Friday, December 3, 2010

A Challenge to the Church

We were a Sunday School class and we talked about “justice.” I was amazed. Many churches all over America can go for years without approaching the subject of justice, especially when it gets specific, like when relating to the injustice inflicted by Israel upon the Palestinians.

In fact, with few exceptions, I mostly agree with Brian McLaren:

My disillusionment was intensified by what was happening in the Christian community in America during the 1980s and 1990s. A large number of Protestant and Catholic leaders had aligned with a neoconservative political ideology, trumpeting what they called “conservative family values,” but minimizing biblical community values. They supported wars of choice, defended torture, opposed environmental protection, and seemed to care more about protecting the rich from taxes than liberating the poor from poverty or minorities from racism. They spoke against big government as if big was bad, yet they seemed to see big military and big business as inherently good. They wanted to protect unborn human life inside the womb, but didn’t seem to care about born human life in slums or prisons or nations they considered enemies. They loved to paint gay people as a threat to marriage, seeming to miss the irony that heterosexual people were damaging marriage at a furious pace without any help from gay couples…They interpreted the Bible to favor the government of Israel and to marginalize Palestinians, and even before September 11, 2001, I feared that through their influence Muslims were being cast as the new scapegoats, targets of a scary kind of religiously inspired bigotry.[1]

But, this church was different. It sponsored a class which struggled with these issues, especially the Israel/Palestinian situation. I left the class encouraged.

Then, I went to the worship service. Being Advent, we sang, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel." How many, I wondered, while singing this hymn made a distinction between Israel of the Old Testament and the modern state of Israel? Multiplied by every church in America, I wondered how much influence our liturgy might have in equating the nation-state of Israel with God and our understanding of ancient covenants. What else could explain our disregard for the plight of the Palestinians at the hands of one of the mightiest military forces on earth?

Every Christmas, millions of Americans sing, “The First Noel,” with its refrain, “born is the King of Israel.” We sing, "The God of Abraham be Praised" with seldom a thought that Ishmael was the first born son of Abraham. We turn to the Responsive Readings and recite, “The God of Jacob is our Refuge." I wondered how many Psalms refer to the "God of Jacob?” Psalm 72:18 reads, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.” A few pages over we celebrate God’s victory in battle for God “remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. (Psalm 98:3) and “Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” (Psalm 121:4)

When sexist language became a “no no” in the church, all the arguments, “surely everyone understands that ‘man’ includes all humankind, and that God ‘Himself,’ was not a sexual being,” did not overcome the emotional influence of sexist language. I wonder if the same is not emotionally true of “Israel” as God’s only chosen people, with a real estate deal which lasts forever?

How many make the distinction between ancient Israel and the modern, powerful state? Of course, we are talking more than rhetoric. It is a matter of placing the “power” of Israel over prophetic Judaism. Marc Ellis, who is best described as a faithful Jew, asks, “Can power offer liberation from suffering if another people, in this case the Palestinians, is suffering so that Jews can have power?”[2] Affirming Liberation Theology, Ellis writes:

God is against injustice and against those who structure society in an unjust way for their own benefit. These assertions are cast in theological language, which says that God in the Bible is with the poor and the marginalized and against injustice and wealth accumulated in unjust ways. This biblical God still stands with the world’s poor and marginalized. In the struggle between the poor and the wealthy God takes sides.[3]

Challenging the church, he says, “It is incumbent upon all Christians to do the same.” I agree. We need to be careful with our language lest we cover up God’s call for justice with emotional liturgy.

Thomas Are
December 4, 2010

[1] Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity. (HarperOne, 2010) p.6-7.
[2] Marc H. Ellis, Judaism Does Not Equal Israel. (The New Press, New York. 2009.) p.xix.
[3] Ibid. p.43.


  1. When I sang the line "And ransom captive Israel" in "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" last Sunday I thought "Yes, God of All, rescue the Israeli's from being captive to their fears and their reliance on military might to subjugate the Palestinians." Rescue is not the same as ransom. Perhaps the price we--Christ's body--will have to pay is the difficult work of quieting our own fears and giving up our own reliance on military might so that God's Reign of Justice will spread over all the nations.

  2. I go to my Catholic Church every week and pray to God for justice for the Palestinian people but so many times I hear in sermon the land of Israel and how the Jews were victims. Why don't we ever hear about today's Israel and all the human rights violations committed by the Israelis? When is my church ever going to recognize today's victims, the Palestinians whose homes are being demolished, their land being confiscated, their homeowners being evicted, their crops being destroyed, their leaders being assassinated, their women and children being killed, their schools, hospitals, bridges, power stations all being destroyed, and their peoples being separated by an apartheid wall? Why doesn't my church ever address these issues?
    I thank Thomas Are for being able to express many issues that I hold inside of me but unable to express them as well as he.