The Best Conference in Many Years
By M. Theresa Basile
Scroll down the page to see photos of speakers and others at this conference.
The Rosemary Redford Ruether Conference on Justice and Peace
for Palestine/Israel was organized and presented on October 7th, 2017 at Pilgrim Place, a unique ecumenical community of retired religious leaders that includes Ruether as one of their residents.
That conference title was not just a titular honor for an appreciated colleague; the entire conference was permeated with Ruether’s extraordinary body of theological work and the
courageous activism that theology informed in herself and generations of others. It was fascinating to hear how much these eminent speakers owed to Ruether’s influence. The excellent lineup of speakers included Mark Braverman, Donald Wagner, Marc Ellis, Mae Elise Cannon, and Naim Ateek.
During lunchtime, conference participants engaged in a lively room-wide discussion, on the question of the two-state solution. More than one speaker that day said without equivocation that the two-state solution is dead. Several people in the lunch discussion disagreed with that, and said that it is still the only viable solution that is conceivable anytime in the foreseeable future.
A much appreciated feature of this conference was the unprecedented amount of free time allowed for conversation, from half an hour to an hour after every speaker. Moving freely about the room and the facility, we could absorb and discuss what we had heard, meet friends and make new ones, and recharge for the next inspiring and challenging speaker.
With that very welcome free time, along with the impressive offerings from the speakers, the productive use of technology for video conferencing and for a presentation on Ruether’s life and career, the long-term planning and publicity that brought together such a full and diverse audience (150-200 people): all in all, I would have to say that this was the best conceived and organized conference that I have attended in many years.
Following are some notes from each speaker’s address, in the order they were delivered. Some have more detail than others, which does not reflect the length or importance of their messages, but rather my ability to take notes at various times of this long and rewarding day!
Talked about his own history growing up in a conservative Jewish household, and the evolution of his understanding of what was happening in Israel/Palestine. He believes now that if people care about the Jewish people they must work for Jewish liberation from Zionist bondage to Israel. He spoke also of how he was taught to fear Christianity and Christians. He was afraid to read the New Testament, expecting to find death, violence, racism. And afraid to go to a church, where he was told people would try either to kill him or convert him. Now when he speaks at churches and Christians ask him where he worships, he says “Your are sitting in it. This is my synagogue.” And he knows Jesus would agree. He also was taught tribalism, that the goyim are not as smart or as good as us. He learned better from Palestinians like Nora Carmi and Naim Ateek. And Naim has made the connection between the Old Testament prophets and Jesus. Mark considers Jesus his rabbi.
Braverman also spoke of how important Ruether's writing had been to him and cited the references to her work in his best known book, Fatal Embrace.
Then he outlined four points he would address: 1. Why focus on Palestine? 2. It’s about Theology/Zionism. 3. Its about Church. 4. Its about Strategy.
1. What we are talking about is bigger than Palestine, it is an entry point and a fulcrum for other things. See the 30th Anniversary of the South Africa Kairos document - quotations on the Kairos USA website. We need to employ the idea of “dangerous memories,” which are the subversive memories of the victims of history, those whose stories do not fit into society’s traditional and accepted narrative. Some theologians have applied that idea to the Gospel.
2. Palestine is the place where our sacred texts are challenged. We have to deal with our theology when we deal with Palestine Naim Ateek has said that “scripture is our problem.” Confronting those challenges is good. Bonhoeffer said that unity is possible only in the Truth. That doesn’t mean everyone will get along, but we can find clarity of mission and purpose. The Barmen Declaration, The Belhar Confession, the original Kairos Document - all call for us to support the rebellion. To name tyranny and then walk the talk.
Settler colonialism in the service of Zionism is the thing we have to name. It is an ethnic racist nationalist ideology. The ethnic cleansing of Palestine was planned long before Hitler. Pappe has called it “incremental genocide.”
3. Theology is always contextual, it is not about personal salvation. He made reference to South African theologian John de Gruchy, and how South Africans made the connection to the Barmen Declaration. A South African church leader, speaking of what the Church in South Africa did to fight apartheid, told him, “it was long and messy and we were never united, but we prevailed.” Mark connects this to the work of the World Council of Churches - ecumenism is not about the institutions, its about true believers. James Baldwin said: Racism is the moral issue today. If your church doesn’t take this on, go home. In 1968, the WCC addressed this and the challenges of peacemaking in difficult political situations. They created the Programme to Combat Racism and helped to fund liberation movements in several places. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches also took action; they declared apartheid heresy and cut off the churches in South Africa during that era.
Today there is a struggle in the churches: the Gospel vs. a neoliberal agenda. Think about Pentecost: when the power comes to the disciples, they could speak all languages of that time. They were to go out with the good news - it was for everyone.
The need to do penance for the Holocaust and anti-Semitism can be a trap for Christians. It can be used to tie Christians' hands and stop them from doing what needs to be done for the people of Israel and Palestine, from fulfilling the verse in Isaiah that Jesus read about himself in the synagogue - setting the captives free, etc.
There may be a cost to our actions, disrupting precious relationships and that may be our cross to pick up and carry. Do it for Jesus. And it is the most loving thing you can do for Jews also.
4. Referring to Gandhi’s quote [First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win], Mark pointed out that now they are fighting us.
Palestine is being raised as central to a range of issues around the world, which helps to bring high visibility to Palestine. And this is working! In Norway, striking workers had a sign that said “Free Palestine.” He included examples from other countries - a camp (?) in Brazil with a sign “Welcome to Palestine.”
Figure out - who is the Palestinian in your backyard?
Closing: Bonhoeffer, in his last year in prison, said he practiced Christianity without religion. What does that mean for us? Jesus is call “benAdam” - son of Adam. “I am humanity.” Who and what is Jesus Christ for us?
Rev. Donald Wagner
Wagner spoke of the centrality of liberation theology, both locally and globally, which asks: What is the problem? How is injustice created? With what false ideologies? How do we end injustice with better thinking?
A key concept to this work is praxis: theological reflection leading to action. Has been applied in South America, Africa, Asia, the US and now Palestine. Research - reflecting - writing - mobilizing…theologians have to leave the ivory tower and come into the trenches. There can be no neutral theology; it can be used as a tool for oppression or for good. Speaking of Ruether’s book, The Wrath of Jonah: Crisis of Religious Nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict - it examines the religious and ideological underpinnings of Zionism and the consequences in churches. Zionism is ethnocentric nationalism. Settler colonialism, the ideological tool and strategy for Zionism, moves into the land and drives people out, as happened in the Americas and more recently in Palestine.
Wagner drew attention to Ilan Pappe’s latest book: The Biggest Prison on Earth: A History of the Occupied Territories. He also spoke of commentary by Glenn Greenwald regarding the crisis happening in the US and the world: Trump is what we deserve, the outcome of what has been happening in our society over the last 40 to 50 years.
Wagner described the Chinese symbol for “crisis” - which conveys both danger and opportunity - that combination is our motivation to action. In our activism, we are following Jesus, we are overturning the moneylenders’ tables, we are exposing systemic evil and theological evil and we are condemning religious hypocrisy. Having exposed all those things, closed “now we are stuck with justice.” We have seen what is happening, and we must DO something.
Participating by video conference, Ellis noted that Christian denominations have come so far [in their positions and actions] in recent years. He asked and answered the question “If the occupation is permanent, is an ethical Jewish future possible? No. And we see that the occupation is permanent.”
Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon
Cannon mentioned that CMEP sometimes gets in trouble from more than one direction in our movement because of the challenges they face in navigating the positions of so many different churches that are part of CMEP. Although they have not come a place of actively supporting BDS action, CMEP does support everyone’s right to engage in boycotts and divestment and in their work on the Hill opposes anti-BDS legislation very actively .
Cannon stressed that the conflict in Israel/Palestine is not a “balanced” conflict and there are not “two sides” to be considered equally. One side is pursuing a just peace and one is not. We should ask: “Whose side are you on?” At the same time, we also need humility to be able to create space for creative dialogue. We can let go of the high ground to pursue creative solutions, pragmatic solutions. We can allow all voices to be heard, knowing that those who promote disinformation and lies will end up proving our truth.
Speaking of former Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to restart negotiations, Cannon said that it is crucial to keep human rights in focus always. It is not practical to say if we can just get negotiations started, then human rights issues can be dealt with down the line.
She spoke of a new book coming out, about an Evangelical Theology of Liberation, a Christian Vision of Justice in Palestine.
Cannon cited several scripture passages, Luke 4, Mattew 25 and Joshua 5, and recalled Ruether’s emphasis on an “accurate telling of history.”
Rev. Naim Ateek
Rev. Ateek spoke of Rosemary Redford Ruether as an important example to Palestinian women such as Nora Carmi, and Jean Zaru. Rosemary’s commitment to truth, her courage and her prophetic voice personally inspired him. He spoke of a time when he heard her speak in Jerusalem and was disappointed in her understanding, or lack thereof, of what was happening to the Palestinian people. So he invited her to learn more while she was there, and she did just that. She eventually came to understand much more and was brave enough to change her views and her statements. Naim admires her for that courage and noted that truth and facts do not always change people, if fear or stubbornness holds them back. But when we undergo transformation, it is liberating.
Ateek also praised Ruether for her candor in the book Faith and Fratricide, where she showed how embedded anti-Semitism was in Christianity. Later in her work, she powerfully exposed what was happening to the Palestinian people.
Naim shared an inspiring story: Samia Khoury, an author and one of the founders of Sabeel, heard a Jewish Israeli named Joseph speak at one of Sabeel’s international conferences in Jerusalem. He described what he had done in the 1948 war to the Palestinian town of Lydda, and he asked Palestinians at the conference for forgiveness. Samia acknowledged the courage of his confession and offered him her forgiveness.
In closing, Rev Ateek said there is no such thing as “alternative Truth.” Other perspectives, yes, but not other Truth.
“Speak your mind, even if your voice is shaking.”
Above, left to right: Rizek Abusharr, former Director of the Jerusalem YMCA and Nobel Peace Prize nominee; Mark Braverman, author, Program Director of Kairos USA, and speaker at this conference.
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Above, left to right: Rev. James Dwyer, Rev. DarEll Weist, and Rev. Diane Kenney, all United Methodist clergy and residents of Pilgrim Place. Weist was the Registrar for this conference, is a UMKR activist and a member of the California-Pacific conference’s Holy Land Task Force.
Above, left to right: Rev. Naim Ateek, founder of Sabeel, M. Theresa Basile of the UMKR Steering Committee and Chair of the Cal-Pac conference’s Holy Land Task Force, and Rev. Donald Wagner of FOSNA. Ateek and Wagner were speakers at the conference.