Church of Scotland 2013 General Assembly -- Church And Society Report On Israel

UPDATE: The revised report is out - a few comments below.

I have been watching with interest the unfolding drama around the Church and Society Council's business that will be before the 2013 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland next week. More specifically, in the midst of recommendations concerning climate change, education and oversight and franchise related to the Scottish independence vote, what has garnered international attention is a special report on Israel and the "promised land." (Those are not my scare quotes but the style used for the report title.)

While my close attention may seem reasonable considering the extensive debate now going on about this report, what interests me more is the parallel to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 220th General Assembly last year. In both cases, the focus for those inside the church seemed to be on business related to human sexuality. But the business related to Israel and Palestine — in the case of the PC(USA) it was divestment from companies who "profit from non-peaceful pursuits" — caught the spotlight outside the church.

Even before the Assembly last summer in the media and social media the divestment proposal was being debated.  At the PC(USA) Assembly itself there were individuals lobbying inside the convention center (but not on the floor of the Assembly or in the committee room). And by the narrowest of margins, 333 to 331, the Assembly chose not to divest. The Assembly did approve a boycott of products made by Israeli companies in facilities in the occupied territories.

For the Church of Scotland the lightning rod was not divestment, or the specific recommendations of the Council per se, but the special report The Inheritance of Abraham? A Report On The 'Promised Land.' As you might guess from the question mark and the quotes around use of the term promised land, the report concluded that the modern nation of Israel does not having a scriptural basis for its existence. The response was swift and loud with coverage in the mainstream media (e.g. BBC, Herald Scotland), Jewish media (e.g. Haaretz, Algemeiner ) and internationally (e.g. Jerusalem Post, AP via ABC News, The Daily Beast). It has also caught the attention of bloggers outside the immeadeat circle including His Grace at the Cranmer blog.

There are also voices in the media speaking out in sympathy with the report including a Scotsman article about a prominent minister critical of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

In response to the commotion a meeting was held between Church of Scotland representatives and members of the Jewish Community in Scotland. The report was removed from the web site and a statement about the meeting posted in its place. The report is being revised with a new introduction and it is planned to be ready for the Assembly next week.  In the statement the Church of Scotland reiterates four points:
  • There is no change in the Church of Scotland's long held position of the right of Israel to exist.
  • The Church condemns all violence and acts of terrorism, where ever they happen in the world.
  • The concern of the Church about the injustices faced by the Palestinian people in the Occupied Palestinian Territories remain firm, but that concern should not be misunderstood as questioning the right of the State of Israel to exist.
  • That the Church condemns all things that create a culture of anti Semitism.
To put a fine point on this, the distinction that they seem to be making is not the right of Israel to exist, but the lack of biblical support for the modern state of Israel.

While the report is gone from the official site it is available from another source. It begins with an introduction briefly outlining the recent history of the issue in the Church of Scotland and then lays out the topic of the paper:
There has been a widespread assumption by many Christians as well as many Jewish people that the Bible supports an essentially Jewish state of Israel. This raises an increasing number of difficulties and current Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians have sharpened this questioning.

This assumption of biblical support is based on views of promises about land in the Hebrew Bible. These views are disputed. The guidance in the Bible, notably the interpretation in the New Testament, provides more help in responding to questions about land and covenant. It also provides insight (discussed later in the report) into how Christians might understand the occupation of Palestinian land by the state of Israel, threats to Middle East peace and security, human rights, and racial intolerance, especially in the forms of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
It continues...
In general terms there have been three main ways of understanding the promises about land in the Bible:
  1. A territorial guarantee
  2. A land held in trust
  3. A land with a universal mission.
The report then discusses each of these different understandings and begins the summary by saying:
Promises about the land of Israel were never intended to be taken literally, or as applying to a defined geographical territory. They are a way of speaking about how to live under God so that justice and peace reign, the weak and poor are protected, the stranger is included, and all have a share in the community and a contribution to make to it. The promised land in the Bible is not a place, so much as a metaphor of how things ought to be among the people of God. This ‘promised land’ can be found — or built — anywhere.

Jesus’ vision of the kingdom is not for one limited area of territory, it is a way of anticipating how things can be if people are obedient to God. Metaphor and symbol are often used by the Biblical writers. Words such as ‘widow’, ‘stranger’, ‘orphan’, ‘wilderness,’ ‘neighbour,’ ‘Egypt,’ ‘exodus’ and ‘exile’ have symbolic reference...
Now, I have to take pause at that first line where it says the promises were "never intended to be taken literally." [emphasis mine] I do see the point of the piece in a modern context and do accept that the ultimate goal of being a "light unto the nations" (Isaiah 49:6) is that the Kingdom may encompass all of the earth. But the book of Joshua has a lot about specific physical geography as those in the second generation at the end of the exodus take position of the land that God has given them. A similar argument could be made about the return from the exile. Considering all of the history that revolves around that I personally have a hard time taking that part symbolically as the report suggests. The question really seems to be how the promises of the Old Covenant get transformed in the New Covenant?

The conclusion brings us back to the modern situation:
From this examination of the various views in the Bible about the relation of land to the people of God, it can be concluded that Christians should not be supporting any claims by Jewish or any other people, to an exclusive or even privileged divine right to possess particular territory. It is a misuse of the Bible to use it as a topographic guide to settle contemporary conflicts over land. In the Bible, God’s promises extend in hope to all land and people. Focussed as they are on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, these promises call for a commitment in every place to justice in a spirit of reconciliation.
The report then reminds readers of eight points previously agreed by General Assemblies. These points include the inequality of power in the region, that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal, that the human rights of all peoples should be respected, that negotiations need to resume and that the Church of Scotland must remain in dialogue with ecumenical partners and not do anything to promote illegal settlements.

For those who are familiar with the ecumenical statements regarding this area I would point out that the Kairos Palestine document is frequently quoted in this special report.

So, we wait to see a number of things. First, how the introduction is revised to reflect the discussions that were held last week. Second, how the Assembly receives the report — and keep in mind that it is nothing but a recommended report until and unless the Assembly adopts it as an official position of the Kirk. Finally, we will see what sort of reaction there is from the various groups within and outside the Kirk to whatever action the Assembly takes.

UPDATE 17 May 2013: The Church of Scotland has posted the revised version of the report. In addition to new opening Preface and Context sections notable revisions have been made through out the document to clarify the language. For example, the line I took issue with above, "Promises about the land of Israel were never intended to be taken literally, or as applying to a defined geographical territory" has been revised to now read "To Christians in the 21st century, promises about the land of Israel shouldn’t be intended to be taken literally, or as applying to a defined geographical territory." This is typical of the changed tone of the paper as it has been re-framed as a document intended to reflect and speak to modern Christian thought.
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