The strongest opposition in the United States to President Bush’s “roadmap for peace” in Israel comes, ironically, from some of his strongest supporters–the religious right.
Charles Kimball, author of When Religion Becomes Evil, said he first heard it when Bush unveiled the plan, and he heard it again last week, channel surfing to a TV sermon by San Antonio pastor John Hagee.
“If you work for peace, you could be working for the Antichrist,” Kimball summarized the message. While conceding that Hagee probably is sincere in his views, Kimball said he believes they are misguided and dangerous, because they spill over into political advocacy.
“I wonder what happened to the Sermon on the Mount and ‘Blessed are the peacemakers,'” Kimball, a Baptist minister who teaches at WakeForestDivinitySchool, said. “Shouldn’t we be listening to Jesus instead of Pastor Hagee?”
“We don’t know when Jesus is coming again,” he said. But in the meantime, “We know we are to be engaged in a ministry of reconciliation.”
In the 1980s, when Kimball worked as director of the Middle East Office at the National Council of Churches, the NCC passed a policy on Middle East peace but didn’t have a staff to implement it. With Kimball’s encouragement, Christian leaders organized Churches for Middle East Peace in 1984.
While he hasn’t been actively involved in the organization for about 15 years, Kimball returned as keynote speaker Saturday in Nashville, Tenn., for a grassroots meeting on “Peace in the Holy Land: Roles and Responsibilities of U.S. Christians.”
Today the Washington-based CMEP coalition includes 21 member communions including Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox. Member bodies include the Alliance of Baptists. Jeanette Holt, the Alliance’s associate director, is a member of the CMEP executive committee.
The CMEP works a two-pronged approach. One is lobbying Congress and the White House to spread the word that not all Christians share “Christian Zionist” views held by Hagee and other high-profile preachers including Pat Robertson and “Left Behind” author Tim LaHaye. The other is mobilizing local churches for education and advocacy of a two-state solution as the most viable peace plan.
“We’re trying to promote the view that there is a new way to be a friend toward Israel,” Corrine Whitlatch, CMEP executive director, said in an interview
In remarks to the audience, Whitlatch described the coalition as theologically diverse. Its newest member is the Armenian Orthodox Church. They don’t discuss theology, however, but rather seek language that appeals both to common ground and common sense.
“Israel cannot be secure until Palestinians have rights, have their own state, have their dignity,” she said. “Palestinians know they can never have their own state unless they can live as good neighbors to Israel. It has taken them a long time to learn that.”
Working alongside both Jewish and Muslim groups, Whitlatch said during 20 years on her job she has seen the battle lines shift from “Israeli versus Arab,” to people who are united for peacemaking against people who do not want peace.
The CMEP advocates both a secure Israel recognized by the Arab world and a viable Palestinian state with contiguous borders including the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
Jerusalem, which is holy to three faiths, poses a particular problem.
Between 1948 and 1967 Jerusalem was divided by barbed wire and concrete barriers. The western half became part of the new state of Israel, while Jordan annexed the eastern half, denying Jews access to sites including the TempleMount and Wailing Wall.
Israel captured East Jerusalem in the Six Day War, declaring the city Israel’s “eternal and indivisible capital.” Most of the international community doesn’t recognize Jerusalem as the capital and have their embassies in Tel Aviv.
Palestinian groups, meanwhile, view either East Jerusalem or all of Jerusalem as capital of a future Palestinian state.
Whitlatch said the best solution lies in an undivided city shared as capital by both Israel and a Palestinian state.
Another strong focus of her organization’s work, she said, is countering the powerful “Christian Zionist” voice in Washington.
“We feel it is very important for our advocacy to be in the name of our Christian convictions,” she said. “We need to counter the view there is only one Christian voice that cares about this issue.”
While some religious right leaders, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, are leading voices against ceding land to Palestinians, Whitlatch credited the president with breaking ranks with some in his base on the issue.
Bush is the first U.S. president to say there must be a viable Palestinian state, she said. In his State of the Union address he pledged a large increase in foreign aid to the Palestinians, though Congress later blocked the money from going directly to the Palestinian Authority.
While Bush owes much political capital to the religious right, Whitlatch said she believes he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also recognize that religious right leaders have caused the administration problems in foreign policy, such as when Christian evangelists called Islam evil. She also is hopeful that in a second term, Bush will desire to build a legacy, particularly amid problems mounting for his administration.
While the president is saying many of the right things about Israel, she said, he needs encouragement to move forward. That, Whitlatch said, is where concerned Christians can come in by contacting their local Congressmen to say the issue is important to them.
“We want George Bush to be successful on this issue,” said Whitlach. “We cannot wait for a better president. There may not be a better president on this issue.”
Whitlach told EthicsDaily.com that American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. was a founding group of the coalition but dropped out when its Washington office was downsized. For that reason, she said, “We were very pleased when the Alliance of Baptists came in.”
Local coordinator Charles Howell, a former Tennessee legislator and governor’s aide who attends Woodmont Christian Church in Nashville, told EthicsDaily.com he was disappointed that out of more than 20 invitations he sent to Baptist ministers for a Friday luncheon for clergy, he didn’t receive a single RSVP.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
The Churches for Middle East Peace Web site is here.