Justice in the Holy Land – An Urgent Issue of Faith

A Palestine Portal Interview with Dr. Peter Makari

October 12, 2017

In October 2017, Mark Braverman of Palestine Portal and Kairos USA interviewed Dr. Peter Makari, the Executive for the Middle East and Europe for Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Dr. Makari has roots in the region and in the US; his father is a Presbyterian pastor who is a native of Egypt, and his mother is a native of Indiana. Dr. Makari studied at American University in Cairo and has a doctorate in Politics and Middle East studies from NYU. Before his current position, he served with the Middle East Council of Churches in Cyprus and, before that, worked in Egypt with the Coptic Evangelical (Presbyterian) Organization for Social Services (CEOSS). Dr. Makari participated in the ecumenical gathering in 2012 that produced the U.S. “Call to Action” response to the Palestine Kairos Document.


PP: What is your own personal history with the Palestine issue?

PM: For me, the personal and professional have been connected. I first visited Jerusalem in the early 90s, in a personal, not an official capacity. Besides the fact that the place holds special importance for me as a Christian, to be there and to get a sense of the reality under which people were living there was quite significant for me. While I was with the Middle East Council of Churches, I had the opportunity to learn a great deal about Palestinian refugees through the MECC’s Department on Palestinian Refugees.

And of course now the Holy Land is an essential part of my work with the UCC and Disciples. Since 1996, the UCC and Disciples of Christ have shared a joint mission board, so I serve both churches. We talk about the ecumenical mandate, and the unity of the church, and this is a way to demonstrate that and practice it. It’s been a pretty successful model so far and we’re proud of the way it’s worked for us.

PP: In what ways has the Holy Land become an essential part of your work?

PM: First, these are the places of our faith’s story, where Jesus lived and witnessed. The issue of justice there and on a global level has been a focus for our churches for years. Also, our relationships with and commitment to our partners in the Holy Land inform deeply the way in which our members understand the issue. And this has been reflected directly in church policy

As you know, the UCC met in General Synod this year and the Disciples met in General Assembly this year also. This summer the UCC and the Disciples each adopted parallel resolutions on the Palestinian issue. This is a case where both churches now share this policy and that makes it easier to implement the resolutions together.

In 2005 the UCC adopted a resolution concerning the use of economic leverage to promote peace in the Middle East. That called for support for partners working nonviolently for peace, exploring shareholder actions with, and the possibility of divestment from, companies profiting from occupation, and advocacy with our government concerning military aid. That’s a UCC policy, and along with the 2015 resolution on divesting from specific companies, that’s the UCC policy with respect to the use of economic leverage. The Disciples do not have such a position. So when I talk about economic leverage, I am talking about UCC, not Disciples.

PP: About those parallel resolutions in 2017 that you mentioned – this year, the UCC General Synod voted overwhelmingly for a resolution that calls on the State of Israel to guarantee basic due process and exercise a prohibition against torture and ill-treatment of detained Palestinian children. And it describes how Palestinian children are subject to physical and verbal abuse, strip searches, solitary confinement, coerced confessions, and separation from their parents and legal counsel. The Disciples of Christ adopted a similar resolution at their General Assembly this year. Both resolutions call on our government to take specific steps to call Israel to account and apply pressure with respect to these human rights violations.

PM: Yes, the resolution came through a national board on the Disciples side, and from local churches on the UCC side. But they have essentially the same calls for action.

PP: You also mentioned partners in the Holy Land. Especially since the Kairos Palestine document in 2009 and now the recent letter to the ecumenical church from the National Coalition of Christian Organizations in Palestine, are there specific ties or connections in that region that are a part of your work?

PM: Sure. One of our partners is the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), and the Jerusalem churches are members of the MECC. So indirectly we have relationship with all the Jerusalem churches. More directly, we have a direct relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land. With the Episcopal Diocese, we have been a long-time supporter of the Al Ahli hospital in Gaza. And as you probably know there are only about 1200 Christians in Gaza, in a population of 1.8 million, and this hospital serves all people and is of course very challenged. We also enjoy partnerships with the MECC’s Department of Service for Palestinian Refugees, the YWCA of Palestine, the East Jerusalem YMCA, the Diyar Consortium, the Sabeel Center, B’Tselem, and others.

PP: What do you see as the role of the Church, writ large, in what is now a global response to the Palestinian call?

PM: It depends on which part of the universal church we are talking about. You are aware of the difference in viewpoints among Christians on this particular issue. Some are strong advocates of peace and justice of all people, lifting up the voices of Palestinians living under occupation, and supporting the Kairos Palestine document, and we are among that group. But then you have other churches and church groups that reject this kind of word and action, based on a Christian Zionist reading of the Bible. That’s an extreme oversimplification, but just to illustrate that there is no simple or singular Christian viewpoint or role on the subject.

But I think that there is a growing movement and awareness among churches that are active on the issue to increase knowledge and education among members and thereby increase prayers activity and advocacy on behalf of Palestinian rights, particularly drawing on documents such as the Kairos Palestine document, which is a very clear articulation by the Palestinian community of its situation, of its hopes, of its dreams, and how the world can respond to those. And I do believe that there are more Evangelicals who are becoming aware of the fact that there are Palestinian Christians, and that this is impacting the way that they view the situation. So while there are some who adopt a Christian Zionist position as a default position, some are becoming self-critical about how they understand the situation.

PP: Yes, you talk about the differences of opinion within the church, and it makes one think of this concept of “church struggle,” that really originated in Germany during the Nazi era. With people lining up on both sides about what is the position of the “true church” on an issue. So I wonder what your view is about this as something that the churches have been struggling with, and where you see it going?

PM: Well if you look at the UCC from a policy perspective, you see that the church has been engaged with this issue in General Synod at least since 1967. And the church was formed in 1957. So almost from its beginnings the denomination has been speaking on this issue, as well as with many other international issues. And this is true with Disciples as well, which has an extensive body of policy on the issue. Both churches have been engaged with the issue over the years. And if you look at the votes over past years, you see that there has been broad support, in both churches, for resolutions that have been brought forward, especially in recent years, advocating for nonviolent solutions to the conflict and raising awareness of the injustice and commitment to work to oppose the injustice.

PP: You seem to be saying that there is a growing consensus on the need to take this issue on, to study it and to discern about it.

PM: I would say that when I visit our churches, local conferences and regions, that most of our members are aware and are able to articulate what they learn through mainstream media, but that they also understand that there’s more to it than that, and are eager to learn more and to become more involved.

I think that the churches are privileged to enjoy partnerships and relationships that give us access to a lived reality and a point of view that are not available through mainstream channels. That access and understanding through the perspective of people and institutions that we work with closely has helped the churches understand the issue and encouraged them to remain committed to working on the issue. In addition, there is a recognition that our context here is especially important given the role that the US plays in the conflict.

PP: Yes. I notice some particularly pointed statements in the recent UCC and Disciples resolutions on children that are directed to US policy.

PM: Yes, exactly.

PP: And it makes me think of the fact that one can still hear objections to these statements and actions that say the church should not take positions on political issues, especially when they are “divisive.” I don’t imagine that this conversation has happened at the UCC and Disciples?

PM: We do hear that occasionally, but it’s not a matter of debate, really. And I think the resolutions of 2017 are reflective of the recognition that we are citizens of a country, and have a particular responsibility to advocate, as citizens and as taxpayers, with our elected officials, who are setting and implementing policy that impact people around the world. And in the case of Israel-Palestine, that’s one way that we, as citizens, can make our voice heard.

PP: Have there been theological or doctrinal issues about this that have arisen over the years?

PM: The UCC has a resolution about Christian Zionism, so yes, we have definitely talked about the theological side of it. The resolution, called “An Alternative Voice to Christian Zionism,” was adopted in 2003. So the UCC has not shied away from engaging the theological issue.

But if you read the body of policy in both churches, you see that we are not organizations that are just interested in promoting peace. We are churches doing it out of a clear commitment to our faith. When we adopt a policy, the theological basis and rationale for the policy is usually included – it’s an essential part of the discussion. So we’re acting not only because we think it’s the right thing to do – which of course we do – we also are doing it because of a particular reading of scripture and following of Christ’s teaching. Our policies and actions are responsive to faith commitments. I can’t emphasize that strongly enough.

PP: Yes – and I was particularly taken with the thoroughness and, really, the excellence of the theological sections in the recent resolutions on the treatment of children. Beyond the particular purpose and context of these resolutions, these documents are excellent resources for study of the theology pertaining to this human rights issue.

Now – to get to a sensitive issue: Something that has struck me in particular as I have followed the church struggle over Israel and Palestine is the impact on the church’s relationship with the Jewish community, on both institutional and personal levels. I’m interested in your experience with and thoughts about this.

PM: First of all, it’s important to say that we have longstanding relationships with colleagues and institutions in the Jewish community. Many of our local churches have close relationships with synagogues, and pastors have relationships with rabbis in their communities, and these are deep relationships each in their local settings that are firm and strong. Progressive churches have been involved with the Jewish community, a community that has a long and proud history of being progressive on a whole variety of issues – social justice, human rights, climate change, immigration. And in most areas we align well with our Jewish colleagues in our work and witness.

This of course is a touchy issue. With respect to the church and the Jewish community, we are coming at it from different experiences, backgrounds, and relationships, and so it’s been a challenge to navigate among the different perspectives. Certainly I don’t want to generalize about the Jewish community, and I don’t want to generalize about the Christian community. There are a range of opinions about this issue among we Christians as well as in the Jewish community. Some have reached out and been friendly to the positions we’ve been taking, and some have been critical.

PP: And it’s a tough one, because, as you say, the relationships are strong, and, especially since WWII, have been hard won, and they are precious. And I know from my experience in working with churches that leaders as well as laypersons — and clergy especially — have experienced with shock and some pain the reactions of sectors of the Jewish community to church actions in support of the Palestinian cause. And you know that there have been theological debates, sometime quite heated, since the Kairos Palestine document came out in 2009. Some from the Jewish community have charged that the document is actually anti-Semitic. And this has required some hard work and communication, and that goes on. So one could say that there has been a price to pay for church action for Palestine, and that it has caused some disruption in the relationship, and that this has required continued working through and discernment on the part of Christians and their institutions.

PM: I think that’s accurate, and I think that it’s important to point out that we have continued in ecumenical dialogue with the Jewish community through the National Council of Churches and the National Council of Synagogues, and that continues. There is a recognition that we live in the same society, and that there are a number of issues which we continue to discuss, and as religious leaders and historical and continuing friends, we should be in conversation together. So those conversations are continuing, even if the Middle East is an uncomfortable topic.

PP: The 2017 resolutions were strong; there didn’t seem to be any holding back there. What was the impact when they came out?

PM: I think that they did have impact. I think it’s fair to say that in those local settings – churches, synagogues, pastors, rabbis – it was felt. Those relationships were impacted by the decisions of the Synod and the Assembly. And certainly we in the national setting feel it. The American Jewish Committee issued a fairly strong statement following the action of the Synod, and a similarly strong statement following the action of the Assembly. So those responses do take place, and their impact is certainly felt.

What we have tried to do is to make clear that our witness for peace and justice in Israel-Palestine is toward the end of supporting Israelis and Palestinians – Jews, Christians, and Muslims — to live life more fully, with justice for all. Our call for an end to occupation is by no means a call for Israel to be eliminated. We’ve been very clear about that in our policy statements. And it is important to consider our whole body of General Synod (UCC) and General Assembly (Disciples) policies together and as a whole. We’ve expended a lot of effort to that end, and we continue to do so. It’s important for us to be very clear about what our policies say and don’t say, so that we can be represented clearly and accurately and not to be misrepresented or misunderstood.

PP: Yes, and I would venture to say that this will continue to be necessary. One thinks of the Presbyterians in 2004, who were caught unprepared after their General Assembly vote on divestment, when the headlines screamed “Presbyterians Boycott Israel,” when nothing remotely like that was true. Sadly, that challenge continues, but clearly the churches have learned a lot since then.

PM: Yes, exactly. That’s a three-word headline, and then you spend hours, days and even years debunking it!

PP: Any additional thoughts you would like to leave with our readers?

PM: A concluding point would be to underline the urgency which we see and hear from our partners there when we visit the Middle East. And how important it is to find a just resolution to this conflict. Every day that it is not resolved does not mean that it is the same as yesterday. The status quo is not static. It changes, and it gets worse. For us, the urgency that we hear is a motivator. The clear articulation from our partners is something that we hear. Even when it is not in the headlines, it is happening. Every day without a solution is a worsening.

PP: I want to underline two things that you have said. First, that this is an urgent issue of faith. And second, that as two North American churches, you are connected and involved strongly with those in the region who are calling out to you. I think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement about how in the struggle for justice, we are all part of an “inescapable network of mutuality.”

PM: I agree, and as such we are obligated to act. And we are part of a community consisting of people of different faiths. I would only add that our position on Israel-Palestine is part of our position on the Middle East generally. It is an area of deep pain for us and for our partners. In the past several years, we have tried to respond to the crisis in Syria with humanitarian support through our partners in the region, and with advocacy here in the US. We have attempted to offer a consistent witness for justice over time on a variety of global issues, including the Middle East.

PP: Thank you for your generosity in spending this time with us and our partners and readers, and blessings and strength to you in your work for justice!