As a progressive Christian minister in the United Church of Christ, and one committed to interfaith cooperation and peace, I know it is with great pain that people across the globe watch the difficult events in Israel-Palestine continue to unfold day after day. A sense of hopelessness pervades the air as the civilian death count climbs. As usual, civilians bear the brunt of these conflicts. What constructive role can Americans play in bringing this conflict to an end?
Divestment on the part of U.S. churches, an idea under consideration by some Christian bodies, will have no measurable impact. What might be impactful, however, is if the National Council of Churches called together our interfaith partners with a nearly impossible task: to develop a set of principles to bring about peace between Israel and Palestine. Such discussions would have to include, of course, religious leaders from the region. Why take adversarial positions if instead together religious leaders from the United States -- where so much of the aid to both Israel and Palestine comes from -- and Israel and Palestine could come together and forge a peace plan to be presented to government leaders who have thus far failed to come to a diplomatic resolution?
American citizens tend to fit this war into their preferred enemy stereotyping, only making the situation worse by picking sides and casting often-unfair aspersions on either the Israelis or the Palestinians. Today I received forceful messages from American partisans. One claimed Israeli Jews were all Nazis and the other claimed that all Palestinians were terrorists. Some Jewish groups have accused U.S. churches considering divestment of anti-Semitism. How do such absurd statements -- and many such as these are being made across social media -- help?
There are even conservative evangelical Christians in the United States that hope for conflict in the region because they believe it will bring about the End Times, so they push for war.
Jay Michaelson wrote in an excellent essay in The Jewish Daily Forward -- 5 Ways To Turn Down the Social Media Flame -- that read, in part:
Presumably, the echo chambers in which we cloister ourselves have an impact on ourselves, even if not on Israel or Palestine. We do create communities of shared values, online as well as in person, and if those values are extreme one-sidedness bereft of analysis or reflection -- well, that matters, if nothing else, to the kinds of communities in which we and our children are supposed to live.
Human Rights Watch has made a persuasive case that both Hamas and the Israeli government have committed war crimes in targeting civilians. The death toll has fallen disproportionately on Palestinians but the Iron Dome Mission Defense System paid for with American dollars has certainly saved civilians -- Chuck Hagel says "countless" -- though it is unclear entirely how successful the system is vs. the antiquated weapons being used by Hamas.
U.S. Christian leaders who wrote to President Obama this week were correct to argue: "As U.S. churches and Christian organizations, we join others worldwide who are calling for an immediate end to the violence -- as well as its underlying causes -- in Palestine and Israel." This conflict must stop. The letter made the critical point, however, that until a final peace is reached the cycle of violence will continue:
Over the last decade, Israel has repeatedly carried out similar military operations in Gaza. In each instance, over a period of days or weeks, Israel bombed and invaded Gaza and Palestinian militant groups stepped up their practice of firing rockets into Israel. Each of these operations ended with a cease-fire that temporarily decreased military action but did not end the conflict nor lift the oppressive Israeli blockade institutionalized in Gaza since 2007. It is our view that these cease-fires failed to last because they did not address deeper injustices. After each new cease-fire Palestinians in Gaza remained subject to the legal, structural, and physical violence inherent in Israel's occupation and siege on Gaza, which constitutes collective punishment. This includes crushing restrictions and limitations placed on Palestinian movement, access to water and electricity, economic development, and other freedoms in both the West Bank and Gaza.
The letter goes on to say that the Obama administration and Congress have been right to condemn Hamas' attacks into Israeli territory. There is a perception by some, certainly within the U.S. Jewish community, that mainline and progressive Christians excuse such attacks as justifiable or a natural outcome of the occupation. Those of us who belong to mainline and progressive Christian traditions need to speak with moral clarity in condemning any attacks on civilians. Here in Oregon I can promise you there would be little restraint if missiles were being fired at us from across the river in Washington State.
It may be absurd to think that religion leaders can succeed where all others have failed, but Muslims, Jews and Christians are part of the same family. Our traditions are intertwined. Ultimately, destines are tied together. Pope Francis recently demonstrated the power of faith in peacemaking by bringing Israeli and Palestinian leaders together. If this conflict cannot be resolved in a way that brings peace and stability for all, it begs the question whether or not we have the will to be the peaceful people our Creator intended.
In his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:
We have inherited a large house, a great "world house" in which we have to live together -- black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu -- a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, we must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.
Building that one world community where all can live in peace is still our great challenge.