Presbyweb recently ran an article (May 3) first published in the May 2nd issue of Jewish Exponent (jewishexponent.com) about my involvement in the overture Philadelphia Presbytery passed calling for positive investment as opposed to divestment as an approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In many ways, I have been a reluctant combatant in this battle for the last 10 years. I chaired the Avodat Israel administrative committee primarily to find a theologically coherent way to resolve an issue that created great animosity in our presbytery. I served on the Jewish-Presbyterian dialogue team in an attempt to help our denomination have a more coherent and consistent understanding between what the two faiths shared, as well as where they differed. And in 2010, when asked to serve on the Middle East Monitoring committee, I agreed, with the hope that there might be a possibility to serve the cause of peace and justice in a way that was not dominated by either an Israeli or Palestinian narrative, but rather the dictates of the Gospel.
While I disagree with those who are supportive of divestment and are promoting the larger BDS agenda, I respect their convictions and appreciate their frustrations. The philosophical differences that existed among members of the Monitoring group did not prevent us from finding a larger arena of common commitments to peace, justice, and even more importantly, to our church. So much of the shared life of the Presbyterian Church USA has become a plethora of affinity groups vying for what often ends up being pyrrhic victories at the expense of our ever decreasing life together. Somehow, if we cannot live with some modicum of peace among ourselves, what kind of moral authority can we hope to have to speak to the complexity of larger geo-political struggles? If we practice distortive politics and rash rhetoric in our internal denominational politics, how can we ultimately stand for justice for others?
I recently spoke to a group of Jewish leaders and said that I am not willing to abandon a position that is Pro-Palestinian, Pro-Israeli, Pro-Peace and Pro-Justice. I neither presume to know what that might look like, nor am I optimistic that it will happen anytime soon. Ironically, saying the same thing earlier this year led to me being accused of being anti-Israel in a conservative publication. On the other hand, some have inferred that because I have worked with a variety of Jewish organizations, that somehow makes me against justice for Palestinians. There is nothing further from the truth.
A proper approach to the issue needs to somehow hold so many different factors together. How does one get to a stable functioning Palestinian state from the current situation in Gaza and the West Bank? How does one appreciate Israel’s very real security issues while calling the country to obey its own laws and evolve its democracy? How does one deal with unresolved injustices from 1948? How does one approach the problem of refuges and settlers? What are Christian responses to the insidious growth of antisemitism? What will the region look like as the Arab spring transforms into something yet to be determined? What does an Iran with nuclear weapons mean for the whole region?
The Biblical and theological issues are equally complex. What are the promises to the patriarchs that are still in effect (Romans11:25ff)? How do we live under and respond to the unified cry of the prophets that God is on the side of the oppressed? How do we live out the peace of Christ in this issue? How do you balance the seemingly competing commitments to justice, concern for our Middle Eastern Christian brothers and sisters, and the necessary work of interfaith understanding and relations? How do we reconcile our denomination’s contradictory positions? How do we approach complex issues in a more balanced way when there is significant bias entrenched in our structure and process?
I really do not have very many answers, and the more I study all the dimensions of this issue, the less I seem to know. Maybe it’s time to regain our theological acumen and discern how to speak the truth in love on this issue. I always attempt not to be a reductionist in my thinking and theology, and my hope is that actions of this summer’s General Assembly will avoid that temptation as well. Spiritual, intellectual and rhetorical humility is a corporate virtue we desperately need to cultivate.