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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Submission is Not an Option
A Palestinian Christian, speaking on a panel on Israel and Palestine at CTS this spring told us, “If the only choices are between violent resistance to the Occupation and submission, you must understand that for us, submission is not an option.” This needs to be heard not as a threat or ultimatum, but as a plea. The General Synod of the United Church of Christ’s 76% positive vote on June 30 to support divestment from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestine and to boycott products made in West Bank Jewish settlements is a response to that plea. It is an affirmation that non-violent resistance is the only faithful way forward in the face of stalemated negotiations and growing Israeli intransigence.
Just as the church is calling for boycotting the games and merchandise of the Washington Redskins NFL football team to protest its continued use of a racist name and logo that demeans Native Americans, so is the church calling for divestment to advance Palestinian freedom and equal rights. After years of meetings with owners, pressure by public officials, and peaceful protests outside of stadiums, boycotts are one of the few options left for people desiring to protect the dignity and humanity of their neighbors. In South Carolina, in spite of years of pressure and protest, it has taken the slaughter of nine church members to finally convince the leaders there that the Confederate flag must come down from the state capitol grounds. Must change require bloodshed?
Targeted boycotts of products made in illegal Settlements and divestment from companies helping to maintain the Occupation are neither anti-Israel nor anti-Semitic. Nor is the church incognizant of the multiple and complex challenges on the path to peace. For decades the United Church of Christ has denounced violence on both sides of the conflict and has affirmed the goal of a negotiated solution to the conflict in the Middle East in which security, economic viability, the protection of human rights and the extension of the full rights of citizenship are available to all Israelis and Palestinians. The church has worked with many partners in Israel who share this hope along with their Jewish allies in the United States. Our quarrel is not with a religious community but with a government that has built massive settlements on occupied territory, constructed walls that inhibit the freedom of movement for Palestinians and steal their land, demolished homes, and erected a security structure that controls almost every aspect of Palestinian life. The church knows that this is not only unjust, it is a path toward an ever-escalating cycle of violence that imperils Israeli and Palestinian alike.
When farm workers in the United States were able to obtain contracts from owners that helped lift the living standard of their families, or when Black South Africans won the right to rule their own country, it was not because those in power had a sudden change of heart or because violent insurrection overwhelmed those in control. Justice came because religious and civil society groups as well as governments and corporations joined forces with the struggle, adding their economic clout through targeted boycotts and divestment to demand change, altering the world’s moral vision and persuading those in power that it was in their own interest to negotiate a just resolution to conflict. In inherently imbalanced conflicts, churches understood that so-called balanced responses, or claims to be reconcilers, were both ineffective and naïve. They recognized that violence or submission must not be the only options available to the oppressed.
To support boycotts and divestment today is to risk becoming the object of intimidating accusations and, for some public universities to risk funding from state legislatures threatening punish institutions that join in the global movement. But faithfulness requires courage in the struggle. The United Church of Christ General Synod took a bold step this month, not to shame or to isolate Israel, but to respond to a Palestinian Christian plea that submission or violence not be the only options available to them.
John H. Thomas
July 9, 2015