One Question for the United Church of Christ

A rendering of the Salem Witch Trials from the late 1800s. (Wikipedia)
A rendering of the Salem Witch Trials from the late 1800s. (Wikipedia)

In 2015, the United Church of Christ’s General Synod approved a resolution (by a vote of 508 to 124) to divest from companies that do business with Israel’s defense establishment. Included in the resolution was a call to boycott Israeli goods produced in the West Bank. To justify these actions, the resolution accused Israel of, among other things, using excessive force in its fight against Hamas rocket attacks emanating from the Gaza Strip. This assessment was contradicted by General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who, in 2014 said that Israel went to “extraordinary lengths” to avoid civilian casualties during Operation Protective Edge.

As it turns out, the resolution was all bunk. Four years later, the denomination’s retirement fund still holds stocks in companies that were explicitly singled out for divestment by the 2015 resolution. It still holds stocks in Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, and Caterpillar, all of which were proscribed by the resolution. Truth be told, the denomination’s retirement fund was exempt from the demands of the resolution. It was like that all along, but this fact was barely, if ever, mentioned in news reports about the vote.

Still, the passage of this resolution, which generated news coverage in a number of news outlets including AP, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Al Jazeera and Press TV, represented an important milestone in the denomination’s ongoing assault on Jewish sovereignty and self-defense as embodied in the Jewish state, Israel.

In 2005, the denomination passed a “Tear Down the Wall” resolution which called on Israel to take down the security barrier it constructed to stop suicide bombers and sniper attacks from the West Bank. This resolution did not, however, call upon Palestinians to stop the attacks that prompted the barrier’s construction. By expressing more outrage at Jewish self-defense than a terror campaign to murder Jews, the General Synod effectively declared open season on Israeli civilians — in the name of “peace” and “justice.”

In 2017, two years after the denomination’s General Synod passed the divestment resolution, the body passed a resolution condemning Israel’s alleged mistreatment of Palestinian children detained in Israeli jails. The same resolution remained silent about Palestinian abuses of children including the use of child labor to build smuggling tunnels between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.

It also said nothing about antisemitic incitement on PA- and Hamas-run television stations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — both of which are clear violations of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child cited in the resolution’s text. The resolution also failed to acknowledge Israel’s efforts — documented by UNICEF to reduce night-time arrests of Palestinian teenagers — many of whom had thrown rocks at Israelis living in the West Bank, another fact omitted from the resolution.

To achieve approval of the resolution, anti-Israel activists in the UCC went so far as to coach teenagers into demonizing the Jewish state at the microphone on the floor of the General Synod. During the proceedings that led to the passage of this resolution, one youth delegate asked, “How can we be paying an incredibly high amount of tax dollars to a country that values the torturous interrogation of children?” The accusation that, as a country, Israel “values the torturous interrogation of children” borders on a blood libel worthy to be put alongside the writings of Johann Andreas Eisenmenger, author of Judaism Exposed, a 1710 text that accuses Jews of poisoning wells and murdering children for their blood.

A close listen to the testimony from the youth delegates at the UCC’s 2017 General Synod reveals a troubling impulse to portray Israel, the Jewish state, as a singularly evil country inhabited by repugnant  and evil people and therefore outside the realm of legitimate moral concern. If one accepts the testimony offered by the UCC’s youth Delegates at the 2017 General Synod as valid, one can legitimately conclude that violence done to the inhabitants of such a country is justified. “It’s OK to hate these Jews, folks, because they support the torture of Palestinian children!”

What made this passage of these and other Israel-related resolutions remarkable is that the General Synod has remained virtually silent about crimes against children perpetrated by the Assad regime in Syria, which has murdered civilians by the thousands with gas attacks and by ISIS which has perpetrated numerous massacres throughout the Middle East. For an overview of the General Synod’s witness about problems in the Middle East, go to this website here.

Even a cursory review of the resolutions on the denomination’s own website reveals an obsession with the Arab-Israeli conflict (which has resulted in far fewer deaths than of the other conflicts in the region) and a troubling indifference to suffering that cannot be blamed on the Jewish state.

The records reveal that the UCC’s General Synod deals with issues related to the Jewish state in a manner similar to how the United Nations deals with Israel — as a perpetual, all-purpose whipping boy, a scapegoat that suffers for all the sin and suffering of the world. The UCC’s General Synod is, like the UN, a place of ritual reputation murder, not of problem solving or truth-telling. When it comes to Israel, General Synod proceedings are the modern-day equivalent of the Salem Witch Trials (perpetrated by the UCC’s antecedent churches in the 1600s) during which hysteria — not evidence or rational discourse — reigned supreme.

To understand what’s going on, it is important to know that as a denomination, the UCC has been hemorrhaging members — and churches — since the 1960s, even as it has been on the winning side of cultural battles (such as the fight over gay marriage) in American society. In sum, people in American society may agree with the denomination’s politics, but few and fewer people view the denomination as providing the social and spiritual goods they need to function in modern America.

Part of this is probably due to an apparent decline in religiosity in the U.S., but other, more theologically conservative and demanding churches are growing. In short, the UCC and other mainline churches have aligned themselves politically and ideologically with a demographic that doesn’t think they need to go to church. And so the UCC and other mainline churches are circling the drain. Mainline seminaries that aren’t closing are training people to be pastors for local churches that either don’t exist or pay a salary. The process has been going on for years. In the early 1990s, mainline theologian Stanley Hauerwas put it bluntly, “God is killing mainline Protestantism in America, and we goddamn well deserve it.”

The UCC and other mainline churches are facing what French literary critic Rene Girard called a “sacrificial crisis” — a problem that is beyond the powers of a community to solve. Girard reports that when communities face such a crisis, they typically find a scapegoat upon which to cast their anger and then either kill or expel this scapegoat. The process of discerning and agreeing upon who should be scapegoated is a unifying ritual that begins with accusations and ends in expulsion or death of the victim.

The scapegoat suffers terribly, but the people doing the scapegoating feel much better and enjoy peace as the ritual concludes. Part of the good feeling comes from the group being able to agree on who is to blame for the crisis facing their community. Another part of the good feeling that comes from these rituals is rooted in the guilt-free manner with which people can direct their hostility and anger onto their agreed-upon victim. People do not have to accept personal responsibility for what they are doing because the abuse has been communally and religiously sanctioned. The passage of resolutions at General Synods allows people to imbibe the fiction that their anti-Israel bigotry is sanctioned by God himself.

Brian Zahnd at the 2018 Christ at the Checkpoint Conference in the West Bank. (Dexter Van Zile)

Speaking at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference in Bethlehem in early 2018, Pastor Brian Zahnd, the founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Louis, Missouri, explained the scapegoating process as follows:

Accusing the scapegoat is the satanic way of achieving unity. It’s very effective. You see, we all carry around within us, each one of us, as we sit here, each one of us carries around within us our fears, our anxiety. Our insecurity, our loathing, our rage. And these are dangerous weapons that we hold within us and there remains then, the threat of the possibility of all-against-all-violence coming out. We could just go through life carrying our rage and our fear and our insecurity as some sort of loaded gun, lashing out at everyone and society degenerates into all-against-all violence.

There is a way to deal with it though. What a society can do is to pool together all their collective rage, fear, anxiety, loathing into a cannon and find a scapegoat they will vilify and together agree to blame them. And we blast them. “THEY are to blame!” And what happens then is a momentary miracle. “I feel so good! I love you all! I hate THEM, but oh I love YOU so much and don’t you feel the unity? We’re one. Not THEM, but we are one because we cast the Satan out of our midst by blasting THEM!”

Take another look at the video from the UCC’s 2017 General Synod and you’ll get goosebumps watching the process that Zahnd describes unfold. What the UCC’s child-accusers have done, with their youthful innocence and crazy accusations, is give the “adults” in the room license to demonize Israel while still believing in their own innocence, because the accusations come out of the mouths of babes. And for the folks of who attack Israel, that’s what it’s all about — proving the guilt and sin of the Jewish state while proclaiming one’s own innocent motives. “Israel is guilty as sin and all I want to do is promote peace!” It’s about feeding people’s addiction to righteous indignation.

This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Christianity’s great benefit to humanity, Girard revealed, is to expose the scapegoating process as a dead-end for both communities and individuals that participate in it and to emphasize individual responsibility even in the face of the accusing, scapegoating mob. But the sad fact is, the national gatherings of mainline Protestant churches, the UCC, the PCUSA and the Episcopal Church in particular, have become places where anti-Israel scapegoating is the main attraction.

For Christians, Jesus Christ is the pharmacon — the recipient (and transformer) — of the world’s sin and suffering. Christians are supposed to give the anger, humiliation and suffering that bedevils them up to Jesus and to get His blessing in return through communion. Christians are not supposed to project their hate, rage and misery onto scapegoats in witch-trial proceedings. But that is what happens regularly at UCC General Synods, PCUSA General Assemblies and more recently, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention.

It’s a demonic process. At the national gatherings of mainline churches, Christians say stuff about Israel that make clear they are motivated by hate, not love, and the passage of the resolutions or overtures is a sign that this hate his sanctioned, legitimated by the gathered assembly. Talk to the people who attend these proceedings (I’ve been to five total) and they’ll tell you that something wicked this way comes when Israel comes gets on the agenda. Sometimes people try to interrupt the scapegoating process, but they never get much traction. (Remember, the Salem Witch Trials didn’t come to an end until after 19 witches were hanged or crushed under a stone.)

For all their talk about Jesus being their all-in-all and their desire to promote “peace” and “justice,” the participants in these rituals want a victim. They want blood. They’re looking for somebody to crush under a rock, hang from a tree, or nail to a cross. Passing a raft of anti-Israel resolutions is the closest they can come to engaging in a public act of ritual sacrifice without revealing their collective and individual shadows. It’s not guilt they’re looking to punish, or correct, but weakness and vulnerability they’re looking to take advantage of.

This brings me to my question to the UCC activists who orchestrate these witch-trials and the denominational officials who let them proceed at General Synod.

Isn’t the blood of one Jew enough for you?

About the Author
Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.
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