Wednesday, July 1, 2015

How long, o Lord, how long...

This is likely to become a rant although I want it to be a lament. Once again, my denomination, the United Church of Christ, got it wrong with their endorsement of BDS. There are some in this camp who actually believe Israel is the last vestige of European colonialism and ache for its destruction. There are others who are exasperated by the suffering Palestinians face on a daily basis - even if they don't fully comprehend the historical context and roots of this suffering - and want to DO something to make a difference on the ground. Some have no idea that there are those within the BDS movement who are in solidarity with Hamas and their allies; others don't care and still others are impatient to make a difference for peace. 

Two things strike me about the United Church's march towards boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel: 1) this resolution is more about our frustration and political impotence than justice for Palestinians and Israelis; and, 2) it exposes the naivete and romanticism of our historic and complicated antisemitism. We tend to celebrate a simplistic liberation theology - God is for the suffering therefore we must become allies of the obviously oppressed - without first dismantling our Manichean worldview. We enjoy black and white answers with obvious heroes and villains. We are not a people accustomed to patience and know almost nothing about waiting on the Lord in the spirit of Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.
Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
    on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
    “tear it down to its foundations!”Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.

Most of us are appalled at the close of this Psalm with its violence and desire for vengeance. It makes most of us uncomfortable. I have heard people in church say, "I would never act like that!" That is why, of course, we must read these uncomfortable words and wrestle with their meaning for our spiritual ancestors - and ourselves - honestly and without naive and romantic blinders. James Carroll articulates our challenge like this in Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age: The character of (both) Auschwitz and Hiroshima are related revelations about our past and future: (they point to) the anti-Jewish heart of Western civilization and the vulnerability of the human species to suicide. These realities expose our deepest fears and sins and must be acknowledged in all of our work toward justice, peace and compassion.

Tragically, the theological and sociological preparation for the United Church of Christ's BDS endorsement chose to ignore the reality of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. We relied upon incomplete and limited scholarship and interpretation. Our ecumenical partners in the region - especially those who worked on the Kairos Palestine document - are not evil people. They are compassionate and faith-filled souls who seek the peace of the Lord for all in this region. And yet too often they remain entrenched in dualistic theologies that conflate power with evil and pain with Christ's presence. Add to this mix our collective Christian antisemitism and it is little wonder that Israel once again is portrayed as the scapegoat.

An honest but complex reading of this moment in time would grasp that there is more than enough shame and blame to go around on both sides of the Green Line. It would not demonize Israel nor romanticize Hamas. It would not deny the horror of the refugee camps nor obscure the reasons why the Arab world has allowed them to continue. It would not turn away from the brutal destruction of last year's Gaza War, obscure the testimonies of Israeli soldiers wrestling with their consciences in Breaking the Silence testimonies nor deny the genuine compassion Israel wrestled with while fighting terrorist bombs and tunnels. They are all a part of this complex context - and they are almost all obscured by our BDS endorsement. 

I won't rehearse the history of compassion and solidarity shared by these two peoples since 1948 nor recount the mean-spirited and vicious acts committed by both Israelis and Palestinians either. I will recommend an authentically insightful study that is free from propaganda in Debra J. Gerner's book: One Land, Two Peoples (second edition) as a beginning. I will also urge exploring James Carroll's Constantine's Sword, too.

The action of the United Church of Christ does nothing to advance the cause of peace on the ground in either Israel or Palestine. It is a symbolic charade that makes the delegates feel righteous but little else. It does not strengthen a Palestinian peace movement for freedom because there is not one. It does not bring political solace to Palestine because the current division between Hamas and Fatah has crippled that broken nation. And it does nothing to move Israel closer to regional negotiations at a time when progress could be made. At best, this endorsement is self-congratulatory and alienating. Newly elected United Church of Christ President, John Dorhauer, got it right after the vote when he confessed:  I will (implement this BDS endorsement) with a deep awareness at the pain that I will cause to people who I care about deeply. And I will do so, to be quite frank, wondering if the benefits of our divesting from those companies is equal to cost to the relationships that we have with people who are critical to our movement towards justice, not just in Palestine but in many other places.

Would that we had spent time, money and resources on grassroots people-to-people peace making efforts - as well as practical ways to help local congregations connect with Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East and the United States - but we did not. Rather we had made a five year commitment to both educate our congregations on the US politics of Israel's stalemate and organized an all-church effort to hold our elected officials accountable for peace making, but we did not. And why did we ignore the unanimity of mainstream Jewish organizations who unanimously oppose BDS from the Right, Left and Center? That is my lament:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me.

One thing I have discerned on sabbatical: upon my return to ministry, it is essential to find ways of building common ground for peace that includes both Jews and Palestinians in concrete acts of compassion. Demonizing Israel does not advance shalom. Ignoring the anguish of Palestine does not strengthen salaam. And self-congratulatory pronouncements from safety do not build allies for action.  

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