The United Church of Christ (UCC) is a shrinking Christian denomination mainly active in the United States, and "perhaps the most liberal of the Mainline Protestant American denominations". With just under a million members and 5,000 churches (down from two million members and 7,000 churches in 1957, when it was founded), it still has prominent congregations in the heartland of the American Congregationalist movements, in states such as Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Although the UCC's membership has included many US governors, senators, Supreme Court Justices such as William H. Rehnquist; some outstanding theologians such as H. Richard Niebuhr, his older brother Reinhold, and Paul Tillich; and several writers, and academics, it is, however, best known today as the church that U.S. President Barack Obama attended for twenty years between 1988 and 2008. For all that time, it was his spiritual home: "Trinity was where I found Jesus Christ, where we were married, where our children were baptized." He attended Trinity UCC in Chicago, with the largest of the denomination's congregations, some 10,000 members. Trinity UCC is a black or "Afrocentric" church that bases itself on the pursuit of love and justice. Its black congregation stands out as different from the wider UCC's mainly white membership.
Obama's "close spiritual advisor" in the church was none other than its senior pastor, Jeremiah Alvesta Wright Jr., who served as pastor there from 1972 to 2008. Wright was not merely a radical, but apparently believed and "preached anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, advocated bizarre pseudo-scientific racial ideas, opposed interracial marriage, praised communist dictatorships, denounced black 'assimilation' ... and really believed that HIV/AIDS was created by the American government to kill black people."
As if this were not enough, Wright harboured deep anti-American beliefs. In a sermon delivered on September 16, 2001, entitled, "The Day of Jerusalem's Fall," Wright appeared to celebrate white America's suffering:
"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye... We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost."
It is clear that Jeremiah Wright has a strange understanding of love and justice. And it is also disconcerting that Obama spent twenty years attending his sermons and called him a close spiritual mentor. Perhaps Trinity Church and Pastor Wright are aberrations in the belief and practice of the United Church of Christ as a whole. It could well be that other churches within the denomination are milder in their views and affiliations. On one topic, however, there is clear unanimity between Wright and the wider church. That topic is the Palestinians and Israel. It is there in the above-quoted statement by Wright: "We supported state terrorism against the Palestinians...."
It is even more evident in a speech given by Wright in 2015, in which he declared without blushing that "Jesus was a Palestinian". He also compared young black men and women in Ferguson with the young men and women in "Palestine".
"The same issue is being fought today and has been fought since 1948, and historians are carried back to the 19th century ... when the original people, the Palestinians — and please remember, Jesus was a Palestinian — the Palestinian people had the Europeans come and take their country."
The speech was, in short, a farrago of counter-historical nonsense. He said further, citing the modish notion of intersectionality:
"The youth in Ferguson and the youth in Palestine have united together to remind us that the dots need to be connected. And what Dr. King said, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, has implications for us as we stand beside our Palestinian brothers and sisters, who have been done one of the most egregious injustices in the 20th and 21st centuries."
Really? More egregious than Cambodia or Maoist China or the Jewish Holocaust or Stalinist Russia?
He then went on to condemn Israel as an "apartheid state", and repeated one of the most ubiquitous lies in modern history:
"As we sit here, there is an apartheid wall being built twice the size of the Berlin Wall in height, keeping Palestinians off of illegally occupied territories, where the Europeans have claimed that land as their own. Palestinians are saying 'Palestinian lives matter.' We stand with you, we support you, we say God bless you."
It is hardly a secret that former US President Barack Obama held the state of Israel in low esteem and disliked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It takes only a small leap of the imagination to attribute that dislike for the state and its leader to the sermons of Jeremiah Wright. In addition, it seems possible that Obama's anti-Israel stance derived from his close relations with the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam and his earlier experience as a nominally Muslim child in Indonesia.
In addition, it appears that "Obama was 'part of the Chicago scene' where [Louis] Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. and radicals would go to each other's events and support each other's causes."
"A former top deputy to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan tells Newsmax that Barack Obama's ties to the black nationalist movement in Chicago run deep, and that for many years the two men have had 'an open line between them' to discuss policy and strategy, either directly or through intermediaries.
"'Remember that for years, if you were a politician in Chicago, you had to have some type of relationship with Louis Farrakhan. You had to. If you didn't, you would be ostracized out of black Chicago,' said Dr. Vibert White Jr., who spent most of his adult life as a member and ultimately top officer of the Nation of Islam."
Here again, the question arises: was this anti-Semitic, pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel current simply a part of black Chicago radicalism or did it pervade the UCC as a whole?
The answer can be found in two overwhelming votes passed on Boycotts Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) and Israel-apartheid resolutions by the church on June 30, 2015. According to the New York Times:
"Approval came at the church's general synod in Cleveland, where delegates voted 508 to 124 in favor of divestment and boycott, with 38 abstentions. It was one of two resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict debated by the church, which has about one million members and more than 5,000 congregations nationwide."
A second resolution, condemning Israel as a supposedly "apartheid" state received fewer votes (51.4%) and did not pass, but its presence at the synod said a great deal.
There is a final irony here, and it makes matters worse. On the one hand, the UCC shows itself to be profoundly anti-Semitic. Not only do they hold a supersessionist view of Jews and Judaism, but their startling double standards towards Israel fall foul of the international definition of anti-Semitism in the modern age - and at a time when a new anti-Semitism is rising rapidly in Europe and elsewhere.
On the other hand, the UCC loves Muslims and goes out of its way to support them. Of course, there is nothing wrong with befriending others or supporting them when they are subjected to discrimination. Several of the church's online pages make a point of this (for example here and here and here).
According to a June 8, 2016 report by the UCC:
This interfaith Ramadan campaign, a celebration of solidarity, is the result of a partnership between representatives from the Northwest Chapter of the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ, and denominational leaders. UCC churches, to honor Muslim neighbors' Ramadan commitments, have been invited to do three simple things during this holy month:
1) Hang a banner or change their message boards in a way that honors our Muslim neighbors.
2) Take time to make an appointment to visit a local mosque or Islamic center to bring greetings from their local congregation.
3) Consider hosting an event to learn more about Islam and make a special effort to speak up against anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Is the UCC unaware that Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) is far from being a feel-good interfaith movement for peace and warm relations? It has, in fact, close ties to Islamic terrorism. As far back as ten years ago, its true character was well known:
But there is another side to CAIR that has alarmed many people in positions to know. The Department of Homeland Security refuses to deal with it. Senator Charles Schumer (Democrat, New York) describes it as an organization "which we know has ties to terrorism." Senator Dick Durbin (Democrat, Illinois) observes that CAIR is "unusual in its extreme rhetoric and its associations with groups that are suspect." Steven Pomerantz, the FBI's former chief of counterterrorism, notes that "CAIR, its leaders, and its activities effectively give aid to international terrorist groups." The family of John P. O'Neill, Sr., the former FBI counterterrorism chief who perished at the World Trade Center, named CAIR in a lawsuit as having "been part of the criminal conspiracy of radical Islamic terrorism" responsible for the September 11 atrocities. Counterterrorism expert Steven Emerson calls it "a radical fundamentalist front group for Hamas."
It is worth pausing here to point out that Hamas is, in fact, the leading terror organization fighting Israel today. Its 1988 Charter is a testament to jihadi intransigence, the absolute opposite of peacemaking. It calls for the slaughter of all Jews in the world, declares that "Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement" and argues that "There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors."
Has no one in the UCC the decency to repudiate this unsuitable connection? Or, in their wider dealings with Islamic groups, to raise the fact that many Muslims across the Middle East have been killing, expelling, and humiliating Christians, Jews and even Muslims (here, here, here, here and here) for a very long time, but especially in recent decades? Will they not admit that the expanding exodus of Christians from the West Bank and Gaza has been precipitated by extremist Muslims and the Palestinian authorities? That under the Palestinian Authority since 1995, the number of Christians has plummeted?
In 2015, Israel's UN ambassador, Ron Prosor, said to the General Assembly:
"After the PA took control of Bethlehem in 1995, Palestinian gunmen seized Christian homes and looted the Church of Nativity. Owing to this persecution, the city's Christian population fell by nearly 70 percent."
In 2002, armed Palestinian terrorists occupied the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, looted it and used it as a latrine. Today, Christians comprise a small minority of their holy city's population. According to the Christian journalist Lela Gilbert:
"In Bethlehem, Christians are not just a minority population in an overwhelmingly Muslim community. They aren't simply marginalized; they don't just suffer discrimination. Too often, they are threatened and intimidated; injured or even killed. They are cautious. They are uneasy. Many of them live in fear."
In Gaza, most Christians have fled in fear of attacks from Hamas gunmen. If there was ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Christians, it was under Muslim rule: two-thirds of Christian Arabs from Jerusalem and its surroundings left the areas between 1949 and 1967, the period when Jordan occupied and annexed the West Bank, and Egypt controlled Gaza -- years before Israel governed those areas. At the end of 2018, as Christianity neared extinction in the lands of its birthplace Britain's Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, called for redress.
In July 2017, the UCC passed another resolution, condemning Israel for its alleged mistreatment of Palestinian children held in detention following engagement in clashes involving Israeli soldiers and civilians. This fresh resolution seems to have been inspired by a February report from Amnesty International, which itself has been accused of "Failed Methodology, Corruption, and Anti-Israel Bias" and "singling out Jews in 2019". Amnesty also recently hired two openly anti-Israel activists:
Most recently, in 2017, Amnesty-USA hired Raed Jarrar as Middle East and North Africa Advocacy Director and Allie McCracken as North American Campaigner. These two individuals exemplify the organization's troubling ideological approach to Israel and retreat from the universal principles of human rights.
In addition, Amnesty systematically "ignores the weaponization of Palestinian children."
The Israel Defense Forces have offered refutations of biased attempts to use at best questionable claims concerning Palestinian children to attack Israel and its genuine human rights standards. Moreover, in passing a resolution based on such claims, the UCC made no effort to elicit comment from Israeli military or legal sources. The UCC also did not ask why Palestinian parents permit and often encourage their children to take part in attacks. The UCC also did not discuss deeper questions about aggressive Palestinian behaviour. Israeli troops and civilians do not just face stone-throwing and terrorist fire-kites from children; they also are forced to function in keeping the peace against the efforts of armed terrorist adults.
Building bridges between faith communities is commendable for any church; but to do so in such an uncritical fashion, failing to raise authentic Christian concerns about Islamic persecution, exhibiting the worst possible naïvety about Islamic radicalism and terrorism, and turning with such vehemence against the Jewish world passes far beyond a decent and -- should we not say it? -- Christian expression of faith.
Much effort has gone into the writing of the UCC Guide, and factual errors, which take up so much of the text, are clearly the result of conscious assumptions that have never been checked against reputable facts. But there can be no excuse for this degree of carelessness in such an important document, given the number of lives that have been lost, are still being lost, and may well be lost in future in the course of this unending conflict. If a body of Christians really cares about Palestinian lives, Muslim and Christian alike, not to mention the lives of Israeli children, the lives of everyone on either side, then supporting an illegal and fanatical use of violence by telling lies and permitting distortions in order to incite an anti-Semitic hatred that will embolden and activate further terrorist attacks is beyond measure a contradiction of normative Christian ethics. The UCC cannot continue to assert its association with Jesus Christ, a man of peace, when they so openly espouse the cause of Palestinian resistance that embraces violence as a solution above any form of peace-making. Jesus said, "Blessed be the peace-makers", yet here is a Christian church that blesses men of violence.
Dr. Denis MacEoin, an Irish and British citizen, is a scholar of Islam and an active supporter of the State of Israel. He serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.