Saturday, July 1, 2017

Bringing Balconies Down!

It was an honor to participate in this afternoon's "Let's Make It Happen" workshop--a gathering of UCC leaders exploring our varied responses to a significant resolution passed at the last General Synod (2015) in Cleveland.  That resolution called for the church--in its many settings--to join the movement to divest from and boycott international companies profiting from the illegal Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

I spoke to some of the strategies local churches are pursuing, including Peace United's decision to become the first "HP-Free Church" (of fourteen) in the US.  Others on the panel this afternoon spoke to conference approaches, the work at the national setting and the important divestment work of the United Church Fund.

A key distinction--made throughout this week's Synod--is this: the occupation we protest is not a Jewish occupation; and the issue of the sustained occupation and oppression of Palestinians is not a Jewish issue.  It's an issue about land, about occupation, and about the abuse of human rights, aimed at a whole people, the Palestinian people.  It's an issue about the systemic and illegal settlement of the West Bank by settlers using government funds, government infrastructure and government blessing.  It's about all that.  But it is most certainly NOT a religious issue, or an interfaith issue.  We speak to it as we speak to other human rights concerns: it's about the rights of people to their land, to sovereignty and self-determination.

Our advocacy for both Palestinian and Israeli security gets muddied, I think, when some in the conversation attempt to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.  That "muddying" only serves to divert the important discussion of international law, human rights and sovereignty into age-old grievances and complaints and historical concerns about anti-Semitism.  But the occupation we protest is about 1948 and 1967 and 2017.

Make no mistake, there's a place for that discussion about anti-Semitism.  Anti-Semitism is real, destructive and alive and well in the West.  It's undoubtedly still embedded in much of my own Christian tradition and practice.  But we miss the mark--and we do that important discussion no favors--when we apply anti-Semitism to genuine and principled criticism of Israel.  And we diminish our effectiveness in addressing anti-Semitism and bigotry when we mistakenly equate it with thoughtful, disciplined action to liberate Palestinians from the grip of an occupation that has gone on for far too long.  There's nothing Jewish about that occupation.  

For those who are interested--and if you're working on this issue, you should be--Alison Weir has written an excellent review of the attempt to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish bigotry.  It's called "The International Campaign to Criminalize Criticism of Israel"--and you can find it here.

At this morning's Plenary, The Rev. Traci Blackmon spoke passionately about her visit to Philadelphia recently and the history there of St. George's Methodist Church.  Traci talked about the 18th century experience of that congregation: and the moment two African-American congregants chose to leave the church rather than continue to sit in the designated balcony reserved for them by the white majority members.  Richard Allen and Absalom Jones left St. George's and founded a new church and new American Christian tradition: one we know now as the African Methodist Episcopal church.

This morning, Traci noted that the pastor of St. George's these days insists on recalling that story for his congregation and his city.  He insists on looking up, every Sunday, from his pulpit and wondering who might be sitting in the balcony that day.  It's both a legitimate week-to-week question and a political Philadelphia question.  Who do we sit in the balconies of our cities, neighborhoods, schools and culture?  Which peoples do we allow to go without a place at the table, a seat in the chamber, a role in decision-making?  Are we satisfied with a church--or a culture--where some "sit in balconies" and others get comfortable with the division, the separation, the brokenness that "balconies" connote?

It was a powerful, prophetic moment.  

And of course, Traci Blackmon insisted that it's our calling, it's our faith that balconies are dismantled, that the one far away be welcomed into the center, that the people disenfranchised find their way to the action, to the community, to the heart of the neighborhood.
The Rev. Traci Blackmon in Baltimore (7/1/17)
Her sermon anticipated the Boycott/Divestment workshop in important ways.  Balconies are the concern of Black Lives Matter activists in the States.  Balconies are the concern of Standing Rock Water Protectors deep in the heart of this continent.  And balconies are the systems of oppression, imprisonment and inaction that perpetuate a devastating and generations-long occupation of Palestinian peoples and lands in the Middle East.  It's not enough to decry the balconies.  It's not enough to sing and pray for the day the upstairs folk and downstairs folk might worship together and sing together.  We've got to work--nonviolently, in love, in the best of Gandhi's tradition and Jesus' tradition and Arik Ascherman's tradition--to dismantle the balconies.

We--in the U.S.--pay for those balconies.  We invest in companies that build and support them.  We pay huge amounts of tax monies to Israel to keep the balconies in place.

In 2015, the United Church of Christ took concrete, principled steps to say enough.  To withhold support.  To bring the balconies down.  I'm pleased to say that my congregation has joined the movement and will continue to do it's part.  Just as we'll continue to act thoughtfully and practically to support Black Lives Matter movers and Stand Rock shakers.  It's time for the people of God to stir things up! 
With Hannah at GS 31!