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COMMENTARY: UCC Forfeits Its Role in Middle East Peacemaking

c. 2006 Religion News Service (UNDATED) When the current Middle East crisis began, the Rev. John H. Thomas, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, wrote a “Pastoral Letter to Palestinian Friends and Partners.” The letter speaks volumes about why UCC leadership remains out of touch with its rank-and-file members, and shows […]

c. 2006 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) When the current Middle East crisis began, the Rev. John H. Thomas, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, wrote a “Pastoral Letter to Palestinian Friends and Partners.” The letter speaks volumes about why UCC leadership remains out of touch with its rank-and-file members, and shows why the UCC suffers continuing sharp decreases in membership and financial support.

The letter, filled with a deep-seated animus toward Israel and the U.S. Jewish community, probably requires a psychoanalyst to fathom Thomas’ prejudicial motives. His letter removes Thomas from playing any constructive role in achieving Middle East peace.

Thomas begins by minimizing the gravity of the lethal July 12 Hezbollah raid on Israeli soil, calling it an “attack on military personnel near Lebanon.”

“Near Lebanon”? Thomas is unable to face facts and join with the United States, the United Nations, the G8 nations, China, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait _ all of which have recognized that Hezbollah _ branded a terrorist organization by much of the world community _ violated a nation’s sovereignty by crossing the internationally recognized Lebanon-Israel border.

Thomas writes: “Making this situation even more burdensome is … that there are many in the United States, including many Christians, who see only Israel’s need for security, who focus only on a few terrorist acts …”

“A few terrorist acts”? For the past two decades, and especially after the July 12 attacks, thousands of deadly missiles _ not a “few” _ have hit Israel, randomly killing both Jews and Muslims.

I doubt Thomas would be so blase if, God forbid, terrorists fired “a few” missiles at Cleveland (home to UCC headquarters) from launchers in Canada, just across Lake Erie.

Thomas complains that “Many in our own churches are subject to intense lobbying by Jewish groups …”

“Intense lobbying”? After 35 years of active participation in the interreligious encounter, I do not believe it is “intense lobbying” when Jews talk to their Christian neighbors about deeply felt concerns, or when rabbis speak to UCC ministers about important issues of mutual interest.

Aren’t such conversations the proud hallmark of American religious pluralism, where we work together to build mutual respect and understanding, and develop positive relations? Thomas’ letter poisons that process with his deliberately inflammatory words, “intense lobbying.”

But then, I suppose it’s not “intense lobbying” when, as Thomas wrote in 2003: “The UCC has been associated with Sabeel for many years.” Sabeel is a Palestinian Christian organization that does not recognize the moral right of Jews to reclaim national sovereignty in their biblical homeland.

Thomas writes: “We remain steadfast … in our readiness to use our church’s economic resources, including the possibility of divestment,” against Israel. This, despite the recent action of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to move away from such an unfair policy. Thomas rattles the saber of divestment even though Michael Downs of the UCC’s Pension Boards, who would have to carry out divestment, expressed serious concern to Thomas about “the precedent-setting implications of (such) voted actions, integrity of process and trust.”

Thomas’ errors of omission are as egregious as those of commission. Shockingly, there is not a single reference or mention in his “Pastoral Letter” about the healing themes of compassion, mercy, reconciliation or love.

Thomas’ screed is a stain on a church with a rich moral tradition. The UCC was the spiritual home of Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the great American Christian leaders of the past century. Niebuhr preached and taught “Christian Realism,” the belief there is radical evil in the world that must be vigorously confronted and overcome. Niebuhr, a strong supporter of modern Israel, was a staunch foe of Nazism and all forms of anti-Semitism.

That magnificent legacy is the very opposite of Thomas’ one-sided “Pastoral Letter,” a text that one hopes will soon be relegated to the dustbin of history.

But there is reason for optimism. Thomas is serving his last term as UCC leader. Perhaps a Niebuhrian “regime change” will take place within that declining denomination. It is surely needed.

(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published book “The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us.”)

KRE/PH END RUDIN

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