When gunmen start throwing one another off of rooftops, most people would recoil in horror and offer some word of criticism for those responsible. Most people would have no problem stating explicitly that it is wrong to murder men in front of their wives and children. Most people would also say, without much prodding, that cutting the legs off of the corpses of your political opponents in the street is a bad thing. Not only does such behavior make people think poorly of you, it is wrong. It is disgraceful.
Nevertheless, there is one group of people in the United States who did not feel compelled to comment on this behavior as it took place in the Gaza Strip last week. The leaders and peace activists of mainline Protestant churches in the U.S. who have been ardent supporters of the cause of Palestinian nationalism and vocal critics of Israeli policy, have said little if anything about the violence that resulted in Hamas’s brutal takeover of the Gaza Strip during the second week of June.
Churches that have been quick to blame Israel had a frog stuck in their collective throats when three children of a Palestinian Authority official were murdered outside their school in late November 2006. These same churches remained silent when the violence began again in earnest on June 11 and said nothing when Hamas claimed victory on June 14. Instead of speaking about the violence on their own, they have for the most part, relied on statements issued by Christian leaders in Jerusalem and by the the World Council of Churches to serve as their "prophetic witness."
This might be tolerable if the statements from the Christian leaders in Jerusalem and from the WCC were authentic and truthful responses to Hamas's brutal takeover of the Gaza Strip, but predictably, the message from both groups is, in effect, "It's Israel's fault."
In their statement, Christian leaders in Jerusalem called on Hamas and Fatah to stop the “domestic fighting” so that they can address the real problem facing the Palestinian people – the occupation. Last week, links to this statement on denominational websites and blogs served as a fig leaf (Gen. 3:7) to cover the silence of mainline churches over the violence in the Gaza Strip.
Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches barely mentioned the violence in the Gaza Strip in his speech to an international peace conference in Amman, Jordan. "The chair beside you may be empty because our conferees from Gaza could not come," Kobia told those in attendence, failing to mention that Christians in the Gaza Strip are essentially under siege.
In a press release issued by the WCC, the organization stated the "the occupation hurts human dignity on both sides." The same could be said about Palestinian terrorism, but for some reason the WCC's prophetic imagination could not make it up that hill.
For some reason, the World Council of Churches, the Christian leaders in Jerusalem, and their enablers in the U.S. seem unable to acknowledge one salient fact. The intra-Palestinian violence and bloodshed exploded in the Gaza Strip after Israel withdrew in August 2005.
Rev. Cally Rogers-Witte, Executive Minister of UCC Wider Church Ministries and co-executive of Global Ministries, did offer one interesting exception to the general silence from mainline churches about the violence in the Gaza Strip. Rogers-Witte prefaced the statement from Christian leaders in Jerusalem with an acknowledgement of the “terrible suffering and the problems” in the Gaza Strip, but also asserted that they were “exacerbated by the lack of a negotiated peace with Israel.” While it’s nice to see that Witte is honest enough not to blame the “occupation” for Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence in the Gaza Strip, she still fails to explain how the lack of a treaty with Israel (which Arafat scuttled in 2000 and 2001) causes Palestinians to shoot each other and throw one another off of rooftops.
At what point will mainline churches, and the institutions they support, stop viewing Palestinian suffering exclusively through a lens of Israeli misdeeds and call on Palestinian leaders to guard against the sin crouching at the door? When will mainline churches, and the institutions they support acknowledge moral agency (and failure) on the part of Palestinian leaders?
Condemning Palestinian leaders for the violence in the Gaza Strip should have been a no-brainer for the leaders and peace activists in so-called progressive churches in the U.S. By condemning Palestinian leaders for the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip, Christians who have been so quick to blame Israel for the suffering in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip could have easily inoculated themselves against persistent charges of bias against Israel and its leaders. Instead, they said nothing about the violence in the Gaza Strip as it was happening and waited to sing along with the choir once it found the "blame Israel" hymn it was looking for.
This episode is not part of any “secret history.” It’s part of a larger pattern well-known to anyone with eyes to see. Mainstream Jewish groups in the U.S. have long been critical of the one-sided narrative offered by mainline churches in the U.S.
They condemned the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2004 when its General Assembly voted to initiate a process of phased selective divestment from companies that did business with Israel’s military. They condemned the general synods of the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ (the Disciples) in 2005 when they passed resolutions telling Israel to take down the security barrier – without asking the Palestinians to stop the terror attacks that prompted its construction.
More recently, the Anti-Defamation League condemned the leaders of the UCC and the Disciples for failing to acknowledge that Israelis have been killed by Arab violence in the years since the Six Day War in a statement issued by the two denominations on June 5. (The way these two denominations talked about the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, the worst things that happened in Israel since 1967 is ongoing debate about what to do in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and mandatory military service. The suicide bombings, the sniper attacks, the Yom Kippur War? Not even mentioned.)
The sad reality is this: Mainline Protestant leaders have never found Arab animosity toward Israel all that remarkable. They sometimes offer vague calls affirming Israel’s right to exist, but they never explain why such calls are necessary. Instead, they continually affirm Palestinian nationalism, all in the name of ending Palestinian suffering and humiliation, which is nearly always portrayed as the result of Israeli actions. The empirical truth is that progressive church institutions remain largely silent about Palestinian suffering that cannot be blamed on the Israelis. This has been the case for years, decades.
Take a look at the statements about the Arab-Israeli conflict issued by churches and para-church institutions in the U.S. and you will see that the prophetic voice of the progressive church community in the U.S. is not triggered by Arab enmity and violence, but by Israeli actions.
For example, Churches for Middle East Peace, a group that complained in February about Israeli excavating near the Mughrabi Gate in the Old City. The CMEP, however, has offered little if any condemnation of Palestinians murdering each other in the street, or of Fatah and Hamas "militants" throwing one another off roofs in the Gaza Strip. Instead, its website highlights its efforts to lobby the U.S. Senate to pass a resolution calling on the Bush Administration to engage in a “robust diplomatic effort” to bring peace between Israel and its adversaries.
Mainline churches and the institutions they support put more emphasis on the 40th Anniversary of the Six Day War than they did the ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip. A forty-year-old Israeli victory against Arab leaders and armies intent on destroying the Jewish state evokes greater objection from these churches than Palestinian children being murdered outside their school, husbands being murdered in front of their families, and corpses being mutilated.
Mainline silence about Arab hostiltity toward Israel -- and its impact on Arab societies -- is nothing new.
In July 1967, the Christian Century published a two-part essay by A. Roy Eckhardt and Alice Eckhardt, prominent commentators on Christian-Jewish relations. The essay titled "Again, The Silence," condemned the failure of church institutions in the U.S. to speak forcefully about the threat faced by Israel in the weeks before the yet-unnamed Six Day War. For the Eckhardt’s the failure of Christian churches and institutions to name and condemn the annihilationist rhetoric put forth by Arab leaders was similar to the failure of Christian churches in the U.S. to fully acknowledge the horrible violence perpetrated against the Jews in Europe during the 1930s and 40s.
The guilt of the Christian community for its dominant silence amid the nazi slaughterers of the Jewish people has been increasingly confessed within both Catholic and Protestant circles. Yet within the past weeks the extermination of the entire nation of Israel almost occurred, once again there was silence in the churches.
Again the silence?
Still, the silence.