It is possible – even highly likely – that some Presbyterians desire a Middle East witness that is true, that is credible, that is ethical, that is fair. It is also highly likely that there are Christians in other denominations and people of other faiths who are concerned with the poisonous atmosphere created by bias and by the irresponsible use of antisemitic themes.
It is conceivable that quite a few people recognize the plight and the legitimate claims to justice of many Palestinian Christians and Muslims, but do not want to adopt the jingoism and hysterical one-sidedness that often accompanies over simplified solidarity campaigns. It is conceivable that quite a few people who recognize this will also recognize the fact that Israelis have legitimate claims to justice as well.
I know such hypothetical people exist because I have met them. I’ve met them in the United States, in Israel, and in the West Bank. I’ve met them among Muslims, Christians, and Jews. I’ve met them in the PC(USA); I’ve met them in other denominations. I’ve met them among Messianic Jews, and I’ve met them among settlers.
I know such hypothetical people exist – people whom the victims of oppression and humiliation, of unfairness and violence, of terror and threats, of hateful incitement and unfair criticism sting to empathy and compassion – people whose empathy and compassion are not limited to others like themselves or those who support the Cause – people who are willing to set aside the rigid claims of justice on their own behalf in favor of a better life for all now.
I know such people exist; I know they alone offer a true way forward. I do not know how many there are. Their voices tend to be drowned out and lost in the zero-sum contest between entrenched positions.
The frequently repeated ‘only justice’ approach that we hear in so many Christian denominations fails. It fails because the people who make the loudest appeals to justices seldom want actual justice. Instead, they want the selective application of the benefits of justice to one side only. They’ll often produce spurious but clever sounding rationales to defend their one-sidedness, but the effect is never actual justice. The ‘only justice’ approach also often fails American Christians because it serves as a shield behind which we can sit in judgment upon people (we appear not to like very much) whose lives we have not lived, and whose concerns we clearly do not comprehend.
It is my hope and my belief that some people desire a more excellent way. The thing is, there is no way to get to that more excellent way that does not begin with taking an unflinching look at where we are now. And there is no way to get to that more excellent way that does not involve a complete rejection of the flawed approach we have taken thus far.
Harbor no illusions: this will prove a very unpleasant task. Any honest examination of where we are now will uncover things to offend just about everyone. And any attempt to alter the basic framework and approach denominations have taken toward their activism on this issue – no matter how much of an improvement – will be opposed with extreme prejudice.
Let’s be frank. To attempt to measure any denomination’s Middle East witness by its disapproved divestment scheme or by its endorsed boycott would be a fool’s errand. Boycotts and divestments do not come anywhere close to addressing the height and depth and width of the problems embedded in that witness.
Divestment is an irritant. Israel will survive Quaker divestment, and Israel would survive Presbyterian and Methodist disapproved divestment proposals. Israel will survive the boycotts. The chief (though not the only) flaw in these proposals is that they marry their denominations to an international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement – of which these denominations remain mostly unaware and whose objectives these denominations could never defend.
I have to say a few words at this point. I focus mostly on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) because I was Presbyterian. The problems with the PC(USA)’s witness on Palestinians and Israelis are problems shared by many denomination. The proposals offered by the PC(USA) can hardly be called unique. However, for reasons I hope to explore, the PC(USA) is in the very top tier of anti-Israel activist churches. It also carries a significance greater than that warranted by its numbers or its assets.
I write as an outsider. Even when I was in the PC(USA), I was a Presbyterian nobody – a ruling elder in a local church. Since I was very young, I have been distrustful of grand institutions – things like national denominations. My beliefs as a Christian and (possibly ironically) as a Presbyterian lead me to reject the whole concept of insiders anyway. The idea that there are ‘key people’ or ‘important people’ or that the concerns of some should be heard while others are ignored has always been profoundly distasteful to me. Add to this the fact that I was theologically conservative and politically moderate in a denomination that strongly disfavors both positions. If the explorations of the next several weeks prove helpful to anyone, great. If not, they are still something I need to pursue.
I am writing this because I am persuaded there is a better way. I have erred in the past in not following through on that conviction. We seem always to be so focused on crisis management and damage mitigation that we never get the chance to do the work that I believe needs done. I am writing because I don’t see anyone else doing it.