I just returned from the Friends of Sabeel – North America conference in Albuquerque. It was held at the very welcoming Imanuel Presbyterian Church, because the original venue, the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. John, disinvited the conference after pressure from the local Israel lobby.
Rev. Don Wagner, National Program Director of Friends of Sabeel – North America, an ecumenical Christian organization that supports Palestinian rights, called the pressure on the Catherdral “interfaith bullying” in a recent article.
Now, the Dean of the Cathedral, The Very Rev. J. Mark Goodman, has responded to Wagner’s charges with a statement that appears on the Cathedral’s website.
It offers weak and evasive justifications and alludes to – without substantiating them in any way – repeated Zionist smears against Sabeel:
Our decision was based upon the conclusion that it [the conference] dealt with a political issue that has polarized people in ways that we felt were unhelpful. We did not want to introduce a polarized issue into the life of the Cathedral that would have the potential to divide rather than unite. Our decision was not based upon anti-Palestinian positions. In fact, many on the Vestry are very sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people, yet they were concerned about the rhetoric of the literature from Sabeel. The decision was not influenced by pressure or threats from any group or individual.
In his presentation at this weekend’s conference, Miko Peled, the Israeli-born anti-Zionist and advocate of equal rights and decolonization in a single state, made the observation that every cause of social justice in history that has been worth fighting for was divisive in its time. The Civil Rights struggle in the United States was one such cause, but even more divisive than that, Peled reminded us, was slavery. So divisive, it led to Civil War in which hundreds of thousands died.
Seeking “balance” between oppressor and oppressed
After denying that the Cathedral acted under pressure, the Dean states:
This summer at General Convention, I served on a committee that dealt in a focused way with resolutions about the conflict between Israel and Palestinians. It was my personal prayer that we would craft resolutions that were balanced and offered a way forward with positive engagement with each side, seeking a way forward that would bring security, dignity and peace to a region that has known strife for too long.
This seeking of “balance” between oppressor and oppressed, and “positive engagement” as a way to avoid the “divisiveness” that inevitably must come with taking a righteous stance against injustice, indicates that despite the Dean’s protestations, the Cathedral does indeed feel the pressure.
Notably, the Dean’s statement refers to “security” – the Israel’s euphemism for its ability to colonize and occupy Palestinians in tranquility – but says absolutely nothing about Palestinian rights.
Tutu says take sides
The refusal to take sides between oppressor and oppressed is, in effect, siding with the oppressor. Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican (Episcopalian) Archbishop of Cape Town, has not been shy to tell the world that it is time to take sides.
My voice will always be raised in support of Christian-Jewish ties and against the anti-Semitism that all sensible people fear and detest. But this cannot be an excuse for doing nothing and for standing aside as successive Israeli governments colonize the West Bank and advance racist laws.
I recall well the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in which he confesses to his “Christian and Jewish brothers” that he has been “gravely disappointed with the white moderate … who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom. …”
What is Dean Goodman’s desire to avoid “divisive” issues and seek “balance” other than refuge in just such an “absense of tension”?
In my own talk at the conference this weekend, I reminded fellow participants that the struggle against apartheid in South Africa was also long and difficult – such as when, in 1987, the Church of England voted against divestment from South Africa.
Dean Goodman and his colleagues were not asked to divest from anything but simply to host a conference, something they did not have the courage to do. But would they look back at that 1987 vote today and say that it was the right and ethical decision? It must have been “divisive” too.
Full statement of Dean of Cathedral of St. John
This statement appeared on the website of the Cathedral Church of St. John in Albuquerque as part of its Announcements for the week of 30 September 2012:
This summer, the Vestry and I decided not to host the Sabeel Conference that is taking place in Albuquerque. We sought out various perspectives, we considered the stated positions of the organization, we said our prayers and deliberated thoughtfully and purposefully. Ultimately, the decision was made not to host the conference. Bishop Vono, in his own prayerful deliberations, made the same decision not to be a sponsor of the conference. Likewise, the New Mexico Council of Churches opted not to sponsor this gathering.
Our decision was based upon the conclusion that it dealt with a political issue that has polarized people in ways that we felt were unhelpful. We did not want to introduce a polarized issue into the life of the Cathedral that would have the potential to divide rather than unite. Our decision was not based upon anti-Palestinian positions. In fact, many on the Vestry are very sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people, yet they were concerned about the rhetoric of the literature from Sabeel. The decision was not influenced by pressure or threats from any group or individual. We extended an invitation to a local rabbi to come and speak to the Vestry, whose visit was quite brief and consisted primarily in urging us to read carefully the positions held by the organization. Vestry members also attended the Dean’s Forum classes that were offered in the Spring of this year, after which they had misgivings about serving as hosts. In short, the decision was not made lightly or in a vacuum.
The Vestry and I realize that there are those who disagree with the decision that we made. That is the reality of any group of people: some will agree and some will disagree. We would only ask that the disagreement be based upon fact and not upon mischaracterization of either the motives or basis of the action taken, and that it be done in a respectful way. If you have questions or concerns, please seek out a member of the Vestry or clergy. What is helpful in the Body of Christ is conversation and dialogue, not assumptions or judgments based on misinformation.
This summer at General Convention, I served on a committee that dealt in a focused way with resolutions about the conflict between Israel and Palestinians. It was my personal prayer that we would craft resolutions that were balanced and offered a way forward with positive engagement with each side, seeking a way forward that would bring security, dignity and peace to a region that has known strife for too long. I believe we succeeded. It is my hope that we, at the Cathedral, will find ways to support the work of our Presiding Bishop and the Episcopal Church to seek a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. As the Psalmist urges us, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”