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 major U.S. governors, senators, members of the Supreme Court 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 those years, 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 last September 16 marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11 entitled, "The Day of Jerusalem's Fall," Wright seemed to celebrate white America's comeuppance. ... "We 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 into our own front yards."
It is clear that Jeremiah Wright has a strange understanding of love and justice. And it is also disconcerting that Barack Obama spent twenty years attending his sermons and called him a close spiritual mentor. But 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. But on one topic, 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," and compared young black men and women in Ferguson with the young men and women in "Palestine." This and other statements were delivered at a Nation of Islam event in Washington D.C. Speaking of the Black Lives Matter movement, Wright said:
"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 ahistorical 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 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 Barack Obama hates Israel; it takes a small leap of imagination to attribute that hatred in large part to the sermons of Jeremiah Wright. There can be little doubt that at least some of Obama's anti-Israeli stance derives from his close relations with the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam and his earlier experience, as a half-Muslim child in Indonesia.
It appears that "Obama was 'part of the Chicago scene' where Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. and radicals would go to each other's events and support each other's causes." 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 is to be found in two overwhelming votes passed on "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions" (BDS) and "Israel-apartheid" resolutions by the UCC 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 an "apartheid" state, received fewer votes (51.4%) and did not pass, but its presence at the synod said a great deal.
Following this vote in 2015, an organization affiliated to the UCC, the UCC Palestine Israel Network (UCCPIN) published a guide to Israel-Palestine affairs in August and again in September 2016. Titled "Promoting a Just Peace in Palestine-Israel", and sub-headed "A Guide for United Church of Christ Faith Leaders", this toxic document is a desperately one-sided, inaccurate, and counter-factual exercise in futile politics. Legally, UCCPIN operates under the aegis of one of the denomination's local conferences. Their guide is, therefore, not the direct work of the church's leadership, but is clearly endorsed by a section of it.
The Guide most certainly does not favour justice or peace in the Holy Land, as its contents show on every page. Some delegates opposed to the resolution identified its one-sidedness. Joanne Marchetto, of the Penn-Northeast Conference of the UCC, said she was "uncomfortable with how this resolution is presented... This is a great injustice to the land, and I think we need to hear both sides of the argument." But the guide produced by the church rejects any call to hear more than the Palestinian narrative and anti-Israel arguments. At the end, it has a four-page list of resources, books, DVDs, websites, a reading list, educational material, alternative travel organizations, and films. Not one of the many items on this list is remotely pro-Israel. All are hardline pro-Palestine activist materials and links. The UCC guide does not pay even lip service to the notion of fairness, dual narratives, or a need for mutual understanding. The pro-peace Jewish/Israeli voice is silenced while Palestinian hate speech, genocidal threats, and endless terrorism do not come in for criticism at any moment.
It is worth looking at some of the arguments advanced in the guide, and where better to start than the Introduction (p.2), which opens with a reference to the 2009 Kairos Palestine document. This prefaces everything else because part of the resolution at the 30th synod was that church members must study the document as a basis for their understanding of the Middle East and the actions that must follow.
There is no room here to describe Kairos in detail, but readers can find full commentary here and here. Perhaps it is enough to say that the Central Conference of American Rabbis has described it as "supersessionist" and "anti-Semitic". Supersessionism is a modern revival of the older Christian claim that God has replaced the Jews with Christians, who are now his favoured people. It permits the introduction of overt anti-Semitism into Christian doctrine and action, for all that it is no longer a mainstream position within Christian churches, except, sadly, in Sweden.
The Kairos Palestine document was put together by Christian Palestinians who adopted the Muslim narrative about Palestinians as innocent victims of Jewish aggression. It is mendacious about which of the two sides is responsible for the violence that has accompanied the creation and maintenance of a Jewish state. Here is just one example of this distortion: "The Palestinian people... also engaged in peaceful struggle, especially during the first intifada."
The words "peaceful struggle" surely stick in one's throat. During the first four years of the intifada, more than 3,600 Molotov cocktail attacks, 100 hand-grenade attacks and 600 assaults with guns or explosives were reported by the Israel Defense Forces. The violence was directed at civilians and soldiers alike. During this period, 16 Israeli civilians and 11 soldiers were killed by Palestinians in the territories; more than 1,400 Israeli civilians and 1,700 Israeli soldiers were injured. Approximately 1,100 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops. And Palestinians were indeed stabbed, hacked with axes, shot, clubbed and burned with acid -- not by Israelis but by Palestinian death squads.
One of the authors of the Kairos document was Theodosias Atallah Hanna, the Archbishop of Sebastia from the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem and a former spokesman of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. He called for the creation of an Islamic-Christian union that would foil the "American offensive" against Iraq and "release Palestine from the river to the sea" (which would entail the elimination of Israel).
"The suicide bombers who carry out their activities in the name of religion are national heroes and we're proud of them," Hanna has allegedly said, according to the ASSIST News Service. He also said, in a speech in Dubai, "Some freedom fighters adopt martyrdom or suicide bombing, while others opt for other measures. But all these struggles serve the continued intifada for freedom. Therefore, we support all these causes."
The UCC, moreover, has gone out of its way to ally itself with Muslims and to attack Jews, so their unwillingness to condemn Hanna and other authors of the Kairos document lends a further air of one-sidedness to their position. This one-sidedness is made abundantly clear:
1.4 In the face of this reality, Israel justifies its actions as self-defence, including occupation, collective punishment and all other forms of reprisals against the Palestinians. In our opinion, this vision is a reversal of reality. Yes, there is Palestinian resistance to the occupation. However, if there were no occupation, there would be no resistance, no fear and no insecurity. This is our understanding of the situation. Therefore, we call on the Israelis to end the occupation. Then they will see a new world in which there is no fear, no threat but rather security, justice and peace.
Oh? As when the Israelis left the Gaza Strip in 2005? Unfortunately, the Palestinians have a history of regarding every retreat by Israel as a triumph of aggression over diplomacy, as if to say: We shoot at Israelis and they leave; so let's keep doing it.
It is all, then, still the fault of Israel, yet a Christian church in the United States endorses such a document while claiming to promote a "just" peace. The rest of the document follows suit. There is no room in it for a Jewish, Israeli or moderate Christian voice, just hatred of Israel and defence of the Palestinians who have turned down generous offers of peace time and again.
The naïvety of the UCC is particularly striking in its choice to take at face value the Palestinian statement that if Israel ended its occupation, peace would follow as day follows night. That is simply bunkum. When, after 1949, Gaza was occupied by Egypt and the West Bank by Jordan, no one protested, no one attacked Egyptians or Jordanians. In other words, Israel occupied only itself. But Palestinian terrorism against Israelis continued up to 1967, right through the period of Israeli non-occupation. There were no "settlements" then. Rather, the Palestinians have always regarded all of Israel as one big "settlement." Just look at any Palestinian maps; they cover both the entirety of Israel and the Palestinian territories.
That naivety is further underscored by the fact that Israel pulled its troops and civilians out of Gaza between 1994 and 2005, yet "resistance" by Gazan terrorists under the radical Islamic movement Hamas grew fiercer than before, resulting in ongoing rocket attacks on Israeli towns and three major wars in 2008-9, 2012, and 2014. In its Introduction, the UCC, knowing full well that Israel has not occupied Gaza since 2005, still speaks of "the Israeli military occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories: the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza." It is wholly black and white, without even recognition of the control of most of the West Bank by the Palestinian Authority after the Oslo Accords. What, may one ask, is the point of entering into a complex political debate if one side refuses to admit the true facts of the situation?
Another gratuitous piece of misinformation occurs on page 3 of the UCC Guide, which claims that Israeli settlements in the West Bank "violate the Fourth Geneva Convention." Any expert in international law could have told the authors that this is false. Article 49 of the Geneva Convention addresses the forced deportation or transfer of an occupier's population into a conquered territory, as happened under the Nazis. (For finer details see here and here.) The Israeli settlers remain in the West Bank without coercion, based on the fact that the San Remo Treaty of 1920, the Treaty of Sèvres (which ratified the 1917 Balfour Declaration), the Covenant of the League of Nations's Article 22, and the League of Nations's Palestine Mandate all provide for the broad settlement of Jews across the Mandate territory. The Fourth Geneva Convention quite simply does not apply.
The UCC Guide states flatly that "Israeli settlements in the West Bank are identified as illegal by the international community" -- even though international law says exactly the opposite. The West Bank and Gaza were both occupied as a result of a defensive war against Egypt and Jordan in 1967, in which the Israelis were victorious. It is never illegal to occupy territory obtained in defensive military action. The legality of the occupation is confirmed in UN Resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973), to which the Palestinians and their supporters have never paid heed.
Resolution 242 was deliberately phrased -- "territories" rather than "the territories" -- to show that Israel should not leave all the West Bank and did not have to move its military forces out until the Palestinians agreed to a lasting peace based on secure borders for the Jewish state. The Palestinians not only reject all offers of peace on that basis but go much farther and call every day for the abolition of Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state covering Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank.
On that same page, the UCC Guide condemns what it describes as the "Separation Wall," pretending that Israel's 450-mile security barrier is made of concrete. In fact, only 10% of the barrier is a wall; 90% is made of fencing, ditches and other impediments to terror attacks. This gross exaggeration of simple on-the-ground facts further exposes the UCC as dishonest. And more than dishonest, for the UCC Guide offers no reason why the fence was erected in the first place: to prevent incursions into Israel by suicide bombers and other terrorists intent on taking human life. The barrier has, in fact, been immensely successful, cutting thousands of Israeli deaths down to near zero. Ignoring these facts in order to promote a false understanding of the barrier and its purpose cannot remotely serve the interests of justice.
The promotion of lies magnifies a growing sense that the UCC does not care about human life. Palestinian lives, yes (and there is nothing wrong with that); but clearly, Jewish lives and Jewish efforts to preserve life are of little or no concern. Worse, the church does not seem to know or care that Arab Israelis (including Christians) are almost as likely as Jews to die in a suicide bombing or a bomb on board a bus.
On page 4, the UCC Guide states that "Israel has built hundreds of permanent and mobile military checkpoints throughout the West Bank." This, again, is pure fantasy. In 2015, there were no more than fifteen checkpoints across the West Bank. You do not have to be a mathematician to work out the difference between that figure and "hundreds." There were several hundred checkpoints some years ago, but the Israeli security services have done their utmost to reduce that number conspicuously since then. Writing in 2013, the Israel Defense Forces stated that,
Today, there are nearly 40 crossings between Judea and Samaria and other parts of Israel. Some are used for the passage of people; others are used for the passage of goods. In addition to these crossings, 13 checkpoints are placed strategically throughout Israel's Central Command region, and operate in time of need and in light of security considerations.
They also clarified that,
"Crossings" and "checkpoints" are terms with different meanings. Crossings are facilities used by Palestinians to enter from Judea and Samaria into other regions of Israel. Checkpoints, on the other hand, operate during times of heightened security to prevent terrorists from carrying out their plans to harm civilians.
Checkpoints have been used as a method to filter out and prevent terror attacks before would-be Palestinian attackers have a chance to enter Israel. As a result of such insidious methods as female suicide bombers hiding explosives under their clothing and the use of ambulances to conceal and transport terrorist weapons, routine checks have been intensified at all types of crossings.
It may well be true, as the UCC Guide states, that these checkpoints cause inconvenience to innocent Palestinians. That is unfortunate and wholly undesirable for an Israeli government fighting international opprobrium. But the checkpoints are not there to target innocent Palestinians. They are there to restrain terrorists from setting out to kill innocent Israelis. The only people to criticize the checkpoints across Northern Ireland during the many years of terrorism there were supporters of the Provisional IRA. This author used to go through those checkpoints when visiting the province over that period, and never heard anyone grumbling: everyone knew they were there to save our lives from bombers and gunmen.
The above reference to "female suicide bombers hiding explosives under their clothing" was prompted by a particularly disturbing example of one young woman from Gaza, Wafa Samir al-Biss. Her story personifies the deep dehumanization of Jews by Palestinian terrorists and those multitudes who praise and honour them. In late 2004, Ms Biss was badly burned in a kitchen fire and was taken quickly to an Israeli hospital, Soroka, in Beersheba. There, she was treated by Jewish and Muslim doctors and nurses for a few months. Allowed to go home, she was given a pass to return to the hospital for further treatment as an outpatient. Six months later, she arrived at the Erez crossing, where a quick-witted guard noticed she was walking awkwardly. Forced to remove her outer clothing, it was revealed that she was carrying a 22-pound bomb strapped to one leg. When questioned, she said the bomb had been given to her by the Abu Rish Brigade, a faction of Fatah, and stated:
"My dream was to be a martyr. I believe in death. Today I wanted to blow myself up in a hospital, maybe even in the one in which I was treated. But since lots of Arabs come to be treated there, I decided I would go to another, maybe the Tel Hashomer, near Tel Aviv. I wanted to kill 20, 50 Jews ..."
Yet the UCC wants to see crossings and checkpoints removed because they inconvenience Palestinians -- Palestinians like Wafa al-Biss and members of the Abu Rish Brigade; Palestinians like the thousands of bombers, knife-wielders, machete carriers, gunmen and others who have tried and, all too often, succeeded in slipping through checkpoints to kill innocent men, women and children; killers whom Hamas and the Palestinian Authority honour as heroes and heroines, martyrs and prisoners who slaughter in support of the fantasy that their deeds will advance the cause of a better life for the Palestinian people.
As the Palestinian media, mosque sermons, and political speeches remind the world daily, the long-term aim of the Palestinian authorities is to carry out genocide against the Jews whom they falsely allege have "stolen" their land (UCC Guide, p.4), and to destroy an open, pluralistic, democratic state.
The UCC boasts that it is "a just peace church" (Guide, p. 6), but instead of supporting peace and justice, it defends mass murderers. It complains about the defensive actions of the Jews and is knowingly silent about the horrors wrought by Palestinian wars and terrorism. It treats Palestinian actions as mere responses to Israeli aggression -- a total reversal of historical fact. Is it even morally defensible to call the members of this church followers of a man known as "the Prince of Peace"?
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 afoul 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, here and here). A report from June 8, 2016 informs us:
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 is, in fact, notorious for its close ties to Islamic terrorism. Even ten years ago, its true character was well known:
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 (D-NY) describes it as an organization "which we know has ties to terrorism." Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) 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, the Mithaq, is a testament to jihadi intransigence, the absolute opposite of peacemaking. It calls for the slaughter of all Jews in the world, and declares:
"Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement... "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 wit or 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 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? Palestinian gunmen seized Christian homes -- compelling Israel to build a protective barrier between them and Jewish neighbourhoods -- and then occupied the Church of the Nativity, looted it and used it as a latrine.
In Bethlehem today, Christians comprise a mere one-fifth of their holy city's population. 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 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.
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.
Mistakes and falsehoods such as those we encounter throughout the UCC's misnamed guide to "Promoting a Just Peace in Palestine-Israel," each one seemingly trivial, cannot be dismissed as the results of a moment's inattention. Much effort has gone into the writing of this Guide, and factual errors, which take up so much of the text, must to a large extent be conscious. 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. Christ said "Blessed be the peace-makers," yet here is a Christian church that blesses men of violence.
Dr. Denis MacEoin, an Irish and Britain 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.