U.S. Churches – Say It! U.S. and Israel Together Are In the Wrong

SPECIAL NOTE: August 3, 2014. As I combine an intense leave for writing with family vacation, Israel’s brutal and unjustified attack on the people and families of Gaza continues. (photo, left, from APA at the Electronic Intifada)

I cannot now write on this latest Israel outrage, called “Operation Protective Edge.” But I find that my previously published columns, written in 2006 for The Religion News Service,  calling on U.S. churches to denounce U.S. complicity in Israel’s brutal invasion into Lebanon, still applies. That 2006 assault in Lebanon was termed by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) “Operation Just Reward.” Gaza has gone through something similar before now, with 2008’s IDF “Operation Cast Lead.”

I reprint the column below, and then the response to critics of it that I published two weeks later, also in 2006. I do so because there is still too little Christian forthright critique of the U.S.-Israel axis of power in the Middle East/West Asia. Sure, there are calls for peace and for cease-fires, but little in the way of focusing on Israel’s particular and primary responsibility for the assault we are witnessing. Christians often take fair and even-handed to mean that “there’s violence on all sides” and no one bears a greater responsibility. That’s the lie, in this case. Israel’s special responsibility, and that of the U.S., needs explicit naming.

One who has understood this is Henry Siegman, formerly a director of American Jewish Congress, as articulated in his essay “Israel Provoked this War, It’s Up to Obama to Stop It,” recently reposted at the Tikkun magazine web site. Keep in touch with Tikkun and its statements on the IDF’s assault on Gaza. Also, the Electronic Intifada  is a good U.S.-based Palestinian solidarity group to keep in touch with. I would also recommend the site, International Solidarity Movement. Nonviolence. Justice. Freedom.

In the meantime, when reading my 2006 column below, you can substitute today “Gaza” for “Lebanon,” and “Hamas” for “Hezbollah,” and 2014’s “Operation Protective Edge” for 2006’s ‘Operation Just Reward” – and the column still in many ways reads, I think, in a timely way (with some obvious exceptions that are easily seen). And so I reprint it below, especially because I do not think it is presently available anywhere else on the web.

I note with special gratification the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s recent divestment of church funds from three American companies that profit from Israel’s repression of Palestinians. May more churches and organizations join in that kind of act – theological seminaries, too. Given that the conflicts in the Middle East are often rationalized by religious narratives, and biblical traditions, U.S. Christians, Jews and Muslims together, along with all U.S. citizens, have a particularly strong role to play in ending the U.S. support for Israel’s assaults. This is why I have also supported the “BDS movement,” for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions to target the U.S. policies that continue the arming of Israel.

The core point of my 2006 column below, and of my following response to critics, is that U.S. churches need to focus their critique, publicly and forcefully on the U.S.-Israel alliance. That core point is still worth making.

Mark Lewis Taylor, August 3, 2014




Mark Lewis Taylor
© Religion News Service, August 9, 2006

Yes, Israel and its peoples have a right to live in peace. Yes, Hezbollah should cease firing rockets into Israeli civilian communities.

Yes, nearly every site of conflict today is complex, marked by ambiguities that make the taking of sides simplistic. Denunciations of one side as wrong, the other right, often fuel cycles of violence.

Sometimes, though, daring to point out a deep-running wrong that one stronger party perpetuates can open up space for new negotiations. Naming the wrong can be like lancing a boil for a skin surface to heal.

U.S. churches in the context of U.S. support for Israel’s attack on Lebanon need to dare pronouncing as wrong those two nations’ current attack policies. Consider the words of Martin Accad (Dean, Arab Christian Theological Seminary, Beirut), who refers to Israel’s policy as “murderous aggression.”

As workers pry children’s bodies from rubble left by continuing Israeli bombing of Lebanese villages, let us hear U.S. churches name these attacks as the slaughter they are.

With a few exceptions, and occasional notes about Israel’s “disproportionate” response, U.S. churches concentrate on general laments about escalating violence. Such laments are surely the right place to begin, with a grieving for men, women and children of all sides.

But it cannot be the place to stop. Stopping with universal lament will not expose some powerful truths that need airing in U.S. church statements:

One. Israel’s attack policy is brutally aggressive, wildly “disproportionate” to the precipitating offenses of Hezbollah against some Israeli soldiers, and remains so despite Hezbollah’s unjustified rocket attacks against Israeli citizens. Israel’s response has subjected Lebanon to more than 2,500 aerial attacks, wrecked 5,000 Lebanese homes, displaced 600,000 people, killing nearly 900 Lebanese civilians (probably more), damaging Lebanon’s environment. In Palestine, Israel abducted 7 cabinet members and 21 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Many others were abducted in Gaza, while the death count there still climbs.

Two.  Hezbollah’s attacks, also murderous and unjustified, are the vengeful, desperate, often counter-productive, tactics that subordinated peoples throughout history have deployed against occupying powers. Their attacks are a sinister part of Lebanese struggle against Israel’s history of military incursion. Reports thus show Hezbollah retaining support of a Lebanese majority.

Three. International law and UN judgments continue to weigh against Israel, as the 2004 ruling against Israel’s partition wall showed. Israel can escape enforcement of this worldwide moral censure not because it is right but only because it has U.S. might behind it. The U.S. has vetoed UN censures of Israel more than 40 times.

Outside the U.S. there are Christians who offer up lament for all sides, but with more pointed critique of Israel. Christian leaders in Jerusalem proclaim that “the core of the conflict” is “the deprivation of the Palestinian people of his [sic] freedom.”

Similarly, a Vatican statement holds that Israel’s right to self-defense “does not exempt it from respecting the norms of international law, especially as regards the protection of civilian populations.”

Within the U.S. such pointed critiques are harder to find. Tikkun magazine, though, spearheaded an inter-religious campaign for a New York Times ad on the crisis. In promoting the ad, Hezbollah is strongly criticized, but Israel with its greater military power is especially challenged to “take the first steps toward ending the cycle of hatred and violence.”

Where are the U.S. churches? They are often silent. Too many churches are in lockstep to growing Christian Zionist movements, exchanging faith in the God of Jesus Christ for a nationalist loyalty to an imperial Pax Americana/Israelica, thus giving a blank check to U.S. and Israeli governments’ attack policies.

Too many U.S. Christian Zionists imitate Islamist fundamentalists, seizing upon sacred texts to justify a messianic apocalypticism, leading them to welcome wars as prelude to their fantasies of end-times salvation and damnation.

And too many other U.S. Christians seem silent from fear that their criticism of Israel will bring charges of anti-Semitism. Indeed, numerous and key studies show anti-Semitism is destructive, often giving birth to other racist bigotries and practices. It must be resisted. But criticizing Israel’s attack policies, or U.S. support of Israel, is not anti-Semitism (yes, churches, we can and must say this).

It is time for U.S. churches, of whatever stripe, to find a place amid their general lament over violence, to say bravely, creatively and with a love for the good of all, that Israel’s murderous aggression with U.S. backing – is wrong.

Mark Lewis Taylor is Professor of Theology and Culture, Princeton Theological Seminary, and ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). His most recent books are Religion, Politics and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Powers and American Empire (Fortress Press, 2005), and The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World (Fortress Press, 2011).


Mark Lewis Taylor Responds to Critics (2 Weeks later)


© Religion News Service

A guest commentary I wrote calling upon U.S. churches to criticize U.S.-backed Israeli attacks in Lebanon (“U.S. Churches Need to Say It: U.S. and Israel Actions are Wrong,” Religion News Service, Aug. 9), has drawn different kinds of criticism.

The respected body of the National Council of Churches (NCC) claims it has been addressing the conflict. “We are right here,” it insists, “calling on President Bush to broker an immediate cease-fire,” and remaining “vocal and outspoken” against the violence.

I overlooked church outspokenness, says the NCC, because I am “a victim like most Americans” who relies on “the secular mainstream media for their news,” thus missing the “vigorous statements on this latest Middle East War” by churches.

I know those many statements exist, and I had read most of them. I also know the U.S. mainstream media frequently screens out the church’s prophetic witness on issues.

With all due respect to the NCC, though, its response misses the core point of my column: that “it is time for U.S. churches to find a place amid their general lament over violence, to say bravely, creatively and with a love for the good of all, that Israel’s murderous aggression with U.S. backing – is wrong.” That’s the sticking point. Will the U.S. churches use their moral suasion to expose the destructive influence of the U.S./Israel axis of power in the Middle East?

Calling for this critique of the U.S./Israel axis does not mean that I am “attacking Israel,” “hating Jews,” “hating myself or my country,” as vitriolic email and phone messages claim. Nor am I an “anti-Semitic Mel Gibson” (as it happens, I published a 2004 critique of Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic messaging in his movie, The Passion). Nor does my critique of the U.S./Israel axis mean I will cease exposing ways my own Christian traditions fueled centuries of anti-Semitism and other exploitations. Nor have I ever condoned the Hezbollah rocket attacks or the terrorist actions of any group. As my column noted, Hezbollah’s actions are also “murderous”, “aggressive” and “unjustified.”

My commentary’s core point calls U.S. churches to interpret the U.S./Israel axis of power in the Middle East. The dominant view among defenders of U.S./Israel policy is that the axis is a necessary bulwark against Islamic fanatics and fascists who are implacably evil, attacking the democracy and freedom of the West.

The role of the U.S./Israel axis, though, is far less noble – in fact, it is increasingly destructive and aggressive. I cannot make the full argument here, but offer three claims and then direct readers to some substantiating sources.

First, terrorist actions do not result simply from implacable evil. They are a result of a mixture of shame and repression experienced when peoples’ homelands are occupied and exploited. Bombing and occupations by the U.S./Israel axis – whether in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, or elsewhere – promote (but do not justify) terrorism. (See Robert Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.)

Second, there is growing evidence that Israel planned its bombing campaign against Lebanon before Hezbollah’s July 12th attacks on Israel and that the U.S. knew about key aspects of that plan, even encouraged it as preparation for possible attacks on Iran later. (Seymour Hersh, “Washington’s Interest in Israel’s War, The New Yorker, August 21, 2006).

Third, the U.S. and Israel hold nuclear weapons, and the U.S. has been considering tactical deployment of them in Iran. Iran is being demonized for developing uranium, even though it has submitted to intrusive inspections, unlike Israel which developed its arsenal largely in secret and remains outside inspections processes. (Herman and Peterson, “The Fourth ‘Supreme International Crime’.”) The leading procurers and most likely users of nuclear weaponry among nations are the U.S. and Israel. (http://www.electricpolitics.com/2006/05/the_fourth_supreme_internation.html).

In short, the overweening power of the U.S./Israel axis is driving both war and also the entrenchment of terrorism in the Middle East. Will U.S. churches expose and criticize that axis?

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