“The state of Israel is an illegal, genocidal place… to equate Judaism with the state of Israel is to equate Christianity with Flavor Flav.” – UCC Pastor Emeritus Jeremiah Wright, in a speech to thousands of people in Baltimore in 2011
These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. – Acts 17:11
Much has been made in the Jewish community – too much, in my humble opinion – of the recent letter signed by 15 Protestant church leaders calling for Congress to review and possibly suspend U.S. aid to Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East. The signatories believe that “unconditional U.S. military assistance to Israel has contributed to this deterioration, sustaining the conflict and undermining the long-term security interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.” To add insult to injury, the letter was released with no notice on a Jewish holiday, just days before a scheduled interfaith meeting between Protestant and Jewish leaders. Predictably, Jewish leaders angrily withdrew from the meeting and denounced the letter. It is hard to see how this troubled dialogue can be resurrected in the near future.
A letter like this doesn’t come out of a vacuum. The offending churches -- Presbyterian Church (USA), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, United Methodist Church, National Council of Churches USA and the United Church of Christ (UCC) – are all mainline Protestant bodies. In a recent Pew survey, white mainline Protestants knew less about Christianity and the Bible than Mormons, white Evangelicals, white Catholics, black Protestants, Jews and atheists. By way of contrast, Mormons and white Evangelicals, the most knowledgeable groups on those topics, tend to be very strong supporters of Israel. Instead of developing talking points on Israel to present to Protestant leaders, I think that Jewish leaders would accomplish more by creating Bible study courses, perhaps co-taught by rabbis and pastors, that could be used to educate Protestant congregants and leaders on Jewish themes in the Bible.
Israel needs to become a priority for these churches. Right now it’s not even on their theological radar screens. Let’s take the UCC, for example. On the church’s official website right now are the following lead stories: “Minnesota church plans to be carbon neutral by 2030,” “UCC churches celebrate 14th Annual Transgender Day of Remembrance,” and “UCC President, Office of Communications, Inc. ask FCC to lower prison phone rates.” Although Jeremiah Wright is best known for his incendiary statements about Jews and America, he also helped thousands of people in Chicago through his decades-long service as a popular pastor. Clearly this is a church that believes in doing good and helping people. However, on Israel, Jews and the Bible it clearly needs more education.
As I see it, the problem is that the leaders of these churches focus every Sunday on social justice and other contemporary issues instead of an intensive study of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. When the time comes for them to gather together and vote on Israel issues like divestment, Jewish leaders have to make Israel’s case to people who have generally devoted very little pulpit time (and thought) to the subject. If current trends are any indication, Jewish leaders’ efforts will soon become futile. Last summer Presbyterian leaders rejected divestment by the slimmest of margins in a 333-331 vote. I know that my Presbyterian friends keep reassuring me that the overwhelming majority of their coreligionists strongly support Israel, but apparently their leaders haven’t gotten the memo.
Jewish leaders who are trying to engage mainline Protestant leaders on Israel clearly have their work cut out for them, and I applaud them for trying. The sad truth is that unless these churches make the Bible and Jewish themes a focus of their study and ministry, secular arguments for Israel will eventually fail to carry the day with their leaders, especially when a nominally Protestant organization like Sabeel spews out religious-themed drivel advocating Palestinian Liberation Theology. As we see during the current Israel-Hamas confrontation, people who are confused about the Jews’ (and Israelites’) role in God’s plan are often unable to make meaningful moral distinctions between competing narratives in the Middle East.
I applaud the Jewish leaders for their efforts to reach out, and I applaud those Protestants who are trying to effect change from within their churches. I will pray for their success in bringing mainstream Protestantism into the pro-Israel fold. After all, it’s an article of the Mormon faith that miracles have not yet ceased.