Church of Scotland Makes Erratic U-Turn on Just-Released Report
The name of the report is/was ‘The Inheritance of Abraham? A Report on the ‘Promised Land.’” Authored by the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council, it basically came to the conclusion that the Bible accords the Jews no privileged claim over the land of Palestine, nor does it provide any justification for the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the blockade of Gaza, or the forced displacement of Palestinians from their homes and lands.
The report was posted at the Church of Scotland’s website—ah, but regrettably only temporarily. It has since mysteriously disappeared, to be replaced by a statement that includes the following:
The Church of Scotland and representatives of the Jewish Community in Scotland and the United Kingdom, held useful discussions facilitated by the Council of Christians and Jews this afternoon, Thursday 8 May. We agreed that the drafting of the report published by the Church and Society Council for discussion at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has given cause for concern and misunderstanding of its position and requires a new introduction to set the context for the report and give clarity about some of the language used.
Did the church cave in to Jewish pressure? This appears to be the case, although the report apparently is to be discussed at the church’s upcoming General Assembly, later this month.
I first became aware of “The Inheritance of Abraham?” after reading an article about it on Wednesday of last week. Intrigued, I went to the church’s website to access the full report. Fortunately, I had the foresight to download it and save it, for when I returned to the site on Saturday, lo and behold it was nowhere to be found. The statement above, dated May 9, 2013, seems to promise a re-posting at some point, though with “a new introduction to set the context for the report”—which presumably means the old introduction will be gone, and that there may be other changes in the original wording as well.
However, you can go here and read the report in its entirety and with the original wording intact. You will find that it cites passages in Genesis—specifically 12:7, 13:15-17, 15:18-21, and 17:7-8—which have God promising the land to Abraham and his descendants without any conditions attached. Or as the report phrases it, “There are no ‘so long as…’ or ‘until…’ clauses in them” and “alone they can be read to show that God promises the land to the Israelites unconditionally.”
But the report, in the next section, goes on to note “a second view,” which, among other things, says we should read “the Pentateuch in the light of the prophets.” In this view, “the land is a gift, not a right, and one which brings with it obligations, most particularly to practice justice and to dwell equitably with the stranger.” The report cites the prophet Jonah as an example.
The book of Jonah is a key text for understanding the Hebrew Bible’s promise of the land to Abraham and his descendants. Written at a time when Jewish people were turning inwards, the book presents Johan as a Jewish nationalist to drive home the point: God’s universal, inclusive love is for all. God in Jonah is merciful, gracious, a liberator of the oppressed and sinful who looks for just living. The people of God even include the hated Assyrians. So Johan suggests a new theology of the land, because God was not confined within the land of Israel, but also embraced the land of Assyria.
And then, of course, there are the New Testament and the words of Jesus, whose teachings the report describes as “inclusive,” not only in their own right, but also in Christ’s view of the Old Testament prophets—a view that is offered in Luke 4:25-30… along with the reaction it provoked among the Jews of Nazareth at the time:
“But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
By expressing the view that God had love in his heart for others than just Jews, Jesus seems, then, to have caused feelings of jealousy and anger amongst his Jewish listeners that day. The report goes on to observe:
Jesus offered a radical critique of Jewish specialness and exclusivism, but the people of Nazareth were not ready for it. John’s gospel speaks of Jesus being lifted up and drawing all people to himself (John 12:32). Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple means not just that the Temple needs to be reformed, but that the Temple is finished. Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 makes it clear that God is no longer confined to the place of the Temple. Temple and land give way to a new understanding so Paul can say that all the barriers that separated Jews from the rest are down—“there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male or female in Christ Jesus.” The new ‘place’ where God is found is wherever people gather in the name of Jesus.
Or in other words, “the promise to Abraham about land is fulfilled through the impact of Jesus, not by restoration of land to the Jewish people” and “no part of the New Testament gives any support to a political state of Israel beyond that to any other state.” Thus, the requirements for justice and the protection of human rights apply to each land, and to every inhabitant in the land.
Promises about the land of Israel were never intended to be taken literally, or as applying to a defined geographical territory. They are a way of speaking about how to live under God so that justice and peace reign, the weak and poor are protected, the stranger is included, and all have a share in the community and a contribution to make to it. The ‘promised land’ in the Bible is not a place, so much as a metaphor of how things ought to be among the people of God. This ‘promised land; can be found—or built—anywhere.
The report also includes several quotes from Kairos Palestine, a document published in 2009 by Palestinian Christians and which I have commented upon previously. Among the quotes from Kairos Palestine we find this one:
Our land is God’s land, as is the case with all countries in the world. It is holy inasmuch as God is present in it, for God alone is holy and sanctifier. It is the duty of those of us who live here, to respect the will of God for this land. It is our duty to liberate it from the evil of injustice and war. It is God’s land and therefore it must be a land of reconciliation, peace and love. This is indeed possible. God has put us here as two peoples, and God gives us the capacity, if we have the will, to live together and establish in it justice and peace, making it in reality God’s land: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Psalm 24:1).
And also this one:
We believe that our land has a universal mission. In this universality, the meaning of the promises, of the land, of the election, of the people of God, open up to include all of humanity, starting from all the peoples of this land
And this one:
Our Church points to the Kingdom, which cannot be tied to any earthly kingdom. Jesus said before Pilate that he was indeed a king but “my kingdom is not from this world.” St. Paul says: “The Kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:7). Therefore religion cannot favour or support any unjust political regime, but must rather promote justice, truth and human dignity.”
So does the modern day state of Israel meet these conditions? Hardly. And the report says as much.
From this last perspective, the desire of many in the state of Israel to acquire the land of Palestine for the Jewish people is wrong. The fact that the land is currently being taken by settlement expansion, the separation barrier, house clearance, theft and force makes it doubly wrong to seek biblical sanction for this.
Church leaders from South Africa, following a visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the autumn of 2012, observed similarities to the concluding years of the apartheid regime in South Africa. They concur with proposals to consider economic and political measures involving boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions against the state of Israel focused on illegal settlements, as the best way of convincing Israeli politicians and voters that what is happening is wrong, and that Christians around the world should not contribute in any way to the viability of illegal settlements. This raises particular questions for the Church of Scotland as we seek to respond to the question: “What does the Lord require of you…?”
And the conclusion reached is:
From this examination of the various views in the Bible about the relation of land to the people of God, it can be concluded that Christians should not be supporting any claims by Jewish or any other people, to an exclusive or even privileged divine right to possess particular territory. It is a misuse of the Bible to use it as a topographic guide to settle contemporary conflicts over land. In the Bible, God’s promises extend in hope to all land and people. Focused as they are on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, these promises call for a commitment in every place to justice in a spirit of reconciliation.
The report then goes on to assert that “the current situation is characterized by an inequality in power and therefore reconciliation can only be possible if the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the blockade of Gaza, are ended.” Note: it does not say that Israel has no right to exist, although this is the interpretation being given by a number of Jews, some of whom seem quite upset over the whole thing.
So let’s cut to the chase, and see what some of these people have been saying about the report.
“Scottish Jews said they were ‘outraged’ by a recent Church of Scotland paper which denies Jews any special claim to the land of Israel.” So begins a report in the JTA dated May 3. The article makes reference to a statement issued by the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, who denounce the report as “an outrage to everything that interfaith dialogue stands for”, insisting as well that it “reads like an Inquisition-era polemic against Jews and Judaism.”
In the opinion of the Scottish Council, the report also “closes the door on meaningful dialogue,” and quite naturally we find a demand that the Church of Scotland “withdraw it ahead of its forthcoming General Assembly.”
Interestingly, the Council’s statement additionally frets about “the arrogance of telling the Jewish people how to interpret Jewish texts,” although of course there are plenty of Jews telling Christians how to interpret the New Testament, not to mention those who have lambasted the Gospels as “anti-Semitic.”
Israel Hayom, the Israeli newspaper owned by Sheldon Adelson, calls the report “a culmination of more than a decade of increasingly strident anti-Zionism and pro-Palestinian activism by the church, especially by its local Palestinian Christian chapters,” while the always amusing Algemeiner characterizes the Church of Scotland as waging a “war on Judaism,” and committing a “moral crime” to boot, while the church’s report, Algemeiner asserts, is “immersed…in anti-Semitic clichés and malicious distortions of Jewish theology.”
Also, Israel’s ambassador to Britain has gotten in on the act. A later report by the JTA, dated May 11, quotes Ambassador Daniel Taub as saying, “This report not only plays into extremist political positions, but negates and belittles the deeply held Jewish attachment to the land of Israel in a way which is truly hurtful.” Taub reportedly made the comment over Israel’s Army Radio.
Not to be outmatched by these pikers, the ADL’s Abe Foxman has called the report “stunningly offensive,” as well as a “classic rejection of Judaism.”
“By brazenly dismissing Jewish self-understanding of its own bible—the Torah, the Church of Scotland has disregarded nearly five decades of progress in Jewish-Christian theological dialog by promoting religious principles which deny the legitimacy of Judaism and were used for centuries to justify the brutal repression of Jews,” Foxman goes on to add.
Will all this pressure result in a complete capitulation on the part of the Church of Scotland? Will we see the report fundamentally altered, perhaps beyond recognition, or even withdrawn altogether? Hard to say, but you’ll recall I began this article by quoting from a statement on the whole matter which has been posted on the Church of Scotland’s website. The statement, I mentioned, replaces the report itself, which has since been taken down. What I neglected to say is that this is a joint statement, signed not only by the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland, but also four Jewish organizations: Here is the rest of it:
In particular the Church of Scotland needs to be explicit about some things that are implicit policies of the Church:
- There is no change in the Church of Scotland’s long held position of the right of Israel to exist.
- The Church condemns all violence and acts of terrorism, where ever they happen in the world.
- The concern of the Church about the injustices faced by the Palestinian people in the Occupied Palestinian Territories remain firm, but that concern should not be misunderstood as questioning the right of the State of Israel to exist.
- That the Church condemns all things that create a culture of anti Semitism.
There is an equal sense of concern amongst both communities for justice and peace for all the people of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Sitting round the table and listening to each other more deeply has created a real opportunity for both communities to better understand each other and that this report now becomes a catalyst for continued and growing conversation.
The two communities have agreed to work together both here and in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories to continue what was a very positive dialogue.
Church and Society Council, Church of Scotland
Scottish Council of Jewish Communities
Board of Deputies of British Jews
Movement for Reform Judaism
Rabbis for Human Rights
Note the dictatorial tone: “the Church of Scotland needs to be explicit…”
One might ask: Or else what?
Of course it isn’t only the Jewish media who have weighed in on the issue. Here is a report from Iran’s Press TV, which includes an interview with Anglican Vicar Stephen Sizer: