Monday, 4 August 2014

My response to Canon J John's 'Taking sides in Israel and Gaza'

I feel as if I am about to become UK evangelicalism's most unpopular person but I feel I need to offer a critique to Canon J John's recent post on the current Israeli-Palestine conflict. Criticising one of the UK's most popular Christian speakers is probably for some people the ecclesiological equivalent of kicking a puppy; I mean who doesn't likeJ John

In his blog entitled 'Taking sides in Israel and Gaza' the Canon essentially says that we shouldn't do so because God doesn't take sides. In what is a skilful piece of writing he presents most people's position on the conflict as if it were an antithetical argument in which we, as the watching evangelical world, are faced with the choice of supporting either team A or team B. He then suggests that the more godly way is to choose neither because God, in Christ, is a peacemaker: 'We may take sides but God does not. We need to heed Christ’s call to be peacemakers.' I have no doubt that he speaks with passion and cares deeply that peace should come.

What is there not to agree with here?

He is correct in his assessment that our engagements should be the 'pre-emptive kind that stops wars before they even begin' but I feel somewhat uneasy that he places too much emphasis upon the idea that it is God who will judge the actions of all involved. My problem is not with the theological concept that God is the ultimate judge but that I have heard this kind of statement offered by people who choose to remain safe in seemingly having no opinion at all.

I do agree with him that the idea of taking sides means we might be 'falling into a trap' but that is only if the situation is the kind that is part of the underlying antithetical narrative that comes through his writing. So I have these thoughts to offer J John and trust that he will take them with the affection I feel for him, his work, and his undoubted gift of communication:

1) This is not about a choice between the Arabs and the Israelis. As he rightly points out these are not the only groups caught up in this conflict. Having said that there are people who are distinctly victims of this humanitarian disaster: it includes young soldiers conscripted to fight for fear of letting down one's nation but it also includes the Palestinians who are being killed in their hundreds, many of them children.

2) To suggest that God does not take sides is to mistake the biblical record.

Psalms 12:5 says 'For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, says the LORD'.

Psalm 68:5 speaks of God as 'A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows'.

We could add to this the sermon on the mount where Jesus pronounces that in the Kingdom of God the Makarios (a term translated as blessed and associated with the wealthy, healthy, and powerful) will now be the poor.

3) History records brave church leaders who took sides in conflict situations.

When the Nazis came to take Bulgarian Jews to the concentration camps the Orthodox Bishop of Plovdiv climbed into the train cattle truck and stood with Jews saying 'Wherever you go, I will go! Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God, my God!'

In light of this I would suggest that God does take side with the oppressed; in this case the children of Gaza. That we, as agents of reconciliation, need to be brave enough to ignore our constituencies and side with those in greatest need. We need to be brave enough to challenge those with the greatest power (I have written more on this here)

Canon J John says 'We need to speak out without any favouritism' and in this he is correct if our motives are purely political. When, however, we see acts of such barbarism that children are bombed whilst taking refuge in schools and hospitals, we need to be people who will climb into the world of the oppressed and declare, like the Bishop of Plovdiv, that 'Your people will be my people'.

Some will criticise us for taking sides but at times like this we need the bravery of action not the seemingly peaceful words of appeasement.



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