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MOVING BEYOND THE GUILT TRAP AND CLAIMING OUR CHRISTIAN FREEDOM

by Ted Schmidt

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters…if you are not led by the Spirit you are subject to the law.
Galatians 5:134, 18.

The need for a romanticized image of Jews for Christian identity and renewal is rarely discussed. Perhaps that is why Christians respond so easily to Jewish pressure. Would the realization that Jews are neither to be demonized nor romanticized force a re-evaluation of Christian identity and renewal?
Marc Ellis in Practicing Exile.

One of the liberating benefits of the Christian life is freedom in Christ. Before the four gospels were written, Paul gave us this powerful Gospel in his epistle to the Galatians. Unfortunately, this gift is too seldom exercised in the Christian community. We often find ourselves for many reasons –fear of criticism, unpopularity, careerism– trampling our consciences and remaining silent in the presence of grave injustice and overwhelming oppression.

     Fortunately, we have countless examples of brave Christians who saw through the smog of cultural conformity and societal blindness to proclaim in spirit and truth, this freedom in Christ. Quick examples come to mind: the brave Austrian peasant, Franz Jagerstatter, who with little episcopal support rejected the Anschluss with Germany and named Hitler for what he was: evil incarnate. For this brave intervention, he was beheaded. Today, we remember him and forget the craven bishops who went along with the Nazis.

     Closer to our era, we recall the prophetic witness of the Berrigan brothers, the first priests indicted in the U.S. In 1968, priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan along with seven others, broke the law and burned draft cards in Catonsville, Maryland. They protested the immoral bombing of Vietnam (2 million Vietnamese civilians died at the hands of the U.S.) while most Catholics, including the hierarchy blessed the hideous conflict.

     Similarly, Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King Jr. lost his life that same year as he, liberated by the same Gospel of freedom, called a racist America to account. King broke out of his middle class privilege and the comfortable assurance of a risk-free clergyman, to proclaim brotherhood and sisterhood in a sharply divided society.

     I would like in this brief essay to look at the paralyzing fear many Christians have in naming evil in the conflict raging in the Middle East today. But first, a little history.

     Post World War ll was largely uninterested in the Holocaust. The event was so huge, so beyond any category that one philosopher called it "the Novum" (beyond category). Who could get their minds around the death of six million innocents, including one million children? Christians had not even begun to think of and analyze the centuries of "the teaching of contempt" (Isaac) which paved the way for the Holocaust. As well, the western world was putting most of its energies into rebuilding a war-torn world. Jews always had been a small part of this world, so there was not much interest in the Shoah.

     Immediately after the war the Jews of the then British protectorate Palestine waged a guerilla war against the British and indigenous Arabs. In 1947, they accepted partition into two states. The five Arabic states refused and war broke out. The Arabs were no match for the numerically superior and highly trained Israel army, and the Jewish state of Israel was proclaimed in May of 1948 The Israelis waged a brutal cleansing operation of the nearby areas. Internal Zionist documents show that the Israelis never accepted the two state formula as final, but simply as a launching pad to a greater Israel.

     Both Israelis and the Arab states were content to let Palestinians disappear as they lingered in refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank. Amazingly, like the Jews themselves, the Palestinians proved remarkably resilient and Arab leadership pressed for reparations and compensation for captured Palestinian homes and ancestral property. In 1964 the Palestine Liberation Organization was formed. In 1967, the Six Day war changed Jewish consciousness forever.

     The stunning victory of Israel began to be seen "as the dawn of our redemption." Theologians like Emil Fackenheim, by using language like this, made it appear that Israel was elected by God, the state became the Christian equivalent of the Resurrection and thus an article of faith which could never be questioned. Jews were reborn, no longer passive and marching quietly to their death as in the Holocaust; now the new Jew was self-reliant and tough. In this new scenario, Arabs became the equivalent of Nazis as the messianic age had dawned.

     At the same time, scholars had begun to probe the Holocaust and zero in on the complicity of the Church and in particular the wartime pope, Pius Xll. Thus began the long silence of Christians with regard to Israel, an understandable failure to treat Israel as a state with defects like any other state. Christians were literally paralyzed by their guilt, and it must be said a genuine respect for the vibrant and dynamic new state. The West in general related well to the more Eurocentic Israelis than the Muslim Arabs.

     Yet, the Palestinian cause refused to go away and slowly and inevitably, Israel began to show cracks as a model democratic country and "a light unto the nations" as the Zionist dream had styled it. In 1982, the world was stunned by the violence of the Israeli incursion into Lebanon (20,000 dead) and the subsequent massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. This resulted in the public humiliation of present Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon.

     The bloom finally left the rose for many Jews in the first Palestinian uprising, the Intifada, Arabic for the "shaking off" of decades of humiliation and oppression. Television images of Jewish soldiers breaking bones and acting like thugs shocked American Jews into the realization that alas, Jews were not that different than other people.

     Brave Jewish theologians like Arthur Waskow, Michael Lerner and Marc Ellis consistently pointed out that there was something radically wrong with Jewish empowerment which resulted in Palestinian victimization. These men took issue with the use of Auschwitz to quell both external criticism and the anguished cries of a humiliated people watching their houses blown up, their orchards dug up, their permits for houses and wells denied, rubber bullets fired at their stone-throwing children. The new theologians claimed that the state was alienating itself from the humanistic soul of universal Jewish ethics.

     While the new theologians were challenging a furious establishment, a new breed of historians like Benny Morris and Simha Flapan had proved that Palestinians did not voluntarily leave their land, but were subjects of wanton terror. The new historians had smoked out the hidden history and ideology of an expansionist state.

     Today, despite the impotent and nihilistic rage of Palestinian suicide bombers, most of the world has not bought the myth that Israel with the fourth largest army in the world as well as nuclear weapons is in any grave danger of "being pushed into the sea." The Palestinian cause, despite their blunders and the often corrupt practices of their own authority, has become one of the moral causes of our age.
More Christians need to say this—we owe a double solidarity, first to the Jewish people and the right of Israel to live in security, but also the oppressed Palestinians, who like most people do not only understand force as Israeli state dogma insists, but rather a deeply human people who will reciprocate compassion and generosity.

     Christians, as Marc Ellis intimated, need not be embarrassed or afraid to confront the ugliness of the Occupation. It is only by moving beyond the historical "guilt trap" we have snared ourselves in, will we truly show ourselves to be a real friend to Israel.

Ted Schmidt is Editor of Catholic New Times.

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