October 19, 2009

Sabeel Conference Links U.S. and Israel to “Genocidal Theologies”

The United States and Israel are founded upon genocidal principles, according to speakers at the recent pro-Palestinian Sabeel conference held October 1-3 in Washington, D.C.

Speakers framed their critiques in terms of radical feminist and liberationist theologies that reinterpret the Christian and Jewish Scriptures. They disputed not only the policies of the U.S. and Israel, but also the right of those two to exist as legitimate nation-states.

The Sabeel conference was co-sponsored by several congregations in the mainline United Methodist, Presbyterian (PCUSA), and Lutheran (ELCA) denominations, as well as Unitarian and secular groups.

The Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center is a group formed of the members of several Christian churches in the Holy Land. However, Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) is an interfaith group that includes people who do not profess Christian faith. This was most apparent at the conference’s opening interfaith service, where reflections were read by an imam, a rabbi, and a priest. Conferees were encouraged to join together in worship and sing the song “Common Thread” that portrayed humanity as a force like the sun or the ocean that was rising. Another song, “What Kind of Love,” promoted empathy and trust in nonviolence. Neither song appeared to praise God, but rather praised utopian ideals to be accomplished by a diverse humanity.

Many of the conference speakers rejected Christian Zionism, a concept held by some evangelicals that equates the modern state of Israel with the ancient kingdom of David. They treated Christian Zionism as a modern heresy departing from traditional Christian teaching. Yet, ironically, many of the same panelists expressed their own theological viewpoints that were far from orthodoxy.

During an afternoon plenary session entitled “The Exodus, the Promised Land and a Promised Peace: Are Religious Texts Holding Back our Voices?” the conference heard from four panelists, including feminist/womanist theologians and a progressive rabbi.

“Sometimes Scripture is our enemy,” said Mark Braverman, author of “Fatal Embrace: Christians, Jews and the Search for Peace in the Holy Land,” and moderator of the panel discussion. Braverman referred to the words “chosen” “promise” and “land” in the Bible, which he labeled as problematic for the pursuit of Middle East peace.

“Genocide is foundational to the U.S. itself,” declared Dr. Andrea Smith of the University of California, Riverside. Following Braverman’s introduction, the Cherokee intellectual and feminist asserted that the building block of the U.S. government was “heteropatriarchy.”

Smith spoke against the “presumption of settler colonialism” which she said portrayed American Indians as Canaanites, essentially savages that needed to be cleared from the land and had no right to self-determination. The University of California professor contended that this kind of colonialism, in the United States and Israel and elsewhere in the West, gave rise to a continuing narrative that reinforced modern governing structures of hierarchy, domination and violence.

“Even on the left, we still see the presumption that the U.S. should and always will continue to exist, and then we don’t question the genocide that is foundational to the founding of the U.S.,” Smith said. “At this point, I must say that my views do not represent the University of California.”

“Post 9-11 we’d hear a lot of hand wringing and even radicals saying ‘Bush is eroding civil liberties, eroding our great institutional democratic principles.’ But this presumes again that genocide is not foundational to the U.S. itself,” Smith said. “So rather than seeing Bush as eroding the ideals of U.S. democracy, we should see him as fulfilling these very ideals.”

Despite this negative history, Smith had fewer problems with the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, because she said they were not fixed in their meaning.

Smith was followed by liberal Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, Visiting Professor of Feminist Theology at the United Methodist-affiliated Claremont School of Theology. Ruether described what she termed “genocidal theologies” that pervaded the Hebrew Bible. According to Ruether, many nations were drawing from an oppressive “Canaanite theology” rooted in the Exodus story of the Amalekites, who were wiped out by the immigrating Israelites. Ruether said the idea that an indigenous people needed to be displaced or annihilated in favor of a superior occupying people was appropriated by the European colonists against Native American peoples, the Dutch Afrikaner settlers against the Zulu, and most recently the Jews against Palestinian Arabs.

According to Ruether, the biblical text suggests that “all these [indigenous] people have a demonic identity and that they should be exterminated for who they are.” The feminist scholar claimed that this shared narrative was one reason behind U.S. support for Israel.

“Our confirmation of Israel’s identity myth justifies ours,” Ruether charged. “A God that justifies the removal of one group in the name of another is a racist, tribal God.”

Womanist Theologian Bea Morris of Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, indicated that the primary problem was interpretation of the biblical text.

“Some fundamentalist and Pentecostal denominations spend excess time in the Hebrew text and not very much in the Second [New] Testament,” Morris said. She added that most Christians were not fundamentalists, and that the values of forgiveness and “relationality” needed to be upheld when interpreting Scripture.

At the conclusion of the panel discussion, Braverman asserted that Christian Zionism was “hiding in plain sight in the mainstream” and was very much present within the mainline traditions. Following the panel discussion, both Braverman and Ruether spoke at a parallel workshop entitled “Changing the Theological Discourse.”

During the workshop, Ruether argued that it was necessary to change the discourse “from revenge to mutual flourishing.”

“The revenge model of relationships has deeply influenced Jewish and Christian cultures,” the Catholic theologian alleged. “You take an ancient instance of enmity and project it.”

While Ruether was identified in the program as a renowned Roman Catholic scholar and theologian, her views differed sharply from that of church leadership. During the workshop, Ruether articulated the Muslim critique of Christianity: that no human can be God and that trinitarianism isn’t compatible with monotheism and is instead a kind of polytheism.

“That is, in my view, a good idea,” Ruether said in endorsing the Muslim critique. The feminist theology professor also dismissed the uniqueness of Christ, saying that Jesus was made in the image of God “only in the sense everyone else is.”

Ruether also noted that Muslims “are pretty sure that Mary is a virgin, too – which is more than I believe.”

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