Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) is one of the relatively more “moderate” anti-Israel church coalitions constantly pushing for a more ostensibly neutral U.S. stance towards Israel. In July, a CMEP delegation met with National Security Council Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to offer “support” for President Obama’s Middle East policy but also to share “concerns.” What were these concerns?
CMEP was distressed by continued Jewish settlements on the West Bank, the “humanitarian situation” in Gaza, and the “importance of Jerusalem being a shared city (for three faiths as well as two peoples).” And, oh yes, they were also concerned about the “dwindling Christian population of the Holy Land.” But this concern seemingly extends only so far as it implicates Israel and does not fault radical Islam or the policies of Arab regimes towards Christian minorities.
This very concerned CMEP delegation to the White House included the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s presiding bishop, a Greek Orthodox representative, several clerics from pacifist denominations, a Roman Catholic bishop, and strangely, an official from the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC). This latter group is comprised of Latino evangelicals, mostly Pentecostals and charismatics, who are overwhelmingly pro-Israel. NHCLC, which was represented at the White House by senior Vice President Angel Nunez, is not a member of CMEP. NHCLC is headed by the almost omnipresent Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, a chief national spokesman for liberalized immigration.
Rodriguez sits on the executive committee of the increasingly left-leaning National Association of Evangelicals and has joined in its campaigns against U.S. “torture,” and for nuclear disarmament. Although Rodriguez has been very pro-Israel, the presence of NHCLC in the CMEP White House visit may signal that Rodriguez’s political activism, especially on immigration, is tugging him leftward even on the Middle East. If so, his perspective will be elitist and not representative of pro-Zionist Hispanic evangelicals as a whole.
Last year, Rodriguez’s NHCLC formed an alliance with Rev. John Hagee’s pro-Zionist Christians United for Israel. “I have always loved Israel and believed that Christians must speak out in support of Israel’s right to exist and [its right of] self-defense,” Rodriguez enthused at that time. Also last year, Rodriguez robustly wrote for The Washington Post’s religion blog: “In order to protect the Palestinian people, and secure peace between Israel and Arab neighbors, Hamas, Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda must experience the same fate as the Nazi Party in Germany, annihilation.” This perspective does not quite fit with CMEP’s priorities, so perhaps Rodrigeuz’s vice president’s participation in the CMEP White House visit was a misunderstanding.
CMEP’s delegation to the White House seems to have been chaired by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson. ”The continued expansion of settlements becomes that to which Palestinian people on the ground look to either substantiate or negate what politicians are saying about the progress being made,” Hanson afterwards explained, in a typical CMEP slant. “The greatest antidote to religious extremism in the world is to see us, who are not religious extremists, consistently work with people of other faiths to achieve a just and lasting peace; and for people to see successes from these efforts,” he added. Hanson boasted of his own denomination’s “strong history of advocacy for a lasting peace with justice, which in this case involves a two-state solution.”
Also part of CMEP’s White House delegation was CMEP executive director and former U.S. Ambassador to Gabon Warren Clark. A few weeks before the White House visit, in June, CMEP convened its annual advocacy conference in Washington, D.C. called “Pursing Peace Together: Working for Reconciliation in the Holy Land.” In his remarks, Clark focused on what CMEP thinks is the main obstacle to Middle East peace: Israel, especially the Jewish settlements on the West Bank: “If the new building freeze is not extended, I believe hopes for an agreement will end, as no Palestinian authority can agree to continue the pattern of the past 17 years of engaging in negotiations while the Israeli population expands into the Palestinian territories, including east Jerusalem.” Only an ongoing building freeze could allow “public perceptions” to improve, especially in Israel and the U.S., he insisted.
Clark implored: “We will all need to work as individuals and in groups, in our church communities, in our parishes, in our meetings, synods, dioceses and in all the other words we use to describe our various church organizations, to tell our elected representatives we want them to support the effort to bring about an end to this conflict and an agreement for a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Holy Land.” In other words, rally your churches for increased U.S. pressure against Israel.
More direct than Clark at the CMEP advocacy event was former United Church of Christ President John Thomas, who sits on CMEP’s Leadership Council. As reported by my colleague Jeff Walton, Thomas likened Israel and the U.S. to the Bible’s wicked King Ahab, who stole his neighbor Naboth’s adjacent land for his own palace garden, declaring: “Give me your vineyard, because it is next to mine, and I want it.”
“There are always enough scoundrels around who will trump up charges and then ultimately dispossess the Naboths of this world first of their reputation, then of their life, then of their land,” Thomas insisted. Inevitably, he listed supposed American examples of “possessing and dispossessing,” which apparently makes America as notorious as Israel. “How else can we read the narratives that lead to and from the trail of tears and all of the tributaries that have gone so painfully from it?” he ponderously asked. “What of manifest destiny that rendered much of Mexico and Puerto Rico and islands in the Pacific ours, adjacent? Or closer to home, what else can one make of so much of the urban gentrification that we see, or even the foreclosures – which are not only cruel, but also demonically and deliberately clever?”
Thomas zinged America Christian Zionists’ for “self-serving apocalyptic visions” to bolster their pro-Israel stances. He claimed Israel was created as “a kind of atonement for centuries of anti-Semitism” and has since become America’s “compliant vassal state to be possessed as a client serving our strategic interests in which Naboth counts for little.” He warned against seeking “balance” in the Middle East and urged instead to focus on despoiled “Naboth” as the “the church’s primary concern,” by which he clearly meant suffering Palestinians, victimized by Israel and its American patrons.
Probably the CMEP was on its best behavior and did not mention “Naboth” while visiting the White House in July. But simplistically portraying Palestinians as victims and Israel and America as villains is the underlying constant theme for CMEP and the elites of its member churches.