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Letters to the Editor

01 December 2023


Changing Christian attitudes to the State of Israel

From Mr Chris Oakes-Monger

Sir, — In her article (Comment, 10 November), Canon Angela Tilby expresses surprise at changing Christian attitudes towards Israel over the past 30 years. Her piece suggests that that the new perspectives of liberation theology are largely responsible for this change; but, surely, this is to ignore the effect on attitudes of the appalling behaviour on the ground of Israel as a state, particularly under Benjamin Netanyahu.

She almost dismisses the routine murder of West Bank Palestinians, many of them children, by the Israel Defence Force (IDF), and IDF-protected settler terrorists, whose ideological demand for all of the land is a mirror image of that of Hamas. (The UN records 435 Palestinians killed in the West Bank between January 2021 and the 7 October incursion, with hundreds more killed in the past few weeks).

These together with other war crimes — the illegal occupation, the detention of thousands of Palestinians, including children, without trial, and the blockade of Gaza — she sees as unjust only from a Palestinian or liberationist perspective rather than as a series of concrete reasons that Christians and others may have lost sympathy with Israel.

She mocks the suggestion that the State of Israel is a product of Western colonialism, describing it, rather, as an expression of Christian repentance for European anti-Semitism, and an attempt at reconciliation with the Jews. But it was the choice of the West to salve its conscience not at its own expense, but at the expense of the 20th-century inhabitants of a region under British colonial control. It did this on the flimsy pretext that the land was once part of a biblical Israel that ceased to exist as a state 2000 years ago.

It is surely impossible, in terms of any reasonable theology, not to see this as deeply racist and an unjust abuse of power. True repentance, a change of heart, would surely have involved cost to the oppressor, not a further act of colonial oppression against another group of victims.

Any theology that values one group of human beings more than another is flawed, and the theology that proclaimed the Jewish right to a homeland after the Holocaust in terms of European guilt, but at the expense not of the perpetrators, but of further victims, has paved the way for seventy years of suffering of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Middle East.

Even now, it is hard to listen to most of our political Establishment and media without drawing the conclusion that, for them, the life and welfare of an Israeli civilian is worth more than that of a civilian living in Gaza.

The continued failure of the West to acknowledge the scale of past and present injustice to the Palestinians has not just made a resolution of the conflict impossible, but is now leading to the shredding, by the UK, the United States, and Israel, of the very rules of international law which were established to avoid a repetition of the Holocaust.

Canon Tilby also rightly bemoans the growth of real anti-Semitism in the West. Some responsibility for this must, however, lie with those who have sought to silence criticism of the Israeli state by labelling it anti-Semitic. This deliberate elision of the Israeli government with Jews in general is widespread in the media, and is typified by the recently departed Home Secretary’s remarks on anti-Semitism and hate marches.

While this rhetoric may well be designed simply to marginalise and silence critics of Israel, it has unintended consequences, not least raising the fear levels of our own Jewish population. Furthermore, it makes it almost impossible for critics of Israeli policy, including the thousands of Jews marching for a ceasefire, to identify themselves as against anti-Semitism. At worst, it allows real anti-Semites to suggest to the less well-informed observer that all Jews are complicit in the bad behaviour of Israel. None of this is helpful.

Any solution to the conflict, be it in one state, or more probably two, will need to be based on a theology that values all lives equally (Jews, Arabs, and others), rejects all violence, and places the heaviest responsibility for initiating negotiations on those with power and agency. Peace will not come without justice. It should involve the West in acknowledging its share of responsibility, and paying dear, both to compensate those on all sides who have lost loved ones or land, but also to establish economic security for all. It is, surely, the least that we can do.

26 Blackberry Lane
Four Marks
Alton GU34 5BP

From the Revd Professor T. J. Gorringe

Sir, — A month ago, Christian Aid (News, 3 November) issued a letter calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. It was signed by the Archbishops of Armagh and Dublin, the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and the Bishop of Llandaff, but not by one single diocesan or suffragan bishop of the Church of England.

According to The Economist on 23 November, at least 14,000 Palestinian civilians have been killed, and between 25 and 30,000 injured, one third of whom are children. These injuries include numerous amputations and burns injuries that, according to an American MSF nurse who got out of Gaza, cannot be treated because of lack of water and medical supplies and facilities.

A few days earlier, Major General Giora Eiland, former head of the National Security Council in Israel and current adviser to the Defence Minister, published an article in a Hebrew newspaper saying that the whole population of Gaza was a legitimate target and that “severe epidemics in the south of the Gaza Strip will bring victory closer.” The Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, tweeted that “he agreed with every word”.

In Palestine, we have an Anglican priest and theologian, the Revd Naim Ateek, whose family was driven from its home in 1948, and who has consistently called for both peace and justice for Palestinians. Does he, and do the Christians whom he represents, get any support from Anglican bishops in this country?

Does the entire episcopate share the view of the Israeli Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, that all Palestinians are “animals”? Do they share Prime Minister Netanyahu’s view that they are dealing with “Amalek” — in other words, a subject for genocide? Do they share the view of the Likud party that the whole of “greater Israel” between the sea and the Jordan belongs “eternally and indisputably” to Israel (and do they remember that the phrase “from the River to the Sea” is from Deuteronomy and envisages a land that reaches to the Euphrates)?

Led by Trevor Huddleston, there was consistent Anglican support for the struggle against South African apartheid. It seems that the present episcopate has been so befogged by the adoption of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, condemned by numerous Jewish lawyers, academics who specialise in Holocaust studies, and peace activists, that it cannot recognise or speak out against savage and disproportionate attacks on a civilian population — including newborn babies!

I write on the feast of Christ the King, when Matthew 25.31ff is read. Here we have a group who cannot and do not speak up for the hungry, thirsty, and naked, the bombed, and those left without treatment because their hospitals have been destroyed — not, anyway, if they are Palestinian. The Church of Christ?

5 St Aubyns Villas
Tiverton EX16 4JB

From the Revd Dr Ian K. Duffield

Sir, — Sabeel-Kairos, as an important Christian campaigning and advocacy group, should be listened to. The conception of “kairos” — according to its chief theological articulator, Paul Tillich — depends, however, upon a profound, dialectical reading of history, whereas some of what was offered by Sabeel-Kairos UK leaders (Letters, 17 November) was more akin to propaganda:

(1) To talk of “75 years of historical injustices against the Palestinian people” takes us back to 1948 and Israel’s Declaration of Independ­ence. Are they implying that Israel does not have the right to self-determination or even that the formation of Israel was an injustice?

(2) To declare (without equivocation) that “Israel has openly denied Palestinians a state of their own” neatly side-steps the rejection, by the Palestinians themselves, or by their Arab overlord, of proposals in 1937, 1947, 2001.

(3) To argue that “Hamas is based on an ideology formed through a long injustice towards the Palestin­ian people” fails to understand its anti-Semitic, Islamo-fascist, and nihilistic nervous system (see the Hamas Charter), and constitutes a get-out-of-jail-free card for vicious terrorists.

All this suggests that the House of Bishops were wise to be somewhat circumspect about what they say.

Director of Research
Urban Theology Union
Victoria Methodist Hall
Norfolk Street, Sheffield S1 2JB

Bishop of Lancaster’s General Synod speech

From the Bishop of Blackburn

Sir, — I admire the energy and passion that the Revd Dr Charlie Bell brings to his work, but feel that I must write in response to his letter (24 November), in which he criticises the speech by the Bishop of Lancaster, Dr Jill Duff, in the General Synod.

When Dr Duff used the phrase “putting a target on the back of our clergy”, she next said, “on the backs of those who use the prayers and those who do not use the prayers”. She was quite legitimately (indeed, responsibly) highlighting a danger that, by commending the prayers without the pastoral guidance and pastoral accommodation that the House of Bishops had promised, clergy on all sides could render themselves vulnerable to legal action or harassment.

It saddens me that Dr Bell felt it necessary so to misrepresent what Dr Duff said. Sadly, this failure to listen has become too much a feature of contemporary debate. Understanding and engaging with those with whom we disagree is hard work. It is so much easier to typecast and misapply, because one can then dismiss without a hearing.

Surely, as Christians we need to be modelling something better in the way we conduct our conversations. If we cannot listen to and seek to understand the views of those with whom we disagree, then the wounds of this painful process, which are felt by all, will go unhealed.

Bishop’s House
Ribchester Road
Blackburn BB1 9EF

From Mr Ken Petrie

Sir, — If the Revd Dr Charlie Bell believes that “you will not be spat at, verbally or physically assaulted, or killed for simply being a conservative Evangelical”, he illustrates nothing more than how out of touch people who take sides are in a polarised post-modern society.

Evangelicals have suffered such fates since before the Reformation and continue to suffer in extreme cases. One only has to read the websites of organisations such as the Christian Institute, Christian Concern, or the Free Speech Union to see similar persecution is ongoing.

Hatred is not as simple as one side being victims and the other being perpetrators. Rather, it is the result of using emotion rather than reason to make a case, thus encouraging people to respond emotionally rather than rationally. An academic ought to know better. Emotion is not an argument.

87 Longway Avenue
Whitchurch Park
Bristol BS14 0DW

The early Jesus movement, class, and the ‘preferential option for death’

From Professor James Crossley and Dr Robert Myles

Sir, — Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB recently reviewed our popular academic book, Jesus: A life in class conflict (Books, 22 September). His review bears little resemblance to what we actually wrote.

His curious attempt to contrast our study with the other book reviewed, which he classifies as “distinguished” Christian scholarship, and his implicit dismissals on the basis of our using a sociological methodology, are bad enough. You would never know from his review whether either or both of us had relevant academic backgrounds, had edited major journals in the field, or had held a position at a “prestigious” Christian institution or at a university.

When he asserts that “too often supposition turns into certainty,” we wonder whether he read our disclaimer that “we have no grounds for certitude in his life,” and that we offer tentative evidence for the earliest themes associated with the movement. Such disciplined conclusions are, of course, the hallmark of historical scholarship.

He curiously dismisses our chapter about the early Jesus movement’s “preferential option for death” by asserting that it doesn’t accord well with the disciples’ failure to accept the message of suffering. Even if we pass over the critical naivety of this statement, we argued in our book that the emphasis on martyrdom was a problem for the disciples. How Fr Wansbrough again came to the directly opposite conclusion is beyond us.

His quick dismissal of our arguments concerning the negotiation of gender by the early Jesus movement also suggests that the scholarly conversation of the past several decades has passed him by.

He claims that our “presentation of the movement as ‘tough, muscular, hard, and manly’ hardly fits Peter’s reaction to Caiaphas’s servant-girl”. Where to begin? Has he a counter-argument based on the historicity of this account? If he has, what is he implying about Peter? Has Fr Wansbrough got any substantive comments about our extended discussion on masculinity and gender, which, we should add, is backed up by reputable, mainstream scholarship? Do we argue that Peter fulfils expectations?

The remark about our use of Josephus to reconstruct the general social and political context of Galilee is also poorly presented. There is no mention of our using Josephus critically as a primary source in combination with the Gospels and with reference to understanding the important background of urbanisation projects. This background was central to our point about the emergence of the Jesus movement. One hand-waving statement does not undermine this or decades of scholarly discussion on Galilee and class relations.

MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society
Gydas vei 4, 0363 Oslo, Norway
Executive Editor of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus and Senior Lecturer in New Testament, Wollaston Theological College and University of Divinity
5 Wollaston Road,
Mount Claremont WA 6010

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