PennBDS: Faith and BDS

This is part of a series of articles based on the program of the upcoming PennBDS conference.  Check out this landing page to find out more.

Generally, I like posts (or series of posts) to have self-contained arguments with links providing access to referenced information and sources, and an occasional link to a longer essay or book meant just for those interested in learning more.
But to understand the kind of BDS campaigns and other church-centered political activity being discussed at PennBDS’s workshop entitled “A Faith Based Approach to BDS,” this monograph written by Rabbi Yehiel Poupko and published by the Jewish Center for Public Affairs is required reading.
While containing less than 40 pages of actual reading material, Poupko’s Looking at Them Looking at Us does a remarkable job summarizing the relationship between the three major strands of Christianity (Catholicism, Evangelicalism and Mainline Protestantism) with Jews and the Jewish state.
Poupko succinctly describes the key stories behind the evolving relationship between the Catholic Church, Israel and Jews in the Diaspora, highlighting the important period between Pope Paul VI’s visit to Israel in 1964 and John Paul II’s visit in 2000 which capped off a 36 year period of theological reconciliation between Catholics and Jews.  And his section of Evangelical Christianity helps color a complex theological and political relationship that is too often characterized by cartoonish images of knuckle-dragging Bible thumpers whose support for Israel is based on little more than End-of-Days mythology.
But it is his section on Mainline Protestantism that really answers questions about why churches, particularly Mainline Protestant churches like the Presbyterians and Methodists, feature so prominently in BDS and other anti-Israel propaganda programs.
This story revolves around a number of themes, starting with churches that once were the backbone of institutional America.  Christianity thrived in early America due to an entrepreneurial spirit in which someone who got fed up with his local church or church doctrine was free to set up not only his own house of worship but his own denomination.  And until less than a century ago, virtually every political leader in the country (not to mention leaders in every other field such as industry and academia) would have been a member of one of these churches.
But in the post-WWII era, as these churches faced pressures from the growth of both Evangelical Christianity and secularism, they made a decision to put aside doctrinal differences to pursue an ecumenical approach to Mainline faith.  And who can fault their logic for pursuing this idea?  For in an era where more modern or energetic approaches to faith or non-faith beckoned the young, why waste time debating over the Presbyterian Book of Order when something deeper clearly bound Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and other so-called “Mainliners” together?
The problem was, what was this “thing” around which they could all rally?  For if these groups would no longer be interested in arguing about what divided them, what was it that actually united them and made them different than the Evangelicals with whom they were competing for souls?
The answer turned out to be secular politics, and secular politics increasingly defined as taking positions that were the opposite of secular political positions Evangelical Christians supported.  And as Poupko points out, in the realm of protest against American foreign policy (including support for Israel) it is not college campuses or labor unions, but Mainline Protestant churches that are the epicenter and primary driver for dissent in the area of foreign affairs.
These decisions to set aside doctrine and instead embrace the worldly political realm have had consequences, the most significant being the increasing the rate of decline of Mainline Protestants, many of which have lost more than 40% of their membership since ecumenicalism became cornerstone policy.  For as these churches replaced their theological distinctiveness for a common (and largely secular) political agenda, what was left to explain the uniqueness of being a Presbyterian vs. joining the Lutherans?  And why join these churches at all when you could get a political fix by participating in secular politics directly or fulfill your spiritual needs in an Evangelical church that did not have a problem explaining what it stood for spiritually?
The fact that these very churches once produced nearly 100% of the country’s leaders makes their struggle to survive and remain relevant all the more acute.  For who can fill the void when the people who once ran the country are not even called to provide a spiritual, moral or religious voice when the Sunday morning TV talk shows do one of their semi-regular “Faith and Politics” features?
With regard to the Middle East, it’s been the Sabeel EcumenicalLiberation Theology Center, a Palestinian Christian group dedicated to casting the Arab-Israeli dispute in Christian terms (with Palestinians representing Christ on the cross), and getting this narrative lodged into mainstream Mainline Protestant discourse.
Unlike unmoored leaders of these Protestant denominations, Sabeel (like other people and groups making up the BDS “movement”) know exactly what they want, and are not the least bit  hesitant in insisting that a church which does not support BDS and similar campaigns is not living up to either its progressive political or Christian identity.
Lacking manpower, direction or a strong-enough self identity, these leaders have become easy prey for partisans insisting that Christians must devote themselves to the Palestinian cause (while also ignoring the plight of non-Palestinian Christians elsewhere in the Middle East – including Christians facing increasing threats from militant Islam) to be considered “authentic” and “committed.”
Until now, it’s actually been the people in the pews who have kept the excesses of the church’s co-opted leadership in check.  This has played out most spectacularly with the Presbyterians whose 2004 divestment resolution anchored the early BDS “movement,” just as a rejection of that divestment stance in 2006 by 95% of members put the BDS virus into remission until quite recently.
But even as new divestment resolutions become a semi-annual ritual at national church gatherings, the big question is becoming not what efforts like those that will be discussed at the PennBDS conference mean for Israel and Christian-Jewish relations, but whether these churches will go to the grave grasping a Sabeel-authored anti-Israel animus that is at odds with not just the vast majority of Americans but a majority of the very people who remain in any Mainline Protestant church.

5 thoughts on “PennBDS: Faith and BDS”

  1. Interestingly, I have read that the Mainline denominations are declining in numbers and influence for two main reasons: 1) secularization, and 2) low birth rates among adherents. It turns out that there are not that many people or families who switch from Mainline to Evangelical. But there are numbers who stop attending and affiliating.

    In general, I hope that the Mainline denominations thrive, because they espouse a Christianity that is aligned politically with me on most issues, at least in comparison to Evangelicals. But if they opt to be co-opted by Israel derangement, then I won't be sorry to see them go.

  2. You might also be interested in this conference for a more logical perspective:

    The Persecuted Church: Christian Believers in Peril in the Middle East Keynote Speaker: Walid Phares, Professor and Author of The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East Saturday, January 21, 2012 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM Sheraton Framingham Hotel and Conference Center 1657 Worcester Road, Framingham, MA 01701 Registration: $20/person Student Registration: $10/person (includes lunch and refreshments) Recent attacks against churches in Iraq and Egypt demonstrate that Christianity faces an uncertain future in the Middle East. This one-day conference will bring together representatives from the Christian communities in Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt to speak about the day-to-day threats faced by Christians in the Middle East. Activists serving the persecuted church in Muslim-majority countries will describe their efforts to promote human rights in the Middle East. Speakers include: Raymond Ibrahim, author of The Al Qaeda Reader. Of Coptic descent, Mr. Ibrahim is fluent in Arabic. Juliana Taimoorazy, Executive Director of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council Richard Landes, Associate Professor of History at Boston University and Director and co-founder of the Center of Millennial Studies at Boston University Franck Salemeh, Assistant Professor at Boston College, Department of Slavic and Eastern Languages Dennis Hale, Associate Professor at Boston College, Department of Political Science Cynthia Farahat, Egyptian political activist and writer

    For more information or to register, visit or contact Josh Mellits

  3. I thought it was just in the Bay Area, the headquarters of JVP (is it any coincidence that it is also one of the Reut Institute's identified “hubs of delegitimization”?).

    It's also interesting how JVP continues to partner openly with hate groups such as Sabeel, and “river-to-the-sea” groups such as American Muslims for Palestine and Students for Justice in Palestine (who proudly present the atrocity known as Israel Apartheid Week at UC Berkeley and other campuses every year). Yet when challenged on this, they try to disclaim endorsement of the anti-Zionist agenda of these groups and in turn they criticize pro-Israel groups such as AIPAC for having speakers such as Rev John Hagee. (for an excellent example of JVP's attempts to wriggle out of such embarrassing revelations, see Yitzhak Santis's Engaging Zion post at which has links to his initial questions to JVP and their response.).

    There's a very key difference here that JVP chooses to ignore: AIPAC can legitimately be questioned and criticized for working with people such as Rev Hagee, who may have opinions about gay rights and reproductive rights that differ with those of most members of the Jewish community. But Jewish pro-Israel groups can work with Christian Zionist pro-Israel groups because of a fundamental truth– they agree with their support of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. (By the way, the Christian Zionist community is also extremely aware of its differences not only with the Jewish community but also with the state of Israel on these issues– but chooses to support it anyway.)

    JVP, presumably, also works with its partners (sponsoring ad campaigns against Israel, presenting speakers against Israel, and so on) because it agrees with THEIR position on the issue to which all of these groups are dedicated– ISRAEL. The Israel position is not a side, unrelated issue– it is the raison d'etre for JVP, for Sabeel, for American Muslims for Palestine, and for SJP.

    But then, JVP has never been short on hypocrisy–witness their muzzling of comments on their site; witness their supposed dismay at the anti-Semitism of International ANSWER while they continued to pay ANSWER money to participate in their rallies; witness their selling “anti-Zionist” T shirts at their national conference in 2007 while denying that they were opposed to Israel's existence; and witness their support of every possible manifestation of the BDS movement (including adding their name to a call for a full boycott of all Israel goods while denying that they endorse it!

  4. After many years of hard work by activists in both denominations, the global United Methodist Church (UMC) and the Presbyterian Church (USA) are voting over the next six months on resolutions to divest from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett Packard due to their complicity in the Israeli occupation [documented here]. US Campaign member groups United Methodist Kairos Response and Israel-Palestine Mission Network are leading the way in building support for the UMC resolution and Presbyterian Committee on Mission Responsibility through Investment (MRTI)'s divestment recommendation, respectively.

    It is hard to overstate the significance of these campaigns. Passage of these resolutions would encourage other institutions and major churches to take action. It would also send Israel one of the strongest messages yet that its oppressive policies will no longer be tolerated.

    These are ambitious, winnable campaigns, but we need your help!

    1. Endorse the United Methodist resolution!
    * Click here to endorse as an individual.
    * Click here to submit an organizational endorsement.
    * Click here to sign a petition if you participate in services provided by the UMC General Board of Pension & Health Benefits.

    2. Sign this letter supporting the divestment recommendation of the Presbyterian MRTI! You can sign as an individual or on behalf of an organization.

    3. Volunteer to help pass these resolutions! United Methodists and Presbyterians would be especially helpful, but really anyone can help. Any amount of support is appreciated. Please email if you are interested.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.