By Virginia Tilley
The Archbishop of Canterbury has warned that the Arab Spring is threatening the safety of Christian communities in the Middle East. He did not realise it, but this public warning—much as President Obama’s UN speech in September struck the death knell for US credibility in the Middle East—has dealt still another fatal moral blow to other central Middle East actors: 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 desperation, yet the Church leaderships have remained reticent and Israel’s suffocating compression continues.
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 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, 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, 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, composed by South African pastors and theologians in South Africa, targeted precisely this kind of slippery religious language as deployed by the major South African churches and the 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 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 costs. 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.