Moral lapses in the church

Churches issue slanted reports on the ME conflict.

Church (photo credit: Illustrative)
(photo credit: Illustrative)
Both the Methodist Church of Britain and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have issued slanted reports on the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Presbyterians’ 172-page report, entitled “Breaking Down Walls” – apparently referring to the security barrier – will be discussed at that denomination’s 219th General Assembly in Minneapolis, Minnesota on July 3-10.
Divestment is not on the agenda, as it was in 2004 when Presbyterians were the first Protestant church to brandish such economic pressure against Israel. In 2006, after a bitter struggle, the motion was rescinded. But at July’s assembly, Presbyterians will consider putting pressure on the Obama administration to stop US aid to Israel until the Israeli government “ends the expansion of settlements in Palestinian territories,” ceases its “occupation” of Gaza, and relocates “Israel’s separation barrier” outside of Palestinian territories.
British Methodists, meanwhile, will be considering divestment. This after America’s Northern Illinois Conference (NIC) of the United Methodist Church (UMC) voted on June 15 to divest all holdings in three international corporations – General Electric, Caterpillar and Terex – that “profit from the occupation of Palestine.”
ALTHOUGH METHODISTS and Presbyterians are the most aggressively anti-Israel among liberal Protestant denominations, all five of the mainline denominations in the US – Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Evangelical Lutheran and United Church of Christ – have debated and in some cases adopted policies intended to bring direct or indirect economic pressure on Israel to compromise with the Palestinians.
These mainline denominations stand in stark contrast to the adamantly pro-Israel position adopted by evangelical Protestant sects.
Unlike American evangelical theology, liberal Christian denominations do not believe the Jewish people have a continuing role in God’s plan. Nor do they see the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel as an inevitable step in the redemption process. As a result, liberal Christians supported Zionism in the same way that they have supported the national movements of other oppressed groups.
For the same reason, they have switched their support to the Palestinian national movement as Israel, in the wake of the two Lebanon wars, the two intifadas and the Gaza conflicts, has increasingly been portrayed in “progressive” circles as the aggressor. Contributing to this trend are the ties mainline denominations have with Palestinian Protestants such as Naim Ateek, head of Sabeel, whose liberation theology likens Palestinians to the persecuted Jesus and views Jews, not Muslims, as the persecutors.
Liberal Protestants are particularly susceptible to a leftwing agenda that is anti-globalization, anti-capitalist (though liberal Protestants are among America’s most affluent) and rabidly anti-Zionist. Unlike more fundamentalist Protestants, mainline denominations tend to have a less literal reading of the Gospel. They are, as a result, more likely to contemporize the fight to establish the kingdom of God as a call to support progressive political causes. Theology is more malleable and, as Walter Russell Mead put it in a 2006 essay in Foreign Policy entitled “God’s Country,” liberal Protestants tend to “evanesce into secularism.”
They may be environmentalists belonging to the Sierra Club and Greenpeace or human rights activists involved with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Their sincere desire to pursue justice might be motivated by faith, but implementation often puts them under the sway of organizations with rabidly anti-Zionist or even anti-American agendas.
One study by the Institute on Religion and Democracy found that 37 percent of the statements made by mainline Protestant churches on human rights abuses between 2000 and 2003 focused on Israel. No other country came in for such frequent criticism, though the US was a close second with 32%. China, North Korea and Saudi Arabia were not critiqued at all.
Interestingly, the same amorphous theology that has blurred the boundaries between mainline Protestantism and left-wing secularism has also led to a steady decline in membership. As sociologists of religion have pointed out, the more demanding and unambiguous a religion’s principles, the more respect and commitment it is likely to enjoy. Who can take seriously liberal Protestant denominations that consistently fail to make moral distinctions that set them apart from progressive secularism? For their own good, Presbyterians, Methodists and other mainline denominations would do well to reexamine their policy on Israel. Perhaps they will find their own distinctive voice resonating with a more balanced view of the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. They might even reach the conclusion that Israelis have the right to defend themselves.