Thursday, March 3, 2016



Over the past nine months, in response to cries from the Palestinian church, I've felt compelled to take a stand in support of solidarity and nonviolent action.  Proposed in many different ways by Palestinian activists, this economic strategy seeks relief for the occupied Palestinian people and national/democratic autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza.  In particular, I've supported my own denomination's plan (General Synod 30, 2015) to divest from companies profiting from well-documented human rights abuses and to boycott others profiting from business in illegally occupied West Bank settlements.  More recently, my congregation has offered to host a conference around the array of nonviolent strategies known as the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions movement.  This support--which I was rather late in offering--has caused me and others more distress than any work I've done.  And this is a great sadness for me.

In my own small city, some have suggested that my support for the BDS conference amounts to "warfare" against the Jewish people.  Others have insisted that I am sowing seeds of anti-Semitism and ruining cherished interfaith networks.  One even suggested that, unless I somehow canceled the event, I'd be considered a "murderous" figure on the local interfaith scene.  While these charges are clearly inflammatory and calculated to provoke, I have done what I can to take them seriously and reflect on my intentions and motivation.  In their heated words, I hear deep pain and profound and even existential fear.  So I owe them my serious reflection.  I believe that.  I do not wish to be a callous man.

In my reflection, several things come up for me.

1.  My support--and my congregation's--is a deliberate response to the Palestinian church and its cry for solidarity and partnership.  This comes, in a special way, from the Kairos Palestine movement and letter of 2009.  I believe that the church is called to listen closely to the marginalized and oppressed: for this is where the Christ is to be found.  My own United Church of Christ grants the oppressed something like 'a privileged voice' in our theological and ethical reflection.  Listening to that voice, I feel compelled to offer what I can to the Palestinian church.  Over a decade in this work, I have met many of that church's leaders and grown to respect them very much.  They are honorable and decent and faithful.

2.  On a 2014 trip to Israel and the West Bank, I heard over and again a compelling call for boycott and divestment.  This call came from Israelis and Palestinians alike, from Jews and Christians and Muslims alike.  At no point was it suggested that economic nonviolence amounted to anti-Semitism.  In each case, bold peacemakers insisted that only coordinated and strategic nonviolence (in the West) could break a devastating logjam in Israeli politics and bring the various sides to an honest negotiation about statehood, peace and human rights.  Perhaps the most compelling case was made on the very last day of our trip, by a young Israeli Jew in her twenties, a youth worker, who was contemplating a move to Europe (Germany, she said) to escape the toxic environment of hatred and recrimination in her own country.  Another Gaza war had just ended.  Racial prejudice, she said, was on the rise.  "We need your help," she said.  "We cannot do this work without your help."  And she mentioned the BDS movement by name.  "Help us be moral."

3.  I resist any sense of superiority in this work, and in this particular moment.  I have no way of telling, to be sure, that the UCC's boycott and divestment work will be effective.  It may even turn out to have been misguided.  Still, I believe in my heart that it is faithful: faithful to the Palestinian church, faithful to their pain and aspirations, and faithful indeed to Jesus.  But I offer my support with profound humility.

How can that be?  How can a strategy that may turn out to be misguided still be faithful?  Why move forward unless we know for sure?

Here I lean on the legacy and faithfulness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.   Returning to Germany in 1939, the Lutheran Bonhoeffer soon joined a conspiracy against Hitler.  His involvement in that conspiracy--even as a pacifist--led to his arrest and later his execution by the Nazis.  Today, many of us look upon Bonhoeffer as something of a hero, a Christian martyr, a example of true faith and righteousness.  His difficult decision sets him aside as a great disciple and worthy of imitation.

But this adulation may miss Bonhoeffer's own point.  Which is not heroism, but faith.  Which is not greatness, but service.  Mark S. Brocker (2003) offers: 

It is striking...that Bonhoeffer deliberately sought to avoid justifying his actions. From his standpoint, any attempt to justify his involvement in the conspiracy would have been the height of ethical arrogance. In fact, according to Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer "would have accepted the charge that what he had done was not a 'good response' to the challenge of the age, but, rather, a very tardy one." It was one thing to give an account of his actions in the conspiracy; it was another thing to try to justify his actions. As Bethge explains, for Bonhoeffer "the responsible attitude was not to take his justification, before, during and after what he did, into his own hands." Only God could ultimately judge his actions. In the extraordinary situation Bonhoeffer found himself in, he felt compelled to act as he did, but only with a profound sense of ethical humility.
4.  In no way can I or would I equate my situation with Bonhoeffer's.  Obviously.  But Brocker's point is that "only God could ultimately judge [Bonhoeffer's] actions."  And this means he acted not with bravado and Christian superiority--but "with a profound sense of ethical humility."  I get that.  I seek only to listen for the cries of God's people; I seek only to stand where the church must always stand: in the midst of suffering, in the midst of God's weary people.  From that place, from that vantage point, I do what I can to discern the presence of Jesus Christ and the will of God.  It means taking Palestinian suffering to heart.  It also means taking the suffering of Jews, my own neighbors and friends, to heart.  

Brocker says:

Bonhoeffer's key methodological insight is that we do not form ourselves or the world. We are not striving to become like Jesus. We are not simply being instructed on living a good and pious life. We ought not impose a Christian lifestyle or agenda on our neighbor or the world. God does the forming. The form of Jesus Christ is the will of God in the world.  In ethics as formation the question concerning the will of God becomes a matter of discerning how Christ is taking form in the world. The good is "action conforming to the reality of Jesus Christ; action conforming to Christ is action conforming to reality."
There's a subtle theological point here worth noting.  "We are not simply...instructed on living a...pious life."  Discipleship, instead, involves "discerning how Christ is taking form in the world."

Does this mean siding always with Christians against others, against Jews, against Muslims, against atheists?  Absolutely not.  It does mean "conforming to the reality of Jesus Christ"--which implies, I believe, kneeling before the grieving widow, taking up the child orphaned by war, standing in solidarity with the community aching for liberation and peace.  Bonhoeffer and others did this--imperfectly and often too late--in 1940s Germany.  Kneeling before the grieving widow.  Seeing the world through the suffering of Jews in Europe.  We too must do it now.  In a variety of ways.  Courageously.  Attentive to the cry of the oppressed.
5.  In my own case, I believe such discernment means acting for peace, expressing meaningful solidarity with Palestinian allies, AND offering compassionate and courageous support in the struggle against anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism wherever it is found.  There's little question that anti-Jewish bigotry is still a threat in the world, and still a presence in the Christian church. So I insist that the church must do its work: confessing its 'original' sin and turning from it; expressing meaningful and engaged support for Jewish allies as they address such bigotry; and still offering a brave and vigorous hand to Palestinian Christians in their own struggle for freedom.

6.  I see that Palestinian struggle as a struggle with Israel, a particular nation-state with badly broken politics (and a policy of illegal occupation and settlement in the West Bank).  I do not see it as a struggle with Jews or an entire religion.

I guess this particular post is directed to members of my own church and the broader Christian community.  It's important--to me--that you understand the thought and prayerfulness around the decisions I've made and the support I've offered for emerging conversations around economic nonviolence.  I am very conscious of anti-Semitism and its devastating effect in the world.  I choose to believe active nonviolence offers a path to peace, a path to a Middle East where a thriving Palestinian people and a thriving Israel exist side by side.  That very peace will go a long ways, I think and hope, toward lessening anti-Semitism there and here.

I choose to believe my Palestinian colleagues are worthy of my trust and my church's support.  I choose also to hear the legitimate anguish and urgency in the call of Israelis I've met for disciplined economic action.  I choose to believe that the Palestinian people are worthy of democratic opportunity and a nation of their own.  

And I agree with Bonhoeffer that, in the end, "only God" can justify these choices, according to God's purposes and according to God's grace.  This is a profoundly unsettling and vulnerable realization on my part; but it is precisely the place my faith takes me now.