The United Methodist Church, Israel, and Us

Sermon delivered on May 16, 2008, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

Most things are not as simple as they seem. Tonight and tomorrow, Blake stands before you, leads us in worship and teaches us Torah. He makes it seem easy. And yet, as Blake would tell you, he devoted a significant amount of effort, over a period of years, to be able to achieve this milestone with meaning.

America today is at war. Political debate has reduced our disagreement to whether we are “for” or “against” the war.

My own answer, though, isn’t a sound byte. If I told you my position on the war, it would take a half hour, and you would come out without being able to reduce my position to whether I am “for” or “against” it. Imagine if a Presidential candidate tried that. And yet one of those three people, who are required to offer a simplistic response, will be in charge of tackling that most complex of world problems.

Important matters, from Blake’s Bar Mitzvah to the War in Iraq, are not as simple as they seem.

In recent months, leadership of the American Jewish community was engaged in concern about the United Methodist Church. Often the matter was reduced to sound bytes. “The Methodist Church is anti-Israel.” “Here comes one more Mainline Protestant Church, a group of self-righteous liberals, using Israel as an excuse to be anti-Semitic.”

These pithy statements were not only overly simplistic; they were false. In the end, the United Methodist Church proved itself to be the fair-minded friend of the Jewish people that it has been for decades. But telling the story will take a while. Like most important things, it’s not as simple as it seems.

It all started early this year, when one group of the Church published a very biased anti-Israel tract. The United Methodist Church is a large and complex organization. It has many arms that act rather autonomously. Just because one United Methodist group does or says one thing does not mean that every Methodist Church, each Methodist individual, or the Church as an overall organization, agrees.

The group in question is the Women’s Division of the Board of Global Ministries. Funded by United Methodist Women in churches around the world, the Women’s Division possesses significant resources. It is also seen by some Methodists as a far-left renegade. Most United Methodist Women in local churches have no idea what is being done in their name and with their money.

The so-called “Mission Study” published by the Women’s Division called the establishment of the State of Israel the “original sin,” leading to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It calls Israelis “terrorists,” and compares then to Nazis, even branding David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, as an “extremist,” rather ironic considering that Ben-Gurion was a socialist!

No question about it: The Women’s Division “Mission Study” drips with anti-Semitism, in the name of concern for the Palestinian people.

Word about the “Mission Study” began to get around, when the American Jewish community began learned that the Church as a whole would consider divestment from companies doing business in Israel. Such an action, taken a few years ago by the Presbyterian Church (USA), and then rescinded, likens Israel to apartheid South Africa or to Sudan in its ethnic cleansing of Darfur. The Jewish community began to mobilize.

When I first read about the concern, I was skeptical. For almost a decade, I have been deeply involved in Methodist organizations in south Texas. No organization does more good in our part of the state than Methodist Healthcare Ministries, even though few in our community know anything about it except for its half ownership of the Methodist Healthcare System. Not long ago, a person hearing me introduced on a panel, with a bio listing all the Methodist Healthcare boards on which I serve, was moved to asked, “Is the Rabbi a Methodist?” When it comes to health care, I’m a devout Methodist.

My contact with Methodists, including our wonderful Bishop here in south Texas, Joel Martinez, led me to believe that the Church as a whole would not likely take strident anti-Israel action. My Methodist friends have shared with me texts, including “Building Bridges.” That magnificent document, adopted in the late 1990s, goes farther than any other church’s statement of Christian-Jewish relations. The Methodist Church affirms that Jews have a permanent covenant with God. It acknowledges the long and painful history of Christian anti-Semitism, including shared culpability for the Holocaust. And the Methodist Church celebrates the Jewish State of Israel.

This Church would not, I believed, adopt the anti-Israel position for which some folks hoped.

Basically, anti-Israel forces that favor divestment as a strategy were ultimately beaten back by the Presbyterians, and then a variety of other churches have found ways to avoid major confrontations. The Methodist Church offered seemingly fertile ground, only because it is so democratic. Any Sunday School class, indeed any Methodist individual, can offer a resolution for consideration by the Church’s General Conference, which meets every four years. The rubber would meet the road in Fort Worth, in ten days in April.

The Jewish community was ready. The Jewish Council on Public Affairs, or JCPA, which is the umbrella organization for Community Relations Councils in San Antonio and elsewhere, took the lead, with the arms of Reform Judaism and the American Jewish Committee quite involved. Rabbis and lay people across the country spoke one on one with delegates to the General Conference.

In San Antonio, we are blessed. A man by the name of Byrd Bonner, a long-time friend of Rabbi Stahl’s and of our congregation’s, is a significant national leader of the Methodist Church. He headed the panel that considered and utterly rejected each anti-Israel divestment resolution, keeping in touch with me and with JCPA throughout the Conference. While parliamentary maneuvers were attempted within the Conference as a whole, Byrd Bonner and others managed to muster more than 90% of delegates to reject this anti-Israel strategy. Despite the contemptible “Mission Study” from the Women’s Division, the United Methodist Church proved that it’s the furthest thing from an anti-Israel, anti-Semitic Church.

I should emphasize that, while the Jewish community was mobilized, Methodists took the lead. We are so proud of Byrd Bonner here in San Antonio, but he was not alone. Christians for Fair Witness in the Middle East – an organization that shares our concerns for a safe and secure Israel, and also for the welfare of the Palestinian people – played an important role.

Even more significantly, a major arm of the United Methodist Church, its General Board of Christian Unity and Interfaith Relations, took very positive steps in interfaith dialogue, entirely independent of the Israel matters. At that group’s behest, the General Conference adopted a resolution calling for heightened awareness of the Holocaust and of Yom HaShoah, our Holocaust remembrance day. The Conference also adopted a resolution specifically rejecting the notion of targeting Jews for conversion. Indeed, the United Methodist Church is most friendly to Judaism and the Jewish people.

Like most relationships, ours with the United Methodist Church is not without its challenges. That nefarious “Mission Study” is still out there. Methodists and others do offer more fair analyses of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we can and will work to see that Methodist churches use those for teaching instead of the Women’s Division tract. Also, in the final hours of the Conference, one highly problematic resolution about Israel was adopted. Though the resolution lacks the force of something like divestment, it does unjustly blame Israel alone for the current situation.

The United Methodist Church, like most organisms, is made up of many parts, and it’s complicated, even to insiders. Some arms of that Church, like any organization, may do some things we don’t like. But who among us has any friend with whom we have never disagreed? How many married people or others in long-term, loving relationships have partners who have disappointed them? Blake, you may be flawless in your grandparents’ eyes, but probably not in the sight of your parents, as much as they love you.

Most things and life are not as simple as they seem. The relationship between the Jewish community and the United Methodist Church can be complicated at times. And yet, events of recent months have permitted me and others to see that bond tested. I am pleased to report: When it comes to the Jewish people and the people of the United Methodist Church, the state of the union is strong.