World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

The Commitment of the Church to the Quest of a Just Peace - A North American Experience

By the Rev. Robert O. Smith, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – Global Mission, USA

13 September 2008

World Council of Churches
Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches
Reformed Churches Bern-Jura-Solothurn

Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum (PIEF)

INTERNATIONAL THEOLOGICAL CONFERENCE
“Promised Land”

Church Center Bürenpark, Bern, Switzerland
10 - 14 September 2008 

Rev. Robert O. Smith
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – Global Mission, USA

 

I speak today specifically from the perspective of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). I bring greetings from our presiding bishop, Mark S. Hanson, who also serves as President of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). Personally and institutionally, Bishop Hanson has made the pursuit of a just peace between the state of Israel and its neighbours a priority for the public witness of our church.

 

It is important for the US churches to be involved in these global conversations, simply because the society in which we live has done so much to work against the goal of a just peace in the land of Jesus’ birth, life, crucifixion, and resurrection. 

 

I serve the ELCA as global mission director for Europe and the Middle East. Maintaining and strengthening our church’s relationships with our companions in those regions is a major focus of my work. One of our central relationships is with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL). Our accompaniment of the ELCJHL takes place within the context of the LWF’s accompaniment of and advocacy on behalf of this member church. 

 

The ELCA is strengthened through this relationship. Accompanying the ELCJHL gives us the privilege of a strong connection to an indigenously led, Arabic-speaking Lutheran church headquartered in occupied East Jerusalem. When our church carries out its vocation of being a public church, raising its voice on behalf of the voiceless in Palestine, our witness is strengthened and legitimized through this direct relationship. 

 

Our relationship is informed by the churchwide strategy for engagement in Israel/Palestine adopted by the church council and ELCA churchwide assembly in 2005 and reaffirmed with amendments by our churchwide assembly in 2007. The strategy is implemented through the Peace Not Walls campaign, directed by Carol Schersten LaHurd. Both the strategy and the campaign,[1] developed in consultation with Palestinian Christian companions, including Bishop Munib A. Younan, are the culmination of several resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian situation adopted by the ELCA and its predecessor church bodies. 

 

The Peace Not Walls campaign involves many components of the ELCA churchwide organization, including Global Mission and the Church in Society programme unit, which operates the corporate social responsibility programme and has offices in Washington, DC, and (in cooperation with the LWF) at the UN headquarters in New York. The campaign seeks to engage ELCA members through awareness-building, accompaniment, and advocacy related to Israel/Palestine.  

 

Efforts related to corporate divestment (selective, staged or otherwise) are not a component of the ELCA strategy. Instead, our approach advocates “making consumer decisions that favour support to those in greatest need (e.g., Palestinian providers as distinct from Israel settlers on Palestinian territory)” and managing investments “with concern for their impact on the lives of all Holy Land peoples who suffer from the ongoing conflict.” ELCA policy is structured to foster a peace settlement beneficial for all persons in the region. 

 

We have a good strategy and a good campaign for implementing the goals of that strategy. In the US context, however, there are many challenges in seeing those goals realized. 

 

Our first challenge is that we can’t do this alone. A major step toward realizing the political changes we seek for Israelis and Palestinians will necessarily involve major changes to US policy and practice. Giving a country with a gross domestic product of $170 billion per year billions more in uncontrolled grants frees that country up to do other things. We know that we cannot go it alone in engaging with this difficult task—the task of changing a long-standing, emotional, and religiously-formed trajectory of US foreign policy. In addition to our companionship with the ELCJHL and other global partners, we need ecumenical and inter-religious companions. 

 

Unlike many of our European friends, religious leaders in the US have no inherent standing in our political structures. While it is true that the institutions of church and state are no longer fused in most European systems, European church leaders, for the most part, have much greater access to the halls of political power than do ours.

 

During the presidency of George W. Bush, it was rare for even our presiding bishop, Mark Hanson, to gain a meeting with the upper levels of the executive branch, including the State Department. It is possible, though not likely, that this situation will change with the new administration. Official church designation means little in national US politics unless the numbers that office represents (in our case, 4.7 million ELCA Lutherans) is a constituency that can be practically mobilized into votes. That, as president of the LWF, Bishop Hanson represents 68.3 million Christians worldwide is of little practical interest to many sectors of US political leadership. 

 

Greater access is granted, however, when religious leaders and organizations band together in groups like Churches for Middle East Peace—a coalition, based in Washington DC,, of 22 public policy offices of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches and agencies—and the National Inter-religious Leadership Initiative, formed in 2003 by 33 prominent Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders in the United States. The common voice and commitment to a just peace in Israel and the Palestinian territories communicated by such ecumenical and inter-religious coalitions is key for gaining influence in US foreign policy discussions, especially relating to the state of Israel. 

 

Cultural conditions make up the second challenge to effective church-based advocacy in the United States toward a just peace in the Holy Land. It simply makes little sense to most Americans that policy should be changed in ways that limit the state of Israel in any way or that conditions should be placed on our “special relationship”. Polling consistently shows American public sympathies for Israelis over and against Palestinians. These numbers are not echoed anywhere else in the world. Several attempts have been made to explain this cultural inclination, with Sunday School educational identification of Israelites with Palestine[2] and historical US treatment of American Indians among the possible causes.[3] Tied to the latter point are the nationalist ideologies that formed US identity during the 18th and 19th centuries, especially the expansionist ideology known as Manifest Destiny.[4] Since the late 19th century, US expansionism has consistently been wrapped in a mantle of religiously-inspired righteousness and self-declared benevolence.[5] These strands of US foreign policy ideology have blended together in recent years to form the neoconservative movement, a movement arguing that Western self-interest is best served by protecting Israel and that radical geostrategic intervention (i.e., the invasion of Iraq or preemptive strikes on Iran) is merely a continuation of the American project.[6] With a cultural milieu such as this, it is no wonder that Americans are not surprised by books declaring Americanism to be “the fourth great Western religion” or titled Two Nations Under God: Why You Should Care about Israel.[7] 

 

Those book titles lead us to the third challenge to effective US Christian witness for a just peace in the Holy Land: evangelical Christian Zionism. Christian Zionism is a politically mobilized strand of Christian fundamentalism committed to preserving Jewish control over all of historic Palestine to ensure the realization of the movement’s own end-times hope. In its contemporary forms, Christian Zionism is expressed in terms of “Armageddon theology” or “rapture theology”. The 65 million copies sold of the Left Behind series is one measure of the popularity of this perspective.[8] Although Christian Zionism is of distinctly British and Anglo-American provenance, Western evangelical missionaries have disseminated Christian Zionist commitments throughout the world.[9] 

 

Contemporary Christian Zionism presents many challenges to mainline denominational pursuit of a just peace in the Holy Land. The broad appeal of American evangelicalism, a product of the fundamentalist movement, helped infuse American religiosity with the theological and ideological commitments of Christian Zionism. Today, millions of American Christians accept that the 1948 founding and 1967 expansion of the state of Israel were fulfilments of biblical prophecy.  

 

These perceptions translate into practical politics. After Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon, a July 2006 Pew Research Poll found that “a 44%-plurality of US adults say they sympathize more with Israel, while 9% sympathize with the Palestinians, figures that have remained largely unchanged in polls taken since late 2001.”[10] Later that same year, a Zogby International poll of likely voters in the 2006 mid-term elections found that 31% of Americans agreed or strongly agreed that “Israel must have all of the promised land, including Jerusalem, to facilitate the second coming of the messiah.”[11] Believing that portions of the Middle East were given to Jews as a “divine land grant” means that questioning the state of Israel’s right to the land it desires is a challenge to the will of God. 

 

Given these foundations, one can see how Christian Zionist movements like John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel (CUFI) can mobilize great numbers of US citizens for political action. Organizations like that can mobilize politically in ways we cannot. They can draw on and reinforce cultural and nationalistic foundations while we are implicitly critiquing them. They allow themselves to speak in simplistic, jingoistic terms, while our churches speak with nuance in support of moderation, nonviolence and religious pluralism. 

 

Christian Zionist political ideology provides a challenge also for constructive inter-religious engagement seeking to establish a just peace in the Holy Land. In this way, Christian Zionism is a challenge not only for North American churches but for the global community of faiths. Jews have an ambivalent relationship with Christian Zionism, suspecting the movement of clandestine proselytizing efforts. The most public evidence of this ambivalence came in 2007 when the thousands of Christian Zionists who arrived in Jerusalem for the Sukkot celebrations organized by the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem were shocked when the “chief rabbinate urged Jews to stay away from the event, saying some of the groups want to convert them to Christianity.”[12] Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg is bothered by how Christian Zionists see “Jews as actors in a Christian drama leading toward the end of days.” He insists that “real Zionism, as a Jewish movement, is… aimed at taking Jews out of the mythological realm and making them into normal actors in history, controlling their fate and acting for pragmatic reasons connected to the here and now. So what’s called Christian Zionism is actually very distant from Zionism.”[13] Even with such Jewish ambivalence, John Hagee was invited to address the 2007 policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. 

 

The Christian Zionist construction of Jewish identity has implications for Muslims as well. Since the foundations of the movement were laid in the mid-1600s, it has been the Anglo-American goal that Jews would be restored to Palestine in order to defeat the Turkish threat for the benefit of their Christian benefactors and the glory of God.[14] Though not engaged in a religious project, Herzl’s Zionist vision offered the Jews as a “portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism.”[15] Today, Christian Zionists like John Hagee say things like “I would hope the United States would join Israel in a military pre-emptive strike to take out the nuclear capability of Iran for the salvation of Western civilization…. I don’t believe that the Islamofascist mentality will ever respond favourably to diplomacy. Their agenda is the destruction of Israel and death to Jews and Christians.”[16] 

 

Christian Zionist hostility toward Islam and Muslims—an historical enmity that complements contemporary US foreign policy—has negative consequences for US Christian relationships with Arab Christians, especially Palestinians. In some writing, it seems that if Palestinian Christians do not seek to be understood primarily as suffering under the yoke of Islamic oppression, they must be understood as having “sided” with Islam, therefore forfeiting Western sympathies. For example, in response to Bishop Munib Younan’s nuanced response to the Danish cartoon controversy, US Christian Zionist Dexter Van Zile published a commentary titled “Dhimmi, Get Behind Me.”[17] Canadian Lutheran historian Paul Merkley declares that Christian leaders in Palestine “are for the most part no longer Europeans but Arabs” who no longer see themselves “as defenders … of what used to be called ‘Christendom’.” He accuses Palestinian theologians of “reading the God of Israel out of … the conflict in the Middle East” and thus “openly embracing the doctrine of Marcion”. Thus, if a Palestinian Christian leader like Bishop Younan or Rev. Mitri Raheb observes that the Hebrew scriptures have “become almost repugnant to Palestinian Christians” since they have been used “largely as a Zionist text”—thus lamenting that Christian sisters and brothers have been alienated from the bulk of their scriptural canon—the Western Christian Zionist feels entitled to label that Palestinian Christian a heretic.[18] A recent study derides the opposite of Christian Zionism as “Christian Palestinianism.”[19] But not all evangelicals, and certainly not all US citizens, are Christian Zionists. As evangelical sociologist Tony Campolo has written, “We must not allow Christian Zionists stand in the way of the peace for which the rest of us so desperately yearn. The time has come to educate ourselves about their agenda and to stop them.”[20] 

 

Christians in the United States are faced with constant efforts by politics, culture, and ideology to collude with and subjugate Christian theology and ethics. These challenges are magnified in Christian efforts to work toward just peace in the Holy Land. In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we seek to take these challenges into account, since the cost of not doing so is too great—for Palestinians and Israelis, but also for Christian witness in the United States. We are called to a ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18), and in this witness, we often fall short (Rom. 3:23). Nevertheless, even when reminded that the treasures we have are in clay jars (2 Cor. 4:7), we renew our call to speak truth and to build justice in God’s world.

 


[1] See both the strategy document and details on the campaign at www.elca.org/peacenotwalls

[2] See the interesting argument put forth by Irvine H. Anderson, Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy: The Promised Land, American, and Israel, 1917–2002, University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2005.

[3] See, for instance, Hilton Obenzinger, American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania, Princeton University Press, 1999, and Steven Salaita, The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism And the Quest for Canaan, Middle East Studies Beyond Dominant Paradigms, Syracuse University Press, 2006. This line of investigation and comparison deserves to be expanded along many different trajectories.

[4] For a lesser-known but vital study, see Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism, Harvard University Press, 1981; and, more recently, Nicholas Guyatt, Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607–1876, Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[5] See Conrad Cherry, ed., God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretation of American Destiny, University of North Carolina Press, 1998; Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role, University of Chicago Press, 1968; and Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2003.

[6] Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation: America’s Place in the World from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, Knopf, New York, 2006.

[7] David Gelernter, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion, Doubleday, 2007; and Tom Doyle, Two Nations Under God: Why You Should Care about Israel, B&H Books, 2004. An even deeper investigation into the importance of the idea of the Jewish state for American self-understanding can be found in Peter Grose, Israel in the Mind of America, Knopf, 1983.

[8] Promotional information from the Left Behind website (www.leftbehind.com). See the important cultural analysis by Amy Johnson Frykholm, Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America, Oxford University Press, New York, 2004).

[9] See especially Paul Gifford, “The Complex Provenance of Some Elements of African Pentecostal Theology,” in André Corten and Ruth Marshall-Fratani, Between Babel and Pentecost: Transnational Pentecostalism in Africa and Latin America, Indiana University Press, 2001, and Steve Brouwer, Paul Gifford, and Susan D. Rose,Exporting the American Gospel: Global Christian Fundamentalism, Routledge, 1996, especially p. 145-48 and the mobilization of Christian Zionism to form an ideological bulwark against Islam.

[10] Pew Centre for the People & the Press, “Americans’ Support for Israel Unchanged by Recent Hostilities: Domestic Political Distemper Continues,” 26 July 2006, available at people-press.org/reports/pdf/281.pdf (accessed 4 March 2008).

[11] From the full report of the survey: “Those living in the east (66%) are the most likely to say they do not believe in Christian Zionism, while those living in south (35%) and in the central Great Lakes region (36%) are the most likely to believe. Protestants (40%) are significantly more likely to believe than are Catholics (19%). African Americans (40%) are more likely to believe in this than either Hispanics (33%) or whites (29%). Republicans (37%) are more likely to believe in Christian Zionism than are Democrats or independents (28% each).”

[12] “Rabbis told Jews to shun Evangelicals,” Jerusalem Post, 24 September 2007. For his part, John Hagee has been clear that conversion is not part of his agenda, a position that has some support in the details of dispensationalist theology.

[13] Fresh Air from WHYY, “Gershom Gorenberg on Christian Zionism”, 18 September 2006, available atwww.npr.org. See also Gershom Gorenberg, “Unorthodox Alliance: Israeli and Jewish Interests are Better Served by Keeping a Polite Distance from the Christian Right”, Washington Post, 11 October 2002, A37.

[14] See Nabil Matar, “The Idea of the Restoration of the Jews in English Protestant Thought: From the Reformation until 1660”, The Durham University Journal 78 (December 1985), p. 23–36.

[15] Theodor Herzl, A Jewish State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question, trans. Sylvie D’Avigdor, Maccabaean Publishing, New York, 1904, p. 29. Original published in 1896.

[16] David Horovitz, “Evangelicals Seeing the Error of ‘Replacement Theology’”, Jerusalem Post, 20 March 2006.

[17] Dexter Van Zile, “Dhimmi, Get Behind Me,” published at www.judeo-christianalliance.org, no date. Van Zile asserts that since “Christians in the Middle East inhabit an unstable niche in a hostile ecology of religious oppression” (all the doing of “expansionist” Islam), Bishop Younan spoke out against the cartoons only to “maintain his insecure niche in a Muslim-majority society that has just put Hamas in power.” Van Zile is offended by this, since “ecumenical respect is one thing, but to allow our churches to become transmission belts for dhimmitude is another matter altogether,” since “submitting to such a relationship is not an affirmation of the life of service, but a betrayal of the gospel Christians are called to serve.” This article is just one in the author’s string of attempts to delegitimize Palestinian Christian voices in the North American context. It shows a great deal of reliance on the perspective generated by Bat Ye’or, whose books have found a ready audience in the United States. See, for instance, Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001.

[18] Paul Charles Merkley, Christian Attitudes Towards the State of Israel, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001, p. 73, 77. Merkley, implicating all Palestinian Christians who are not Christian Zionists, is citing Naim Stifan Ateek, Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation Orbis, Maryknoll, NY, 1989, p. 77. Merkley closes his book with this comment: “It is simply too soon to know whether the work done by forces dedicated to Jewish-Christian reconciliation … will stand against the flanking effort of the neo-Marcionists, whose heart is in the different work of accomodating [sic] the secular liberals, the Churches of the East, and the Muslims” (p. 220).

[19] Paul Richard Wilkinson, For Zion’s Sake: Christian Zionism and the Role of John Nelson Darby, Studies in Evangelical History and Thought, Wipf & Stock, 2007, especially chap. 2.

[20] Tony Campolo, “The Ideological Roots of Christian Zionism”, in Michael Lerner, Tikkun Reader: Twentieth Anniversary, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 2006, p. 235.