A Shipwreck of their Faith
by Dexter Van Zile (April 2010)
On Martin Luther King Sunday in 2005, I attended the worship service at Clarendon Hill Presbyterian Church in Somerville, Massachusetts. The church was hosting a presentation by an activist from Boston-to-Palestine (B2P), a group that has recruited college students to participate in protests in the West Bank organized by the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). I could have skipped the Sunday service and gone straight to the B2P presentation held in the church basement afterwards, but I wanted to get a sense of what type of congregation would play host to an activist from a movement whose leaders condoned Palestinian violence during the Second Intifada and whose members have partied with terrorists from Al Aksa Martyr’s Brigade.
Upon entering the sanctuary, it became obvious that while the church had attracted attention from the local Jewish community by hosting the B2P presentation, it was not a great force for evangelism. About 20 or 30 people sat in the sanctuary waiting for the service to begin, and when the pastor and choir processed in, the gathered assembly increased by another dozen. The mostly empty pews in Clarendon Hill, which was founded in 1926 as part of a merger of three Presbyterian churches (two from Somerville and another from South Boston),[i] offered mute testimony of the church’s decline. My wife, who attended the service with me, had one word for the scene before us: “Depressing.”
One sign of life was provided by the pro-Israel activists protesting on the sidewalk in front of the church on a cold winter morning. And that counted for something, because when Clarendon Hill’s pastor, Rev. Karl Gustafson, acknowledged the presence of this crowd during his sermon, it added a heightened sense of drama to what was to prove to be a largely forgettable worship service. For a brief moment, the people sitting in the pews were principled heroes, martyrs even, for the cause of peace and they had a crowd of pro-Israel activists outside to prove it. The presence of activists on the sidewalk in front of their church on a Sunday morning communicated to Clarendon Hill’s neighbors that the church was doing something worth paying attention to. If not, then what was that crowd of people protesting for?
Like a lot of anti-Israel talks, the presentation after the worship service was long on polemic, short on facts. The speaker, B2P founder Ben Scribner, was able to muster tears over the plight of the Palestinians he met on a recent trip to the West Bank, but could not describe how the wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973 began, nor could he comment on the status of gays and lesbians in Palestinian society despite the fact that gay and lesbian activists participating in ISM trips have chosen to keep their sexuality private from their Palestinian hosts because they adhere to “fairly traditional norms and attitudes” (a polite way of saying that gays and lesbians are routinely harassed and risk being beaten, if not killed, in Palestinian society). Scribner’s refusal to address this issue is ironic given that Clarendon Hill is part of the “More Light” movement within the PC(USA) which promotes gay rights.
Still, no one really cared about these problems. They were not counting on Scribner to provide an honest analysis of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but were looking for him to testify to a narrative they had already embraced – a gospel of innocent Palestinian suffering highlighted by the savage intransigence of the Jewish state.[ii] When Scribner had a tough time describing the events that led to the various Arab-Israeli wars, one Clarendon Hill congregant, a Palestinian Christian who had migrated to the U.S., suggested that Israel was equally responsible for the Six-Day War by asserting that Israel was planning the Six-Day War two years before it happened as if it was Israel - not Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser - who kicked U.N. peacekeepers out of the Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran. Clearly, the attendees wanted a narrative in which Israel was completely to blame for the continued existence of the conflict and in which the suffering Palestinians were wholly innocent of wrong doing. And when Scribner found himself over his head, someone was around to help him out.
Was it Necessary?
In the years since my visit to Clarendon Hill, I have sometimes wondered if protesting outside the church gave unwarranted attention and credibility to the church that hosted it.[iii]
The church is dying.
Statistics maintained by Clarendon Hill’s national denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), reveal that in 2005, the church had 59 members on its rolls, and an average worship attendance of 35. In 2008, the church had 40 members and average attendance of 35. Over the course of three years, the church had maintained a strong core of Sunday worshippers but nevertheless suffered a 32 percent drop in its already small roster of members.
Clarendon Hill’s membership statistics for 2009 have not been posted, but other information indicates that its prospects have only gotten worse since the 2008 data was released. Yes, per member contributions have gone up substantially since Gustafson became pastor sometime in 2003,[iv] but Clarendon Hill still has serious financial problems. Clarendon Hill’s January 2009 newsletter reported the church was at a “critical point” and that it had one year’s worth of reserves before it would have to consider selling the building.
We have a $30,000 deficit because our maintenance and operational expenses far outpace the contributions of our small but generous community. The strategic investments we made in the last few years to the church building—updating fire alarm systems, handicap accessibility, improved sound system for the hearing impaired and for our music events, plus greater energy efficiency—were critical to our continuing mission, but have resulted in rapidly depleting our investments. And our mounting debt leads us to consider some very difficult decisions.
A year later, the church is hanging on, but the outlook is not good. Clarendon Hill’s February 2010 newsletter reported the church “can no longer sustain both our building and a full-time pastoral position.” Consequently, at the church’s annual meeting on Feb. 7, 2010, Clarendon Hill approved changes to Rev. Gustafson’s “terms of call” and as a result, no one will be in the church office on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesday mornings, and Saturdays. The church’s session is looking at the possibility of leaving the building. Clarendon Hill, like a lot of non-profit institutions, has probably suffered from the economic downturn; but the fact is, the church has been on a downward slope for a while.
It’s not as if Rev. Gustafson lacked the energy or talent to revitalize his church. While serving as area coordinator of the New England Chapter of Friends of Sabeel North America (a post he held in 2005 and 2006),[v] Rev. Gustafson got around. For example, in March 2005, he introduced Jeff Halper, founder of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, to an audience at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. And in April, 2005, he spoke at a Sabeel conference at a Unitarian Church in Salem, Massachusetts. Also in 2005, Gustafson’s church hosted a fund-raiser for divestment activists who have repeatedly failed to convince the City of Somerville to divest from Israel. Peruse the church’s website and you’ll see Israel’s alleged sins against the Palestinians are often a topic of discussion at Clarendon Hill. Under Gustafon’s leadership, Clarendon Hill has been a bastion of anti-Israel activism and its pastor an evangelist for the cause.
All this raises a question. What would have happened if Clarendon Hill’s pastor and congregation had invested the same energy into evangelization as they did into their efforts to promote anti-Israelism in Somerville? What if Rev. Gustafson and his followers had decided to follow Christ’s mandate to make disciples of the nations? What if, instead of catering to the hard left in Somerville, Clarendon Hill had decided to minister to the people in the neighborhood nearby?
Clarendon Hill’s congregants probably regard their church as being a vibrant part of the community. A close look at the church’s newsletters, particularly the January 2009 issue – the issue which first detailed Clarendon Hill’s financial difficulties – provides some insight. After outlining the largely secular benefits Clarendon Hill provided to the surrounding community – a $500 donation to the local Head Start program, the use of the church as an “exhibition space for local artists, fundraisers, and even pancake breakfasts,” the newsletter made a plea for continued support from the church’s dwindling membership.
Implicit in this plea was the message that the congregation had an obligation to pay for the upkeep of the church building, not merely because it provided the sanctuary for the church’s weekly worship services, but for the benefit of the community groups that used the building. The art gallery, the jazz concerts, the pancake breakfasts, and yoga classes offered at the church which in previous eras would be considered auxiliary (and maybe even antithetical) to the church’s work of enunciating the Christian faith, became an integral and central part of the church’s “mission.”
Somewhere during his time as Clarendon Hill’s pastor, Rev. Gustafson began to see himself as a patron of the arts in Somerville, expressing great satisfaction to the local paper when Clarendon Hill started hosting Jazz concerts with the help of a local arts organization:
Pastor Karl Gustafson was instrumental in forming the Nave Gallery with Susan Berstler of ARTSomerville. He sees this music series as a logical next step in the development of the church as a community center and “a chance to give sound and spirit a new home. Jazz is all about spontaneity and creativity.” He has been a jazz fan his entire life.
Turning the church building into a performance center, an art gallery, a breakfast hall, and a bastion of anti-Israel activism may have raised Clarendon Hill’s visibility, but these actions are not the stuff of evangelization. Such amenities can be obtained somewhere else from secular institutions.
The decline of Clarendon Hill is a reminder of an iron rule of religious life. Most people go to church to have a religious experience that they cannot get anywhere else. Churches that do not provide this experience shrink – regardless of what other amenities they provide to the community.[vi]
Clarendon Hill and its pastor ignored this law. Instead of devoting his best efforts into fulfilling the Gospel’s Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations,” Rev. Gustafson and his church instead directed their first fruits into a high-profile, and highly controversial “peacemaking” campaign that consisted mostly of one-sided condemnations of Israeli security measures and excuses for Arab violence (all accompanied of course, by pro-forma acknowledgements of Israel’s right to exist). Largely absent from this campaign is acknowledgement of the hostility toward Jews exhibited by groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Given Rev. Gustafson’s ties to Sabeel, it should come as no surprise that he, like Sabeel’s founder Anglican Priest Naim Ateek, has compared Israel to ancient Rome. In a podcast about the Arab-Israeli conflict, Rev. Gustafson stated:
The military occupation of Israel over the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem since 1967 is compared to the Roman occupation of Jews nearly 2000 years ago. The Israeli separation Wall that cuts off Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem is factored into the Nativity story. How would Joseph and Mary get to Bethlehem with the now 25 foot high Separation Wall in their way?
Edgy stuff, but ultimately Rev. Gustafson’s polemics have had little if any positive impact. It may have garnered the applause of Clarendon Hill members, but it didn’t convince the people in Somerville to divest and did nothing to help the Palestinians that Rev. Gustafson says he wants to help. And obviously, this type of rhetoric did not bring people into the pews on Sunday morning. About the only thing that can be said for sure about Rev. Gustafson’s anti-Israel evangelism is that it aroused suspicion toward him and his church in the local Jewish community. In sum, Rev. Gustafson and his congregation tilted at windmills in the Middle East while his church slouched toward insolvency.
In light of the ongoing decline of Clarendon Hill, listening to Rev. Gustafson offer advice to the Israeli people and their leaders on how to bring about peace with its adversaries is a bit surreal. It’s akin to listening to Joe Hazelwood, skipper of the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker that ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound in 1989, hypothetically telling NASA how it should properly run its manned space program while his vessel is leaking oil into Alaskan waters.[vii]
Clarendon Hill’s decline is not unique within the Presbyterian Church (USA), nor is it unique in the American “mainline” community. [viii] As statistics from the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches indicate, both the PC(USA) and the “mainline” Protestant establishment of which it is a part have been losing members since the mid-1960s.[ix] The PC(USA)’s decline has only accelerated in the past few years. The denomination’s website is pretty blunt:
Between 1983 and 2008, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) had a net loss of almost 1,000,000 members, dropping from 3,131,228 to 2,140,165. In relative terms, the net loss was 31.6%, or an average annual decline of around 1.3%. The greatest numerical and percentage losses are for 2008 (69,381; 3.1%), followed by 2007 (57,572; 2.5%). Indeed, the six greatest percentage declines (and five of the six largest numerical declines) took place from 2003 to 2008.
The denomination’s researchers don’t make it explicit, but the denomination’s decline started to accelerate about the same time its General Assembly passed a divestment resolution in 2004 that stated the “occupation” had “proven to be at the root of evil acts committed against innocent people on both sides of the conflict,” provoking controversy within its own ranks and outrage from the Jewish community in the U.S. In 2006, the GA rescinded the vote that singled out Israel as a target for divestment, but did not stop the process by which the denomination’s investment committee began laying the groundwork for selling the stock from companies that did business with Israel.[x]
While it’s a stretch to conclude the denomination’s anti-Zionism is “killing” the PC(USA), it sure isn’t helping the church muster the resources necessary to halt or even reverse its decline. Instead of devoting their attention to saving their church, its leaders are on the phone to NASA, so to speak, opining about Israeli policies as if they are experts in diplomacy, national security, Middle East politics, and anti-terrorism. They are having a difficult time keeping their own denomination afloat and yet they insist on telling the leaders and citizens of Israel – a ship of state that has been under attack nearly every day of its existence – how to deal with the threats it faces.
The Hazelwoods in the PC(USA)'s wheelhouse are still at it, working to make the Arab-Israeli conflict a main topic of debate and discussion at the denomination’s upcoming General Assembly slated to take place in Minneapolis in early July. First off, there is the “ministry” of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the PC(USA). This group, created by a vote of the denomination’s general Assembly in 2004 has produced a booklet and a DVD that offers a distorted narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The first page of the booklet, titled Steadfast Hope: The Palestinian Quest for Just Peace (2009), falsely states that "While the rhetoric surrounding the conflict may be changing, actual policy has not: no settlers have moved back to Israel...." In fact, Israel withdrew more than eight thousand settlers from Gaza in 2005 and several hundred others from the northern tip of the West Bank. A few months ago, the IPMN’s blog which linked to an obviously anti-Semitic video titled “I AM ISRAEL” that accused Israel of controlling American foreign policy.
When challenged to confront the IPMN about this posting, the denomination’s stated clerk, Gradye Parsons, washed his hands of any responsibility for the networks actions: “The Network operates as an independent organization with full control over their website.”[xi] The PC(USA)’s point man on interfaith relations, Rev. Jay Rock, also stated he had no control over what the IPMN posted on its website. The IPMN, Rev. Rock stated, “is not accountable to any office, nor does it report to any staff person in the PC(USA) structure; it also, like the other networks, receives no funding from the church.”[xii]
Let’s Look at the group’s name again: The Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the PC(USA). Moreover, take a look at this page on the PC(USA)’s website, which includes a link through which IPMN supporters can contribute. It lists PC(USA) staffer Victor Makari as contact for the network. Moreover, people who want to donate by check to the IPMN must write their checks payable to the Presbyterian Church (USA). Clearly, the IPMN, created by a 2004 vote of the denomination’s General Assembly is a creature of the PC(USA) and ultimately the denomination is responsible for its actions even if its leaders will not admit it.
There is simply no deniability here, plausible or otherwise.
The IPMN’s propaganda set the stage for overtures submitted to the upcoming General Assembly. One overture submitted to the General Assembly by the San Francisco Presbytery declares Israel guilty of the crime of apartheid. Other resolutions call on the denomination to rebuke Caterpillar for continuing to sell its products to Israel.
All of these are clear attacks on Israel’s legitimacy, but the ugliest attack comes from the denomination’s Middle East Study Committee comprised mostly of long-time anti-Israel activists such as Marthame Sanders. This committee, created by a 2008 General Assembly vote, issued a report and a list of recommendations in early March 2010. One section of the report (a letter to Jews in the U.S.) affirms Israel’s right to exist on one hand, but another (a historical analysis of the Arab-Israeli conflict) offers a stunning denunciation of Jews who moved into pre-1948 Palestine.
The committee's letter to its “American Jewish Friends,” reads in part as follows:
We want to be sure to say to you in no uncertain terms: we support the existence of Israel as a sovereign nation within secure and recognized borders. No “but,” no “let's get this out of the way so we can say what we really want to say.” We support Israel's existence as granted by the U.N. General Assembly. We support Israel's existence as a home for the Jewish people. We have said this before, and we say this again. We say this because we believe it; we say it because we want it to be true.
This sounds pretty good, but does not square with the explicit contempt for Jews and Zionism expressed in an accompanying historical analysis written by committee members Nahida H. Gordon and Frederic W. Bush. The authors compare the influx of Armenians into pre-1948 Palestinians with the influx of Jews into the region during the first half of the 20th century and predictably, the Jews come off badly, very badly. Here is how the document describes Armenian immigration into pre-1948 Palestine:
The Armenians came to Palestine to seek refuge with a wish to live, raise their families, and contribute to the culture of their new home. They embraced the culture, learned the language, shared its cuisine, and most importantly contributed to the rich diversity of Palestinian society. Deep friendships and lasting family connections were common among the newly arrived Armenians and the indigenous Palestinians. Tragically, the Armenian-Palestinians were uprooted once more in 1948–1949 during the Nakba, the expulsion of Palestinian Christians and Muslims by the newly arrived Jewish settlers from Europe.
The authors report that when the Armenians came into Palestine, they joined a pre-existing community of Jews who
spoke Arabic, lived peacefully on the land with Christian and Muslim Palestinians, shared its cuisine, and enjoyed Palestine as did their Christian and Muslim neighbors. They were part of a multicultural Palestine, without whom Palestine would have lost some of its rich diversity and heritage. Friendships between these Jewish Palestinians and their Christian and Muslim neighbors were common.
The narrative continues as follows:
So why did things change? They changed with the mass immigration of Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine during the first half of the 20th century. These refugees came to Palestine to escape centuries of segregation, expulsion, murder, and the horrors of their holocaust during World War II. They were a traumatized people who, rather than integrating into the existing Palestinian society as the Armenians had done earlier, eventually came to displace the Palestinians. They took the land of Palestine from a majority of its inhabitants at gunpoint. The land dispossession by the state created by these European immigrants continues to the present time to further add to the widely dispersed 1948 Palestinian refugee population. Tragically, the government of these immigrants continues to nurture the belief that security comes only from military might. Not surprisingly, Palestinians responded with violence to their displacement. Violent elements in both the Israeli and Palestinian communities have repeatedly frustrated efforts at reconciliation. (Emphasis added.)
The distortions in this passage are manifold. First off, the Jews who came into Palestine were looking to assert the rights accorded to them by the Balfour Declaration, affirmed by the League of Nations which called for the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine. When Israel declared independence in 1948, Jews were seeking the same rights asserted by the Armenian people when Armenia declared independence in 1918. And while it is unreasonable to expect Arabs to welcome the prospect of Israel’s creation with open arms, the genocidal hostility exhibited by Arab leaders during numerous riots in the 1920s and 30s and during the 1948 War cannot be explained merely by outrage over the prospect of a Jewish state. Clearly, other forces were at work – forces which continue to foment hostility toward Jews and Israel more than sixty years later.
The message offered here is that if the Jews who entered Palestine in 1948 had only been better behaved – and acted more like the Armenians who came previously – then none of the tragic history that took place after 1948 would have happened. People who read that passage and take it to heart will only feel more contempt for Israel and its Jewish inhabitants.
As it turns out, there was some discussion over Israel’s legitimacy within the study committee. A Feb. 2, 2010 article published by the Presbyterian News Service provides some detail:
“Israel was built on the ruins of Palestinian land and culture,” said Nahida Gordon, a committee member and Palestinian American who teaches at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. “I take this personally — my personhood as a Palestinian has been obliterated. Palestinians are being erased as human beings. To say this [‘the right of Israel to exist’] is to give Israel a pass on the way Israel was created and denies the legitimacy of the Palestinian people.”
At the suggestion of the Rev. Susan Andrews of Hudson River Presbytery, the committee added the following footnote: “The phrase ‘the right of Israel to exist’ is a source of pain for some members of our study committee who are in solidarity with Palestinians, who feel that the creation of the state of Israel has denied them their inalienable human rights.”
And while the document portrays Jews as gun-toting marauders, it downplays Arab hostility toward Israel and Jews, omitting, for example any mention of the 1929 Hebron riots that killed approximately 60 Jews. It omits the role the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in the murder of Jewish children in Europe during the Holocaust. It makes no mention of the calls for Israel’s destruction in the months before the 1948 War.
Its assessment of the Six Day War is particularly dishonest. The document makes no mention of the genocidal rhetoric put forth by Arab leaders in the weeks and months before the war, but merely reports:
In June 1967, Israel attacked Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. At the end of six days, Israel had taken the Gaza Strip and the Sinai from Egypt, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan from Syria.
The analysis makes no mention of the Arab terror attacks against Israel in 1965, 1966 and 1967, nor does it acknowledge Syria’s periodic shelling of Israeli kibbutzim from the Golan Heights. Moreover, it also fails to describe Egypt’s decision to kick UN peacekeepers out of the Sinai in May 1967 and its closure of the Straits of Tiran which stopped the flow of oil into Israel from Iran – which itself was an act of war. And it goes without saying the historical analysis makes no mention of King Hussein’s decision to shell West Jerusalem that preceded Israel’s attack on Jordan. Instead of mentioning this fact, they flip reality on its head by suggesting that Israel initiated the fighting with Jordan.
This narrative is astoundingly deceptive, but it’s unlikely that any of it will change public opinion about the Arab-Israeli conflict. American support for Israel is near record highs. It is also unlikely to provide any benefits whatsoever for the Palestinians that PC(USA) says its trying to help. Do the people who write this type of material truly think they are helping the Palestinians by affirming Palestinian grievance more than six decades after Israel’s creation? Let’s be clear: Arabs living in Palestine objected to Israel’s creation in 1948 and, under the circumstances, it was unreasonable to expect otherwise.
Today, it’s time for leaders in the Middle East to abandon the fantasy of Israel’s destruction, quit demonizing Jews and start building a future for their people. On this score, the PC(USA)’s peace activists are not promoting reconciliation but helping to keep a festering wound of grievance open.[xiii]
The denomination can count on two negative consequences resulting from this activism. First, people within the PC(USA) will become further divided over the issue of the denomination’s foreign policy in the Middle East. Second, Jewish groups in the U.S. who are already suspicious of the church’s leaders as a result of the General Assembly’s vote to divest in 2004 will become even more wary of the denomination’s leaders. In fact, it’s already happened. Given the PC(USA)’s history of defaming Israel and antagonizing the Jewish community in the U.S., who can blame them?
Jewish Anger a Feature, Not a Bug
Given the strong likelihood that this material will antagonize Jews in the U.S., it is reasonable to conclude that angry rebukes from Jewish leaders are a feature – not a bug – of the anti-Zionist narrative offered by PC(USA) peace activists. In other words, they may be precisely what leaders of the PC(USA) and other mainline churches want when they allow their churches to be used as fonts for anti-Zionism. Angry reactions from the Jewish community draw attention to mainline churches and affords their leaders an opportunity to portray themselves as principled truth-tellers willing to risk their well-being and reputation by taking on an all powerful Jewish lobby. They may not be able to save their churches, but at least they can speak “prophetically” about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Baiting for Their Close Up
Despite their historical legacy, mainline churches have largely fallen off the radar of the national media. The failure of mainline churches to generate media coverage was addressed in an article “Amplifying the Mainline” published in the United Church News, the denominational newspaper for the United Church of Christ in July, 2006. One focus of the article was the absence of mainline leaders on Sunday morning talk shows. For example, when “Meet the Press” invited seven religious leaders to speak about the religious life in the U.S. on Easter Sunday in 2006, there was “Not a mainline Protestant leader among them.” The article continues:
It was at least the second consecutive year that “Meet the Press” had snubbed the 35-member-body National Council of Churches by excluding any representation of its mainline communions. A year earlier, NBC had invited the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, a charismatic evangelical and a Roman Catholic Priest to discuss the same topic. Again, no Episcopalians, no Presbyterians, no Lutherans, and certainly no one from the UCC.
Meanwhile this year, over at CNN, Wolfe Blitzer’s “Late Edition” spent about 10 minutes on Easter Sunday talking about Christian voters. Blitzer’s guest? Jerry Falwell.
Robert Chase, the UCC’s communications director, responded to this state of affairs by complaining “Despite the fact that mainline churches are at the heart of the American landscape, they continue to be silenced or perhaps just ignored, when it comes to media conversations about religion in America.” Whether Chase wants to admit it or not, there is a good reason for the absence of mainline Protestants on a news show about religious life in the U.S. Mainline churches do not play a central role in religious life in America. At one time they may have, but not any more. Instead of addressing this issue head on, Ben Guess, the article’s author, indicates that the failure of mainline churches to get on Sunday morning talk shows is the fault of the religious right, part of some vast-right-wing conspiracy. I kid you not:
While some suggest the pervasive public silence is linked to decades of mainline decline, others suggest a more-sinister plot. (Emphasis added.)
The Rev. Peter Laarman, former pastor of Judson Memorial Church (UCC/American Baptist) in New York and now director of the national Progressive Religious Partnership, believes the silencing is the direct result of a coordinated, decades-old strategy by so-called "neo-con" organizations, most notably the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD), to disrupt mainline churches, discredit their national agencies and "decapitate" mainline leaders.
The rise of the Religious Right not only depended on its ability to attract more political power, Laarman says, but its growth in influence also required a squelching of mainliners' longstanding clout. Because these more-moderate churches stood at the literal center of America's heartland and held significant sway on public opinion, their Christian credentials needed to be undermined. (More than 50 percent of members of Congress still belong to mainline Protestant churches.)
The article describes how the IRD has attacked mainline church leaders (and how leaders finally started to fight back) but never details exactly what the IRD did to keep mainline churches out of the mainstream media. About the best Guess can do is quote Rev. Robert Edgar, then general secretary of the National Council of Churches who stated there was “a growing body of evidence that groups like the IRD are working to "deliberately divide and undermine institutional churches.” Edgar added, “This is a concerted effort, not just against the National Council but the mainline churches themselves, to erode the confidence in leadership of these churches.”
Who exactly is to blame in for this loss of confidence, really? As far back as 1991 Max Stackhouse, a prominent theologian in the United Church of Christ, reported the mainline churches have been unable “to make a convincing case that their convictions are sufficiently rooted in what is basically true and just that they ought to be used as the plumb line and guide to the dominant culture.”[xiv] This failure to convince, Stackhouse suggests, is rooted in the mainline’s inability to synthesize a credible response to the issues faced by the American people. “Neither scholars nor ordinary people believe what the mainline is saying about these things or even pay much attention to it.”[xv] This was a problem long before the IRD came into prominence and it has only gotten worse since Stackhouse wrote those words in 1991.
One way these churches have attracted the attention of the American media is to pass resolutions that blame Israel for the Arab-Israeli conflict while remaining silent about Muslim and Arab hostility toward Jews in the Middle East. Because these resolutions antagonize the Jewish community in the United States, they attract attention. Jews are news, and by extension so are the people who attack them. This is evidenced by the reporters who gather to question denominational leaders after the passage of these resolutions at denominational assemblies.
Mainline churches have not changed American public opinion about the Arab-Israeli conflict, there is one group of people in the United States that takes what mainline churches say about the Arab-Israeli conflict seriously – Jews in the U.S. Groups such as the ADL, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (and many others) have all responded with varying degrees of outrage after the churches started attacking Israel during the Second Intifada. These responses help generate media coverage that mainline church leaders covet.
For mainline denominational leaders embracing or playing host to anti-Zionist activism is a surefire way to garner publicity. And for some leaders, complaints from Jewish leaders help legitimize the anti-Israeli activism in mainline churches and the denominational leaders who support it. Passing a one-sided resolution about Israel – clearly a jugular issue for many Jews in the U.S. – is a sure way to get your name and your church’s name in the New York Times.
For example, as the biennial debate over the PC(USA)’s foreign policy in the Middle East plays the months and weeks before and after the denomination’s General Assembly they appear to be vital and central players on a national stage speaking authoritatively about matters of great importance to the American people. A Nexis search indicates that between Jan. 1, 2004 and March 8, 2010 the Presbyterian Church (USA) garnered mentions in more than 500 newspaper articles dealing with Israel and divestment, including 10 articles in the New York Times, 15 in the Washington Post and five in the Boston Globe. It also generated a substantial amount of coverage in the Jewish press. The Forward mentioned the controversy in 36 articles, the Washington Jewish Week mentioned it in 11 articles and the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix in 12 articles.[xvi]
A similar Nexis search indicates that in 2005 and the first six months of 2006, controversy surrounding Israel and divestment generated mentions in more than 30 major newspapers in the U.S. for the United Church of Christ. In the weeks before and after the denomination’s 2005 General Synod, a number of newspapers including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Chicago Sun Times, the Boston Globe, Newsday, the Washington Post, the Miami Herald, the Columbus Dispatch, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, published articles of varying lengths devoted to the controversy. The New York Times weighed in on the controversy in August. (Please note that the UCC General Synod also passed a resolution affirming gay marriage in 2005 and this also generated a lot of coverage as well.)
Just as Rev. Gustafson was able to add a sense of drama to his sermon by acknowledging the presence of protesters outside his church on Martin Luther King Sunday in 2005, mainline church leaders invoke angry responses from Jewish leaders to conjure up an aura of vitality and relevance around their churches. Such dramaturgy does not change the underlying reality, however. Mainline churches have not offered a credible word of salvation to the American people for a long, long time and the numbers demonstrate this reality.
The desire for publicity helps explain why so many other conflicts fail to attract the same level of attention from mainline churches even as the number of people that die as a result of these conflicts dwarfs the number of deaths caused by the Arab-Israeli conflict. Speaking out on the oppression in Iran, the destruction of Tibet, government-induced famine in North Korea, and genocide in Sudan and horrendous acts in the Congo just does not evoke the same level of energy, attention or controversy that condemning Israel does.
The ugly reality is this: Engaging in intermittent feuds with people from the various Jewish groups in the U.S. has, in recent years, become an essential part of the informal résumés of mainline denominational leaders in the U.S. Such feuds afford leaders a chance to portray themselves as struggling to find a balance between speaking prophetically about Israel’s failings and reassuring “our friends in the Jewish community” that their friendship is as important as ever. When Jewish leaders complain too loudly about Israel being singled out for criticism, these same leaders can tell their diminishing flocks that there is a price to be borne for peacemaking. And if the controversy gets too hot, mainline leaders can assert that the resolutions bubbled up from local churches, as if they themselves hadn’t stirred the pot and as if they hadn’t ceded control of the prophetic voices of their churches to irresponsible extremists.
This is no way to run a church. Just as Joe Hazelwood ultimately accepted responsibility for the inactions of a helmsman who didn’t make the turn, somebody in these churches must acknowledge that the peace activists in the mainline community have been allowed to run amok long enough and that it’s time to bring the craziness to an end. This process seems to have begun in the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America[xvii] and the United Church of Christ, but clearly there is a long way to go in the PC(USA). If the anti-Israel activists score a win at the PC(USA)’s upcoming General Assembly, it could encourage their friends in other mainline denominations to rush the wheelhouse again. Then again, maybe these activists will never stop.
How to Respond?
All of this raises some important questions. The first question is if it is even worth paying attention to the anti-Israel activism in mainline churches given the membership decline these denominations are experiencing.
This is a question that cannot be dismissed out of hand. A recent Gallup Poll indicates that support for Israel is highest it has been in years with 63 percent of the American people expressing sympathy for the Jewish state and only a few siding with the Palestinians. Moreover, 67 percent of Americans understand that peace is not just around the corner, contrary to messianic expectations of mainline peace activists. Clearly, these churches are out of step with the American people and have little impact on overall public opinion on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Even the troubling decline in Democratic support for Israel (54 percent in 2009, 48 percent in 2010) can’t be attributed to the mainline churches. Given the largely derivative nature of the anti-Israel activism in these churches it is pretty clear they are borrowing their analysis and rhetoric from extremists on the hard left who have joined forces with Muslim extremists in the Middle East. Given that by embracing this agenda, mainline churches are further estranging themselves from the American people, it is reasonable to ask if is it necessary or even useful to respond to their anti-Zionism. Why reward them by attacking them? Why not just ignore them?
Yes, these churches are declining in size and influence, but just as the Exxon Valdez did great damage to fisheries in Prince William Sound, mainline churches can do great damage to the public square in the U.S. even as they descend beneath the waves of history. America has historically been free of the vicious anti-Semitism that has recently been evident in Great Britain and the rest of Europe, parts of Canada and in Venezuela, but that is no thanks to the mainline churches who have given religious and theological cover to anti-Zionism, and in some instances, anti-Jewish animus in the U.S.
On this score, the Jewish response to the anti-Israel resolutions passed by the mainline churches in response to the Second Intifada was the equivalent to the early efforts to stop the spread of the oil slick from the Exxon Valdez in 1989. Slowly but surely, the response shifted from spill containment to getting the vessel off the rocks, stopping the leak, and then, over the long term, making sure it didn’t happen again. One reason why the response was so difficult was that a catastrophe like the Exxon Valdez wasn’t supposed to happen – the technology in the wheelhouse was so advanced. As a result, the infrastructure that had been in place to respond to an oil spill had been poorly maintained, in part because of decreasing oil prices and lack of regulatory oversight.
And so it was with the mainline churches. These churches, who had been allies of the liberal Jewish community at least since the 1960s and whose leaders had worked so hard to address the issue of Christian anti-Judaism would never turn on Israel and would never, ever, ever traffic in anti-Jewish invective or tolerate those who did. Anti-Semitism was the reef upon which evangelicals had shipwrecked themselves. Mainliners steered cleared of this reef. This message – that Evangelicals were anti-Semites and liberal mainliners were not – was the main thrust of Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism: A scientific study of the ways in which the teachings of Christian churches shape American attitudes toward the Jews.[xviii] What a difference a generation makes.
Apparently, anti-Jewish animus is the Bligh Reef of Christian life. It’s a well-known navigational hazard. Its existence, location and threat are well known to everyone. Pastors are given instructions and manuals on how to avoid it, and yet, churches and their leaders routinely run aground on its shoals arousing dumbstruck wonderment. Given the consequences, you’d think people would know enough to steer clear, but they don’t. One Christian community floats off the reef; another sets a heading to take its place.
This turnabout has been particularly disorienting for American Jews, largely because mainline Protestants have been their natural allies. Naomi Cohen reports that “overall, contemporary Jewish interests on the domestic front conform to those of the mainline churches, and in the political arena Jews (except for pockets of the Orthodox) appear little different from liberal Protestants or Catholics in major urban centers.”[xix] This is why the mainline attack on Israel is consequential. No, these churches have not been able to convince the American people of the righteousness of their cause. But by portraying support for Israel as an illiberal, retrograde cause and Israel itself as undeserving of support from liberals in the U.S., these attacks encourage the mostly liberal community of American Jews to reconsider or downplay their support for Israel in an effort to maintain good relations with liberal churches in the U.S.
This is a crucial issue in light of a growing disconnect between Israel and young Jews in the United States. In their 2007 report, “Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel,” Stephen M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman write that “the political left seems more critical of Israel than the political right, and with so many Jews (still) situated on the left, it stands to reason that Jews generally and Jews on the left in particular should feel less connected to Israel.”[xx] Cohen and Kelman report the distancing they’ve documented is a problem across the ideological spectrum and is not a phenomenon limited to young liberal Jews in the U.S. This suggests liberal politics is not a factor in the growing distance they have documented. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to ask if mainline anti-Zionism is a contributing factor to this process of distancing.
Here’s why: Whether they want to admit it or not, mainline peace activists in the U.S. have allied themselves with a movement that portrays Israel as a genocidal and apartheid regime and as a unique source of suffering in the Middle East. This movement, which is comprised of a number of moving parts, including Muslim extremists in the Middle East and extremists on the hard left in the West, has helped make life unsafe for Jews throughout the world. By falsely portraying Israel as a genocidal apartheid state, this movement has attacked Jews as well, because who else could defend such a monstrous nation but a monstrous people? Imagine yourself a young Jew in the U.S. and ask yourself if Israel is a cause you would want to embrace.
Take a look at the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in England and the rest of Europe that took place during Israel’s fight with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. Take a look at the protests that took place during the fighting between Israel and Hamas in 2008-2009. In Fort Lauderdale, people chanted “Nuke, Nuke Israel” and “Go Back to the Oven.” Expressions of anti-Semitism are becoming much more open and obvious, and the mainline churches have offered nary a word of criticism or alarm, but have in fact, cooperated with the extremists creating this environment. Jewish leaders have long understood this. It’s time mainline leaders acknowledge this reality as well.
Maybe a few years from now, mainline leaders will come to their senses, and like Joe Hazelwood, offer a heartfelt apology for the damage done by the vessels they captain. There is precedent. The leaders of both the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches confessed that they got Communism wrong. In 1993, Joan Brown Campbell, a former NCC General Secretary admitted the organization “did not understand the depth of the suffering of Christians under communism. And we failed to really cry out against the communist oppression. I do give credit to people who called for that and did not get a response, at least from us.”[xxi]
Eleven years later, Konrad Raiser, former president of the World Council of Churches admitted that “it would appear that the ecumenical organizations have not sufficiently recognized—at least on the official level—the historic legitimacy and the political potential of the dissident movements in the Communist countries.” Instead of protesting against the abuses of communist leaders, Raiser admitted, “the ecumenical movement concentrated on bridge-building and cooperation.”
If an apology does come, it will probably follow the model provided by Campbell and Raiser: “We were so concerned with the Palestinian Christians and intent on building interfaith bridges with Muslim leaders that we ended up demonizing Israel as it struggled to defend itself against Hamas and Hezbollah. We should have spoken more forcefully about Muslim anti-Semitism and while we’re at it, the rights of women, gays and lesbians and religious and ethnic minorities. Sorry! Our bad! We’ll do better next time!”
The time for apology is still a way off, however, particularly at the PC(USA). Before they can apologize, mainliners must right their vessels and maybe even turn them into engines of evangelization, not demonization. No one else can do this for them. Activists from Jewish groups can raise a hue and cry, point out the threat to the public square and provide information to people inside these churches that peace activists have failed to give. But they can’t fix these churches.
That task is the responsibility of the people in these churches. Only they can confront the anti-Israel extremists in their denominations and hold their leaders accountable for giving these extremists such free rein.
Again, there is precedent.
Hazelwood accepted responsibility for his vessel. It’s time mainliners take responsibility for theirs.
At this point, I risk sounding like there isn’t anyone inside the PC(USA) and other mainline churches who have been working to challenge the anti-Israel extremists in their denominations.
A significant number of pastors and lay people inside these churches, including the PC(USA), have worked to educate their denomination about the Arab-Israeli conflict and about the biased narrative offered by the extremists in the denomination. For example, Will Spotts, who left the PC(USA) in part because of its witness on the Arab-Israeli conflict, wrote in detail about the distorted process that led to the passage of the divestment resolution in 2004. Since Spotts’ departure from the PC(USA), the work of dissecting the distorted narrative offered by the so-called peacemakers has been taken up within the denomination by Viola Larson at her blog, Naming His Grace.
There are others, but to name them would make it easier for the anti-Israel crowd in the denomination to characterize them as stooges for the Jewish community in the U.S. One of the sad lessons I’ve learned over the past few years is that you do not have to be Jewish to be a target of anti-Semitic beliefs. It was one of the great shocks of my life, one that anyone who dares speak up on behalf of Israel in a Christian setting will eventually experience. When Christians talk about the Jewish people and their institutions, the masks come off when Jews are not present. As a result Christians who oppose anti-Zionism in these churches risk becoming estranged from their religious community. Some are able to retrieve from their religious traditions the practices necessary to transcend this estrangement.
Others are not.
Because of this risk of estrangement, one of the easiest ways to discredit and marginalize defenders of Israel in Christian settings is to portray them as loving Israel more than they love their church, or worse, Christ himself. Most of the people who do this work in the mainline setting do so not merely out of a love for Israel or concern for Jewish safety, but out of a love for the churches that have sustained them. They want to protect their churches' ability to confess Christ’s salvific power. They understand that Reinhold Niebuhr got it right when he wrote, “No religious faith can maintain itself in defiance of the experience which it supposedly interprets.”[xxii]
Up until now, these activists have, with good reason, worked to educate their fellow church members in the PC(USA) about the realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Given the persistent resilience of this agenda in the mainline community, it’s time to take a look at the impact that anti-Zionism has had on the religious life of these churches.
Anti-Zionism has, to varying degrees, become a competing religion within mainline churches, with its own scriptures, prophets, and even its own liturgical cycle, centered not on Christ’s incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection, but instead on the process of writing an anti-Israel resolution and getting it onto the agenda of a church’s national assembly where the Jewish state is held up for scrutiny and judgment while the hostility and misdeeds of its adversaries are downplayed, ignored or excused. It doesn’t take an M.Div (or a GED for that matter) to see that Anti-Zionism’s liturgical calendar has become a disruptive and destructive force in the churches where it holds sway. This calendar, and the agenda that has sustained it, have disrupted the lives of mainline churches long enough.
Unlike the Gospel that sustains Christians as a people of God, anti-Zionism is a lethal and ravenous narrative that feeds on the churches that host it. It demonizes Israel, denies Arab moral agency and diminishes a church’s ability to confess to the reality of the living God.
In other words, churches that throw Israel to the wolves can’t feed their sheep.
[ii] On this score, Scribner is not unique. The facts used to construct the “peacemaking” narrative in mainline Protestant churches are not intended to promote a fair and comprehensive understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead, they are gathered and ordered in such a way so as to nourish and sustain a pre-existing animus toward Israel.
[iii] For reasons detailed below, I have come to conclude that such protests are necessary but insufficient to counter the anti-Zionist activism in American mainline churches. Ultimately, the heavy lifting of countering this work must come from within these churches.
[iv] An article in the church’s Jan. 2009 news letter referenced in the next paragraph states that Rev. Gustafson had been pastor of the church for “5.5 years” which puts the start of his tenure sometime in 2003.
[v] Gustafson was listed as FOSNA’s Northeast Area Coordinator in the organization’s Aug. 2005 newsletter, Jan. 2006 newsletter. And when Rev. Gustafson stepped down as area coordinator sometime in 2006 or 2007, he was replaced by one of his congregants Munir Jirmanus.
[vi] For a summary of the factors that have led to the decline of mainline churches in the U.S., see Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America: 1776-2005 (Rutgers University Press, 2006).
[vii] As subsequent paragraphs will reveal, Hazelwood is a model of rectitude and accountability when compared to mainline pastors and church officials. When the Coast Guard boarded the Exxon Valdez and asked Hazelwood what the problem was, Hazelwood said “You’re looking at it.” Later, Hazelwood denied his statement was an admission of guilt, but merely a statement of the obvious – that his boat was on the rocks, leaking oil. Whatever Hazelwood meant, it’s clear that he was under no illusions about the situation he was in. His vessel was in trouble, and he was the skipper.
[viii] “Mainline” is the phrase used to describe a number of theologically and politically liberal churches in the United States that have played a significant role in American history. These churches, which have suffered a substantial loss of membership since the mid-1960s, have also been a mainstay of anti-Zionism in the U.S. for decades, but with this agenda becoming much more virulent during the Second Intifada. In particular, the churches that have embraced this agenda include the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Church of Christ. The American Baptist Churches in America has not been a major player in anti-Israel activism. For more information, see Dexter Van Zile, “Mainline American Christian ‘Peacemakers’ against Israel” published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in November 2009.
[ix] Finke and Stark (2006) report that three of these groups – The Presbyterians, the Congregationalists (who are now part of the UCC), and the Episcopal Church – have been losing market share since the 1700s and the Methodists since the middle of the 1800s.
[xi] Email to the author, Oct. 15, 2009.
[xii] Email to the author, Oct. 16, 2009.
[xiii] One example of this behavior is the personal testimony of Nahida H. Gordon which begins on page 37 of the 172-page document.
[xiv] William R. Hutchinson, Catherine L. Albanese, Max L. Stackhouse, and William McKinney, "Forum: The Decline of American Religion in American Culture," Religion and American Culture, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Summer 1991): page 145. Retrieved Feb. 26, 2010, www.jstor.org/stable/1123868.
[xv] William R. Hutchinson, Catherine L. Albanese, Max L. Stackhouse, and William McKinney, "Forum: The Decline of American Religion in American Culture," Religion and American Culture, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Summer 1991): page 145. Retrieved Feb. 26, 2010, www.jstor.org/stable/1123868.
[xvi] The Nexis search query, conducted on March 8, 2010, was “Presbyterian AND Israel AND divestment.” Please note that not all the articles were solely related to the PC(USA) General Assembly’s 2004 vote to divest from Israel, but mentioned the controversy in passing. This is not an exhaustive list. An unknown number of papers, particularly in the Jewish press are not included in the Nexis data universe.
[xvii] Not all is well, however, in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), however. Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson’s decision to appoint New England Bishop Margaret Payne as ELCA’s representative to a recent peacemaking delegation to the Holy Land raises serious concerns. Bishop Payne is clearly an anti-Israel partisan who allows her ideology to interfere with the facts.
[xviii] Charles Y. Glock & Rodney Stark (Harper & Row, 1966).
[xix] Naomi Cohen, “An Overview of Jewish Defense,” Jews and the American Public Square: Debating Religion and Republic, Alan Mittleman, Robert Licht, and Jonathan D. Sarna, (eds.), (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002),, page 17.
[xx] Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman, (with the assistance of Lauren Blitzer), “Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel,” The Jewish Identity Project of Reboot, Andrea and Charles Bronfman PHilantrhopies, 2007, page 3.
[xxi] Larry Witham, “A state of grace at NCC ; Church group has Clinton's attention,” Washington Times, Oct. 25, 1993.
[xxii] Reinhold Niebuhr, “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist: When Pacifism Becomes Heresy,” originally published in Christianity and Power Politics, Charles Scribner and Sons, 1940. Reprinted in The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm, Joseph Loconte, editor, Rowman and Littledfield, 2004, page 134.
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