Oliver Kamm

Christians reacted to October 7 with muddled thinking

The Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr provided a benchmark for Christian-Jewish relations in these dark times


Reinhold Niebuhr (Wikipedia)

January 04, 2024 16:27

In an unprecedented emergency for Israel, this truth bears stressing: “The simple fact is that all schemes for political appeasement and economic cooperation must fail unless there is an unequivocal voice from us that we will not allow the state to be annihilated and that we will not judge its desperate efforts to gain some strategic security… as an illegitimate use of force.”

These words were written not in recent weeks but in 1957, in the US magazine The New Republic, by Reinhold Niebuhr, among the foremost Protestant theologians of the last century. He was addressing his fellow liberals in politics and his fellow Christians.

With Israel under assault, and Jews worldwide facing a perverse consequent increase rather than diminution in antisemitism, the need for allies is acute. Niebuhr’s sophisticated reasoning offers a benchmark, on both sides, for how Christian-Jewish relations can be profitably conducted in dark times.

It is reasonable to expect the churches to acknowledge both the integrity of Jewishness in its own terms, and the moral urgency of a Jewish state in a hostile international order. Too often, even with benign intentions, these principles are overlooked across Christian denominations.

The ferocity of the pogrom on October 7 shifted the perceptions of Western governments. The Biden administration, the European Union, the British government and the Labour opposition all grasped that Hamas is not some pragmatic, if repressive, actor with whom governments can negotiate but a brutal and atavistic terrorist threat.

The moral philosopher Michael Walzer wrote last month for the online magazine Quillette: “Israel’s military response to the atrocities of October 7 is a just and necessary war. But that judgment leaves open the further judgments we need to make about the conduct of the war.”

That first sentence is, I believe, what the Christian churches should have said immediately, as Western governments did. And the second is a prompt for a vital debate, encompassing a range of legitimate responses. It hasn’t been quite like that.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is a religious leader of principle and decency, and a foe of antisemitism. Addressing the Church of England Synod, he rightly urged the release of Israeli hostages and aid for Palestinian civilians in Gaza. He added: “I do not have military or political answers to this crisis…. But the call for a ceasefire is a moral cry that we are hearing from people of many faiths and none.”

While humanitarian in intent, the Archbishop’s message was muddled. His plea for a ceasefire is certain to be ignored by Hamas. If Israel observed it unilaterally, its forbearance would endanger rather than protect civilian lives. Moral revulsion at suffering does not, in itself, dictate a particular political response, and well-intentioned policy may compound injustice. This was a great insight of Niebuhr, who before the United States had entered the Second World War warned that “American Christianity is all too prone to disavow its responsibilities for the preservation of our civilisation against the perils of totalitarian aggression”.

What is true of Anglican leadership applies also to the papacy. The Pope has called for the release of Israeli hostages and urges the combatants to “take courageous paths of peace”. But what if those paths require retaliating against Hamas? Much religious as well as secular commentary not only castigates Israel for civilian deaths and displacements in Gaza but implies peace is easily attainable.

Consider a statement issued in late October by Christian Aid from Christian leaders including the President of the Methodist Conference, the Moderator of the United Reformed Church, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow and the Anglican Primate of All Ireland. The signatories properly condemn Hamas’s violence and call for the release of hostages. They go on to urge a ceasefire, along with “acknowledgement of the failure of the international community to effectively engage with any meaningful peace process, and a commitment to work ceaselessly from now on to address the root causes of the violence which must include an end to the occupation”.

There is an unassailable case on grounds of justice for a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, on territories roughly approximating the pre-1967 armistice line. No one knows how to get to that arrangement, however. Nor does it follow that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories is the root cause of Hamas’s atrocities. On the contrary, if Christian leaders believe Hamas’s goal is an end to the occupation, they haven’t been paying attention.

Hamas’s stated objective is the end of Israel and the triumph of a theocratic state. Its revised charter of 2017 is explicit on this point. The principal change in the document from one originally adopted in 1988 is invective against “Zionists” rather than “Jews” – a distinction, in this case, without a difference.

The murder, mutilation and rape of 1,200 Israeli citizens on October 7 purely because they were Jews was done not out of desperation but out of fanaticism. I have not seen a statement by any Christian denomination in Britain that acknowledges Israel’s immediate need to strike back and its dilemmas on how to enhance security right now. And without it, a Christian response is conceptually hollow. Niebuhr cautioned against that type of utopian Christian thinking too: “Whenever religion obscures, rather than illumines, this human situation, it tends to aggravate political controversies and adds an element of pretension to the natural self-righteousness of men.”

There is conversely a strong current, especially but not only in American Christianity, that urges solidarity with Israel. It is collectively known (though it is far from a monolith) as conservative evangelicalism. It’s especially strong in the Southern Baptist Convention, comprising around 45,000 churches. An “Evangelical statement in support of Israel” pledges to “fully support Israel’s right and duty to defend itself against further attack”.

But there is a troubling subtext in some variants of evangelical theology. It is that the Jews are part of God’s plan for the End Times. The late Pat Robertson, the evangelical preacher and sometime candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, referred to “completed Jews” — those who accept Christ as saviour, in preparation for the Lord’s return.

You’ll find this type of thinking as far back as the post-millennialism of 16th-century Protestant preachers such as Daniel Whitby in A Treatise of the True Millennium (1703). And a tradition of philosemitism, stressing God’s plan for the Jews, predates Protestantism. An influential movement of Renaissance messianism, exemplified in the works of the philosopher Pico della Mirandola, saw the Cabala and the wider Jewish mystical tradition as keys to understanding calculating when the Messiah would come. The founding of the modern state of Israel has given impetus to evangelical millennialism.

Such notions are highly unrepresentative of wider Christian thinking but their proponents are the most vocal Christian defenders of Israel in the political sphere. And therein lies the quandary for Jewish opinion; these putative allies are dangerous. The Jewish people are not accessories to a divine scheme, let alone ripe for conversion to Christianity. And very many Jews have no religious faith of any kind.

For myself, as a liberal secularist, it is the fortunes and flourishing of the Jewish people that matter, not the Jewish faith. And it is hard to find in evangelicalism an acknowledgment of the value of the Jews and their history except instrumentally, as part of prophecy. It further inflicts much damage on the essential cause of modern Zionism if its most vocal Christian sympathisers associate with the worst elements of Israeli politics, who see territorial compromise as a violation of divine commands and concern for Palestinian human rights as a sign of weakness.

The fate of modern Jewry is bound up with the state of Israel. As Herzl presciently imagined himself in his diaries, “an impecunious Jewish journalist, in the midst of the deepest degradation of the Jewish people and at a time of the most disgusting antisemitism, made a flag out of a rag and turned a miserable rabble into a people rallying around that flag”. Israel is a kind of miracle, though not of the type proclaimed by some Christian preachers. And I respectfully urge Christian leaders to have, at the forefront of their responses to the crisis of Israel and Gaza, an understanding of Jewish yearnings and needs.

January 04, 2024 16:27

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