Saturday, 30 October 2010

Board of Deputies response to Methodist Conference report

The Jewish Board of Deputies response to the Methodist Conference paper Justice for Palestine and Israel

On Wednesday, 30 June 2010, the Methodist Conference will consider the paper, “Justice for Palestine and Israel and debate its resolutions. Our serious concerns about the paper and its potential impact include:
  • Its imbalance, omissions and inaccuracies
  • Disturbing theological assertions and recommendations
  • Its evasion of a proper consultative process
  • The risk that acceptance of such a fundamentally flawed and partial report will set the benchmark for Methodist policy which will, by association, be similarly flawed and partial
  • The likely damage that this paper’s acceptance will do to Methodist-Jewish relations

It is with profound disappointment that we, as representatives of the UK Jewish community, offer the following critique of the report, and in this way. We place a high value on our positive relationships with other faith communities and devote significant time and resources to creating spaces and opportunities for dialogue. Dialogue is far more preferable than a conversation through documents. However, whilst those who drafted this report spoke highly of interfaith dialogue with the Jewish community, they avoided any contact with us over the year of its development. They gave us no choice but to communicate in this way, and with so little time.

This was not the only dissonance between their word and their deed. They spoke of justice, then produced an undeniably biased report. They spoke of compassion, and then they ignored or brushed aside the suffering of those in Israel whose lives have been taken or ruined in terrorist attacks, and in wars for Israel’s survival triggered by her neighbours’ stark refusal to accept her right to exist. They spoke of a better future for Palestinians and Israelis, then advocated a narrative of delegitimisation promoted by Israel’s sworn enemies, and called for boycotts which will harm Israelis and the Palestinians that work with them.


We offer these comments in the hope that fair-minded Christians will ask for better. They will ask for a report which does not shirk from criticism of either Israelis or Palestinians, but does so on the basis of fair and impartial considerations of a range of perspectives. They will call for a process in which dialogue is not mentioned as a window-dressing, but acted on as a prerequisite. They will look to play their part in bringing about a solution which is not based on delegitimisation and divestment, but active investment and participation in projects that promote justice, peace and reconciliation for all the people of the Middle East

Our deepest disappointment comes from the fact that this tragic conflict is still ongoing after so many decades. The cycle of violence which pits populations against one another is a product of so many grievous errors and so much mistrust among both Israelis and Palestinians, underscored again in recent weeks. We share the pain that the 2009 Conference felt in its call for a Church-wide approach to the conflict, and should we be given the opportunity, we will gladly participate in prayer and action towards a fairer way forward for both Palestinians and Israelis.

Imbalance, Omissions and Inaccuracies
From the outset, the report takes a partial view of the conflict, contending that, “the key hindrance to security and a lasting peace for all in the region is the Occupation of Palestinian territory by the State of Israel” (2.1). The occupation is clearly a significant factor in the conflict, but it is not the only one. Indiscriminate terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians and the refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist, which existed well before the 1967 occupation and underpins much of its military component, are at least as significant. Successive Israeli governments, including the present one, have always expressed a willingness to end the occupation, with the reasonable condition that the withdrawal be part of a settlement that brings peace and security to both Israelis and Palestinians. 

The clearest indicator of the lack of balance in the report is evident in its failure to live up to its own standards. It states: “Methodists are compelled to engage with the situation as it is, to bring compassion, a willingness to listen and learn from the stories of all those involved” (3.16). Of the thirteen powerful anecdotes it narrates, only one tells of the impact on Israelis of suicide bombings and indiscriminate shootings in its universities, buses, or religious seminaries. Unfortunately, this conflict has no shortage of heartbreaking tales, but this report has hardly included any of those that speak of Israeli loss, and lacks compassion for the horrors left in the wake of indiscriminate attacks by Palestinian militants on Israeli civilians.

This is a major omission not merely for the lack of balance it imputes, but also because it fails to understand the mindset behind Israeli government and public thinking.  Governments of the Left and the Right, and the electorates that voted for them, have developed policy in response to the existential threat that has faced Israel since independence, and Jews in the region even before that. To ignore this most basic fact is to cast Israel, its government and people as pantomime villains, acting without cause or compassion, and for only the most self-serving of motives.

The history section (4) and accompanying bibliography and filmography is obviously skewed. For example, the bibliography draws almost exclusively on academics known to support the outcomes recommended by the report. Other perspectives, such as those of Howard Sachar, Anita Shapira and Martin Gilbert could and should have been included if this report was to approach objectivity. Between them, various readers of the report have noted substantial omissions or partiality throughout the paragraphs in the report. Just a few examples include:

  • 4.4.2: The report describes a “massive increase in immigration, including from Arab states [where] Jewish and Muslim communities...had previously coexisted for many centuries”. But the report fails to mention that the reason for massive Jewish immigration into Israel from Arab countries was that a number of those Arab countries, including Iraq and Syria expelled their Jews in violent circumstances.
  • 4.4.4: The report omits that the context for the beginning of the Six Day War in 1967 was that Egyptian leader Gamaal Abdul Nasser had closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, expelled the UN peacekeeping force and moved his troops to the border.
  • 4.5.3: In describing the 1973 War the report informs, “A full scale war developed [italics added, note the passive] between Egypt, Syria and Israel”. The active form might have explained that Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on the most holy day in the Jewish calendar, the fast day of Yom Kippur, with the explicit aim of totally destroying the Jewish state.
  • 4.6.4: Where the report offers, “A new Israeli Government was elected that was opposed to the Oslo peace process and violence from extremists on both sides spread mistrust. Frustration at a perceived lack of progress towards peace led to the outbreak of a second Palestinian Intifada in 2000”, it completely fails to mention the intervening Camp David Summit in 2000. At this summit, Israeli Prime Minister Barak (of the left-wing Labour Party) offered Palestinian President Yasser Arafat 91% of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and 100% of the Gaza Strip, which the latter rejected.
  • In discussing the current situation in Gaza, the report omits the corresponding context in Southern Israel, where 3,278 rockets and mortar shells were indiscriminately fired in 2008 alone, endangering the lives of a million Israelis.
  • Where the Report mentions the Palestinian Kairos document (section 6), it suggests that it was issued by Palestinian Church leaders. This is inaccurate. The leaders themselves signed a separate statement that was far more nuanced.

The analyses of both the Palestinian national cause and Zionism are seriously lacking. It does not mention that Hamas, as established by its overtly jihadist and antisemitic charter, is an organisation committed to the total destruction of Israel. The Israeli Government has repeatedly said that if Hamas renounced violence and its aim of destroying Israel, the blockade of Gaza would end immediately. Sadly, Hamas are not alone in these explicit aims and actions. For many decades, the PLO was also committed to the destruction of Israel by its own charter, and Arab states collectively said ‘no’ to peace with Israel, recognition of Israel or negotiation with Israel in the infamous Khartoum declaration of 1967. Whilst Israel now enjoys peaceful relations with Jordan and Egypt, the spirit of violent rejectionism still lives on in the public proclamations of Iran and its proxies in Syria and Lebanon, including the Hizbullah militias.  

Meanwhile, while pains are rightly taken to stress that many Palestinians show an impressive, non-violent resilience towards their testing predicament (2.4, Story 1), the Zionist cause is characterised by reference to extremes (such as the testimony of the ‘religious Israeli settler’ in 5.1) and highly contentious assertions as to its origins. To claim that, “The roots of the political philosophy of Zionism – the idea that the Jewish people should have a homeland of their own – were largely a development from 19th Century Europe” (4.2.2), does not engage with the fact that, for almost two thousand years, Jews have repeatedly asked G-d to return His people to Zion three times a day in our liturgy.

Disturbing Theological Assertions and Recommendations

In one of its most alarming passages, the report asks the Methodist Conference, “To determine whether certain beliefs are acceptably held by Methodist members. The two areas of Zionism and Christian Zionism require exploration” (3.15). Aside from the fact that this moves towards the dangerous area of dogmatic censorship of many highly respected Methodists, it should be noted that Conference has only previously agreed to a Standing Order with reference to the Freemasons and the British National Party. It is a grim coincidence that the Hamas Charter also links a mainstream Jewish belief with freemasonry and fascism. Whilst this report tends to caricature Zionism as the preserve of the zealots of the settlement movement, ‘Zionism’, as many ideologies, denotes a wide range of views. The majority of these are fully compatible with a two-state solution, and most Jews believe in some form or other of Zionism. This document, therefore, seriously considers theologically proscribing a belief held in one form or other by most Jews. This is one of the many reasons why this poorly considered report is likely to cause a serious schism for Methodist-Jewish relations.

Furthermore, in requesting the Faith and Order Committee to come up with a response to Zionism and Christian Zionism (Resolution 14/5), it asks for particular consideration of ‘covenant’ and ‘possession’, approaches which form the basis of the theological outlooks of extremists and fundamentalists in all three Abrahamic faiths. The report even asks whether the Church should consider raising the spectre of supersessionism (3.4), a theological approach that it acknowledges has led to some of the worst excesses of Christian antisemitism. Whilst the Methodist Church can play a constructive role in ending this conflict, adding another fundamentalism to the mix is completely the wrong contribution.

Evasion of a Proper Consultative Process

The report is right to repeatedly call for inter faith dialogue with Jews and Muslims as a means of improving understanding of the conflict and developing joint work towards peace and reconciliation (3.2; 3.5; 7.4; Resolution 14/10). It is, therefore, deeply disappointing that no organisation representing either the UK Jewish or Muslim communities was consulted at any stage of this process. The polemic evident in the report’s treatment of history and theology might have been nuanced had the document gone through any kind of reasonable process of consultation. Readers will note that no mainstream Israeli or Jewish opinions are cited in the document, except for the Chief Rabbi, who is quoted out of context (3.7) in a way that distorts his well-known views.

It has been reported that the first draft of the report was severely criticised by a number of the external readers appointed by the authors; the Council of Christians and Jews; the Forum for Discussion of Israel and Palestine; and by Christians in the Methodist Church and other denominations. Tellingly, no further draft was shared with these parties, not to mention representative organisations of UK Jewry. In view of the criticisms already levelled at this early stage, it is na├»ve, if not disingenuous, for the ‘basic information’ section to suggest that this document could pose ‘no risk’ to the Church, especially when the report explicitly states elsewhere that, “In the context of the Middle East, every uttered word is analysed and dissected for hidden meaning and potential bias. Methodists need to think carefully about the words they use...in their engagement with parties in the region and their supporters in Britain” (3.13). The authors of such a report should have taken their own advice, and opted for sensitivity and dialogue instead of making a point of avoiding these considerations.

Conclusions
The Report submitted to Conference cannot be allowed to serve as the basis for ongoing discussion and policy making within the Methodist Church.  It is fundamentally and fatally flawed and should be rejected by Conference, to allow a balanced, comprehensive and meaningful consideration of the issues to take place, which will in turn lead to positive initiatives for reconciliation and hope for all people in the region
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As the Chief Rabbi has said, it is a cause of concern and distress “that the Methodist Church, which has previously worked alongside others to advance the cause of faith in 21st Century Britain, is prepared to consider this Report as an acceptable publication in its name. It failed completely to present Israel’s case in an even handed manner, and represents a one sided judgment of one of the most complex conflicts in the world.  The report will do nothing to advance the cause of peace and will do great damage to interfaith relations in this country.”
The Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council commented further that “This skewed Report is the consequence of what has been a flawed process throughout; using questionable and biased sources, failing properly to consult with impartial experts, adopting a highly selective narrative and ascribing theological positions to Jews and Israelis that would not be recognised by most people.  The result is a document replete with omissions and outright misrepresentations, which can only set back interfaith relations by years and does nothing to advance the cause of promoting understanding and reconciliation in the region.  If it serves any purpose, it is to give succour to those who demonise Israel and reject a two state solution, and that should not be a position with which the Methodist Church associates itself.”

Waiting for the revised report does not mean that the Church need be inactive. The Church can, and should, give its full support to initiatives that promote education, dialogue and reconciliation between Palestinians, Israelis and others. It can recommend the Forum for Discussion of Israel and Palestine is a vital resource for UK-citizens interested in learning more about the conflict, and support the Olive Tree peace project brings Palestinian and Israeli students, who cannot meet in the Middle East, to live and study together in London. The OneVoice movement is working hard in the region and beyond to build a consensus about a peaceful two-state solution. The Parents Circle – Families Forum, referenced in the present report, brings together the relatives who have lost loved ones to the conflict, who work together to campaign against violence on all sides and should be more widely promoted.

In both the Christian and Jewish faiths, we believe that there are few higher aspirations than the pursuit of peace. Accepting the bias and flawed attitude to inter faith relations that the report currently recommends would compromise the ability of the Methodist Church to act as a peacemaker. We hope that the Church will choose not to become proponents of one narrative in a complex and difficult debate, but rather to genuinely seek “Justice for Palestine and Israel”, with compassion for all people.


Monday, 25 October 2010

Terry Wynn - Pelvic piousness

Terry Wynn, a Methodist local preacher and former MEP writes: 

When, as a former MEP, I used to chair the European Parliament’s monthly Prayer Breakfast I soon learned that it’s hard to dislike someone who you pray with. I learned to accept differences of opinion amongst friends and colleagues of other political persuasions without falling out with them. So when I recently spoke at a men’s breakfast at my own church, I stressed that what I was about to say may not be to everyone’s liking but hoped that we could discuss such issues openly. We did and the response was quite enlightening. The subject was how the Church judges homosexual people.

I had recently been to New Zealand and the USA and between them I have come away strengthened by a line of preaching that I have been doing for some time. That is, the message of inclusiveness within our churches.

During HOPE 2008, the German/South African evangelist, Suzette Hattingh, led a week long series of events in Wigan. Of all her activities, two things became etched in my mind. She spoke about Christians not being judgemental, because Jesus wasn’t. Jesus would accommodate anybody, the woman at the well, the Roman officer, Samaritans, Tax collectors, prostitutes. In fact the ones he did have a go at were the Pharisees, as in Luke 11 v 46 where he criticises them for loading people with burdens they can hardly carry. That is the laws of the Old Testament that made such ritual demands.

The second thing was she said that Christianity is not about Religion, but about having a personal relationship with Jesus.

How does The Methodist Church measure up to these two statements?

Too many people outside the church, have been given the impression that the Gospel is all about “Big Brother is watching you” and he’s gonna get you. If you ever watch the religious channels on TV, and, in the UK, there are loads of them; too often the message is all about sin and God’s retribution. Theirs is the God of the Old Testament, the God of power, law, judgement, hell-fire and damnation, with God ready to zap you at any time.

Message


As Steve Chalke says, “What kind of message is that for the single mum trying to bring up her kids with little resources? What type of hope is that for the kids on our streets, some who have only known a life of abuse at the hands of those they thought they could trust? What kind of liberation does that offer the lonely, the redundant, the homeless, the forgotten, the cheated, the vulnerable or the countless individuals, young and old, who suffer from an acute sense of failure, or lack of self-esteem? What kind of good news is that for humanity as a whole? What often passes for the Gospel might lead to a faith to die by, but offers little hope to live by.” I would add, what kind of love does that offer people who are gay?

The worst part is, it’s hardly the message of Jesus when he said: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour." (Luke 4:17-19 )



In today’s world the church doesn’t get publicity for all the good works it does. The Roman Catholic Church will be forever remembered for the cases of abuse in Ireland and the USA and indeed throughout the world, and quite rightly so. Few will write that just about in every slum in the world you will invariably find Catholic nuns and priests working with the poorest.

The established church is its own worst enemy. The things that make the headlines, and appear to be the main concern and focus of the church are issues such as women priests or women bishops, celibacy, contraception, gay issues, abortion or stem cell research. The established church is hung up on pelvic issues. That is all the outside world seems to hear about. 

Starvation

Last year the Pope proclaimed that homosexuality is the biggest threat to the future of humanity – an even greater threat than climate change or wars or starvation or overpopulation or the running out of energy sources or religious fanaticism.  Why? – Because he says gay couples don’t have children and, if everyone chose to be gay, this could lead to humanity dying out.  Well, apart from the facts that gays are a small percentage of the population and they don’t choose to become gay, they don’t have any fewer children than celibate priests do.  Is this really the prime message of the Catholic Church in the 21st century?  Is that the best hope it can offer to a world in desperate need of the message of love?  Why should modern generations want to get involved in what they consider to be hypocrisy and bigotry? 

When a U.S. Evangelical research group – the Barna group – recently asked a large sample of non-Christian young people in their 20s which words best described Christians, they were taken back by the responses.  91% felt that Christians were “anti-homosexual”; 87% thought they were “judgmental” and 85% “hypocritical”.  What shocked them even more was that, when they asked young church attendees the same question, the same three adjectives came out on top.  80% agreed with the anti-gay label, 52% said Christianity is judgmental, and 47% declared it hypocritical.  And these are our own young Christians. 

According to the summary of the study:
“Non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians. One of the most frequent criticisms of young Christians was that they believe the church has made homosexuality a “bigger sin” than anything else.”

But the biggest surprise of all for the researchers was the extent to which respondents -  one in four non-Christians – said, without being prompted in any way, that modern-day Christianity no longer looked like Jesus.  So these young non-Christians who had such very little regard for the church had a great regard for Jesus.  Ten years ago, when a very similar survey was carried out by the same research group, the vast majority of non-Christians under 30 had generally favorable views of Christianity.  Now, that figure is just 16%.  When asked specifically about Evangelicals, the number is even worse: only 3% of these non-Christians have positive associations with Evangelicals.  

Inclusive

Thankfully the Methodist church doesn’t concentrate on pelvic issues. But how inclusive are we?

When I was in Washington recently, I went to Foundry United Methodist Church. An old type of building, as broad as it was long, (and it was long). It had pews, an organ and a robed choir. It had hymns that were sung to tunes you didn’t know. Yet given all this I thought it was brilliant because of the message they preached. The sermon was “Jesus and Poverty”, one of a series of based on the Economics of Jesus. But it wasn’t only that, it was the way they welcomed everyone. They believe in the full inclusion of all people and are part of the Reconciling Congregation Movement.

Within their statement of purpose they say

As we journey toward reconciliation with all, we proclaim this statement of welcome to all, including our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters: God loves you and we love you, we affirm you, and accept you, we treasure you. We welcome you.

At the same time, we recognize that there remain differences of opinion among us on issues relating to sexuality. We do not seek to erase our differences, but to journey together in faith toward greater understanding and mutual respect.

In becoming a Reconciling Congregation we believe that we are being reconciled to God and to one another.

I found it so refreshing and the reason is that I have become so fed up of the intolerance shown towards Gay people by so many Christians. 

Booklet

In 1993 Rev Stephen B Dawes wrote a booklet entitled “Why Bible-Believing Methodists shouldn’t eat Black Pudding”. It was to get some common sense into the debate about taking the Bible literally. If we did we take it literally we wouldn’t eat pork, shellfish, shrimps and a load of other things. We’d also stone people to death for a range of things from cursing your parents to gathering sticks on the Sabbath, from blasphemy to loss of virginity, from adultery to homosexuality.

When I gave my talk it was interesting that it was the usual suspects (good friends I have to say), those who take the Bible literally, who were the ones to stress that the Bible says homosexuality is an abomination and that it is not necessarily a genetic condition, (by the way, Jesus says in  Matt. 19 11-12, when talking about marriage “For some are incapable of marriage from birth”).
 Jesus gave us two great commandments and didn’t say we should keep these Old Testament laws that burden the people. When the adulterous woman was brought to him, he didn’t say “stone her”, when he was challenged that his disciples were picking ears of corn on the Sabbath, he didn’t say “stone them to death”.

In his first letter  to the Corinthians, Paul says women should be silent in church. He also says men shouldn’t have long hair but women should. And while Leviticus calls for homosexuals to be stoned to death, Jesus never gives a mention to it. Paul certainly does and you can understand why to some extent. In the Greek world in which Paul travelled, promiscuity was rife. But had Paul known then what we know now about our genetic make-up would he have been more understanding?

Inherit


He has a go at homosexuality in Romans and in 1Corinthians 6. Here he says “the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God”.  But amongst his list of those who are “wicked” are not only Gay people but “adulterers, thieves, the greedy and drunkards.” That would limit us all somewhat.
The question is why do we signal out gay people when God has made them the way they are?
Is an adult Gay person in some way sinful because of his or her sexuality? Most would, I assume, say no as long as they are celibate. Then what are they supposed to do with all that sexual energy that God gives us? Men,  know what it’s like. How many of us could remain celibate if we were born that way?

And what do we make of Jesus’ statement in Luke 16 when he says “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Do we agree with that? The beauty of the Methodist church is that divorcees can get married in our churches. People are given a second chance.

Why do we pick and choose the texts that suit us?

A couple of weeks ago I was sent a link to a European Christian website. As I opened it the first thing I say was “10 reasons why homosexual couples should not adopt.” I found this interesting because I’m on the Board of Trustees of Action for Children. When this issue raised its head some time ago the Catholic Church was up in arms.

Adoption

The attitude of  Action for Children, who are experts in adoption, is, “whatever is best for the child.” 

David Kinnaman, Barna Group president and author of the book, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity commented: "When Jesus pursued people, he was much more critical of pride and much more critical of spiritual arrogance than he was of people who were sinful. And today's Christians, if you spend enough time looking at their attitudes and actions, really are not like Jesus when it comes to that."
Rick Warren, best-selling author of The Purpose-Driven Life and pastor of the massive Saddleback Church in California reflected that: "For some time now, the hands and feet of the body of Christ have been amputated, and we've been pretty much reduced to a big mouth.  We talk more than we do. It's time to reattach the limbs and let the church be the church in the 21st century."  He hoped that the church will become "known more by what it is for than what it is against.”


I would love to see our churches being as inclusive as that Church in Washington. When it was HOPE 2008, the promotional DVD that preceded events had Joel Edwards from the Evangelical Alliance saying, “Too often the church is seen as one million wagging, condemnatory fingers. We want it to be seen as two million welcoming, open arms.” 
What do you want?
At the end of my talk I was amazed (why? I’m not sure) at the vast number of men who came to me afterwards to congratulate me on what I had said. Others spoke of having Gay children or brothers and the hurtful things that clergy and fellow Christians had said to them. We need more advocates for the persecuted, not to be seen as persecutors ourselves.