Sometimes, it is necessary for the church to talk about politics, principally when political power indulges its enduring temptation to make all things subject to politics.
But more often, it is necessary for the church to resist the seductions of politics; and speak of its own proper mission.
All of which comes to mind — again! — as the United Church of Canada prepares this month to consider resolutions regarding its policy on Israel.
In 2006 and 2009, the Church’s general council was asked to consider various proposals critical of Israeli policy, along with boycott and divestment measures. The council rejected those positions, but this month some of the issues will return — specifically, a rejection of Israel as an explicitly Jewish state, and a call to boycott products produced in West Bank settlements.
I expect that the general council will do as it has done before, and decline to put the church’s official policy on the side of those who wish to delegitimize Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people. The United Church’s commitment to justice for the Palestinian people is well known, and it will be entirely possible for them to express that solidarity without undermining the identity and security of Israel. Christians the world over have managed to do this for some time now.
More to the point, the United Church’s general council will be unable to defend itself from the charge of selective, even prejudicial, condemnation, if it singles out Israel while remaining silent on the brutality of Christian persecution across the Arab Middle East and Iran. So the general council will likely follow the script and demur from the more fevered anti-Israeli agitations.
Even so, this triennial contretemps does damage Christian-Jewish relations, far more than the United Church’s marginal role in global Christianity would warrant.
On the broader issue, Christian-Jewish relations are likely to get off track when they begin with politics rather than theology. Indeed, the Christian church as a whole gets rather off track when it allows politics to provide direction to theology, rather than the other way around.
Over years of fruitful collaboration with Canadian Jewry — I sit on the board of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the amalgamated successor body to the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Canada-Israel Committee — an enduring regret is that we spend too much time talking about politics and not enough on theology.
CIJA is not really a forum for theological dialogue properly speaking, as it is the clearinghouse for the organized Jewish community in Canada, handling everything from charitable works to education, anti-Semitism to Israeli issues. Yet a Christian who cooperates with Jews in various matters ought to desire that at least one of those matters be theological conversation.
The starting point for faithful Jews and Christians in discussing Israel must be the mystery of divine election, God’s fashioning of a new people, the Jews, as His chosen people and the promise made to them of the land of Israel. That same divine election gives Israel her vocation, to be a light unto the nations, that all the peoples of the earth might worship rightly the God of Israel.
This twin election — the promise of the land and the mission to be a blessing — confers both an entitlement and a responsibility, a blessing and a burden, to the Jewish people. There are not a few Jews who might wish it were otherwise, and Christians too. But it is not so, and that was God’s doing, not ours.
So the challenge is to work out what it means in light of that promise and that mission for the Jews to have returned to their ancestral homeland. How can the Jews be secure in the land of Israel, in the face of often hostile neighbours? How can the people of Israel be a blessing to the nations — starting with the nation in their midst and on their borders, the Palestinians? How to maintain the right to the promise, and the fulfilment of the mission?
These deeper questions are not without political consequence, but they are properly theological first.
They are quite beyond the capacity of being resolved by the grubby machinations of boycott or divestment campaigns. In fact, they demand of Christians the more rigorous and difficult contemplation of what they have to say about, and to, Jews and their continuing promise and mission in the world today. The United Church of Canada’s general council should discuss that, and leave the unworthy resolutions aside.