Progressive Pastors on the War in Israel and Gaza

After the constant Hamas missile attacks on Israel and the unspeakable October 7 massacres there, and Israel’s subsequent military incursion into Gaza to destroy terrorist tunnels and launch sites, I was interested to learn, via archived livestream, the reaction of pastors in prominent self-styled “progressive” mainstream Protestant congregations.  

I focus on ideas and expositions (or lack thereof) and not on personalities or locations.

At one church on the day after the attacks, the minister began by acknowledging the surprise attacks and expressing concern for friends whom she had met in Israel, for whom she choked up for a moment. I was moved by this heartfelt reaction, but tensed up when she quickly observed that the October 7 attacks were “just one in a long line of brutalizations between Palestinians and Israelis stretching back over 75 years.”  Just one?

It took her a month to revisit the topic, when the prescribed reading was about Elijah, whom she depicted as being “braggadocious” and murderous in “ordering” that the “people of another faith,” the priests of Baal (who had, by the way, incited violence and instigated national disaster), be put to death. She would later refer to Elijah’s (and Old Testament Jews’?) “indiscriminate slaughter.” But praising the description of the Israelites falling on their faces before God, she chanted, in Arabic, passages of the Koran that are invoked while kneeling. (She had chanted the Shema the week before, so I guess she wanted to be even-handed.)

She did not mention that there are violent passages in virtually all religious scriptures, including the Koran, which are still cited during acts of violence. Instead, she encouraged general appreciation of other faiths, along with turning to friends like “my rabbi” with whom she had just had dinner, and her activist organizer Palestinian friend whom she planned to join at a rally to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. She referred to the latter friend as her “sister in the struggle,” and urged the people to contact their elected officials and to demand that ceasefire.

She didn’t care that “ceasefire” would mean that, like several times before, Hamas would regroup and continue to launch rockets and tunnel attacks on Israel. 

The next week’s sermon was even worse. Our preacher made Israeli soldiers in Gaza the paradigm of “humans executing fierce anger upon God’s children, humans destroying other humans,” and compared them to Sudanese who go from house to house, exterminating native African tribes. She indicated that the Gaza war forced her do her homework about all the other “genocide and ethnic cleansing” in the world, citing several other countries and calling for “fierce love, godly love.”

Again, she choked up for a moment. She said she could not understand the tensions between competing protests at the UN over calling for a ceasefire.  But the footage from October 7 shows Hamas terrorists filming the most horrible atrocities, with pride and glee, and boasting to their parents and friends in Gaza about how many Jews they murdered.

Another pastor theorized about the history of the conflict in the Middle East. Jews, he said, got their name from Judea, renamed after they had taken it from Canaanites. So, he suggested, it’s only natural that the Jews should have been exiled a couple of times, because the land is desirable real estate as a bridge from Europe to the Middle East, Egypt and Africa.

As any Evangelical Christian would remind this pastor, who also happens to teach at an “intersectional” seminary, biblical teachings attributed religious significance to the land long before widespread global travel. But he is convinced that its real significance is not religious—whether to Jews, Christians or Muslims—but geopolitical (as an intersection?). 

I found this sermon particularly offensive and hurtful because this multimedia pastor projected upon the altar wall a map on which Israel was not marked, with the disclaimer that he did not want to get “political.”  So, he began by erasing Israel from the land, and then wrote out the Jewish People by asserting that since the Roman exile, the land became Christian and then Muslim while the Jews “were everywhere else.” Is he unaware that there were always Jews in Palestine, not to mention flourishing Jewish cultures such as the Kabbalists of the sixteenth century? 

His take on the establishment of the Jewish State is that “Israel declared independence in 1948 and the day that they declare independence they declare war and push all of the Palestinian people out.” So, 600,000 Jews, many of them in the land for centuries, all of them traumatized and wounded and weakened from the Holocaust, decide to declare war against all the Arab nations, willfully bringing death to 1% of their struggling remnant?

Israel was established by a plurality of nations following a war in which the Palestinian mufti and a plurality of his followers actively supported the Nazi cause and advocated for the “final solution” against Jews in Palestine and throughout the Middle East. Most Arabs chose to leave under the assurance that they would return after a planned pan-Arab war to wipe out a new Jewish State.

One of my congregants had fled from Austria to Palestine, where she and her family lived through Israel’s War of Independence before moving to Chicago. In 1947, a Palestinian Arab neighbor and friend came to her house and said, “You’re just not going to be allowed to have a Jewish State here. While we very much like you, we wanted to come to take a look because family members might take over your home, but we will remember you.”  Another congregant told me that a Palestinian Arab neighbor, a female physician, blurted out, “I can’t wait to meet my fuehrer.”

The multimedia pastor did describe Zionism as a “non-violent movement for self-determination,” but slipped in that there was talk of establishing a Jewish State in Kenya, asking sarcastically whether there were “no people there.” But why mention such a blip on the screen of Zionist chatting (at British suggestion!) if not to alienate black listeners and everyone else from the Zionist cause, which he had already erased from the map? He concluded that the Israel-Palestine conflict is not about two peoples fighting over the land, but the result of the military industrial complex in other lands gaining financially by dividing them. Therefore, in “the spirit of Jesus,” Jews and Palestinians must come together—ostensibly in one state, in solidarity against the rest of the world. 

True, during the Cold War and even now, the Russian and American militaries are learning about each other’s weapons, but Arab assaults on Israel with threats of destroying the Jewish State began long before. This pastor totally ignored Hamas (Islamist)  ideology, reiterated in recent weeks, that there can only be peace when every state is Islamic, and that all who oppose this, whether Jews or not, are fair game. 

At a leading African American church, a guest professor-preacher worried that “no matter what one thinks of what Hamas did, the scale of response will be unimaginable against two million people who live in an open air prison.”  But of course, the response was never “unimaginable.” It was always part of the calculus of Hamas whose desire to murder Jews overshadowed any concern for the people of Gaza.

A direct analogy between modern Israeli and American leadership was drawn with the priests of Israel, as this preacher imagined them being rebuked by Jesus. The preacher saw the priests as believing that “the earth is their possession, that their dignity and standing belongs [sic] to them and to them alone, that…the very fact of life rest [sic] in their hands and in their hands alone.” He warned (relished?) that they “will come to see a different order of things,” a “regime change,” which “fundamentally upends the world as it is, not just to turn it upside down, but to make it right.”  The implication is that Israel—and America, with its history of slavery—will get their come-uppance. 

This professor preacher was downright apocalyptic, in ways far more extreme than Evangelicals are falsely accused of being, not to mention his lack of moral clarity regarding America and Israel in comparison to their enemies. If he wanted to speak “truth to power,” why did he not call out those who still practice slavery and sex trafficking, and those (Hamas, Iran) who trap the masses from within Gaza with intimidation, endangerment and hateful ideologies? Why not call out the Iranian leaders and other Pan-Islamists who make policy of the belief that no non-Islamist state is legitimate, and the Hamas henchmen (many of whom who have become wealthy) who keep using fuel to launch missiles instead of to operate hospitals, and hide under those very hospitals? (Israel’s offer to send fuel to the hospitals was just rejected by Hamas!) In the throw-in-the-kitchen-sink part of his sermon, he castigated anti-immigrant statements as being in the “language of Hitler,” but did not acknowledge that the methods of murder by Hamas reflected the Nazi sympathies still rooted in Palestinian Arab society (an Arabic copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf having just been found by Israeli soldiers in a Hamas children’s room!).

Another prominent minister spoke of just returning from what was described elsewhere as a  trip to Israel under progressive “solidarity” auspices. This was the next day after the Hamas barbarism against kibbutzim where people lived a modest agrarian life, advocated for peace with their Arab neighbors, and transported children from Gaza to Israeli hospitals. He mentioned nothing about the massacres, characterizing the attacks on Israel as “rockets from a small group of cheering radical extremists who do not represent the Palestinian people,” while there was “cheering and laughing on the other side as the bodies of [Palestinian] children were being pulled out of the rubble.” 

I never saw any accounts of people in Israel who were laughing and cheering. Everyone was too grieved and devastated. But he built his discombobulated (jet-lagged?) sermon on that image, self-righteously boasting that his God is “a God of love and justice” who “does not selectively cry for certain people.” But is it justice to represent Hamas and the Israelis as having the same reaction and to ignore the danger to Israel from the tunnels? Or to suggest that striking against the tunnels and the rockets, wherever they are located, is akin to the Tulsa massacre or the Trail of Tears policies against Native Americans?  Of course, the point was to equate Israel’s response to Hamas barbarism.

Some preach moral equivalency by padding their sermons, and others by quoting their friends. The latter was the preferred method of another minister who exploited a friend’s combined Arab and Jewish ancestry. She made her points by quoting her friend’s anguish: “I’m just tired. I can’t just turn off the news and put my head in the sand. I have friends in Jerusalem; I have a cousin in Tel Aviv. And…I’m worried about my son’s Jewish pre-school…. So many pro-Palestinian groups are anti-Semitic, so many American synagogues are draping themselves in Israeli flags. Where do I join the side that is pro-civilian and anti-child murder? Where do I join the group that believes in basic human rights? We all root for the good guys. Where are the good guys? You could say that there are no good guys to root for in this conflict, or rather that there is no single bad guy to root against because there are good guys on both sides.” 

The pastor rightly lamented that Israelis and Palestinians are in desperate situations trying to stay safe from bombs and to find food and water, though she didn’t mention that the Palestinian leaders planned to expose their own people to such deprivation in order to stir up global anti-Israel hatreds, and poured billions of international aid dollars into lethal provocations to war. Would this pastor and her friend deign to root against them? The preacher rightly urges sensitivity to the feelings of others and to the dog whistles heard by them, along with seeing their humanity and the humanity of those they care about. But she still comes down on the side of moral equivalency, definitely owning her friend’s voice: “There are no good guys and bad guys, only centuries of history and occupation,” “intractable problems,” “helping all people, good and bad, by which I mean that all of us are both good and bad.” Does it even matter that Israel turned Gaza back to the Palestinians in 2005? Or that the “occupied” territories were won by Israel after invading armies used them in an attempt to destroy the Jewish State, which was legally allowed by the UN to administer those lands until a lasting peace? 

As for our “good and bad” pastor, she soon posted on the church website an interview with an American Muslim “interfaith scholar” who regards the entire State of Israel as occupied Palestinian territory, who believes that the goal of Israelis is to exterminate Arab Palestinians, and who denies that there is anti-Semitism among Arab Palestinians and Muslims. He spoke of his chagrin as a child at not seeing Palestine on the map. (It would have been there had the local Arabs accepted the two states offered in 1947.) He pointed to historic Jewish communities in the Arab world but neglected to say that few remain since 800,000 Jews had been forced to flee from them. He insists that anti-Semitism is only a Christian European phenomenon despite the vile hatred spewed forth on every Arab and Muslim street.

The last two pastors in my sampling of sermons dealt with Christian anti-Semitism. The tone of anti-Jewish gospel passages is, according to the associate pastor of a world-renowned American church, “not unlike Hamas’s brutal attack on Israeli citizens and civilians and Israel’s brutal retaliation against Palestinians in Gaza.”  She went on to observe: “The battle lines seem to be drawn around the conflict that we want and not the conflict that we have, by which I mean either Israel is a nation that is innocent and all retaliation on their part is justified, or Palestinians are oppressed and justified in any acts of violence perpetrated in their behalf [or by them?].” 

The preacher concludes that “neither of those stances are [sic] borne out by the facts, by nuanced challenging and inconvenient truth…. The facts must be placed in the context of both Jesus’s condemnation of occupying empire [as she reads the Gospels] and the long and terrible history and present reality of global anti-Semitism led by Christians.” Since no violence is “congruous and fully rational and 100% proportional,” the current violence “comes from consensus and power.” She affirms that “all human beings are made in the image of God with inherent dignity and worth and beauty,” and that “terrorism which targets Israeli neighborhoods and families [but not Israeli police and soldiers or government officials?] is wrong, that “bringing the full might of the Israeli army upon the heads of civilians is wrong.” But she stops short of dealing with the fact that not acting against Hamas now will result in continuous attacks with more lethal weapons later.

One sermon moved me; I liked the soul of the preacher, who is the head chaplain of a prestigious university and a professor in its divinity school. As he saw it, Jesus’s comments about the image of Caesar on a coin is an affirmation that every human is created in the image of God and that the organizing principle of a religion and of a society should be “not one of hatred but of belonging and love.” 

“We have to reject hatred,” he enjoined. But he added: “If my child had been kidnapped or killed by a missile in the shelter, I would be full of rage. I would hope that I could wish for peace but I know that I would cry out for vengeance.” Then he sensitively noted: “Christians must cry out for peace, but if we only cry out and ask for peace with trivialities or niceties, we risk leaving the impression that we do not understand how much these children of God have been hurt.” 

Hatreds, he concluded, have histories, and those histories were caused by Christians who were colonialists, crusaders and anti-Semites. “Christians must stand “against all hatreds…for peace,” and in taking that stand must begin by “falling to our knees.” 

Though touched by this sermon, I could not help feeling that while repentance is always helpful, it should not lead to obsessing on the sins of the West instead of calling out the evils of radical Islamist hatred and violence. 

What has mainline Protestantism done to bring all its influence to bear on calling out Iran and its surrogates, Hamas and Hezb’allah, through pressure on Arab nations that have pursued cultural and economic dealings with the West (especially at universities)? Survivors of the Oct. 7 attacks report that some of the Hamas butchers and rapists were clearly high on a drug produced in Syria. Was this true of the 9-11 attackers as well? If so, will the churches demand international bans on such drugs, and discourage recreational drug use by their own constituents? What have they done to ensure honest reporting about Gaza instead of vowing allegiance to so-called “solidarity” demonstrations which are a feeding frenzy for diverse hatreds, identity grievances, treacherous sponsors, and mob action? Where are creative interfaith efforts to reach Muslim political and religious leaders with recognized authority to counter hard line hatreds in the name of peace and democracy?

Photo credit: Maseltove CC BY-SA 3.0 license

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