THE EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH IN AMERICA ("ELCA") is the nation's largest Lutheran denomination, with nearly 5 million members. The ELCA's highest legislative body is its Churchwide Assembly, which convenes every two years. The ninth such Churchwide Assembly has just ended. Yesterday, the Assembly adopted a resolution calling upon the ELCA's members, congregations, and agencies to "participate in the churchwide campaign for peace--Peace Not Walls: Stand for Justice in the Holy Land. . . ."
The elements of the "campaign for peace" are hard to discern from the language of the resolution itself. The resolution calls for "praying for peace with justice between Israel and Palestine," "learning about the situation there, sharing information, and building networks," "intensifying advocacy for a just peace in the region," "stewarding financial resources--both U.S. tax dollars and private funds--in ways that support the quest for a just peace in the Holy Land," and so on. Such vague provisions no doubt strike many as uncontroversial. Curiously, the only really tangible point of the resolution--opposition to the construction of Israel's security fence--is nowhere mentioned in the text of the resolution itself.
The resolution's intent is manifest, however, in the name of the campaign which support it encourages: "Peace Not Walls," as though the two concepts were in self-evident opposition. (Why not "Peace Through Walls"?) And the real content of the resolution is made explicit in the "Whereas" clauses which introduce it:
Whereas, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) and the Lutheran World Federation have drawn to the attention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America not only the extreme hardship brought to Palestinian communities by the continuing Israeli occupation and construction of the separation wall, but also the imminent threat they pose to the future of the ELCJHL and other Christian churches in the Holy Land; and
Whereas, the emerging fragile prospects for a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine require both Israelis and Palestinians to (1) avoid taking any actions that would undermine the peace (e.g., attacks on civilians, confiscation of land) and (2) actively engage in actions that will strengthen the will for peace; and
Whereas, in carrying out this mandate, the Church Council in April 2004 joined the Lutheran World Federation, the World Council of Churches, and others seeking peace in the region in calling for an end to the construction of the Israeli separation wall being built on Palestinian land . . .
The Churchwide Assembly's adoption of the anti-fence resolution came as no surprise; on the contrary, it was a foregone conclusion. The Assembly, which is attended inter alia by lay representatives of the ELCA's congregations, merely rubber-stamped an initiative that was already in place, adopted over the past two years by the ELCA's monolithically liberal staff. The Lutheran Office of Governmental Affairs went on record opposing the fence by July 2003, and other church agencies had fallen into line before the denomination's members had an opportunity to be heard. The fact that the resolution passed by a vote of 668 to 269 suggests that many rank and file church members were rebelling against the national organization's fait accompli.
The ELCA paved the way for the "Peace Not Walls" resolution with an article in the May 2005 issue of the denomination's official magazine, the Lutheran. The Lutheran article was permeated by anti-Israel bias and riddled with false allegations against Israel. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) identified 12 major factual errors, and one overriding omission:
A crucial omission marred the [May 2005] article as a whole. There was not one reference to Palestinian terrorism originating from terrorist strongholds in West Bank cities, the causal factor in Israel's erecting a protective barrier. The omission is indicative of the striking disregard for Israeli suffering and loss of life that underpins the piece.
The failure even to mention, let alone denounce, Palestinian terrorism is a consistent hallmark of the ELCA's writings on the Middle East. The "Peace Not Walls" resolution, like the Lutheran article, makes no specific mention of Palestinian terrorism, never acknowledges that Israel is building the fence to keep out mass murderers, not to steal a few acres of land, and gives no hint that the fence has saved many Israeli lives by making it more difficult for terrorists to slip into Israel. Likewise, the ELCA's Strategy for Engagement In Israel and Palestine singles out the fence as a threat to peace, but is entirely silent with respect to Palestinian terrorism:
This Churchwide Strategy for ELCA Engagement in Israel and Palestine . . . describes the fragile hope for a just and peaceful solution that is growing in the region following the recent Palestinian elections. It also expresses a sense of urgency, calling for strong and concerted action so that: (1) the possibility of secure, contiguous, and viable Israeli and Palestinian states is not eroded by the placement of the separation wall and Israeli settlements in the occupied territories; (2) the witness and diaconic work of the indigenous churches in Israel and Palestine continues; and (3) the future of humanitarian ministries in Jerusalem and the West Bank--in particular those in which the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America participates through the Lutheran World Federation--are not jeopardized by a proposed change in Israeli tax policy.
The ELCA's pronouncements on the Middle East are so one-sided as to suggest a dissociation from reality. Hamas gunmen brandish firearms as they celebrate Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and vow to continue their effort to exterminate the Jews; yet the ELCA thinks the chief threat to peace in the region is Israel's attempt to keep these terrorists out. For that matter, the ELCA seems more worried about Israeli tax policy than Palestinian terrorism.
Of course, this willful blindness to Middle Eastern reality is not unique to the ELCA; on the contrary, it afflicts most mainstream Protestant denominations, as reflected, to take just one example, in the anti-Israel posture of the World Council of Churches. What explains the anti-Israel bias of the leaders of most mainstream denominations? There is no possible theological justification for it. There can be no more fundamental Christian doctrine than opposition to mass murder, as practiced by Palestinian terrorists. And there could hardly be deeper grounds for religious affinity than the shared scriptures and intertwined histories and traditions of the Jewish and Christian faiths. So it is no surprise that American Christians, and Americans generally, have overwhelmingly supported Israel in its conflicts with the Palestinians.
Dissociation from Middle Eastern reality exists, not among the laity of the ELCA and other traditional Protestant churches, but among the leaders and professional staffers of these denominations. It is hard to escape the conclusion that those leaders are just one more layer of the liberal elite; for them, support for the Palestinian cause is of a piece with other liberal political positions promoted by their church hierarchies--environmentalism, high taxes, and so on. The fact that the leadership of mainline Protestant churches is dominated by liberals who substitute their own political biases for Christian doctrine and principles is an important factor limiting the growth of those denominations in comparison to the newer, evangelical churches whose leadership is not dominated by political liberalism.
John Hinderaker is a contributing writer to THE DAILY STANDARD, a contributor to the blog Power Line, and a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.