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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Off Balance

If it isn’t sex, it’s the Middle East.  At least that seems to be the case when mainline denominations meet these days for their biennial gatherings.  This year the Presbyterian Church (USA) will be considering a lengthy report on the conflict between Israel and Palestine that broadly supports the vision of a an independent and secure Israel residing within internationally recognized borders, along-side of and recognized by an independent, economically viable Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as a shared city hosting the capitals of both countries.  The report clearly asserts that “violence is not an acceptable means to peace, regardless of its rationale.”  The Israeli Occupation of the West Bank is denounced as is the blockade of Gaza, and a variety of advocacy measures are encouraged, including investing in economic development projects in the West Bank and Gaza and pressuring US firms like Caterpillar that continue to profit from the sale of products that support the Occupation or home demolitions.

All this seems relatively main-stream these days.  But just this week a group of prominent Presbyterian tall steeple pastors and the leaders of Auburn and McCormick Seminaries issued a letter condemning the report as “unbalanced, historically inaccurate, theologically flawed, and politically damaging.  Its critical defects,” they said, “threaten the Presbyterian Church’s impartial role as a peacemaker.”  I’ve read the letter and the report carefully.  I came away from that exercise reminded that often, regardless of what an author writes, readers tend to see what they want to see.  Of particular interest, however, was the assumption that churches ought to be “impartial peacemakers” and that more than anything else, we must be “balanced.”

Governments and their diplomats certainly need to be balanced.  They are the ones charged with the real business of peacemaking, with mediation, facilitating negotiations, and encouraging fair and equitable compromise.  George Mitchell is conducting the current Proximity Talks, not any self-appointed group or leader of the PCUSA.  It’s critical that the leaders of nations in conflict, and their people, believe that peace negotiators understand their grievances and fairly represent the concerns of each side to the other.  But I seriously doubt that either Mahmoud Abbas or Benjamin Netanyahu care too much about what Protestant churches in the US are saying (Of course, Jewish organizations here do worry, but that’s got more to do with maintaining a secure hold over the hearts and minds of the US Congress than with peacemaking itself).

Churches and their members do need to press governments to act, do need to stand with the victims and the vulnerable, do need to advocate for the promotion of justice.  Churches do need to speak the truth, a truth discerned with care and sensitivity, a truth reflective of realities as they are experienced by varied persons and communities, particularly those most deeply affected by any given situation of conflict or suffering.  To the extent the letter writers have detected factual errors or theological flaws in the official Report, their letter serves an important function.

But I’m not convinced that “balance” is or ought to be our ultimate aim as Christians.  In fact, I’ve noticed over the years that whenever I have spoken or written on the Middle East, the accusation of “imbalance” is almost immediately leveled by Jewish critics and allies in order to discredit everything I’ve said and to intimidate me from ever wading into these turbulent waters again.  As I said in a recent sermon at the annual advocacy conference of Churches for Middle East Peace, “it is not for us to preoccupy ourselves with the holy grail of ‘balance’ every time we speak about the tortured history, the agonizing present, or the uncertain future of the Middle East.  The language of balance is a tightrope without a net and subjects us to a distracting manipulation that gets us nowhere.”

In the context of the Middle East conflict, the call for balance and the charge of imbalance often seems intended to trump the search for truth rather than encourage it, stopping all conversation in its tracks. Furthermore, a preoccupation with balance in a context of radical imbalance hardly does justice to a situation in which one party to the conflict completely dominates the other militarily, economically, and strategically.  One does not need to have succumbed to Arab propagandists or be infected by anti-Semitism in order to find it very difficult to speak with both “balance” and integrity in the circumstances of this conflict.

The Presbyterian letter criticizes an alleged failure to listen adequately to mainstream American Jewish voices, but then attacks the recommended endorsement of the Kairos Palestine document because of its “troubling and weighted perspective which,” the letter writers say, “should not be commended because of its particularly one-sided views.”  Kairos Palestine, a passionate cry against the Occupation, was written last year by distinguished Palestinian pastors from across the theological spectrum, has been affirmed by all thirteen heads of churches in Israel-Palestine, and has been endorsed by 3,000 Palestinian Christians since December with an ultimate goal of 10,000 Palestinian signatures.  We may find the urgency of the Kairos document’s rhetoric disturbing, or even consider its recommendations unhelpful, though we shouldn’t be surprised at its outrage given the conditions of four decades of Occupation.  Are the letter writers really suggesting that we should listen with greater care to more American Jewish voices but dismiss this clear voice of our Christian Palestinian partners?  (I’m almost tempted to raise the critics’ charge of imbalance here, but won’t.)

I don’t occupy a pulpit on New York’s Madison or 5th Avenues, or on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, so perhaps I’m missing something.  But many years ago I was thrown off balance by words of Martin Luther King, Jr. to people like me whose life circumstances tend to foster respectable moderation.  The circumstances were different, of course, but even so there is, at least for me, an eerie resonance:  “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. . . who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says:  “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action. . . .  Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection,” (Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963).

John H. Thomas

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