The United Church of Christ is not supposed to do this stuff, and yet it does.
By “this stuff” I mean using the Jewish state as a symbol for all that is bad and evil in the world.
By “this stuff” I mean using the Jewish state as a negative backdrop against which to promote its version of the Gospel.
By “this stuff” I mean portraying Israel as a modern-day Azazel goat upon which Christians can legitimately project their anger and frustration over the fallen state of the world — and its imperfectability.
By “this stuff” I mean talking and thinking about modern-day Israel the same way Christians talked about Jews in the Middle Ages — as an entity whose continued existence represents a singular obstacle to God’s purposes in the world.
The all-too-persistent tendency of Christians to use the Jewish people and their sovereign state as scapegoats is encapsulated in the UCC’s decision to market a wood replica of Israel’s security barrier on its website.
Click here and you’ll find that for $30, a UCC pastor can obtain “a five-piece wood replica of the Annexation Wall” that can be used during worship services during the five Sundays before Christmas. “The idea is simply to knock down a piece of the Wall until Jesus is born without barriers or walls on Christmas Eve,” the website states.
The implication is clear. Israel’s security barrier — which helped bring an end to murderous suicide bombings that cost hundreds of Israelis their lives during the Second Intifada — is a cosmological obstacle that hinders the incarnation of God’s plan of salvation for humanity.
With this replica, the world’s suffering is symbolically laid at the feet of sovereign Jews who insist on making themselves hard to kill. The welfare and safety of Jews is set in opposition to the salvation of the world.
Where have we seen this before?
Such rhetoric is congruent with the hateful rhetoric used by Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, the founder of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, who during the Second Intifada, described Israel as operating a “crucifixion system” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the occupation as the equivalent of the stone blocking Christ’s tomb.
Despite such ugly rhetoric, the UCC is one of Ateek’s biggest supporters in the United States. And now the UCC is promoting a religious icon that portrays Israel, the Jewish state as hindering the birth of baby Jesus, the savior of the world.
As a denomination, the UCC should not be trafficking in this stuff. In 1987, the church’s General Synod affirmed a resolution that lamented how “The Church’s frequent portrayal of the Jews as blind, recalcitrant, evil, and rejected by God has found expression in much Christian theology, liturgy, and education” and that “Such a negative portrayal of the Jewish people and of Judaism has been a factor in the shaping of anti-Jewish attitudes of societies and the policies of governments. The most devastating lethal metastasis of this process occurred in our own century during the Holocaust.”
It’s one thing to criticize Israel for building the security barrier and to lament its impact on Palestinians, but it’s another thing altogether to align your church’s messaging about Israel with that of Islamists and jihadists in the Middle East by portraying Jewish self-defense as a cosmological affront to God.
It’s not as if other actors in the region are given the same treatment. The UCC wouldn’t even think of selling dioramas portraying Assad’s gas attacks in Syria as if they were a reenactment of Herod’s massacre of the innocents, but here it is selling a replica that uses the alleged evil of the Jewish state as a religious symbol.
Israel is the only country singled out by the UCC with such rhetoric and has been for years. The UCC’s cosmological billy club only comes out for the Jews and their state.
People who want to understand why the UCC would defend, promote, and even try to make money off such a “replica” need to do some reading. In particular, they need to read Michael Doran’s recent essay “The Theology of Foreign Policy” in First Things.
In this essay, Doran describes the theological dispute between two wings of American Protestantism. One wing — the Jacksonian wing— views itself as a bulwark against human sin and the fallen nature of the world. The other wing, which Doran calls the “the Progressive persuasion,” seeks to bring about a millennial peace that will pave the way for Christ’s return.
The Progressive persuasion highlights, Doran writes “man’s perfectible nature and his ability to improve his situation through his own agency—or through government agencies.” For the progressives, “The primary goal of Christian life was eliminating human suffering. This task required breaking down the barriers that separate man from his fellow man,” Doran writes.
The UCC is clearly on the side of the Progressive side of the debate that has abandoned individual piety in favor of social activism, which in the Middle East has played itself out as anti-Zionist propaganda.
This is where the problem becomes manifest. Jewish and Israeli history has proven time and time again, that human beings are not perfectible — not because the Jewish people are fonts of evil — but that every generation or so, yet another group of people insist on using them as scapegoats, highlighting the human tendency to blame someone else for their failures — as Cain did Abel.
In the middle of the 20th century it was the Nazis and the Communists who viewed the Jewish people as an obstacle to their utopias. After Israel’s creation, it was the Arab nationalists who regarded Jews (“Zionists”) as a singular obstacle to their success. In the 21st Century it is the Islamists who view Israel as their cosmological enemy.
In a world such as this, the “idealistic pacifism” (Doran’s words) embraced by progressives is simply naïve. In hockey terms, the Jewish people — who are the Wayne Gretzkys of civilization and modernity — have had to become their own Dave Semenkos. And who can blame them? No one else would do it for them.
For adherents of Doran’s “Progressive persuasion,” Israel represents what Richard Rubinstein has called “the disconfirming other.” Israel’s successful defense against its enemies gives lie to the idea that pacifism and peacemaking are pathways to achieving human welfare and flourishing and that walls are necessarily a bad thing.
UCC peace activists have embraced a medieval theology of the Jewish state. Medieval Christians were unsettled by the continued existence of the Jewish people, whose survival cast doubt on the credibility of the Christian gospel. Today, Israel’s survival and success in the face of constant attacks undermines the credibility of the social gospel embraced and promoted by peace and justice activists in mainline Protestantism.
It’s time for the UCC — and other so-called peacemakers in the mainline Protestant community — to put the anti-Israel billy club away and come to grips with the world as it is, not as they would have it.