A Call To Christians At Christmas

 

Virginia Tilley

 

14 December 2011

 

The Archbishop of Canterbury has warned that the Arab Spring is 
threatening the safety of Christian communities in the Middle East.[1] He 
did not realise it, but this public warning—much as President Obama’s UN 
speech in September[2] struck the death knell for US credibility in the 
Middle East—has dealt another fatal blow to a central Middle East actor: the 
world’s Christian Churches, already suffering from a wobbly posture 
regarding ethnic and religious relations in the Middle East. For those 
within the faith, it impels a collective “j’accuse” to Christian leaderships 
and an unqualified call for principled action. For it must now be said 
plainly, and confronted honestly: it is morally unacceptable for the Christian 
churches to continue to dither and wander morally on sectarian relations 
in the Middle East by ducking the question of Palestine.

 

Anyone familiar with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict knows the painful back 
story to the Archbishop’s concerns. The Middle East is a pastiche of 
religions and sects which have coexisted mostly peacefully through the 
millennia, except when some exogenous factor stirred things up. Invading 
empires and crusades occasionally have done so, from the Persians through 
the infamous US interventions in Iran (1953) and Iraq. But one such sin has 
stood for the past century as a seeping sore, aggravating sectarian tensions 
and provoking religious polarisation throughout the region. That is the 
creation of Israel as an ethnic state in the Levant and the resulting 
Palestinian-Israeli conflict which springs from explicitly religious bigotry. 
For a Church leader of the Archbishop’s stature to pretend that this conflict 
does not enter the Arab Spring equation is both disingenuous and 
unacceptable.

For decades, it has been a quiet scandal that individual Christians and 
Christian projects regarding the Palestine-Israel conflict, labouring on 
doggedly with courage and principle, have been consistently crippled by 
pabulum statements, strategic over-caution or sheepish silence by the major 
Church leaderships. This silence has not reflected any lack of information. 
It’s certainly no secret to Christian Palestinians, and therefore the Church 
leaders to whom they report, that Israel has deliberately sabotaged the 
ancient Christian axis of pilgrimage between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. 
Thus shattering Christian community and impoverishing the old Christian 
mercantile sectors, Israel has also systematically and deliberately stoked 
tensions between Muslim and Christian Palestinians over the years. The 
combination has impelled steady Christian emigration in recent decades, 
reducing the once-formidable and culturally rich Christian community from 
some nineteen percent of Jerusalem’s population in 1944 to just over two 
percent today. As a package, Israel’s policies have indeed brought Christian 
Palestinians in the occupied territories under a sense of local siege and 
threat they have not experienced for centuries, while aggravating sectarian 
tensions with their Muslim neighbours in ways that have polarised and 
poisoned sectarian sentiments throughout the Middle East. Cries of alarm 
about this trend have issued from Christians in Palestine for decades and 
with increasing alarm.

 

It has further agonised those faithful who treasure Palestine’s 
awe-inspiring biblical landscape to see the Christian Churches stand silent 
while Israeli settlements and security installations pave that landscape 
over. Just twenty years ago, Christian pilgrims could still walk to the old 
city of Jerusalem or Rachel’s Tomb on ancient trails laid down over five 
thousand years among the rocky hills of Judea, following the footpaths of 
prophets and disciples that wove among the springs and valleys of biblical 
legend. Just twenty years ago, shepherds still tended their flocks by night 
around the hills of Bethlehem, playing on wooden flutes. Now these sacred 
landscapes[3] are paved over, blocked off, and the West Bank is an uglified 
mess of four-lane highways, broken up by hideous concrete barriers and 
electrified fences, the old olive terraces crushed and buried under acres of 
monolithic Jewish-only apartment blocs. The shepherds are arrested, 
harassed and gone. The ancient trails are gone forever. Millennia of 
humanity’s historical heritage, razed and effaced in a scant few decades, to 
serve not natural population growth but an artificial state-sponsored project 
to take over land in the name of an exclusive ethnic nationalism. The loss 
is heartbreaking on so many levels that it cannot be expressed.

 

And the world’s great Churches, whose cathedrals are nested in all this? To 
Israeli authorities, quiet pleas, in stiff meetings behind closed doors, 
tactical manoeuvres to keep privileges and access. To the world, silence or 
token gestures, even as Israel’s construction and archaeological excavations 
press up against their churches’ very walls.

Some may quickly protest that the Christian Churches have not been silent. 
The World Council of Churches has regularly met, denounced, and called for 
action on Palestine. The Catholic Church has expressed concern in various 
ways. The Presbyterian Church launched some broad discussions. The 
Evangelical Lutheran Church has called for prayer, investment and education. 
Yes, yes. But a close read of Church statements finds in most of them a 
disturbing vagueness, language calculated not to offend, punches 
consistently pulled. The net effect? Complicity, and a spiritual crisis.

 

Examples of this net effect are myriad, but two will illustrate the problem: 
first, a small one, the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum’s It’s Time[4], which, 
despite a bold title, manages never to bruise the toes of the Israeli 
government. Take, for example, its gentle idea that “It’s time to assist settlers 
in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to make their home in Israel” while 
not saying why or how. Or, “It’s time for people who have been refugees for 
more than 60 years to regain their rights and a permanent home,” yet 
carefully not specifying where those homes should be. At some point, It’s 
Time slips into morally offensive symmetry that also violates common sense: 
e.g., “It’s time for both sides to release their prisoners and give those 
justly accused a fair trial.” While adopting the profile of a call for action, the
whole piece leaves one spiritually anaesthetised and bemused, as the 
illusion of real spiritual fortitude is derailed into vaporous ideals amounting 
to non-action. Over-all, the effect is like reading one of those pastel 
Sunday-school pamphlets.

 

Or, for a far more influential example, take the 2009 Kairos Palestine[5],which has drawn thousands of Christian signatures and the endorsement of 
some Christian world leaders, including Archbishop Tutu. Composed by 
a formidable line-up of theologians, it does offer some firm statements: e.g., 
“the military occupation of our land is a sin against God and humanity”. But 
the first warning flag arises in the first sentence of the preface, which refers 
blandly to “difficult times that we still experience in this Holy Land” and 
other vapid calls to “stand by” the Palestinians without saying much about 
how. Otherwise, it gives the bad impression of a co-written document whose 
moral momentum was curtailed by some timid gatekeepers. The bulk of 
Kairos Palestine is a recital of Israeli human rights abuses and a long-winded 
theological treatise on “hope”, “love” and “mission”. Alas, the journey 
thus suggested never gets anywhere. For example, under the subsection, 
“word to the Churches of the world”, we find an appeal: “We ask our sister 
Churches not to offer a theological cover-up for the injustice we suffer, 
for the sin of the occupation imposed upon us.” But instead of a clear call for 
action and an incisive statement of principle, this passage then waffles 
away to drain all but the mildest energy: “Our question to our brothers and 
sisters in the Churches today is: Are you able to help us get our freedom 
back, for this is the only way you can help the two peoples attain justice, 
peace, security and love?” The call to “Jewish and Muslim religious leaders” 
is equally void: “Let us together try to rise up above the political positions 
that have failed so far and continue to lead us on the path of failure and 
suffering.” But “rise up” how? And what action is urged regarding 
Jerusalem, which is affirmed to be “the foundation of our vision and our 
entire life”? None at all, except to urge that Jerusalem be “the first issue to 
be negotiated”. After a page or two of this fog, the mind numbs over 
and moral energy fades and turns inward to prayer circles and polite 
discussion groups.

 

Lest it seem rude to denounce so well-meaning an effort, consider that the 
1985 Kairos[6], composed by Archbishop Tutu among others, targeted 
precisely this kind of slippery religious language as deployed by the major 
South African churches and the South African state to defend apartheid. For 
real Christian inspiration regarding Palestine, this famous Christian 
document from South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle should be reread in 
full, but a selection is worth reproducing here just to show just how 
clear-headed Christian activism can get when it truly girds its loins. The 
1985 Kairos had no truck with empty talk of “peace”, “reconciliation” and 
“dialogue” and its reasoning on this point is worth quoting at length 
(readers are encouraged to substitute “Palestinians” for “South Africans” to 
suggest the comparison):

 

In a limited, guarded and cautious way [mainstream Church Theology 
in South Africa] is critical of apartheid. Its criticism, however, is 
superficial and counter-productive because instead of engaging in an 
in-depth analysis of the signs of our times, it relies upon a few stock 
ideas derived from Christian tradition and then uncritically and 
repeatedly applies them to our situation. The stock ideas used by almost 
all these Church leaders that we would like to examine here are: 
reconciliation (or peace), justice and non-violence. …

Church Theology’ takes ‘reconciliation’ as the key to problem resolution. 
It talks about the need for reconciliation between white and black, 
or between all South Africans. ‘Church Theology’ often describes the 
Christian stance in the following way: “We must be fair. We must listen 
to both sides of the story. If the two sides can only meet to talk and 
negotiate they will sort out their differences and misunderstandings, 
and the conflict will be resolved.” On the face of it this may sound very 
Christian. But is it?

 

The fallacy here is that ‘Reconciliation’ has been made into an absolute 
principle that must be applied in all cases of conflict or dissension. 
But not all cases of conflict are the same. We can imagine a private 
quarrel between two people or two groups whose differences are based 
upon misunderstandings. In such cases it would be appropriate to talk 
and negotiate to sort out the misunderstandings and to reconcile 
the two sides. But there are other conflicts in which one side is right and 
the other wrong. There are conflicts where one side is a fully armed 
and violent oppressor while the other side is defenseless and oppressed. 
There are conflicts that can only be described as the struggle between 
justice and injustice, good and evil, God and the devil. To speak of 
reconciling these two is not only a mistaken application of the Christian 
idea of reconciliation, it is a total betrayal of all that Christian faith has 
ever meant. Nowhere in the Bible or in Christian tradition has it ever 
been suggested that we ought to try to reconcile good and evil, 
God and the devil. We are supposed to do away with evil, injustice, 
oppression and sin–not come to terms with it. We are supposed to 
oppose, confront and reject the devil and not try to sup with the devil.

 

In our situation in South Africa today it would be totally un-Christian to 
plead for reconciliation and peace before the present injustices have 
been removed. Any such plea plays into the hands of the oppressor by 
trying to persuade those of us who are oppressed to accept our 
oppression and to become reconciled to the intolerable crimes that are 
committed against us. That is not Christian reconciliation, it is sin. 
It is asking us to become accomplices in our own oppression, to become 
servants of the devil. No reconciliation is possible in South Africa 
without justice.

 

The 1985 Kairos Declaration is especially clear-headed about the true meaning 
of peace: “It would be quite wrong to try to preserve ‘peace’ and ‘unity’ 
at all costs, even at the cost of truth and justice and, worse still, at the cost of 
thousands of young lives. As disciples of Jesus we should rather promote 
truth and justice and life at all costs, even at the cost of creating conflict, 
disunity and dissension along the way.” And where Kairos-Palestine, It’s Time 
and other Christian Church resolutions skid around in “both sides’ 
language, the 1985 Kairos explicitly rejects any false symmetries and focuses 
on the central issue of oppression: It would be quite wrong to see the present conflict as simply a racial 
war. The racial component is there but we are not dealing with two 
equal races or nations each with their own selfish group interests. The 
situation we are dealing with here is one of oppression. The conflict 
is between an oppressor and the oppressed. The conflict between two 
irreconcilable causes or interests in which the one is just and the other is 
unjust. … This is our situation of civil war or revolution. The one side 
is committed to maintaining the system at all costs and the other side is 
committed to changing it at all coasts [sic]. There are two conflicting 
projects here and no compromise is possible. Either we have full and 
equal justice for all or we don’t.

 

With this noble language before us, we must finally see the truth and drop 
the charade. Most Christian Church statements regarding Palestine are 
embarrassing fluff by comparison.

 

Why the weak and woolly stance by Church leaderships in Palestine, where 
the moral issues are so stark and Christian concerns so keen? The reasons 
are too well known. The world’s major Churches have long walked on eggs 
with Israel. Some of this caution reflects well-warranted (if confused) guilt 
about centuries of anti-Semitism. Local churches may restrain themselves 
out of kindly and principled concern not to offend and ruffle relations with 
Jewish neighbours. Less noble motives include conservative concerns to 
preserve Church real estate and privileges in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the 
Galilee and other Biblical sites, where an irate Israel can sever Christian 
access in an instant. It is also Not Done to criticise other Christian 
denominations, so even those Churches who view Israel’s practices as 
abhorrent will still avoid challenging the whole Zionist project, as this 
would insult the Zionist theology of evangelical churches that have fallen 
for Israel’s (cynically deployed) story of collective Jewish redemption of the 
Holy Land. Given that actual Christian life in Palestine is being graphically 
destroyed, however, one does not have to be a 666-er to see that Zionist 
propaganda has “led Christians astray” by successfully attaching Jewish 
state-building in Palestine to misty visions of Jewish life in a Biblical 
landscape and confusing Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians (even 
Christian ones) with messianic prophecies about the End Times.

 

Some historically minded cynics might object here that Christian timidity 
and confusion about the conflict in Palestine should not be singled out. 
Courageous priests and Christian activists have always stood forth in the 
world’s conflict zones in selfless and sometimes martyred defence of the 
weak, and do so in Palestine, but the uncomfortable truth is that these heroic 
figures and groups have always been outliers. Overwhelmingly, over 
past centuries the major Christian churches have either linked their futures 
and finances to whatever states they operated within or simply operated in 
an illusory sphere of detached spiritual practice where they absolved 
themselves of moral responsibility for the suffering around them, except by 
offering spiritual solace to endure it. Here one might recall the old state-
church alliance in Latin America, a system of totalitarian social control that 
has stood for five centuries as the edifice glowering over those grassroots 
liberation-theologians whose courage is always cited as the Church’s 
redeeming example, yet whose noble work the last Pope outlawed. Hence, 
for long-time observers of the conflict, it has been no surprise but still a 
bitter pill that the Archbishop of Canterbury, like most Church leaders, has 
been conspicuously silent, vague or reserved about Israel’s physical ruin 
of the Holy Land landscape and its progressive decimation of Christian 
community in Palestine.

 

Yet it is really too much that this same Archbishop now blames the Arab 
Spring, of all things, for an anti-Christian tilt that his own Church has, 
through neglect and caution of the Palestinian problem, systematically 
aggravated. For it is indeed a bitter scandal that the official Churches in 
Palestine, with their great properties embedded in the Jewish state and their 
slumbering but immense moral authority on the world stage, who could 
delegitimize and end Israel’s occupation overnight with one unified public 
denunciation, instead have opted—from timidity, caution, conservatism, 
internecine rivalries or merely a sloppy moral compass—to enable it. That 
this choice has fed heavily into the present sectarian mess in the Middle East 
is a given. The Archbishop may well worry that Christians in Egypt and 
elsewhere now feel “exposed and uncertain”, but he would do well to 
consider how much responsibility for those fears traces to his own desk.

 

It is up to the entire Christian community to end this confusion, abandon 
feeble caution and unintended hypocrisy, and reconsider the example of 
Jesus as set forth in the 1985 Kairos and in the Gospels themselves. The tasks 
in Palestine have long been plain. The evangelical Christian right must be 
approached about its gullible equation of a modern military state with 
spiritual rebirth. Israel’s instrumental deceit about Jewish life in the Holy 
Land constituting a path to Christian salvation must be exposed. The sins of 
ethnic cleansing and state-sponsored bigotry must be confronted. The 
malevolent whispers circulated by Zionist plants in Jerusalem and Palestine, 
which attempt to demonise Islam for Christians and Christianity for 
Muslims, must be openly and unanimously denounced. In the spirit of the 
1985 Kairos, the true meaning of Christian love must show its moral fist to 
reject false symmetry and the sinful notion of reconciliation with oppression.

 

Each Christmas, it has become a seasonal ritual for Christians to call for new 
care and action on Palestine. Each subsequent year, the same empty, 
circumscribed, ineffectual gestures result. The courage of the Arab Spring 
exposes this shameful ritualised cycle of moral failure as a spiritual 
imperative. This year’s Christmas must be a time for spiritual renewal, 
frank self-examination, fresh insight, and new courage to set aside sanitised 
pleas and empty prayers, stop listening to the internal gatekeepers, reject 
Israel’s manipulation of Christian theology to serve militaristic ends, 
and demand that all Church leaderships, with one clarion voice, call for true 
justice in Palestine. If the teachings of Jesus mean anything today, surely 
they mean this: the salvation of all three Abrahamic faiths from the false 
gods of mutual fear and the scourge of oppression. The alternative is to 
stand before the Cross at Christmas 2012 with a deepening and well-earned 
sense of shame.

 

 Links
1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/dec/12/arab-spring-christians-archbishop-canterbury 
2. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/09/21/remarks-president-obama-address-united-nations-general-assembly
3. http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520234222
4. http://tinyurl.com/84z5y93
5. http://www.kairospalestine.ps/?q=content/document
6. http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/kairos-document-1985-0

 

Virginia Tilley is a former professor of political science and international 
relations in the US. In 2005, she took leave to conduct research in South Africa 
and in 2006 was appointed Chief Research Specialist at the Human Sciences 
Research Council of South Africa. In that capacity she led the inquiry which 
examined whether Israel’s practices in the occupied Palestinian territories 
had assumed characteristics of colonialism and apartheid. It produced 
the 2009 report “Occupation, Colonialism Apartheid?: A Re-assessment of 
Israel’s practices in the occupied Palestinian Territories under International 
Law.” She is author of “The One-State Solution” (London Review of Books, 
Nov. 6, 2003)* and The One-State Solution (Univ. of Michigan Press, 2005) and 
numerous articles and essays on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Email: 
virginia.tilley@gmail.com