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Praying for justice won’t end 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.

Now fifty years into the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, tensions are once again running high. Over the last week numbers of Palestinians and Israelis have been murdered, with hundreds of Palestinians injured.

Though the dispute has focused on Al Aqsa Mosque and its immediate surroundings, the mosque and Israel’s blocking access to prayer is only part of the problem. Everyone knows the issue is the occupation, not prayer.

As the casualties mount, Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank grows stronger. This, as Israel’s stranglehold on Gaza, with the assistance of Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, tightens. Electricity to Gazans is now down to about two hours a day. Like prayer at Al Aqsa, electricity is but a symptom of the larger occupation issue.

Over the last decades, churches around the world have been mobilizing to support Palestinians. Though church concerns are often expressed in relation to the small minority of Palestinian Christians, the concern for Palestinians of the Islamic faith, the vast majority, is increasing. Yet the limits of church mobilization are evident. Even the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolutions of different denominations, as important as they are, for the most part should be seen as symbolic actions rather a real political engagement with Israel’s occupation. When the situation is dire, as it is for Palestinians, material political and economic support are of the essence.

So what do we find now as the Jerusalem situation continues to unravel? The international representative body of the Protestant churches, the World Council of Churches, issued a pastoral letter to the heads of the churches in Jerusalem on the Al Aqsa/Jerusalem situation. The letter is woefully inadequate, even, in my view, scandalous. Read below:

Dear Heads of Churches in Jerusalem

My heart and my prayers are with you and your churches these days, and with all the peoples of faith in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

We are calling for churches around the world to pray for you these days and for a just peace for Jerusalem. We are sure that churches around the world are following you with great sympathy and with great determination that, together, we will change this situation.

Your journey in your homeland on this pilgrimage of justice and peace has been long and arduous, but you are not alone. We have been monitoring the situation in Jerusalem with deep sorrow and grave concern recognizing that violence is spiriting conflict on a contentious site for both Jews and Muslims. As a worldwide fellowship of churches, we are urging the world church body and all people of good will to unite in prayer for a just and peaceful solution in Jerusalem.

We pray and plead for both sides in this precarious situation to talk with one another and arrive at a bone fide solution for access to the Holy Site so that people of faith may worship peacefully. This is the only way forward to coexistence and the violence to cease.

Through this letter, we reaffirm our commitment to walk together with you, by endorsing your statement from 19 July, and reiterating an urgent plea for peace and dialogue between Israeli authorities and Palestinians.

The WCC is working closely with you in Jerusalem and in the wider area of the Holy Land.

Let us all be inspired and guided by the words of Saint Paul in the Epistle to the Romans, where we learn the essentiality to “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Romans 14:19).

We are in solidarity with you as you continue to plea for dialogue and open access to areas free from electronic gates infringing on the rights to worship at Holy Sites.

We stand in solidarity with Muslims, Jews and Christians, and we pray that justice and peace will prevail, not only this week but in the weeks, months and years to come.

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit General Secretary
World Council of Churches

The WCC letter features typical church language: being with the suffering in prayer, quoting from scripture, assuring the aggrieved that they are not alone, encouraging peace and dialogue, and calling for believers of all faiths to have access to their holy sites for prayer. Finally, the WCC assures the churches in Jerusalem that they are monitoring the “situation.”

Not once in this pastoral letter is occupation mentioned, nor Israel as the occupier. Though the larger “situation” is alluded to and reference to recent statements of the churches in Jerusalem is made, the letter lacks specifics and, worse, no plan of action besides prayer and dialogue.

Church documents often read like this, to be sure, but what is solidarity if it is mostly, or in reality, only in prayer? Though to establish their Christian credibility no doubt prayers have to be offered and encouraged, do the church officials who wrote this letter seriously believe that prayer and dialogue is the vehicle for justice in Palestine? Rather, the WCC is on record here urging a reestablishment of the status quo at Al Aqsa and in Jerusalem, a status quo that affirms Israeli occupation.

The question before the churches and the world is the reckoning needed to end Israel’s occupation. Yet, the churches lack the will to speak and act politically in an efficacious way to accomplish what is needed.

Are the churches too weak to help end the occupation? Are the churches afraid to speak forthrightly, to move beyond monitoring the “situation” to outright and defiant opposition to Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people? Is prayer a cover for the churches weakness and lack of will?

The WCC pastoral letter is yet another missed opportunity to stand forthrightly and courageously for Palestinians. How many more missed opportunities will there be before the WCC and the churches across the globe commit themselves to what would be an interfaith act of civil disobedience?

Reluctantly, after more than fifty years of Israeli occupation, the question must be asked: Does the World Council of Churches want Israel’s occupation of Palestine to end?

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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33 Responses

  1. Edward Q on July 23, 2017, 12:52 pm

    The Christian right seems to go beyond prayer to political action.

    • jsinton on July 23, 2017, 11:42 pm

      The Christian Right may think they are good Christians, but they are anything but. To be a good Christian you must not judge others i.e. “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged”. You can bet they will be judged by God if you believe in it.

  2. Keith on July 23, 2017, 5:06 pm

    MARC ELLIS- “Not once in this pastoral letter is occupation mentioned, nor Israel as the occupier.”

    Shades of the pot calling the kettle black. You have been less than honest in dealing with imperial culpability in all of this. Both as an essential enabler without which Israel’s actions would not be possible, and that Israel functions as an ideological instrument of solidarity for empire Jews, the primary beneficiaries of a militant Israel dependent upon a militaristic empire. Israel is an integral part of empire and must be viewed as such. And what are the chances of the World Council of Churches actively opposing empire? When has organized religion ever stood in opposition to the elite controlled political economy? Liberation theology, perhaps? And look what happened there! Not going to happen.

    • jsinton on July 23, 2017, 11:43 pm

      Again, it is not Christian to judge others, even Zionists. That is for God to decide.

      • CigarGod on July 24, 2017, 10:11 am

        Are you confusing Judge with Evaluate, etc?

      • Keith on July 24, 2017, 1:36 pm

        JSINTON- “Again, it is not Christian to judge others, even Zionists.”

        Are you saying that turning a blind eye to social injustice is the Christian thing to do? It is one thing not to judge alleged blaspheme, quite another to be non-judgmental concerning empire and warfare. Moral people accept responsibility for their actions and for the actions of the group to which they belong to the extent they can influence those actions.

      • jsinton on July 24, 2017, 3:36 pm

        No one said “turn a blind eye” And correct… moral people accept responsibility for their actions. Not the actions of others, as in this case. They pray for justice. If you want to be a political activist, you have to do it outside the realm of Christ and God. Some priests will take up the activists call, but not all necessarily.

      • Mooser on July 24, 2017, 4:05 pm

        .” If you want to be a political activist, you have to do it outside the realm of Christ and God.”

        Is that what They told you?

      • Keith on July 24, 2017, 5:25 pm

        JSINTON- “Not the actions of others….”

        Let us not confuse evaluating and judging the actions of others with responsibility for the actions of others. Members of a group and citizens of a society have a responsibility to evaluate (judge) the moral and ethical behavior of the group and to influence it in a positive direction if possible by actions more substantive than simply praying to some deity. And if you are called to jury duty will you refuse on religious grounds to make judgement? As for “outside the realm of Christ and God,” we are discussing legal and moral behavior outside religion, not claiming that people are “sinful.” Someone once said that remaining silent in the face of injustice contributes to injustice. Piety is no excuse.

      • RoHa on July 24, 2017, 8:28 pm

        “They pray for justice.”

        And they will not get it from prayer.

        Do you think that Christian and Muslim Palestinians have not been praying for justice these last seventy years, their voices rising like a fountain night and day, both for themselves and those who call them friend?

        And nothing has come of it.

        Fewer thing are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.

    • Edward Q on July 24, 2017, 10:11 am

      “When has organized religion ever stood in opposition to the elite controlled political economy? ”

      What about the Quakers, the Mennonites, or the Catholic workers movement? MLK took a stand against the Vietnam war. Religion involves too many people to make such sweeping statements. Bear in mind that the religious left, like the rest of the left, gets ignored by the U.S. press.

      • Keith on July 24, 2017, 1:37 pm

        EDWARD Q- “What about the Quakers, etc.”

        Perhaps I should have said mainstream? And while there are religious groups of conscience such as those who protest the School of the Americas, we can pretty well generalize that the mainstream religious groups do not fundamentally oppose the political economy as fashioned by the dominant elites. Perhaps you can enlighten me as to the ONGOING mainstream religious opposition to the American empire and the never ending warfare this entails? Sure, unpopular wars may be opposed, however, the underlying system remains unchallenged. Remember, I was responding to Marc Ellis complaint about the World Council of Churches in regards to Israel/Palestine. Israel and Palestine is but a piece of the larger picture which needs to be evaluated in relation to that larger picture. Why would the World Council of Churches protest Israel/Palestine while ignoring the imperial destabilization of the entire Middle East?

      • Edward Q on July 24, 2017, 10:26 pm

        If a church opposes U.S. imperialism, does it become marginalized by the press and cease to be “mainstream”?

        Usually, the way things work is an issue is promoted by the grassroots and later taken up by the leadership. I don’t know enough about the WCC to judge its politics. I think you need to know something about the mission of an organization and its rules to make judgements.

  3. JWalters on July 23, 2017, 7:37 pm

    What would Jesus do? According to several sources, he energetically went after the bankers. In retaliation, they manipulated the system to have him executed.

    So it’s understandable that these “Christian” “leaders” would cower in the face of big money.

    • jsinton on July 23, 2017, 11:38 pm

      Christ only threw the money changers out of the temple. The problem was not their usury, but where they did it, He threw them out of God’s house, but he wouldn’t have cared the least if they were outside in the street.

      • Mooser on July 24, 2017, 2:20 pm

        “Christ only threw the money changers out of the temple.”

        One of the most dramatic of the incidents related in the New Testament. He swept into the Temple, and up to the tables of the moneychangers and demanded of them: “Do you have change for a five?”
        “Of course” they replied, and He said: “Good, then you don’t need this twenty I was about to give you”

      • jsinton on July 24, 2017, 3:38 pm

        Not useful to mock the Bible to a Christian. Joke works better if it’s in relation to Jews, but that is not appropriate either. Christians are supposed to sell all their belongings and give it to the poor.

      • Mooser on July 24, 2017, 4:10 pm

        ” Not useful to mock the Bible to a Christian.”

        I may have set ecumenicism back a thousand years!

        “Joke works better if it’s in relation to Jews,”

        Huh? Can you explain why?

  4. jsinton on July 23, 2017, 11:33 pm

    It’s partly due to the Christian tenant of “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesars, render unto God that which is Gods”. It means we will always have these political hacks or bullies who tell you what to do, tax you too much, murder you and repress you, etc. It is not a Christian’s place to judge them, only God can judge. Therefore, to be close to Christ you must judge not the Zionists and their oppression, but leave that to God. Sounds silly in the light of the so-called “Christian Zionists”, but these people are not Christians because they judge. In fact, the VAST MAJORITY of those who call themselves Christians are anything but, and only a small number of the faithful are supposed to go to heaven, as Christ tells us in the New Testament.

    • CigarGod on July 24, 2017, 10:14 am

      So, it was Rome’s right to occupy and Christ was good with that?

      • jsinton on July 24, 2017, 12:46 pm

        No, I don’t think anybody said anything about the “right” of Rome to occupy. Christ was simply saying that the Kingdom of God is above worldly turmoil, that the rewards for faith were found in everlasting life, etc.

    • Mooser on July 24, 2017, 2:10 pm

      ” and only a small number of the faithful are supposed to go to heaven, as Christ tells us in the New Testament.”

      A small number, perhaps, but something tells me “jsinton” will be among the elect.

      • jsinton on July 24, 2017, 3:39 pm

        I’ll try, but my sins are great, as are everyone’s .

      • Mooser on July 24, 2017, 4:39 pm

        “I’ll try, but my sins are great, as are everyone’s .”

        Oh, they couldn’t be. Only a person almost entirely free from certain sins can make a pronouncement like ” If you want to be a political activist, you have to do it outside the realm of Christ and God.” One who is free from the sins of cowardice, self-interest, convenience, prejudice and hears the call to spiritual inaction clearly!

      • jsinton on July 24, 2017, 5:49 pm

        I see you’re a little unhinged and insulting, so have a nice day.

      • RoHa on July 24, 2017, 8:19 pm

        He might make it into the 144,000, depending on how well he has resisted the blandishments of his lady friends.

        Rev. 14: 3-4

  5. on July 24, 2017, 9:48 am

    The separation of church (religion) from state – is there a way for religious organization to enter into the political arena without the fear of a progression toward theocracy? Is this a slippery slope type scenario? The right-wing pseudo Christian zealots of America want us slipping and sliding on that slope and are fighting to make America a Christian nation like the Zionists are doing with Jews in making Israel a Jewish state.

    I’m a strong supporter of Palestinian rights and would welcome the inclusion of any individual or group into the movement that advocates for same – but there is a part of me that believes when it comes to organized religions any support should be couched as supporting secular values like human rights because being humane is good for all and the planet not because any of the holy books or texts say so. How likely is it that any religious group would commit to an opinion about the world around them without anchoring that opinion in the word of God or other deity or devine messenger? Not likely, unfortunately.

    • jsinton on July 24, 2017, 5:47 pm

      Religion is what you make of it. Christ warns us to “beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing”. It means that there are many who would use religion to there own agenda, and not that of God. The Zionist sins are many, and the Palestinians do not escape blame either. We all must answer to God in the end.

      • Mooser on July 25, 2017, 12:20 am

        “We all must answer to God in the end.”

        So I’ve heard.

  6. amigo on July 24, 2017, 11:17 am

    If religious leaders , Christian, Moslem,Jewish or otherwise were serious about solving the Palestine /Israel conflict ,(term used loosely given the unbalanced level of power )they should be speaking loudly from their pulpits , calling on their congregants to act against the oppression of Israel or any entity that oppresses others. I fail to see why religious leaders are afraid to speak truth to power.Jews don,t give money to Christian or Moslem Orgs so no loss there.Most Christians don,t give money to Synagogues , except maybe your everyday racist bigoted fundamentalist Christian, Israel apologist and they are a small percentage of all Christians.

    What,s the point of preaching the importance of the 10 commandments if religious leaders are unwilling to call on their congregants to both, put them into practice and call on others to do the same.

    Actions speak louder than prayers.

  7. WeddingTorontoLimo on July 26, 2017, 3:10 am


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