Synod is asked, as matter of faith, to reject oppression of Palestinians
The 2021 General Synod of the United Church of Christ, meeting July 11-18, will consider 11 resolutions and several bylaw changes. This is one in a series of articles about them. Readers can view an initial summary here and find full texts at the Synod website.
The United Church of Christ’s national meeting has spoken many times about peace between Palestine and Israel.
But this year’s proposed Synod statement is unique, its proponents say. It is not just a call to action. It is, centrally, a confession of faith and principles.
A committee of delegates will review “Declaration for a Just Peace between Palestine and Israel” July 15. To pass, it will require a two-thirds vote in a plenary session between then and July 18.
Shalom UCC, New Haven, Conn., sponsored the resolution, joined by five other churches in New England and California. The UCC Palestine Israel Network helped write it. PIN is encouraging more local churches to endorse the resolution — and embrace it if it passes.
A Palestinian plea
The resolution — and its “confessional” format — were inspired by a plea from Palestinian Christians themselves, said the Rev. Allie Perry. She is a Shalom member who also chairs PIN’s Steering Committee.
That plea was “Cry for Hope: A Call for Decisive Action.” It came last July from Kairos Palestine, an ecumenical Christian movement. It asked churches worldwide to join in declaring “that support for the oppression of the Palestinian people, whether passive or active, through silence, word or deed, is a sin.”
“That’s the most significant thing,” Perry said. “They were calling on Christians in all churches and calling us to action, out of a recognition that the injustices and human rights violations have been intensifying.” And they were asking churches to do so in terms of faith.
List of violations
To be sure, this Synod resolution, like others before it, uses background and “whereas” sections to describe the problem. It says Palestinians have faced, under more than 70 years under Israeli rule:
- “Dispossession of their land”
- “Displacement from their homes”
- “Home demolitions – over 120,000 to date and the constant threat of more”
- “A harsh military occupation”
- “Severe restrictions on travel”
- “Military detention of their children”
- “Vast inequities in access to natural, economic and medical resources when compared to that enjoyed by Israeli citizens living in illegal West Bank settlements”
- “Severe restrictions on access to their olive groves, farms and holy sites”
This time, though, those background sections are not the only place where faith statements appear. The are also in the central part of the resolution — the “resolved” section that Synod would formally adopt. In it, six things “we affirm” are paired with six more that, “therefore, we reject.”
Oppression as sin
The first pair, for example, says in part:
- “We affirm that the continued oppression of the Palestinian people … represents a sin in violation of the message of the biblical prophets and the Gospel…”; and
- “Therefore, we reject the notion that Israel’s occupation of Palestine is purely a political problem outside the concern of the church…”
“The intent is to invite people to embrace a theological confession,” Perry said. “This is not a preface to the resolution. It’s the content of the resolution.”
With this affirm-reject format, the resolution “mirrors other historic Christian confessions of faith,” said the Rev. John Thomas of Chicago, a past UCC general minister and president. As a key drafter of the resolution, he spoke about it in a PIN video.
‘The church’s witness’
Thomas named as examples the Barmen Declaration of the 1930s and the Belhar Confession of 1986. Both were responses by churches that could not ignore oppression — in Nazi Germany and in apartheid South Africa. Both, he said, sought “to acknowledge and name the sin and the deformity that threatened to corrupt the church and to corrupt the church’s witness in the larger society.”
If the Synod were to adopt the resolution, it would “affirm” such principles as:
- “All people living in Palestine and Israel are created in the image of God”;
- “All peoples have the right to self-determination … free from manipulation or pressure from outside powers”; and
- The U.S. “constitutional right to freedom of speech and assembly to protest the actions of the State of Israel and to uphold the rights of Palestinians.”
Among the things it would “reject” are:
- “…Israel’s apartheid system of laws and legal procedures.”
- “The imposition of so-called peace agreements by Israel or the United States through the exercise of political and military domination…”
- “The efforts of U.S. federal and state governments to limit free speech on university campuses and to restrict or ban support of the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement,” something a past Synod addressed.
Beyond the faith confession, the resolution would also call on all settings of the UCC to advocate, among other things:
- “The cessation of U.S. aid to Israel” until “Palestinian human rights, civil rights, and self-determination are fully realized and protected” according to international and U.S. law.
- Letting Palestinian refugees “wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors” do so — and paying compensation to those who choose not to — according to United Nations Resolution 194.
About charges of anti-Semitism
Thomas said the UCC has sometimes attracted complaints for defending Palestinians’ rights.
“What about the charge that our criticism … of Israel is anti-Semitic, and somehow fails to present a balanced view of the situation in which both sides of the conflict have admittedly contributed to violence?” Thomas asked. “We Christians must of course be alert to anything that perpetuates the long history of Christian anti-Semitism – something the UCC has worked hard to address in its theology, its reading of scripture and in its liturgies for decades.
“But we must also be alert to the fact that when it comes to criticism of the policies of the state of Israel, the charge of anti-Semitism is frequently the chosen strategy to silence our views.
“Careful reading of the resolution should put to rest the charge that it is either anti-Jewish or anti-Israel … And further, the call for balance in a situation that is extremely imbalanced between an oppressive and powerful state and an oppressed and politically and militarily weak state that is not even recognized by the neighbor and occupier, is really a false charge designed to undermine legitimate critique. …
“Charges of anti-Semitism and lack of balance cannot render the Palestinian cry for justice inaudible or irrelevant to us, particularly when our own government plays such an outsized role in supporting Israel – and, by virtue of this, in the ongoing occupation.”
Perry said she hopes congregations across the UCC will take the resolution — and its confession — personally and seriously. “It’s really inviting us to look at what’s happening, not just through a theological lens and human-rights focus, but asking us to look at ourselves,” she said. “If this is our stance, then what are the actions that would follow?”
[This article was updated on June 22, 2021, to indicate that a committee of delegates will begin considering the resolution on July 15. A previous version said July 16.]
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