Monday, July 13, 2015

A Prophetic Voice

Many of my Episcopal colleagues were outraged. My response was more muted. I was disappointed, but not surprised.

The object of much heated discussion following this Church's recent General Convention in Salt Lake City is the House of Bishops' resounding defeat of substitute resolution D016,  'Being Socially Responsible Investors in Palestine and Israel'.  D016 was a "gentler" substitute for a much stronger resolution encouraging divestment of Church holdings in companies profiting from the Israeli Occupation. It was a call for adoption of BDS – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – a policy of non-violent resistance to oppression first pronounced in 2005 by 171 Palestinian civil society organizations and adopted in 2009 by Christians in the Kairos Palestine document.

My response was muted because my experience at our church's 2013 GC in Indianapolis convinced me that, at least at this time, my church is not willing to risk becoming more honestly involved in seeking justice and peace for our Palestinian and Israeli brothers and sisters. I do not expect us to be of one mind in this matter. But I do expect open and honest dialogue.  If D016 had at least reached the House of Deputies, a lively discussion might have been joined. But it was not allowed to see the light of day. And that saddens me.

The institutional church – as well as our befuddled Congress – desperately needs to hear the
prophetic voices that call us to resist complicity in oppression. One such voice, that of our friend Naim Ateek, has just spoken, clearly and honestly, to our newly elected Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry – and to us all.

I am deeply grateful to Naim for his courage and creativity, his clear and consistent voice. No one has better credentials to address our failure or to call us to again be faithful.

Cotton Fite

Naim Ateek

Naim Ateek

July 10, 2015

To: Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry

Dear Bishop +Michael:  Please know that I join with all those who congratulate you on your election as the Episcopal Church’s 27th Presiding Bishop.  Your election is a new sign of hope to many people who wish to see the Church speaking prophetically for a just world.  Already, many Palestinians in the Episcopal diocese of Jerusalem have said to me that as the first Presiding Bishop of African descent, you know firsthand about racism, oppression and the importance of being a prophetic voice for justice. This gives us hope.  

I write today to say that I was heartbroken when I heard the news and discovered that the House of Bishops in General Convention, held in Salt Lake City, yet again, failed to take a stand for justice on behalf of the oppressed in Palestine. 

Although some of us would like to see Archbishop Suheil Dawani assume a stronger prophetic role, what the American bishops said and did at General Convention has a deeper ramification.  The American bishops viewed the Israeli/Palestinian conflict within the narrow parameters of our small Episcopal Church in Jerusalem led by Archbishop Dawani.  Whether intentionally or not, the American bishops failed to see the conflict as it adversely affects all Palestinians -- Christians as well as Muslims.  There are many Churches and organizations, religious and secular, from around the world, that are courageously taking a stand against the injustice which is being perpetrated by the 
Israeli government and have adopted nonviolent methods to resist it, including economic pressure. 

The Israeli government would like the American bishops to be intimidated by veiled threats against Bishop Suheil and our church’s institutions and thus silence the prophetic stance of an historic Church.  The Bishops capitulated to these threats and thus lost their focus.  They started thinking about what is going to happen to Archbishop Suheil rather than what is happening to over 4 million Palestinians who are suffering on a daily basis.  The problem is not Bishop Suheil and the Church’s institutions. They will endure with international donor support and advocacy for the Archbishop. The problem is Israel’s illegal occupation and its repeated violations of international law.  It is not about Archbishop Suheil; it is about where the American Church takes its stand vis-a-vis the oppressed, and how it understands the Church’s complicity through its unmonitored investments in companies that may be undergirding the occupation and contributing to the suffering of millions of Palestinians. We cannot talk about positive investments and then ignore our other potentially unjust investments in an illegal and even evil system of occupation.  

Additionally, the Bishops masqueraded under false arguments of “interfaith relations” or “positive investment and not divestment.” These are tantamount to what we in Palestine know un-affectionately as “The Interfaith Ecumenical Deal.”  The agreement is to have polite conversations and wonderful dinners with the U.S. Jewish establishment organizations provided we remain silent about justice for the Palestinians.  The “ecumenical deal” looks impressive from the outside but in actual fact it silences the prophetic and smothers the truth.  In the House of Bishops, interfaith concerns trumped justice----again. 

Let me be clear.  From the perspective of the victims of injustice the Bishops’ empty words on our conflict is perceived as betrayal.  The Bishops in essence took a stand to support the status quo, which always benefits the oppressor.  They refused to see or were unwilling to respond to the dire situation on the ground. 

We as Palestinians are daily humiliated by the Israeli forces; our human rights are violated daily; our homes are demolished daily by bulldozers manufactured in the United States; our olive trees are uprooted, daily; our land is confiscated and turned over into illegal settlements, daily; our young people languish in Israeli jails, daily, with no legal charges or due process for months on end; our teenagers are taken from their beds in the middle of the night and imprisoned by the Israeli army on an average of two per night; and the Israeli government continues its daily violations of international law while the Church remains silent. The Bishops had a Kairos moment to speak a prophetic word of justice and chose not to do so. I am mortified to say that the action of the Bishops is a slap in the face of our own Archbishop Tutu who has said repeatedly that Israel’s injustice against the Palestinians is worse than apartheid.

There are two questions that every Bishop needs to answer before God:  Who, in his or her opinion, has benefitted from the Bishops’ vote: the Palestinians or the Israeli government?  And whom did the Episcopal Church USA protect through its vote, the oppressed or the oppressor?

It takes strong leaders with the courage that Jesus Christ and the prophets modeled for us to champion the cause of the oppressed. Sadly that did not happen. 
Given the importance of this issue in the world community, and given the potential harm and despair that the Bishops action is causing Palestinians, I hope, Bishop Curry, you and other fair minded bishops will revisit this issue in your next meeting, and invite those of us who have a different perspective to engage the House of Bishops so that we might together find the right voice for the Church in these times. 

Indeed, God continues to speak and many faithful people hear God’s call and respond to it.  We are certain that the prophetic responsibility will never die and there will always be people, including Bishops, who, in faithfulness to God and in love of neighbor will strive “…to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.”  People of faith know that the movement of history is toward justice in the world.  The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. are pertinent in this regard, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

I pray that through your leadership, Bishop Curry, the sun of righteousness and justice will shine again on our Episcopal Church and that your prophetic voice, joined by many of your fellow bishops, will courageously speak truth to power so that the God of love, justice and peace will be glorified.  
Faithfully yours,

Naim Ateek
President of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Board Jerusalem
Recipient of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship Nevin Sayre Peace Award, 2006

Cc: Archbishop Suheil Dawani, Jerusalem

1 comment:

Brian Covell said...

Cotton: I very much appreciate your posting of this strong letter. Those who use the church and "interfaith relations" as a cloak, rather than confront injustice, are wrong--and those who know the facts on the ground, and the truth about this oppression, won't be silenced. I know I won't be...