Thursday, October 11, 2012

Churches Get It Right

Those of you who know me know that I believe in God--a God that is the sum total of all things that have ever been or ever will be.  A God who holds as its highest value the inevitable oneness of all things and the love for one another that entails.  A God who is summed up in the values of the person we call Jesus when he's quoted as saying that all the law and all the prophets hang on two commandments:  love god and love each other as we love ourselves.   

Those of you who know me also know that, in spite of the above, I don't believe too awfully much in churches.  I was raised Roman Catholic, and I found points of considerable disagreement with that church's dogma by the time I was eight years old.  Specifically, at that young age, I decided that if my dog and my friend, Lisa (who was Jewish), were not going to Catholic Heaven, I would prefer not to either.   This was not a popular position in Catechism class.

Once I was old enough to decide for myself whether "to church" or not, I didn't. I watched what most churches spent their time on (judging and condemning), and what they spent their money on (by far, mostly themselves and their stuff), and I didn't find much value there.  Then, I happened upon a church that restored some of my faith in church.   As with most things I do, once I got in, I got "all in" and I churched as I do most things--compulsively and with a tenacity that, if I were a dog, would make me a good badger-hunter.  Oddly, as time went on, I discovered, it wasn't the church, but the pastor of that congregation, who was one of the smartest people I've ever met, and one of the least steeped in archaic ceremony and dogma and strange conditions that "God" put on loving. But shortly enough, he left that congregation, and I found that the church, without him, was just as dogmatic and just as intolerant and just as conditionally loving as every other church I'd seen.  And I left that church.  Actually, it would be more accurate to say that church left me--inviting me for all intents and purposes to do something anatomically very difficult to achieve.  And I've pretty much refused "to church" since then, although I retain my ability "to believe" just fine. 

I've always missed some of what happened when I was part of that church years ago.  And I've always hoped that churches, and the usually good folks who comprise them, would eventually decide that if God is love, then God doesn't require from us a bunch of ceremonies and certain songs sung in certain styles on certain days, or blind acceptance of ridiculously unloving positions that someone says are the "word of God," or disliking people who view God through a different lens or who sing different songs or who sprinkle instead of immerse.  Rather, I've hoped that, in time, churches would see that, if God is Love, then God requires only that we love.  And there's been an event that indicates that we may be moving in that direction, right now, in the midst of some of the least loving times ever known to man.   I'm reproducing below the text of a letter that's apparently been sent by group of religious leaders to the members of the US Congress.  And, while it's not perfect, I'll be hoping whatever's gotten into them is contagious.  Here's the letter:
Dear Member of Congress,

We write to you as Christian leaders representing U.S. churches and religious organizations committed to seeking a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians. Our organizations have been deeply involved in this pursuit for decades, inspired by the call and promise of Jesus Christ who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
In response to our Christian call to be peacemakers, we have worked for decades to support both Israelis and Palestinians in their desire to live in peace and well-being. We have worked alongside our Palestinian Christian sisters and brothers to help build a peaceful and resilient Palestinian civil society by supporting hospitals, schools, clinics, and social service agencies.
These ministries include cooperative efforts with Israelis and Palestinians as well as with Jews, Muslims, and other neighbors here in the United States. Through our presence in the region, and regular visits to our partners there, we see first-hand the impacts of the conflict on both Palestinians and Israelis and hear from them directly about the reality of their lives.
Through this direct experience we have witnessed the pain and suffering of Israelis as a result of Palestinian actions and of Palestinians as a result of Israeli actions. In addition to the horror and loss of life from rocket attacks from Gaza and past suicide bombings, we have witnessed the broad impact that a sense of insecurity and fear has had on Israeli society.
We have also witnessed widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinians, including killing of civilians, home demolitions and forced displacement, and restrictions on Palestinian movement, among others.
We recognize that each party—Israeli and Palestinian—bears responsibilities for its actions and we therefore continue to stand against all violence regardless of its source. Our stand against violence is complemented by our commitment to the rights of all Israelis, as well as all Palestinians, to live in peace and security.
It is this experience and these commitments that lead us to write to you today to express our grave concern about the deteriorating conditions in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories which threaten to lead the region further away from the realization of a just peace.
Unfortunately, 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. This is made clear in the most recent 2011 State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices covering Israel and the Occupied Territories (1), which details widespread Israeli human rights violations committed against Palestinian civilians, many of which involve the misuse of U.S.-supplied weapons.
Accordingly, we urge an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act and the U.S. Arms Export Control Act which respectively prohibit assistance to any country which engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations and limit the use of U.S. weapons (2) to “internal security” or “legitimate self-defense.” (3) More broadly, we urge Congress to undertake careful scrutiny to ensure that our aid is not supporting actions by the government of Israel that undermine prospects for peace. We urge Congress to hold hearings to examine Israel’s compliance, and we request regular reporting on compliance and the withholding of military aid for non-compliance.
Examples of specific, systematic human rights violations related to U.S. military support are included as an annex to this letter.
In addition to specific rights violations, we see a troubling and consistent pattern of disregard by the government of Israel for U.S. policies that support a just and lasting peace. Specifically, repeated demands by the U.S. government that Israel halt all settlement activity have been ignored. Since 1967, every U.S. administration has decried Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories as obstacles to peace.
Despite this stance, Israel continues to expand its settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, claiming territory that under international law and U.S. policy should belong to a future Palestinian state. The Oslo peace process, which began in 1993, was publicly promoted as leading Israelis and Palestinians to a just peace based on a two-state solution.
Instead, since 1993, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, has more than doubled. Rights violations resulting from Israeli settlement activity include separate and unequal legal systems for Palestinians and settlers, confiscation of Palestinian land and natural resources for the benefit of settlers, and violence by settlers against Palestinians.
According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there has been a dramatic rise in settler attacks against Palestinians this year (4). They report that these attacks are often intended to drive Palestinians from areas the settlers wish to take over, and that Israeli authorities have failed to take significant action to stop the violence or hold the perpetrators accountable. We believe that these actions directly undermine peace efforts and threaten, rather than support, Israel’s long-term security interests.
We want to be clear that we recognize that Israel faces real security threats and that it has both a right and a duty to protect both the state and its citizens. However, the measures that it uses to protect itself and its citizens, as in the case with any other nation, must conform to international humanitarian and human rights law.
As Christian leaders in the United States, it is our moral responsibility to question the continuation of unconditional U.S. financial assistance to the government of Israel. Realizing a just and lasting peace will require this accountability, as continued U.S. military assistance to Israel — offered without conditions or accountability — will only serve to sustain the status quo and Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories.

We request, therefore, that Congress hold Israel accountable to these standards by making the disbursement of U.S. military assistance to Israel contingent on the Israeli government’s compliance with applicable U.S. laws and policies. As Israel is the single largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since World War II, it is especially critical for Israel to comply with the specific U.S. laws that regulate the use of U.S.-supplied weapons.
We also encourage Congress to support inclusive, comprehensive, and robust regional diplomacy to secure a just and lasting peace that will benefit Israelis, Palestinians, and all the peoples of the region, and the world.
With respect and gratitude, we offer you our prayers.

Rev. Gradye Parsons
Stated Clerk of the General Assembly
Presbyterian Church (USA)
Mark S. Hanson
Presiding Bishop
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Bishop Rosemarie Wenner
President, Council of Bishops
United Methodist Church
Peg Birk
Transitional General Secretary
National Council of Churches USA
Shan Cretin
General Secretary
American Friends Service Committee
J Ron Byler
Executive Director
Mennonite Central Committee U.S.
Alexander Patico
North American Secretary
Orthodox Peace Fellowship
Diane Randall
Executive Secretary
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Dr. A. Roy Medley
General Secretary
American Baptist Churches, U.S.A.

Rev. Geoffrey A. Black
General Minister and President
United Church of Christ
Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins
General Minister and President
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Rev. Julia Brown Karimu
President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Division of Overseas Ministries
Co-Executive, Global Ministries (UCC and Disciples)
Rev. Dr. James A. Moos
Executive Minister, United Church of Christ, Wider Church Ministries
Co-Executive, Global Ministries (UCC and Disciples)
Kathy McKneely
Acting Director
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
Eli S. McCarthy, PhD
Justice and Peace Director
Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM)

Examples of specific, systematic human rights violations related to U.S. military support:
• Killings of civilians – At least 2,969 Palestinian civilians uninvolved in hostilities were killed by the Israeli military between December 29, 2000 and December 31, 2009. This includes at least 1,128 children under the age of 18.5 Many of these deaths are connected to weaponry the U.S. underwrites.
• Suppression of legitimate political expression and protest – U.S.-supplied tear gas has been used by Israel to systematically suppress political protests and dissent in the occupied Palestinian territories. This has led to the deaths of at least 5 Palestinians and the grave injury of many others, including two U.S. citizens.
• Home demolitions and forced displacement – According to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, approximately 24,813 Palestinian homes in the occupied Palestinian territories have been destroyed since 1967. House demolitions in the West Bank in 2011 forcibly displaced nearly 1,100 Palestinians (over half of them children) from their homes, over 80% more than in 2010, according to the United Nations (UN) Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (6).
• Use of prohibited weaponry in densely populated civilian areas – Israel has used both white phosphorus and flechette shells in Gaza and Lebanon in violation of international humanitarian law. During operation cast lead white phosphorus shells were fired against civilian targets including a UN compound, two hospitals, and private residences causing civilian deaths and injuries. Flechette shells have also been used repeatedly in Gaza since 2001, causing significant civilian deaths and casualties (7).
• Restricting Palestinian movement – Israeli-only roads and more than 500 roadblocks and checkpoints carve up the West Bank, making travel for Palestinians arduously slow or impossible (8). The Wall constructed by Israel in the West Bank deviates considerably from the 1967 lines, confiscating occupied Palestinian territory and water in the process, and severely restricting Palestinian movement. Since 2007 Israel has also maintained a comprehensive blockade on Gaza, restricting not only the movement of Palestinians into and out of Gaza, but also restricting the import and export of goods. The UN and International Committee of the Red Cross have both concluded that this blockade amounts to collective punishment (9), in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
2 Weapons in this instance include “crowd control” items such as tear gas. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012 (P.L. 112-74) which is included in the US Foreign Military Financing regulations stipulates that “not later than 90 days after enactment of this act and 6 months thereafter, the Secretary of State shall submit a report to the Committees on Appropriations detailing any crowd control items, including tear gas, made available with appropriated funds or through export licenses to foreign security forces that the Secretary of State has credible information have repeatedly used excessive force to repress peaceful, lawful, and organized dissent.”
3 While this letter focuses on US-Israel relations and the Israel-Palestine conflict, these are laws that we believe should be enforced in all instances regardless of location. All allegations regarding the misuse of US supplied arms should be investigated.
4 For more information see also:
5 Details available at and through original date from B’Tselem at

UPDATE:  I should mention the response of the Anti-Defamation League to this letter.  It is to take their ball and go home.  The ADL has withdrawn from an upcoming conference of religious types where it was intended the parties have "inter-faith dialogue" about prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.  Here's a quote from Abraham Foxman, the leader of ADL:

It is outrageous that mere days after the Iranian president repeated his call for Israel’s elimination, these American Protestant leaders would launch a biased attack against the Jewish state by calling on Congress to investigate Israel’s use of foreign aid. In its clear bias against Israel, it is striking that their letter fails to also call for an investigation of Palestinian use of U.S. foreign aid, thus once again placing the blame entirely on Israel.

Foxman wants other Jewish organizations to take their respective balls and go home as well, urging them to:

 "understand the level of disrespect the American Jewish community is being shown here" and to also withdraw from the conference.  

In other words, if anyone dares to ask from Israel the same thing Israel is demanding from Iran and other middle-eastern countries (verification that there are not abuses of human rights, offensive actions against neighboring countries, nor abuses of American aid and weapons), they are disrespectful of the "American Jewish Community" and risk being labeled anti-Semitic.  I, for one, will take my chances.

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