UCC and Disciples Leaders Step on a Landmine

The leaders of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) must have suffered a nasty shock on April 15, 2010 when the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) announced the passage of a resolution condemning the “Kairos Document” issued by Palestinian Christians in December 2009.

In their statement, the Board of Trustees of the CCAR made it perfectly clear that Christians who affirm the Kairos Document are embracing an anti-Jewish theology that most churches had putatively discarded in the years after the Holocaust.

The CCAR warned that by affirming the Kairos Document, churches “would be saying to their Jewish neighbors and friends – indeed to the world – that Judaism has no validity as a covenant religion,” that “the world would have been better off without the religious, cultural, spiritual, social, scientific and educational contributions of the Jewish people” and that the God Jews “worship and serve is no God at all.”

The CCAR’s resolution continued:

In short, those who would associate themselves with this document and the religious foundation upon which it is based would be erasing years of Christian soul searching and repentance as if they had not been. We expect more from our interfaith partners. We are forced to wonder whether these Church organizations do not recognize the supersessionist and anti-Semitic nature of the Kairos document or whether they no longer care to share interfaith dialogue with us.

When it comes to drawing a line in the sand, it does not get much clearer than this. The CCAR stated it regards the Kairos Document as anti-Semitic and supersessionist and churches that affirm this document could not count on good relations with the organization that represents Reform rabbis in the United States.

Line Had Been Crossed

The problem for Rev. Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President of the Disciples of Christ and Rev. Geoffrey Black, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ is that they had already done what the CCAR’s board of trustees warned them not to do – they endorsed the document in an effusive pastoral letter released on April 6, 2010.

The letter was signed by a total of four minister – Revs. Black and Watkins, Rev. Cally Rogers Witte, executive minister for the UCC’s Wider Church Ministries and Rev. David Vargas, president of the Division of Overseas Ministries for the Disciples of Christ.

CAMERA contacted the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ to ask who wrote the letter and received the following email reply from Rev. Watkins: “The UCC and Disciples’ Pastoral Letter, which commends the Kairos document for study and reflection, is one to which all four of us contributed content.”

Obvious Problems With Text

The pastoral letter does a lot more than “commend” the Kairos Document “for study and reflection,” but offers unreflective support for the document without acknowledging some obvious problems in its text which are detailed by the CCAR resolution. The Pastoral letter also encourages members of the two denominations to boycott Israeli goods manufactured in the West Bank.

Moreover, the article on the Global Ministries website publicizing the pastoral letter encourages Christians “to stand against injustice and apartheid, urging them to work for a just peace in our region, calling on them to revisit theologies that justify crimes perpetrated against our people and the dispossession of the land.”

On this score, the Global Ministries article goes even further than the Kairos Document which does not level the charge of apartheid at Israel. In current discourse, apartheid charge is a clear attempt to cast Israel as the Azazel Goat of international relations – as if Palestinian suffering at the hands of the Israelis is the great wound on humanity without parallel in recent history. Victims of war and famine in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and more recently Sri Lanka might testify otherwise, but for some reason their suffering has, in relative terms, been largely ignored by the media and church officials in the West.

For some reason, pro-Palestinian, or more accurately, anti-Israel activism has become the sine qua non of human rights and peacemaking activism in these churches. Palestinian Christian leaders can always count on having their statements being uplifted for “study and reflection” no matter how offensive they are.

For example, the Kairos Document states that its authors “respect and have a high esteem for all those who have given their life for our nation.” Presumably, this includes Palestinian suicide bombers who murdered Israel civilians in movie theaters, hotels, bus stops, and pizza shops during the Second Intifada, and yet for some reason, no less than four ordained pastors “concur with [the Kairos Document’s] expressions of non-violence.” These same ministers ignore another passage in the Kairos Document that refers to Palestinian violence against Israel during the Second Intifada as “legal resistance” to the Israeli occupation. Again it must be asked, “Since when does blowing up kids waiting in line at a discotheque qualify as ‘legal resistance’?” (This is the sitz im leben (“setting in life”) in which the Kairos Document was written by Palestinian Christians and in which it will be read by Israeli Jews. Did no one tell this to the ministers who contributed to and signed this document?)

And again, it must be acknowledged that “the violence directed at Israel by Hamas is not intended to ‘end the occupation’ but is instead motivated by a refusal to tolerate the notion of Jewish statehood on land previously governed by Muslim rulers.”
This is what Hamas leaders have said time and again and yet neither the authors of the Kairos Document nor the pastoral letter acknowledge this reality.
Scrutinizes Jewish Behavior, Ignores Muslim and Arab Failings

This is part of a larger pattern. Like many other Christian peacemaking documents related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Kairos Document uses Christian scripture and teachings t o assess or interrogate Jewish and Israeli behavior without using these writings to assess Muslim and Arab behavior which form a significant part of the co.

The Kairos Document says that the New Testament casts a “new light on the Old Testament” and its teachings regarding “the promises, the election, the people of God and the land.” In light of these teachings, the Kairos Document asserts, “it is unacceptable to transform the Word of God into letters of stone that pervert the love of God and His providence in the life of both [the Israelis and the Palestinians].” The Kairos Document continues:

This is precisely the error in fundamentalist Biblical interpretation that brings us death and destruction when the word of God is petrified and transmitted from generation to generation as a dead letter. This dead letter is used as a weapon in our present history in order to deprive us of our rights in our own land.

This is a clear attack on Christian Zionism and the Jewish belief that God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people. The document remains virtually silent about Muslim teachings regarding the Jewish people and toward the Holy Land. Readers who search the Kairos Document for the type of ringing condemnations of Arab and Muslim behavior that it levels at Israeli behavior will be disappointed.

One instance in which the authors of the Kairos Document do admonish Muslims appears in the following paragraph:

Trying to make the state a religious state, Jewish or Islamic, suffocates the state, confines it within narrow limits, and transforms it into a state that practices discrimination and exclusion, preferring one citizen over another. We appeal to both religious Jews and Muslims: let the state be a state for all its citizens, with a vision constructed on respect for religion but also equality, justice, liberty and respect for pluralism and not on domination by a religion or a numerical majority.

In this passage, the authors of the Kairos Document posit a false equivalence between the impact of Israel’s identity as a Jewish state on its non-Jewish citizens and the manner in which Muslim theocracies abuse the rights of religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East.

Human rights activists may have a tough time discerning the fundamental differences between Israel and its adversaries, but the fact remains respect for human rights and the rights of minorities is much more of a feature of the one Jewish state in the Middle East than it is the more than a score of Muslim countries in the region.

Instead of calling on Palestinians leaders to follow the example set for them by Israel, the authors of the Kairos Document lump Israeli and Palestinian civil societies into the same category and then compare this category against a utopian standard of conduct. In this deceptive passage, the Christians who wrote the Kairos Document are not attempting to promote human rights per se, but are merely trying to delegitimize the Jewish state by using the vocabulary of “equality, justice, and respect for pluralism.”

The CCAR’s criticism of the Kairos Document is withering. It reads, in part, as follows:

Among its many failings, Kairos:
1. Echoes supersessionist language of the Christian past, since rejected by most mainstream Christian denominations, referring to the Torah absent Christian revelation as, in the words of the Christian Scriptures, “a dead letter.”
2. While opposing and negating the applicability of scriptural texts, historical presence, and theological discourse to justify the existence of a Jewish state, does exactly that in making its case for a Palestinian State.
3. Consistently objects to “the Occupation,” without making clear that it is referring exclusively to lands occupied by Israel and in dispute since the Six-Day War of 1967. Ultimately, the document becomes clear, altogether rejecting the very notion of a Jewish State.
4. Insists that the root cause of Palestinian resistance – both violent and non-violent – is ”the Occupation,” obfuscating the historical truth of the Arab world’s militant rejection of the existence of a Jewish state pre-dating 1948, and the decades of war and terrorism, which, in 1967, prompted and necessitated the taking of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan heights.
5. Purports to promote non-violent resistance as the only legitimate Christian response to the Israeli occupation, yet expresses “respect” and “high esteem for those who have given their life for our nation,” thereby implicitly condoning, even praising, suicide bombers.
6. Attempts to neutralize the concept of terrorism through the euphemistic reference to “terrorism,” implying that the deliberate Palestinian targeting of Israeli civilians with the aim of killing as many as possible in order to strike fear and terror is not terrorism at all, but a form of “legal resistance.”
7. Paints a compelling picture of the reality of Palestinians living under Israeli rule, but ignores the reality of Israelis forced to flee for their lives into bomb shelters, or in fear of being blown up while eating in a restaurant, celebrating a Passover Seder or dancing at a Bar Mitzvah Celebration.

These complaints cannot be easily dismissed. The CCAR is not an institution that UCC and DoC leaders can dismiss as a right-wing pro-Israel pressure group indifferent to Palestinian suffering. The CCAR represents Reform rabbis in the United States who typically have good relations with mainline Protestant pastors in the United States and moreover, the group’s resolution regarding the Kairos Document states explicitly that “the horrible suffering and indignities experienced on a daily basis by Palestinians living under Israel occupation is a “twin horror” of “the greatest tragedy of our time. Moreover, the CCAR has repeatedly condemned Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

This is significant given that mainline leaders, particularly in the United Church of Christ, have in th e past resorted to ad hominem attacks when faced with complaints about their so-called peacemaking efforts in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict. These complaints oftentimes portray the critics of these efforts as coming from conservative or right wing groups indifferent to the suffering of the Palestinians.

For example, when the UCC’s Old South Church was criticized by Jewish groups in the Boston area for hosting a Sabeel Conference in 2007, the church’s pastor Rev. Nancy Taylor attempted to portray her church’s critics as coming from the Jewish community’s “angry hard right side.”

And in 2005 when Christians and Jews condemned the UCC for affiliating with Sabeel, the denomination’s ecumenical officer Lydia Veliko attempted to dismiss these complaints as coming from “both the Jewish community and conservative Christians” who objected to Sabeel founder Naim Ateek’s “work to raise the plight of Palestinians in international consciousness.”

Attacks like this cannot be used to dismiss CCAR’s objections to the Kairos Document.


At a recent meeting of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs that took place in February 2010, Rev. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches acknowledged that a “lack of adequate concern for the safety, security, existence and well-being of the State of Israel is incompatible with a genuine concern for the Jewish people.” (The Jerusalem Report, April 26, 2010).

Rev. Kinnamon made it clear that church leaders cannot have it both ways.

They cannot express concern for the safety of the Jewish people while at the same time unreflectively endorsing texts such as the Kairos Document that de-legitimize the Jewish state.
The upshot is pretty obvious: Whoever convinced the leaders of the United Church and Disciples of Christ to issue their pastoral letter gave them some pretty bad advice.

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