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UCCtruths

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Guest Post: A Warning, Not a Primer

Friday, September 19, 2008

By Dexter Van Zile

In 1974, New Seabury Press published Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism, by Rosemary Radford Ruether. In this book, Ruether offered a thoroughgoing critique of the New Testament and of the writings of the early church fathers that offered a distorted and inaccurate view of Judaism and Jews to demonstrate the superiority of the Christian church. Ruether noted a troubling aspect of Christian writings: the most powerful expressions of Christ’s divinity and redeeming power were often accompanied by ugly denunciations of Jews. Christianity’s assertions of Christ’s divinity, status as the messiah, and expectations of redemption were so deeply interwoven with enmity toward the Jews that Ruether asked:

Is it possible to purge Christianity of anti-Judaism without at the same time pulling up Christian faith? Is it possible to say “Jesus is Messiah” without, implicitly or explicitly, saying at the same time “and the Jews be damned”?
The interweaving of anti-Jewish polemic with assertions of Jesus’ redemptive power was, according to Ruether, an effort to counter two threats to the early Christian faith: Jewish rejection of Jesus as the messiah and the fact that the world had remained much as it was, rife with conflict and misery even after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The presence of suffering in the world after Christ’s resurrection contradicted a central tenet of Christianity – that Christ had conquered sin and death. Christian writers countered these threats by spiritualizing the redemption Christ brought to the world, claiming this spirituality for the church, and by projecting human failings onto the Jewish people. According to Ruether, the narrative offered by Christian writers and commentators portrays Judaism and its adherents as apostate from God, guilty of violating all the rules that had been handed down to them in their Torah, and then stubborn in their insistence on following these rules once they had been superseded by Jesus Christ, whom they murdered. Jews were portrayed as a carnal people while Christianity and its adherents are portrayed as “spiritual.” Jews were portrayed as unable to understand their own scriptures; Christians are portrayed as having the true understanding of how Jews should interpret their scriptures and ultimately how they should behave. According to Ruether, Jewish scriptures which “contain a record of Jewish self-criticism” were transformed by Christian writers “into a remorseless denunciation of the Jews, while the Church, in turn is presented as totally perfect and loses the prophetic tradition of self-criticism.”

Gregory Baum, a Catholic theologian who wrote the introduction to Ruether’s book, put it concisely when he wrote:

The Church made the Jewish people a symbol of unredeemed humanity; it painted a picture of the Jews as a blind, stubborn, carnal and perverse people, an image that was fundamental in Hitler’s choice of the Jews as the scapegoat.
Baum’s introduction was remarkable in that he had previously argued “the anti-Jewish trends in Christianity were peripheral and accidental, and that it would consequently be fairly easy to purify the preaching of the church from anti-Jewish bias.” After reading Ruether’s work, however, Baum admitted that anti-Jewish trends were not a recent development in Christianity and that “they were, almost from the beginning, linked to the Church’s proclamation of the Jesus as the Christ.” Baum proclaimed that “If the Church wants to clear itself of the anti-Jewish trends built into its teaching, a few marginal correctives will not do. It must examine the very center of its proclamation and reinterpret the meaning of the gospel for our times.”

Ruether’s book prefigured another magisterial and influential text written two decades later – Constantine’s Sword by James Carroll who popularized an insight that had been circulating in academic and theological circles for years: Christian teachings regarding the Jewish people were a necessary and contributing factor to the destruction of the Jewish people in Europe during the 1940s and that Christians needed to come up with new ways to interpret their scripture. To be sure, Ruether was not the first commentator to raise these issues, but she was one of the most fearless and thoroughgoing. In response to the issues raised by Ruether and other theologians, several liberal Protestant denominations in the United States issued statements of contrition regarding Christian teachings about the Jewish people, and promised to fight against anti-Semitism in the future. In their own ways, they recapitulated what the Roman Catholic Church had stated to the world in its document Nostra Aetate issued in 1965 – in light of the Holocaust, Christians were obligated to find new ways to affirm their faith without demonizing Jews.

In light of the work of Ruether and others, liberal Catholics and Protestants began to reinterpret and in some instances, reject the New Testament’s anti-Judaism. For example, in 2004, Westminster John Knox Press published Preaching the Gospels Without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentary written by Ronald J. Allen and Clark M. Williamson. In this book, Allen and Williamson (who invoke Ruether in their introduction) state explicitly that Gospel polemic against Jews and their leaders should be analyzed, and when necessary, rejected. For instance, the authors assert that Matthew’s Gospel inserted the presence of Pharisees and scribes into the narrative of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan river “so that John can engage in name-calling: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’” The authors tell us that “after the Holocaust, preachers should speak against Matthew’s polemic.”

The great irony is that in the years since the publication of Ruether’s book, Christian peace activists have deployed many of the same polemical devices against modern Israel that Ruether documented in Faith and Fratricide. Progressive Christianity’s most powerful calls for peace and liberation are accompanied by ugly polemics that portray Israel and its supporters as worthy of contempt and justify Israel’s banishment from the community of nations. Many peace activists portray themselves as inheriting and embodying the ultimate truths of the Christian religion, while Israel and its supporters are portrayed as embodying all of the worst characteristics of human nature, organized religion, the international system and ultimately as if they are enemies of God, obstructing God’s plan for a peaceful world (in a manner eerily similar to what some Christian Zionists say about those who oppose Israel.)

Adam Gregerman, Ph.D., documented the problem in an article (“Old Wine in New Bottles: Liberation Theology and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”) published in the Summber-Fall 2004 edition Journal of Ecumenical Studies. Using Faith and Fratricide as a map of Christian anti-Jewish polemic, Gregerman details how modern Christian writers – including Ruether herself – had “perpetuated Christian stereotypes and images of Jews, even as many churches are rejecting anti-Jewish teachings.” He reported how Christian commentators “use the Jews’ sacred texts against them and thereby turn political disagreements into religious indictments.” Gregerman is particularly forceful when he describes how “the most malevolent enemies of Jesus and God and even of ancient Israel are deployed as symbols of Jews by liberation theologians, with no attention to the long history of Christian anti-Judaism, which used precisely these symbols and this type of polemic.

Anglican Priest Naim Ateek founder of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, headquartered in Jerusalem features prominently in Gregerman’s piece. Using liberation theology as its framework, Sabeel calls for a one-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict in the form of “One state for two nations and three religions.” In addition to its support for a one-state solution, Sabeel is well known for its use of anti-Judaic polemic from the New Testament to portray the modern state of Israel as a cosmological affront to Christian sensibilities. For example, in 2005 Sabeel issued a liturgy titled “The Contemporary Stations of the Cross” that equates Israel’s founding with Jesus’ death sentence and the construction of a security barrier with His death on the cross. With these comparisons, Sabeel transforms two actions taken to achieve Jewish safety in the face of unrelenting violence into two reminders of Christ’s judicial and ritual murder – at the hands of the Jews, of course. This document, published after Gregerman’s article appeared in print, underscores his assertion that critiques motivated by liberation theology
… lead to a demonization of the Jews. These writings do not illuminate the key issues in the conflict and offer little by way of guidance for those on all sides who seek a just solution. As such, liberation theology impedes rather than fosters any serious attempt at understanding or ending the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Gregerman’s article raises an important question for Christian peace activists – similar to the one Ruether asked in 1974: Is it possible for Christian peace activists and mainline churches to assert “peace is possible” without implicitly, or explicitly, saying in one way or another “and Israel be damned”? The willingness of mainline peace activists and church leaders (particularly in the UCC and the Episcopal Church) to tolerate the use of Sabeel’s angry polemic is troublesome, but the problems do not stop there.

Another problem is the manner in which these activists and leaders have adopted the group’s unrealistic prescription for ending the conflict – “End the occupation and the violence will end.” This mantra, put forth by Dick Toll, former chair of the Friends of Sabeel North America in 2005, roots the continued existence of the Arab-Israeli conflict in Israeli policies and takes no account of the enmity toward Jews and Israel expressed by religious political leaders throughout the Middle East. And like the predictions of the world’s imminent redemption put forth by Jesus’ early followers, Sabeel’s “end-the-occupation-and-the-violence-will-end” narrative has proven to be a disappointment. Israel has been attacked from every bit of territory from which it has withdrawn since the Oslo Accords.

This is a point I’ve made before – numerous times – but one that bears repeating. Between 2000 and 2004, Israel was attacked by suicide bombers from the West Bank, with many of the attacks originating from towns from which Israel withdrew its soldiers in the 1990s. In 2006, Israel was attacked by Hamas from the Gaza Strip -- from which it withdrew in 2005. Also in 2006, Israel was attacked from Lebanon, from which it withdrew in 2000, by Hezbollah.

If the safety of your family was at stake, would you still be willing to bet its well-being on the “end-the-occupation-and-the-violence-will-end” narrative after your country was attacked from territory from which it withdrew?

I wouldn’t.

Neither would most of the people in mainline churches; those who would place this bet have no right to expect Israelis to do so after the events of the past few years.

On this score, mainline peace activists and the leaders of our churches have done a very poor job of conveying the hopelessness felt after the Second Intifada by well-meaning, peace-loving Israeli Jews, who if by some reversal of fate were Christians living in the U.S. (yes, I know it’s a bizarre scenario – but stay with me) would likely find themselves at home in our churches by virtue of their temperament and politics.

After the collapse of the Camp David Process, peace-loving Israelis were devastated and many of them laid the blame squarely on the Arab inability to accept Israel’s right to exist. Hirsh Goodman had this to say at the height of the Second Intifada in 2002: “I supported Oslo. I supported talking with Arafat. The greatest disappointment was to discover that despite everything I've believed, everything I've promulgated, that [expletive] never gave up terror.” (We never saw that quote in any background documents prepared by the activists and church staffers now did we?)

Goodman was not the only peace activist to take a different attitude after the Second Intifada. This is how a liberal pro-peace Israeli Jew (who will be left nameless) responded to the “Tear Down the Wall” resolution passed by the United Church of Christ in 2005: “When I hear churches in the U.S. tell us to tear down the wall, it makes me want to build another one right behind it.”

Despite all this, mainline church leaders and peace activists clung to their discredited narrative by denying the concessions weren’t any good (Barak’s “generous offer” was no such thing), or asserting that Sharon’s withdrawal was meaningless (“Gaza is still an open air prison!”) or that the Security Barrier caused and did not prevent Palestinian violence (“Tear Down the Wall!”).

Any suggestion that the peace and justice activists are motivated by a desire to analyze and confront the underlying causes of the Arab-Israeli conflict misses the point. These activists are telling a story, not making peace. They are creating a mythology about the conflict that couples a relentless bill of particulars against Israel with a licentious hagiography that portrays Israel’s adversaries as innocent of all wrong. The goal of this myth is to allow adherents of the “end-the-occupation-and-the-violence-will-end narrative” to remain devoted to their ersatz parousia, and to blame its delay on Israel.

Once again, Jews are defamed when the millennial hopes of Christians are disappointed. One way or another, Christians always seem to come back to their obsession with Jewish people – this time through the modern state of Israel. The only question is how this obsession will manifest itself – through a process of sacralization or demonization. Much of what passes for Christian debate over the Arab-Israeli conflict is an exchange of polemics between those who sacralize the modern state of Israel and those who demonize it. One characteristic the opposing parties share is a belief that the modern state of Israel will play a central role in their respective salvation schemes.

The similarity between these two schemes became obvious to me while arguing with a peace activist at the UCC General Synod in 2005. During the discussion, I pointed out that mainline resolutions always seem to be making demands of Israel while making very few demands of the Palestinians. In response, the activist said “I want Israel to usher in a new era!”

To be fair, the activist was speaking in historical and not eschatological terms, but the millennial overtone was unmistakable. Israel was expected to bring about a new reality in the Middle East through self-reform, sacrifice and risk-taking. Any expectations the activist had of Israel’s adversaries were unstated. This was not an unusual, isolated slip-of-the-tongue by an individual activist but emblematic central aspect of the Christian peacemaking agenda in regards to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In his address to the Sabeel conference at Old South Church in Boston in October 2007 Archbishop Desmond Tutu challenged Jews to struggle with their conscience over Israeli policies and to “be on the side of the God who revealed a soft spot in his heart for the widow, the orphan and the alien.” He cautioned Jews to not fight against the God, their God who hears the cry of the oppressed, who sees their anguish and who will always come down to deliver them.” He targeted this cri de coeur exclusively at Jews leaving any expectations he may have had of the Palestinian unspoken. Yes, Archbishop Tutu does condemn “acts of terrorism by whoever they are committed,” but when it comes to naming the perpetrators of misdeeds, he names only the Jewish people and their institutions.

It should be noted, however, that Tutu has recently called on the United Nations to “show the same concern for protecting Israelis from Palestinian attacks as it does for Palestinian suffering under Israeli occupation” and even demanded that Hamas “bring an end to the launching of rockets against civilians in Israel.” These proclamations are undercut however by his suggestion, based on tenuous proof, that Israel perpetrated a war crime by killing civilians in a rocket attack on Bet Hanoun in 2006 and by his assertion that the Palestinians are paying the price for Western guilt over the Holocaust. The 19 Gazans who were killed and the additional 50 who were injured as a result of the rocket attack on Bet Hanoun Nov. 8, 2006 were not paying the price for the Holocaust, but were victims of Palestinians rocket teams who use dense urban neighborhoods as their hiding places.

Were these deaths a tragedy? Absolutely. Does Israel share responsibility for their death? Yes, and most Israelis will say so. But the fundamental reality is this: Terrorists who attack civilians while hiding behind civilians guarantee civilian casualties. The math is pretty simple: No rockets into Israel, no rockets into Gaza. What Israelis regard as a tragedy that brings shame on the Jewish state – the death of innocent civilians – is the chosen and preferred strategy of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Desmond Tutu knows this. We all know this. And yet mainline peace activists pretend otherwise. The fact that Archbishop Tutu’s lopsided criticism marks an improvement in how he speaks about the Arab-Israeli conflict shows just how bad things are.

Lopsided demands and criticism of Israel are, along with the ugly, demonizing polemic detailed by Gregerman, another salient aspect of Sabeel's reckless application of liberation theology to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Sabeel’s recklessness is evident in the licentious manner with which it uses the Exodus narrative as a framework for the Arab-Israeli conflict. Apparently, Sabeel’s version of ancient Israel’s story of liberation ends with Exodus. It does not include the rest of the Pentateuch which details how God starts holding ancient Israelites accountable – even during their time in the wilderness. Dennis T. Olson highlights this issue in his commentary on Numbers published by Westminster John Knox Press in 1996. He writes:
Before Sinai, Israel was like a newly adopted child who did not yet know the
rules of the household. God, the divine Parent, bent over backwards to satisfy
the legitimate needs of an Israel immediately out of Egypt. But by the time we
reach Numbers, the people of Israel know their responsibilities in the law and
the commandments. Israel must take responsibility and is answerable for its
relationship to God. (Page 63)
In plain language this means that at some point, the Palestinians need to start accepting responsibility for the problems they have created, quit attacking Israel from territory from which it has withdrawn and get on with building their future. If one were to include Numbers in the liberationist canon (which apparently Sabeel does not) Arafat’s failure to take the deals offered to him at Camp David and Taba in 2000/2001 could be compared to the loss of nerve exhibited by the ancient Israelites when the Promised Land was presented to them chapter 13. Arafat spied out the future, was overcome with fear at the responsibility that would come with statehood and turned the offer down, thereby consigning his people to another 40 years of wandering in the wilderness without a state.

Of course, at a certain point comparisons like this can become ludicrous, but not any more ludicrous than using a Christian theology of liberation as a template for a national movement controlled by Arab political and religious leaders who have used liberation as a synonym for the destruction of Israel for the past 60 years. The fact is, Sabeel’s liberation theology has little if any impact on Palestinian society. Yes, Rev. Dr. Ateek has condemned suicide bombing – in English to Christians in the U.S. and Europe – and yes, there are times when Sabeel does offer muted criticism of Palestinian and Arab leaders, but no where does this criticism even approach the ferocity with which it demonizes Israel. In Sabeel’s quarterly newsletter Cornerstone (published in English), Israel is routinely condemned while Palestinian mistakes are almost ignored altogether.

If mainline peace activists and church leaders such were truly intent on promoting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, they would call both sides to account for the choices they have made. That is not what they have done. Instead, they have followed Sabeel’s example of blaming portraying Israel as powerful enough to bring a unilateral end to the conflict and by portraying the Palestinians as innocent sufferers.

Just as early Christians used a caricature of Jews and Judaism to cope with the continued existence of suffering, sin and death after Christ’s resurrection, modern-day Christian peace activists use a caricature of modern Israel to cope with their failure of the story they have told to describe, explain and predict events in Middle East. Despite all their efforts, despite all their promises of peace, the world remains much as it has been for a long time – dangerous, unpredictable, frightening and a death-dealing challenge to our faith. Instead of acknowledging that their made-to-order parousia did not arrive and searching for a more secure foundation for their faith, adherents of this failed narrative have interwoven anti-Jewish polemic into their Gospel of Peace, falling back into the trap Ruether warned Christians about in 1974.

Mainline peace activists need to remember that Faith and Fratricide was written as a warning, not a primer.

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posted by Dexter Van Zile, Friday, September 19, 2008

11 Comments:

What Dexter continues to ignore is the many violations and transgressions by the Israeli government that are derailing the peace process. Apparently, Dexter thinks its perfectly acceptable to take land that does not belong you, and violate international law, peace agreements and even the Israeli High Court. He fails to note that in the past eight months -- since the Annapolis conference last November -- the number of illegal Israeli settlements has doubled, military checkpoints have increased by 64 percent, and 494 Palestinian men, women and children have been killed by Israeli soliders. That means at least one Palestinian civilian dies every day at the hands of the Israeli military. What Sabeel and other Christian groups want is for Israel to live up to the peace agreements it has made and to adhere to international law, so both Israelis and Palestinians can live together peacefully and equally.
commented by Blogger Peggy, 3:24 AM  
Thanks very much for your post.

I will address these issues in a future essay.
commented by Blogger Dexter Van Zile, 9:17 AM  
I have a better idea. How bout if UCCtruths allows Sabeel or Mrs. Reuther the opportunity to write an essay. Letting you write an essay in response to a couple of sentences seems kind of unfair and lopsided.
commented by Blogger Peggy, 4:28 PM  
I would not post anything from Reuther or Sabeel. However, if clergy or other leaders in the UCC wished to post a response, I would be glad to post it.

-James
commented by Blogger UCCtruths, 6:55 PM  
Peggy:

I've spoken with James and I think he might relent and publish an article by Rosemary Radford Ruether if she were to feel so inclined, which frankly, I doubt she would do. She's got access to much larger audiences through National Catholic Reporter, but I think the offer will be made, if she's truly interested.

In the interest of transparency and, how about making your blog open to the public?

Ucctruths can be read by people of all faiths and political persuasions. I think its a good model for you to follow on that score.

Again, thanks for your responses.

Sincerely,

Dexter Van Zile
commented by Blogger Dexter Van Zile, 12:23 PM  
Dexter,

Thanks for the offer. I will see if I can get in touch with Rosemary. If I can't reach her, will a UCC member do? My blog is not public because it is just for my family. It is a travel blog and is not political at all. It's designed specifically to cheer up my sister, who is battling breast cancer, and let her know what I am doing.
commented by Blogger Peggy, 8:06 AM  
I think James would probably prefer a UCC member, but I did lean on him to let RRR write if she wanted to and he seemed amenable to that idea.

I think RRR will likely ignore this blog.


Thanks for the info on the blog. I hope she recovers.
commented by Blogger Dexter Van Zile, 12:24 PM  
What Peggy continues to ignore is that the Palestinian nation (since its annexation of the West Bank in 1967) of Jordan forfeited the West Bank as a consequence of its failed attempt to exterminate Israel in 1967. The West Bank is Israeli territory occupied by Yesha Arabs.
commented by Blogger marknystedt, 5:21 PM  
The more I think about it, since this is a UCC Blog, a UCC member would be best. And thanks so much for the good wishes for my sister. It's been a long journey for her.

Mark, your history is a little skewed. Israel attacked Jordan in 1967. It's obvious you haven't been here recently. Anyone who has recently visited the West Bank knows that your analysis is not correct. I would be happy to show you around if you are ever in the this region. I think you would change your mind.
commented by Blogger Peggy, 2:29 PM  
"Mark, your history is a little skewed. Israel attacked Jordan in 1967."

Wrong. Go to this link for more information:

http://www.sixdaywar.org/content/easternfront.asp

The upshot is that Israel did not attack Jordan until after the Jordanians had shelled West Jerusalem with artillery and had attacked a military base in Natanya. They made these attacks after the Egyptians falsely reported that they had destroyed 75 percent of Israel's planes when Israel had attacked its airforce on the ground.

As the article I've linked to states: "Despite the Jordanian attacks, the Israelis did not respond. As the Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban put it, the Israelis hoped that 'King Hussein was making a formal gesture of solidarity with Egypt,' in other words, that the artillery barrage and bombing runs were for show, and that they did not presage a general offensive. But this was not to be – after the Israelis sent their peace message, the Jordanian attacks only grew in intensity."

Joradian troops also crossed the armistice lines and took the UN Headquarters which threatened Israeli positions in Jerusalem.

In other words, Jordan attacked first, Israel did not respond immediately hoping it was for show, and then when the attacks intensified, Israel fought back.
commented by Blogger Dexter Van Zile, 8:51 AM  
After reading Peggy's last post, I'm kind of stunned that someone would offer up such blatant misinformation about what happened in the Six Day War.
commented by Blogger Dexter Van Zile, 8:53 AM  

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