Just in time for the nearly 2 million member Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly this week, which will consider anti-Israel divestment, some prominent Christian activists have released a new anti-Israel salvo, called Kairos USA.
The manifesto echoes and affirms a declaration of several years ago from Palestinian church officials defining Christian faithfulness as resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. And like its model, Kairos Palestine of 2009, it supports “boycott, divestment and sanctions” against Israel.
“Kairos USA … aims to reach across entrenched divides in American Christianity––black/white, mainstream/evangelical, conservative/liberal––to stand in solidarity with Palestine Christians as they resist the Israeli occupation of their native land,” the group’s website explains. It cites as inspiration “contemporary prophetic movements of Christians in Palestine, southern Africa, Asia and Europe, as well as the civil rights movement in this country and the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa.”
Leaders include several evangelicals such as Wheaton College professor Gary Burge, former senator Mark Hatfield staffer and World Vision relief executive Tom Getman, and former World Vision executive Serge Duss, who serves on the evangelical advisory board of the Center for American Progress. There are also mainline Protestants such as former Presbyterian Church (USA) moderator Rick Ufford-Chase. Signers include Emergent Church guru Brian McLaren and Shane Claiborne, a popular pacifist preacher.
The coalition reflects the limited success of anti-Israel activists to moving Christian opinion in America about Israel. But it also reflects the widening circle of anti-Israel activism beyond leftist, old-line Protestantism into mainstream evangelical circles, traditionally a bedrock of pro-Israel opinion.
Kairos USA laments having “failed to challenge our government’s policies” that supposedly facilitates Israel inflicting suffering on Palestinians. It condemns “misreading of our Holy Scriptures, flawed theology and distortions of history” that supposedly guide Christian Zionism. And it regrets having “acceded to the reality of a powerful political lobby and an array of advocacy organizations, Jewish and Christian, committed to silencing or suppressing conversation about and inquiry into the human rights practices of the State of Israel while blocking legitimate direct action to bring pressure on Israel.” It also apologizes for having “invested in corporations that help carry out and profit from the occupation of Palestinian lands.” It likens Israel’s claims to Jerusalem to America’s nefarious 19th century notion of “Manifest Destiny.” And it condemns the role of “Islamophobia” in sustaining purported bias against Israel’s Arab neighbors.
Probably Kairos USA will fail to persuade Presbyterians to divest against Israel at their governing convention in Pittsburgh. The denomination’s vote to divest in 2004 created uproar, especially with Jewish interfaith partners, and Presbyterians retracted it in 2006. No other major denomination in the U.S. has voted to divest, and the United Methodist Church, with 4 times as many U.S. members, decisively rejected divestment at its General Conference in May. Presbyterians are unlikely to want to stand alone. And even if Presbyterians do divest, their ultimate overall political influence, due to declining U.S. mainline Protestants as a whole, is shrinking. The denomination just announced an over 60,000 member loss, a number that will accelerate as the church further fractures over homosexuality and marriage controversies.
Increasingly, anti-Israel activists are targeting evangelicals, especially young people. Kairos USA organizer Gary Burge, who teaches at prestigious evangelical Wheaton College outside Chicago, appeared in With God on Our Side, a 2010 anti-Israel film faulting Christian Zionism in the U.S. for Palestinian suffering and still being widely shown. Burge is the author of the 2010 book, Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to "Holy Land" Theology, which criticizes pro-Israel evangelicals. The film won endorsements from prominent evangelicals such as Brian McLaren (who also endorsed Kairos USA), Tony Campolo, and Steve Haas of World Vision. It was also favorably reviewed by Christianity Today, evangelicaldom’s flagship publication.
More recently, another film, Little Town of Bethlehem, also aims, more subtly, to persuade evangelicals to abandon traditional pro-Israel sympathies by highlighting the collaboration of Palestinian and Jewish Israeli pacifists. Evangelical endorsers include former World Vision president Robert Seiple and megachurch church leader Lynne Hybels, along with faculty of evangelical schools.
The film featured Palestinian Christian activist Sami Awad, who addressed the Society of Pentecostal Studies meeting at Pat Robertson’s Regents University in Virginia Beach in March. Pentecostals are typically ardent Zionists, and most still are. But some evangelical elites are embarrassed by the old religious right and increasingly want to disassociate from figures like Pat Robertson. Disavowing pro-Israel views is sometimes an easy way to create a new evangelical identity.
In March, numerous evangelical elites attended a “Christ at the Checkpoint” event in Bethlehem on the West Bank to highlight Christian solidarity with Palestinian suffering and against Israeli occupation. Speakers included mainstream liberal evangelicals such as Tony Campolo and Ron Sider, as well as Joel Hunter, a Florida megachurch pastor and spiritual counselor to President Obama. Lynne Hybels and Shane Claiborne also spoke.
Polls show that American evangelicals remain strongly pro-Israel. So do Catholics and mainline Protestants. But evangelicals are America’s largest religious demographic. So look for anti-Israel activists to accelerate their evangelical efforts, especially among young people, no matter what happens at the Presbyterian General Assembly.
CORRECTION: This article mistakenly stated that Gary Burge "helped produce" With God on Our Side. He did not; he only appeared in the film.