Last month the general synod of the United Church of Christ approved a resolution calling on its members and local churches to boycott products made in the West Bank. The resolution also called on the denomination's local churches and the organizations that manage UCC-related investments to divest from companies that do business with Israel's defense establishment. The same body, meeting in Cleveland, almost approved a resolution declaring Israel to be an apartheid state. This resolution received a majority of votes at the general synod, but failed to get the two-thirds supermajority it needed to pass.
The general synod’s pronouncements will not promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Instead, they highlight the intellectual decline of a historically important denomination whose Congregationalist roots go back to arrival of European settlers in New England in the 1600s. For the people who attend local UCC churches, the actions of the general synod should be a wake-up call.
To put it bluntly, the so-called peace activists who rule the roost at the UCC's General Synod are obsessed with Israel, which tries to prevent civilian deaths when it fights its adversaries, and indifferent to the misdeeds of radical Islamists who murder civilians in an attempt to terrorize the world.
The evidence is all right there in the general synod minutes. Since 1967, the UCC's deliberative body has passed nearly 20 resolutions about the Arab-Israeli conflict, but has failed to offer up one word of criticism of the misdeeds of jihadists who have been murdering and kidnapping non-Muslims and women in the Middle East and North Africa since the Arab Spring.
Boko Haram and ISIS have simply not made it onto the general synod's radar. When the Jewish state uses force to defend itself, the UCC's general synod responds with condemnation, but when Arabs and Muslims do bad things to other Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Bahais, the body has remained silent. And it’s not as if the general synod, which has promoted same-sex marriage and the rights of women, has spoken up on behalf of gay men who have been thrown from rooftops in Iraq or condemned ISIS-sponsored auction of women in sex-slave markets in that country. Any Christian body remotely concerned about human rights would confront these issues and yet the UCC’s general synod has remained silent in the face of these outrages.
The body even seeks to impose its silence about Islamist violence on other people and institutions. In 2011, the general synod passed a resolution condemning Islamophobia, which stated in part, that the mistreatment of Muslims in the U.S. contributed to Muslim violence against Christians in the Middle East. With this logic, people who criticize Islam become complicit in the murder of Christians in Muslim-majority countries.
How's that for moral inversion?
The failure of the UCC's general synod to speak up on behalf of Christians in the Middle East, coupled with its intense focus on Israel, is proof positive that the denomination's deliberative body has been hijacked by propagandists who are more interested in attacking Israel than they are in promoting human rights.
The day before the general synod approved the boycott and divestment resolution, delegates heard a sermon from Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor from Bethlehem (who ominously enough spoke to the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in 2004, the year it passed an anti-Israel divestment resolution).
During his sermon to the UCC delegates, Raheb spoke about God's redemptive love for the people of ancient Israel as they suffered at the hands of numerous empires in the Middle East. But instead of calling them Israelites, Hebrews, or Jews he referred to them as "the people of Palestine" or as “Palestinians." The only time he used the word “Israel” was in reference to the "occupation." And when he spoke about Israeli security measures in the West Bank, most notably the security barrier, he made no reference to the Palestinian violence that preceded its construction.
In sum, Raheb wrote the Jews out of the Old Testament, denied their historical presence in the land of Israel and then portrayed modern-day Israelis as the singular author of Palestinian suffering. This is rank propaganda with a theological twist, for which Raheb got a standing ovation.
What makes Raheb’s rhetoric so troubling is that in 1987, the UCC's general synod passed a resolution that affirmed the "continuing divine covenant with the Jewish people." This same resolution called on the church to "reflect a sensitivity to the image of Jews and Judaism" in its "liturgical content."
Twenty-eight years later, the same deliberative body rewarded a Christian who engaged in a sophisticated form of Jew-baiting – in a sermon no less – with a standing ovation. And the next day, the general synod enlisted the UCC in an ongoing campaign to de-legitimize the Jewish state.
The UCC’s change in attitude toward the Jewish people is embodied in two books published by the denomination’s publishing house, Pilgrim Press. In 1981, Pilgrim Press published Witness to the Holocaust. It’s a powerful anthology of writings compiled by Ariel Eisenberg. It provides readers with an overview of the Holocaust from start to finish.
Fast forward to 2003 when the same publishing house, produced Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians are not being told about Israel and the Palestinians by Rev. Dr. Gary Burge a New Testament professor at Wheaton College. In this book, Burge combines a hostile, supersessionist theology with misinformation to portray the Jewish state as unworthy of support from Christians in the United States. At one point in the text, Burge suggested that Jews who try to live in the land of Israel without accepting Jesus as their messiah would be “cast out and burned.” A second edition produced a decade later softened the language, but still propounded the notion that Jews who try to live exercise their right to self-determination in the land of Israel have violated boundaries set for them by Christian theology.
Over the course of three decades the UCC went from an attitude of respect and concern toward the Jewish people to one of contempt and hostility. About the only consolation is that the denomination's moral intellectual collapse is accompanied by a numerical decline. The church's membership has declined from more than 2 million in the mid-1960s to less than 950,000 today. By 2017, when the General Synod is slated to take place in Baltimore, there will be even fewer members.
But the stain on the UCC’s legacy will remain.
Dexter Van Zile is Christian media analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).