Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Zionist Liturgy

On December 27, 2008, a couple of hundred police cadets gathered for a graduation ceremony. They represented the hope of 1.5  million citizens of Gaza for stability after years of chaos and corruption.  Suddenly, there was an explosion!  An F-16, provided by the U.S., launched a laser-guided missile into the midst of them and forty young academy trained peacekeepers lay dead. This was the first of sixty Israeli jets sent to destroy police stations, schools, mosques, sanitation facilities and chicken coops all across the Gaza Strip. [1]

Of course, I knew nothing about this. I had been in church singing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.”  

Max Blumenthal writes:

At dawn on January 4,  Israeli troops burst into the home of Ateya al-Samouni with their faces blackened for night combat, and tossed a percussion grenade into the center of his salon. When Samouni approached the soldiers with his arms up, waving an Israeli drivers license and his ID, declaring that he was the owner and was unarmed, they shot him and left him to bleed to death while they opened fire on twenty members of his family, badly wounding a four-year old child…Inside the house, the trapped family listened with horror as an American-made Apache helicopter hovered overhead then launched a fusillade of missiles into the house, reducing it to rubble. Nineteen members of the Samouni clan died immediately, and several others lay bleeding heavily.[2]

Again, I knew nothing about the plight of the Samouni family, even though such atrocities are common in the history of Israel’s abuse of the Palestinians.  I was in church listening to a singer belt out, “Go down Moses, tell ol’ Pharaoh, Let my people go.” By the end of the solo, everybody in church felt sorry for the poor Hebrew slaves and celebrated their exodus..   

Exodus is the theme song of liberation theologians. God is on the side of the oppressed.  But even here, we seldom hear about the other end of it, the end where Joshua invades the Canaanites and wipes them out.

And we captured all his cities at that time  and utterly destroyed every city, men, women, and children; we left none remaining.  (Deuteronomy 2:34)

For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come out against Israel in battle, in order that they should be utterly destroyed, and receive no mercy but be exterminated. (Joshua 11:20)

This may be Israel’s God but it is not the God I worship. To those who say, “But you have to realize that these text were written within a completely different context than the one in which we live today.” I say, OK, but I am reading them in today’s context, which is a time when Israel is known for its dehumanizing actions against the people of Palestine.  It’s also a time when the majority of people in America have  for 62 years heard far more each week about Israel as a state than Israel as an ancient God fearing people.

In my church, our new Hymnal has an entire section entitled “God’s Covenant with Israel.”  I would be more pleased if it had a section on God’s Covenant with the Poor, or even Our Covenant with the Oppressed…but Israel!???

Some Israeli soldiers wear T shirts expressing their attitude toward Palestinians.  One T shirt reads “Better use Durex,” (a popular brand of condoms in Israel.) Beneath it is a picture of a Palestinian mother weeping over the body of her dead child still holding his teddy bear.  The message is clear.  We don’t want you to have children and if you do, this is how they will be treated.  Another worn by a sharpshooter from the Givati Brigade “shows a pregnant Palestinian woman with a bull’s eye superimposed on her belly with the slogan, ‘1 shot, 2 kills.”[3]  These are not worn by hoodlums on the street.  These are soldiers of Israel, on duty and under orders. And all the time, I am confronted with  hymns proclaiming our covenant with Israel.

I understand that Christianity grew out of Judaism and we owe a debt to biblical Israel for monotheism. I am also aware that Jesus stood on the shoulders of the Hebrew prophets when he called for social justice.  At the same time I hear William Sloan Coffin when he says,  “When someone says, ‘You gotta believe it cause it’s in the Bible,’ You can bet your bottom dollar that the person saying that is not referring to the Sermon on the Mount.”   

Gaza is surrounded by sniper towers, walls, check points and tanks. Yousef Aljamal watched his little sister die while being denied a permit to get to the hospital for surgery.   For this reason, I get sensitive in church when the Call to Worship begins with “Bless the Lord God of Israel,” (Luke 1:68) or we read Psalm 121, “Behold, He that keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”  I want to say, Bless the God of Aljamal’s little sister, the God who sides with the poor and oppressed.

Maybe I am too sensitive, but the Zionist language in our church liturgy bothers me. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel,” sounds like the playbook for the “poor me, victim image,” so promoted by Israel, many American Jews and most of our media.  I know, intelligent people can figure out that this hymn refers to ancient Israel and not the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, but I wonder how many people sitting in our pews actually reason this out.  At least emotionally, “poor Israel is what we are left feeling. 

In the church in which I worship, we have a progressive minister who preaches the gospel of liberation theology.  He fearlessly addresses such subjects as gun violence, climate change, immigration, economic inequality and many other justice issues.  For this I am grateful. However, in a day, when Israel transfers water, builds an apartheid wall that denies Palestinians access to hospitals and schools, I wonder why we are in church singing  praises to the God of Abraham rather than raising hell about Israel’s oppression and power policies that hold millions of people in the world’s largest open air prison. Our worship liturgy has us singing “Torah ora…”  We confess, “You are the hope of Israel.”  We receive assurance that “We are the children of Zion.” I appreciate the eagerness to not offend our Jewish neighbors, but is there not an unintended subliminal message of condoning the conduct of Israel’s Zionist government in our silence? When so much of what we hear every day through the news media is pro-Zionist, and our politicians offering total support of Israel and the church being voiceless about the Christian Zionist right wing heresy, I would hope that the church, called to be in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, would bend over backward to not appear to lend support to that political position.

Maybe Samouni would understand that our liturgy refers only to ancient Israel.  Maybe he could understand why we do not want to say anything that might get us labeled anti-Semitic.  Maybe someday, he will reason that what Gaza is experiencing is just a passing phase and that when the dust settles he will think that the church really did care that his home and dignity were stolen from him. Maybe he will understand that our worship is nothing but inherited liturgy. He might even be comfortable with the price of silence as something we are expected to pay to maintain a congenial relationship with our Jewish friends. Maybe he will understand all that. But I don’t. I want to separate myself from anything that could be read as supporting the brutal policies of Zionism.

Years ago, some of the brightest minds in the church became sensitive to “Sexist language.” being sung, prayed and preached week after week. Surely they could understand that everybody knows God is not a male and when we refer to the Almighty as “Father” or “He,” women are also included. However, the feminist theologians kept pointing out that most people cannot separate their theological acumen from the emotional impression being driven into their psyche by repeated references to God in masculine terms  So, today, we have a more sensitive liturgy, and sing from a more gender inclusive hymnbook. We pray to God as Father and Mother, even if sometimes the language is awkward and un-rhythmical.  The feminist theologians were right.

Today, with so many American Jews committed to the state of Israel, even people of conscience hesitate to speak out critically of Israel,  In spite of its atrocities, Israel  gets an apartheid pass. Why? Because most Westerners still see the Palestinian through the eyes of what Edward Said calls Orientalism. 

A white middle-class Westerner believes it is his human prerogative not only to manage the nonwhite world but also to own it, just because by definition “it” is not quite as human as “we” are.[4]

Israel has betrayed the Jewish community. But that is not my responsibility. I fear that the church is betraying the Christian and Muslim community of Palestine and that is my responsibility.

                                                                                                Thomas Are
                                                                                                November 26, 2013

[1] See,  Mex Blumenthal, Goliath,   (Nation Books, New York,  2013) p. 3-4. for this and other sources referred to in this post.  I urge you to read this book.
[2] Blumenthal, Goliath,  p. 7
[3] Omar Barghouti, BDS, The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights, Haymaker Books, Chicago, 2011) p.44.
[4] Edward Said, Orientalism, (Vintage Books, New York, 1978.) p. 108