Thursday, June 19, 2014

Zionism Unsettled and Conflict in Small Spaces

It's such a little place.

That's an American bias, but so it goes.  It's a little sliver on the map, a slender fleck nestled on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.  Just a tick over 10,000 square miles, which sounds like a whole bunch, until you realize it's just a third of the size of my ancestral Scotland, and a quarter of the land mass of my home state of Virginia.

It seems odd that such a small patch of earth would have such an outsized influence on the global conversation and my own faith, and yet it does.  This is the land the Creator of the Entire Universe gave to his Chosen People?  This is where my entire sacred story arose?  Point Zero Zero One Eighth Of One Percent of the dry land on one tiny little planet in this functionally infinite multiverse?

Lord, you baffle me sometimes.

It's so small.  So fragile and precious.  Like that hoped-for child, born too soon, their frail body filled up with tubes, struggling for breath.

I was thinking about small things, yesterday, as I read through another of the books for my doctoral research.  My focus: small churches, those intimate communities in which ties of blood and relationship run deep.  I am not studying small communities through the lenses of the American Big Church, but rather looking at them for what they are: Little tribes, in little places.  Those communities can be beautiful, joyous, life-giving and intimate.  They function on a deeply human scale, unlike the giant shiny Jesus Malls of AmeriChrist, Inc.

In that, little churches have much to offer us.

But when a small community fights, it burns bright and hot with the focus that comes with limited space and longstanding relation.

In a tribe, you can't just take the American approach to conflict, which is to polarize and then storm off to some other place where everyone is exactly like you.

In a tribe, there is no other place to go.  You are defined by that network of relationships.  They--and the limited space in which you are both rooted--are you.  Conflict is inescapable in close quarters, and managing conflict effectively there is both hard and necessary.

As I read through the carefully researched principles of effectively moving through conflict in intimate community, it played out across my mind and resonated with my recent re-reading of a controversial publication of a subgroup of a committee of my denomination.

Zionism Unsettled, it's called.  There's been much discussion of the place of such a publication in the life of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Should we endorse it?  Should we disavow it?  Should we refuse to even distribute it?

This document comes as we Presbyterians are trying to find a way to make ourselves servants of God's peace in the thickets of a multigenerational level-five conflict in the Holy Land.  It's a mess, tight and hot as a family-church argument.

Zionism Unsettled speaks from one partner in that conflict.  It arises from the slightly misnamed Israel/Palestine Mission Network, which was established by the church for the express purpose of creating ties to the Palestinian Christian community.  That, it has clearly done.  As such, it articulates that position, and does so in a way that legitimately articulates the heat of the argument.  It's a more measured document than others I've seen, but it is explicit about its purpose: to express the pain of the Palestinian people.  It does that, and like all anger, it's worth hearing.

But against the principles of conflict resolution as they play out in tight-knit communities, it cannot be the basis for Presbyterian engagement with that conflict, not if we are true to our calling to serve peace.  Why?

Does it accept the faith of the Other?  It is hard to see that it does.  "Simply put, Zionism is the problem," it says.  Meaning that the hope for Zion--a central part of Jewish identity--is stated as the issue.  The issue is them, it says.  By defining the Other's best hope in terms that radicalize and demonize, it cannot be a foundation for deescalation.

Does it define the conflict neutrally and mutually?  It does not, because it speaks--explicitly and intentionally--from one perspective.  That is a legitimate perspective, and one that needs to be heard.  But it is not enough.

Does it clarify the point of conflict?  Sort of, in that it articulates the struggle to find a mutual place in the land, and expresses some of the tensions that conflict creates.

Does it reflect critically on self?  No.  Reading through Zionism Unsettled, there is no meaningful treatment of Palestinian violence against Israelis.  I will not, not for a moment, apologize for Israeli aggression or oppression.  It's a real thing, and a part of this conflict.  But there's no meaningful treatment of the mutual cycle of violence.  Terrorism, we hear at one point, was taught to the world by Israel.  No mention of Palestinian hijackings, or killings, or suicide bombings.  Nothing.

"O Lord, They have our blood on their hands" may be a true statement, but it is not the foundation for healing.  "Oh my God, I have your blood on my hands" is where that begins.

Does it establish a joint purpose?  It does not.  It is primarily a deconstruction of the Other, not a document that seeks vigorously and intentionally to build common ground.  That is implicit in its title.  Deconstruction has its place, but it ain't what you do when you want to build something.  Sorry, my pomo folk.  That only goes so far.

Does it celebrate and hold up places of agreement?  Here and there, it tries.  There are whispers of that hope throughout the document.  It is worth honoring that attempt, so hard to do from a place of such deep pain.

So how to relate to such a document?  I think it is important to hear it, and to stand in relationship to it.  To that end, it is important that we not tell those experiencing pain and oppression that they have to shut up, and that we will not share their voice.  It's good that we're no longer seriously considering removing that perspective from our denominational web presence.

But it is equally important to be clear: if we are to serve peace in the heat of that intimate, tribal space, we have to stand not with one party or another.  If Zionism Unsettled was presented as the official position of our denomination, we'd be doing just that.

We need to be clear that it is not.

It's a hard place to inhabit, those close quarters of relationship.  It is easier to go with the bright clarity of binary conflict, to let the certainty of pain and fear become your narrative.

But if we--friend to both, torn by our love for both--are going to step into the heat of a conflict in a small community, we need to do the harder thing.

Whether the fragile breath of peace survives in those little places is the business of our Maker.


  1. Should not a responsible Christian church stand with the oppressed rather than the oppressor? To do anything other than that only affirms what Napoleon (I think) said, that "God is on the side of the big battalions."

  2. While you are considerably more generous in your appraisal of "Zionism Unsettled" than I or other critics have been, I appreciate your understanding of many people's concerns over the nature of that document.

    You can probably imagine what a document that takes the same tone but an opposite political position might look like. It would dwell entirely on Palestinian terrorism and Arab rejection of Jewish national rights, exclude any mention if Israeli culpability, and call into question the morality and legitimacy of both Palestinian aspirations and possibly Arab nationalism and Islam as well).

    But as you know, Israel's supporters within the church are not generating such a document, much less insisting that it be offered to churches for thoughtful and careful study. In fact, even material critical of church stances on Israel that does not take the type of hostile tone one finds in Zionism Unsettled has been excluded from debate on the subject time and time again.

    Given this, is it reasonable to assume that the Presbyterians Church is really trying to be a friend to all, rather than a partisan for one side which still wants to be perceived as a balanced peace-maker?

    In fact, it is the lopsidedness represented not just by ZU but by the bruising politics behind this year's divestment decisions (which has included throwing the man who was supposed to moderate Committee 4 out of his leadership role for the sin of understanding both sides) that has created a credibility gap for PCUSA that goes beyond just people who hold my views (extending indeed to the pews of the church itself).

  3. To answer your question: Yes. Next? ;0)

    And I wonder, DT...who are you? I am who I am, and I hide nothing about myself. You are welcome to explore. But try as I might, I cannot find anything that identifies you as a human person. Where are you? Who are you? How can we talk, if you hide in the shadows, all words and polemic and no flesh and bone? Be a mensch, my friend. Tell me of yourself, of your reality.

  4. I am a person who had to deal with the fallout of a early BDS campaign in my hometown, and having watched the divisiveness that inevitably accompanies dragging the Middle East conflict into a civic organization, I promised to use what little time and talent I had to try to help others avoid that fate.

    As I mentioned to another person who felt it a big deal that I have chosen to post on a site anonymously, my preference is to let my arguments speak for themselves knowing that this leaves an avenue for those who want to avoid those arguments to do so.

  5. What was the fallout? Strife/arguments in the community around the integrity of Israel, or was there real fear of an economic impact?

  6. The strife/fallout involved people waking up one morning to discover our city had voted for a divestment proposal that no one knew was being discussed, much less voted on (much like thousands of Presbyterians might discover tomorrow, as they did in 2004). It involved local citizens organizing to get that vote rescinded, which it was (much like the Presbyterians rescinded divestment in 2006). And it involved two additional (failed) ballot campaigns by BDS activists who refused to take no for an answer (you can guess the parallel I was going to draw, so I can skip it).

    During heated city council meetings citizens who once smiled at one another were asked to take sides in the Middle East conflict or be branded racist murderers (or apologists of a racist, murderous state), as photos of broken children were waved in people's faces and long lists of Israeli crimes against humanity read into the microphone (with no mention of the existence of a universe that consisted of something other than Israeli witches and pristine, Palestinian victims).

    And all during this time (2004 to be exact) those who dragged this disharmony into our community pointed out that the Presbyterian Church had just divested from that Apartheid state of Israel, which is why my city should to.

    You will see most of this exact same behavior play out over the next few hours at your General Assembly, as it did in 2012, 2010, 2008 and 2006 (and as it will in 2016 if divestment does not pass this time).

    So the reason I can be reasonably sure about the church's future ( is because I've seen all of this play out in the past.