resolution note violations of International Law, the privileging of Israel as an unacceptable pattern and Israel’s brazen exercise of power and the removal of the Palestinian population as the reality that needs to be addressed.

Once the political reality of Israel, with its continuing violations of International Law and alike, is set, the theological “construct” is tackled. Citing the Biblical promise, Christian Zionism and the Holocaust, the need for divestment is couched in how the distortions of all three have framed the discussion of Israel-Palestine:

While the modern State of Israel is not a theological construct, it has been justified by many on the basis of theological claims grounded in an ancient narrative of promise, by others in a contemporary interpretation of an apocalyptic narrative of the end times, and by still others as a moral response to the centuries’ long narrative of persecution of Jews that found its most devastating expression in the Holocaust. As a result, Israel has taken on for many a quasi-religious and moral character that often distorts history, corrupts the meaning of ancient texts, and legitimizes oppression and suffering in ways that bear little or no relationship to the ethical principles of either Judaism or Christianity.

Once again, the language is strong. Distorting history, corrupting the meaning of ancient texts and legitimating suffering and oppression is hardly on the one hand, then on the other. The UCC supporters of divestment take a stand. Something, perhaps everything, supporting Israel has gone radically wrong. Uncritical support for Israel and even a divided support for both sides “bear little or no relationship” to Jewish and Christian ethics. Note here, that the supporting document does not hesitate to call on the Jewish ethical tradition, as if Christians are now empowered to comment on the failure of Christian and Jewish ethics. As well, Israel’s “quasi-religious” character, is called into question. It seems that the writers of this document view this quasi-religious sensibility as an attempt to deflect the political and ethical questions surrounding Israel’s aggression against Palestinians.

So far so good. The section on the relationship of Christians and Jews which follows is dicey territory for Christians in America. The supporting theological document moves strategically:

Some are troubled by the boycott and divestment strategy. But we must ask, “If not this, what?” Violence is not an option for the church, whether in the United States or Palestine. Nurturing healthy and healing relationships with the Jewish community in the United States, while terribly important for many reasons, does not address a conflict that is fundamentally between Israel and Palestine, not between Jews and Christians. Nor does it speak to the gross imbalance of power that exists between the two parties who must negotiate a just peace. Building Palestinian economic capacity alone only ameliorates an intolerable situation without ending it. Assuming we know better than our Palestinian Christian partners what is best for their situation is arrogance in the extreme.

The separation of Israel-Palestine and the Jewish community is crucial here. As in the designation of Israel-Palestine as a political issue, the supporting document continues by stating the issue is not one between Christian and Jews in America. Even if American Jews are factored in, the imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians makes the Jewish-Christian dialogue almost irrelevant in the political arena. Besides, in the Israel-Palestinian situation, Palestinians, as the aggrieved party, have priority. While this is true in the political arena, what breaks new ground is that the theological document asserts that this is true in the theological arena as well. For decades Jewish voices had to be heard first and foremost with regard to Israel and the Palestinians. This has ceased to be the case. In the supporting document, Palestinians are prioritized. Jewish voices are heard in relation to Palestinians.

In the resolution itself there is a back and forth. The political priority remains. As for the Jewish-Christian dialogue, there are advances and there is a maintenance of the status quo. The advance is that actions against Islam and Muslims are cited along with anti-Semitism and that some Jewish dissident groups are named:

WHEREAS, the United Church of Christ is deeply committed to interfaith relationships and General Synods have confessed to the sin of anti-Semitism and proclaimed its renunciation (GS 23 [2001])vii and have denounced actions against Islam or Muslims based on ignorance or fear (GS 28 [2011]);viii

WHEREAS, the United Church of Christ has historically stressed the importance of living out a Covenantal theology, whereby diverse autonomous organizations covenant to collaborate for the common good, and that through such Covenantal relationships the United Church of Christ has partnered globally with those most impacted by the continuing conflict between Palestinians and Israel;

WHEREAS, as demonstrated through ongoing dialogue and partnerships, the United Church of Christ values and nurtures its relationships with Jewish groups in the U.S. and Israel who seek justice, equality, and freedom for both peoples, including groups with differing perspectives on the conflict;

All for the good. Then further:

COMMENDS United Church of Christ leadership for continuing to dialogue with major Jewish organizations and call for United Church of Christ-wide participation in a rigorous dialogue among the three Abrahamic faiths at all levels – in particular between local congregations – in order to identify ways in which groups of congregations of different faiths can work in concert to promote sacred reconciliation among all people who are affected by the conflict in the Middle East and to influence public policies in ways that will promote peace and social justice for Palestinians and Israelis and end violence in all its forms.

A let-down to be sure. Instead of the political nature of Israel, when it comes to the Jewish community, the resolution itself steps forward, then backward, into a dialogue modality that has gone nowhere in the past and has no prospects for the future. Two parts of the Jewish community that travel in an unjust lockstep are emphasized: major Jewish organizations and local congregations. These two groups are determined to keep Israel out of the political arena, at least in terms of political discourse. This frees both to operate politically without opposition.

Though the resolution mentions the “Abrahamic faiths at all levels,” and names Islam and actions against Muslims, Muslim congregations and Muslim groups active on the Israel-Palestine issue are deemphasized. Palestinian Christian groups, like Kairos Palestine, are cited as significant dialogue partners for the UCC. Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace as legitimate dialogue partners are also mentioned. Despite this outreach, major Jewish organizations and local Jewish congregations are still seen as the forces to be dialogued with. By giving equal footing or more to the establishment which opposes these resolutions with every fiber of its being, it lessens the importance of Muslim and Jewish groups who support this resolution with ever fiber of their being. Thus the resolution takes the step the theological statement supporting divestment promotes, then steps back. Perhaps this is an oversight, a pattern of thinking, a strategic ploy or a combination of the three. At this late date, with the situation of Palestinians continuing to deteriorate and with no end to Palestinian suffering in sight, why not go all the way?

Thus the tipping point remains in question. Supporters and convention delegates are left between symbolism and a political street fight.

If the Jewish-Christian dialogue is theologically irrelevant to the real world of Israel-Palestine, a significant avenue of tackling the political nature of Israel in America is by declaring a complete end of relations with the Jewish establishment and local Jewish congregations that seek to block political work on the issue. Strategically and politically, this would be labeled anti-Semitic, the exact labeling the supporters of the resolution forcefully reject. Yet the point of the UCC divestment resolution and its theological justification is to have the courage of one’s convictions, especially as the one year anniversary of the Gaza slaughter arrives. The supporters of the UCC divestment resolution are struggling to move beyond an updated symbolism, so again, why not go all the way?

The resolution is as it is, clear and strong. It represents a major breakthrough, a point of no return if the UCC adopts the resolution. Whatever the final vote, however, the debate on the floor can be the point of no return by itself. In the discussion of the resolution, why not make take the Jewish-Christian dialogue gloves off, make a complete break with the past and say that, in this instance, the Jewish establishment and the local congregations are enablers. Speak with an intense and unequivocal honesty equal to the suffering of the Palestinian people. Note that the Jews on your side are your dialogue/solidarity partners.

Take sides! Be the reckoning that you are called to be. Witness to the Palestinians who are suffering that some church folks are willing to risk their good name for justice.

The delay in this reckoning has been decades long. If not now, when?

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I’m not in favor of BDS which puts me at odds with the author, Mondo and the UCC leadership behind the divestment resolution. On this page being in favor of peace and two-states is generally seen as an admission of guilt. I will go a bisel farther: I simply can’t square the circle and make promotion of a Right of Return by an organization largely made up of One Staters into a vehicle for peace.… Read more »

Fine article.

I am in favor of religious freedoms

Good analytical article-Thanks for sharing, Mr. Ellis

The Right of Return is guaranteed by international law to ALL peoples of the world. The Palestinians have this right — and Israel should have NO RIGHT to use this as any leverage in so-called Peace Agreements. However, it is quite clear that Israel has no interest in peacemaking as long as the USA has its back.