This is probably my last post about Church of Scotland business this year. While I find Church procedure fascinating (and I say that not at all sarcastically), and am aware that there are a large number of issues being discussed at the current General Assembly which will affect the lives of my friends, colleagues, and possibly even my own family for years to come, I prefer to restrict my own comments to issues that I actually know something about, which are mostly Jewish/Christian dialogue issues. So, while most of today’s business was rightly taken up debating the Report of the Panel on Review and Reform, I was really waiting for the Report from the World Mission Council and discussion of deliverances 48-51 from the Church and Society Council.
Mostly, I wanted to hear what was said about Kairos Palestine, because I’ve spent a fair portion of this year writing and having meetings about that particular document. I should probably post my own analysis online at some point (right now I’m battling a nasty cold and don’t have the energy to figure out whether WordPress will let me host a .pdf), and in the meantime I’ll happily share it by email if anyone wants to read the full 13 pages. It’s a difficult document to respond to; the humanitarian and emotional appeals it contains are stirring, and I don’t disagree with much of what it says. However, I don’t wholeheartedly embrace every jot and tittle, either; even if one does not wish to damage its overall message by an ungenerously close critique, it seems to me that a somewhat restrained response is appropriate. In this regard, I think the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee of The Presbyterian Church in Canada has probably been a model of good practice–and lest anyone think I’m simply favouring the Canadians in this matter, let me assure you that we’re both already reading reports in preparation for their General Assembly in June, and there will be plenty of commentary forthcoming closer to that time.
So, I was perhaps understandably disappointed when the World Mission Council Deliverance 4, “Commend the Kairos Palestine Document to the whole church”, passed without discussion. Were it not for the fact that WMC’s report modeled its structure after the KPD, I would suspect that nobody in the Church of Scotland had even bothered to read the KPD.
So, here’s the problem with the KPD: there probably isn’t one, really… if you take the document’s authors at their word (and I’ve lost count of the number of meetings I’ve sat in being told this) that it was written primarily for a Palestinian audience, talking about a specifically Palestinian response to the Palestinian situation.
Here’s the problem with the KPD outside of Palestine: it’s written from a Palestinian perspective, and that perspective is understandably one of great frustration. Under the circumstances, I would still say that it is, for the most part, a remarkably gracious document. However, I am wary of churches which occupy an incredibly privileged position–both in their own countries and, actually, when they choose to work in this region–over-identifying with Christians who are oppressed minorities, and letting that identification become their basis for relating to this region as a whole. What do I mean by that? There were a few clear illustrations of the phenomenon in the WMC report and in the discussion of the Church and Society deliverances today.
1) The WMC report, in modelling itself on the KPD, but without the local sensitivity that led the KPD authors to express a rather restrained position, took the potential flaws in the KPD and made them worse. KPD contains a few passages, especially in section 2, which might be read as minimizing Jewish presence in, and attachment to, the land, but could also be read more charitably. The WMC report supplements their reference to KPD 2.3 with a quote from Naim Ateek which teeters dangerously on the edge of full-blown erasure theology, saying that “Jesus, in his historical context, addressing people who were living under occupation […] was calling for justice. For the Palestinian people then were hungry and thirsty for justice. And this is exactly what our Palestinian people are hungry and thirsty for today.” Amy-Jill Levine does a fantastic job of explaining the problem with this language, so I’ll just quote from her (page three of the linked document, and I do encourage you to go read the whole thing):
To speak today about “Palestinians” or a “Palestinian” state is entirely appropriate. I find arguments on the political right that are used against Palestinian national hopes, such as “In 1948 there were no Palestinians,” both unhelpful and irrelevant.
The problem arises in several church statements (as well as in sermons and Bible studies, by the way) that speak of biblical figures in their Palestinian context. To use this phrase is to make a political statement, intended or not.
1. In speaking of Abraham or Jesus, why say “Palestine” when the Bible does not
use the term? The Hebrew text eight times mentions Pileshet, referring to the Philistine coastal area of Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gaza, Gath, and Ekron.
a. Most English translations today render the term as Philistia.
b. It comes into the King James Version in 4 instances as “Palestina”
2. Josephus, Antiq. 8:260 (220.127.116.110) mentions Syria of Palestine, but 305 times
he uses “Judea,” often identifying Judea as what was once called “Canaan” – including referring to the Northern Kingdom “Judea” (Antiq. 9:280 (18.104.22.1680).
3. Philo uses Judea/Judaea, although does use “Palestine” three times, as a
synonym for Canaan once
4. Speaking of Jesus in his “Jewish context” conveys a different impression than
speaking of him in his “Palestinian context.”
There aren’t terribly many Jews left in Scotland anymore; when I volunteered with the Scottish Interfaith Council and did an annual outreach day at a secondary school in Oban, every year at least a handful of students admitted I was the first Jewish person they’d ever seen. When we lived in Glasgow, Mark had many opportunities to notice the way that real, live Jews completely dropped out of sight in the average Sunday sermon, to be replaced by frozen symbols of The Superseded Law. So it’s not terribly surprising that nobody in the Church of Scotland noticed that transforming Jesus from a Jew into a Palestinian has deeply unpleasant connotations. Still, though, it was a poor choice to make in a document focused on a region in which there are many real, live Jews. I must, however, commend the WMC for remembering to mention the large number of Jewish humanitarian groups who are also doing peace and community building work in this area.
2) Both the WMC report and statements made during the discussion of the Church and Society Council reference “Holocaust guilt” as a factor influencing Christian support of Israel and complicating Christian support for Palestine. This may have been true for some brief period of time in, say, the 1970s to maybe, maybe the 1990s–after Holocaust historiography and post-Holocaust theology became widespread enough to actually have a popular impact, and before the Palestinian humanitarian crisis became similarly well known. But it certainly was not a factor in the ’40s, ’50s, or even, so far as I’ve been able to tell, the early ’60s, and perhaps it’s just that I tend to hang out with liberal, social-justice Christians (who are much more interested in current events), but it really doesn’t appear to me to be a terribly strong motivator now. Amy-Jill Levine, again:
a. However, recognition of the destruction of Europe’s Jews as an ‘event’
(“Holocaust” finds common use only in the late 1950s; ha-Shoah was coined in 1955) needing to be redressed was not much of an issue in 1948.
b. U.N. documents on partition do not mention the situation of Europe’s Jews.
c. In 1947, there were already half a million Jews in “Palestine” – and tensions between Jews and Arabs, as well as Jews and the British – made the situation untenable. The foundation of Israel results from this concern.
d. For the British, controlling Palestine had become too expensive in terms of troops, economic outlay, and public relations (internally and within the Arab world). Britain petitioned the U.N. to relinquish the mandate, and that’s why the U.N. addressed the situation (U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181; the “Partition Plan”; voted Nov. 29, 1947).
e. The issue was less ‘western guilt’ [why would the West admit ‘guilt’ – they saw themselves as having defeated Hitler] than a concern to remove the displaced Jews less they resettle in, well, France, Poland, and so on.
There are a number of reasons that the involvement of churches and individual Christians in Israel/Palestine is complicated; to name just one, though one with which I have had cause to become deeply familiar, pilgrimage both promotes an attachment to the land (what I sometimes call the “Jesus Slept Here” school of tourism) and generally offers little opportunity for noticing the humanitarian issues in this area. For example, tour buses full of pilgrims drive through the car gate at the Bethlehem checkpoint, and never pass within sight of the pedestrian queue; tours that focus on Jerusalem, Nazareth, and the Galilee needn’t even pass within close sight of the separation wall, and most don’t. You can see it, of course, from the Old City, but I suspect that guides focused on religious sites (rather than consciousness raising) don’t tend to want to interrupt their clients’ spiritual experiences with messy reality. Add in complicating factors such as Islamophobia, eschatology, cultural prejudices that favour more Europeanised neighbourhoods, institutional security concerns, etc., and it’s quite easy to understand why Western Christians might have a preference for pouring money into the Israeli economy…or even a political preference for Israeli, rather than Arab, control of pilgrimage areas. To be fair, the Church of Scotland has been promoting a much more socially conscious sort of pilgrimage/tourism, but even so, there were few indicators in either report or today’s discussion that there is anything in this area besides Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Tiberias (this last because CoS operates a rather controversial hotel there, which I understand helps to fund a large amount of its work in the area), which rather gives the impression that humanitarian concerns only arise because of their proximity to holy sites.
Dragging the Holocaust into the conversation serves to obscure the far more immediate self-interest that has driven Christian political support for Israel and neglect of the Palestinian situation, and also absolves the Church from continuing theological self-critique of its treatment of Jews and Judaism, which is, or at least should be, an entirely separate issue. Political support for Israel (I have a difficult time understanding how there can be such a thing as religious support for Israel, as it is a nation, not a religion) neither stems from nor removes “Holocaust guilt”, and the suggestion that it does is insulting, ahistorical, and theologically unsound.
Again, there’s much more that could be said, but that’s probably more than enough for one night.