Thursday, July 23, 2009

Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner's Guide

So, my friend Ben wrote a book. As a result of writing this book, and of the other work he does, my friend Ben was denounced as an antisemite and a holocaust denier. To reassure you, he is certainly neither of those things. But he has written a controversial book.

I finished reading this a couple of days ago, but I need to put some thinking time in before I reviewed it. I can see why people are angry about it. I can see why it has attracted a lot of negative press. But I think you should read it. I really do.

Ben takes us through three broad sections. The first relates the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It tells the story of the rise of Israel, and the subsequent displacement of the Palestinian people. It is a powerful story, powerfully told, using quotations from early Israeli leaders and interviews with Palestinians affected. What comes across most clearly is the awareness that the Zionist project would require the eviction of the Palestinian people if it was to succeed - and great lengths were gone to in order to ensure that it did succeed. At the end of the section, I was angry. Very angry.

The second section has to do with the current apparatus of Israeli apartheid. Ben talks us through the situation on the ground for Arabs within Israel and those in the OPT, again drawing on a wide range of sources. It is painful reading. When I got to the end of this section, I felt more or less despair. How could anything change such a system?

And so the third section, which outlined action that I could take, was great. Ben refuses to allow us to walk away because the situation is too complex, or the solutions too distant. We must do something; I must do something. Ask me in a few months what I've done - I know that I am too prone to laziness, and am likely to let this challenge pass me by.

After the final section is an excellent FAQ, which helped to answer some questions I had about the topic, and should probably be made available online if at all possible. It would by itself lend a lot of clarity to discussions of the issue.

Ben has been criticised for writing a one-sided story. It does come across as one-sided. But then, it seems pretty clear that the reality of the situation is also one-sided. The book does acknowledge Palestinian violence, and perhaps is not as clear in denouncing it as some would like. But the picture here is of an occupied people fighting against their occupiers - is that really so clear cut, so obviously morally wrong? I suspect that only those who have never experienced the situation could say so.

Ben has also been criticised for quoting innacurately. I don't know whether that's true or not; Ben has defended himself here. But it doesn't ultimately matter all that much.

Because the reason people are so angry at this book is because it makes the one critique of Israeli policy that is worth making, and that goes to the heart of the issue. Israel defines itself as a Jewish state. In other words, it defines itself in ethno-religious terms. Only Jews can be Israeli nationals; all Jews are welcome in Israel. Imagine if someone suggested that Britain should define itself in terms of a particular ethnic identity! Oh, wait, that would be the BNP - and we don't like them, right?

Ultimately, Ben argues that Israel/Palestine must be a place where Jews and Palestinians are equal under the law, and a state which exists for the good of all its citizens. This is much more radical than the two-state solution, much more difficult to move towards than even that mirage. But anything else enshrines racism as a successful nation building strategy.

The world really doesn't want to go there.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Jesus and Gender

or "Being a Pretty Princess"

It is a documented fact that evangelical Christianity struggles to attract blokes, and does much better with women. Various theories have been advanced as to why this might be. Probably the most popular one is that we're just not doing church right - our songs are overly sentimental, our preaching isn't action-packed enough, our vision of Jesus isn't macho enough. Church doesn't feel very blokey.

Some of those things might be valid concerns, to a certain extent. But I've been wondering whether the Christian message is stucturally anti-male, and I suspect it is - and I suspect that isn't a problem.

Psalm 45 is my jumping-off point here. The Psalm celebrates a royal wedding. It celebrates the greatness of the King, and the beauty of the Princess he is about to marry. If read Christologically (and it must be, both as a general hermeneutical principle and because of the juxtaposition of verses 6 and 7), this is a celebration of Christ's love for the church. And it's magnificent - he the Royal Lover, she the Beautiful Princess wooed away from her people.

A combination of this Psalm and John Owen's insistence that marriage is the primary image for understanding our relationship with Christ leads me into Ephesians 5:22-33. In this passage, two things become clear. One is that the roles of husband and wife in marriage are not symmetrical or reversible; the other is that in the relationship of Christ and the church, he is husband and we are bride.

So the gospel assigns the church a feminine part. It would be interesting to explore exactly what that means, but for now suffice to say this is going to be a problem for people who want a more macho, man-friendly church.

Is this a problem for the gospel? I guess not. Maybe Christianity is more attractive to women - well, so be it. You don't have to follow the modern feminist critique all the way (and I wouldn't recommend following it very far), but it is clear that women have been kept at the margins in most societies most of the time. And doesn't the gospel speak mainly to the sidelines? For me as a man, the question is: can you accept that you are beautiful to your divine Lover and Husband, and not need to be the man in this relationship? Because ultimately, The Man is the man.

Interesting to compare the reactions of the church and the Bible. The church says "we need to man up, we need to appeal to men"; the Scripture says "if it helps, He does think you're a very pretty Princess".

Monday, July 13, 2009

No more apostles, thanks

The Bish has been writing about apostles, and why he (with newfrontiers as a whole) thinks they are around, and needed, today. I feel the need to offer a contrary opinion, although hopefully not just for the sake of being contrary. I have a lot of respect for newfrontiers as a movement, but this is one of those things that I think they just have completely wrong, for a couple of reasons. Go read Dave's post first - otherwise this won't make much sense.

The reasons I object to this talk of modern-day apostles would include:

1. It's an ahistorical argument. It can be demonstrated that the word 'apostle' is used in the NT to describe several different sorts of people - but two millennia have passed since then. We can't just ignore the fact that the word 'apostle' has had, since the 2nd century at least, a technical meaning in the church. It refers to the twelve, plus Paul. newfrontiers seem to want to skip over all this history as if it never happened, as if we could ignore the history of the church and live in the book of Acts. We can't, and we're not meant to.

2. It's an anti-ecumenical argument. It has a tendency to place evangelicals who do not recognise any 'apostolic influence' outside the church. The church is, after all, apostolic! And if we define apostolic the way newfrontiers would like us to, all independents and presbyterians are outside the church.

3. It's an argument that undermines the uniqueness of the eye-witness generation. This is not Dave's argument about the sufficiency of Scripture, although it is similar. The church is apostolic because it listens to the apostolic witness - whether actually written by the apostles or not. This witness - the witness of those who saw his glory - stands as the foundation of the church. The foundation is in one sense part of the house, but in another sense is a separate thing, the necessary precondition of the house. So the apostles were in one sense the beginning of the church, and therefore a part of it, but in another sense they stood apart from it. That is important - it means the church is always faced by a standard that is in some sense external to it, namely the record of the apostolic witness in Scripture. A continuing apostolate is theologically disastrous, because it must tend to undermine the distinction between the apostles, who always speak to the church in Scripture, and the church, which always hears the apostles in Scripture.

4. It's an argument that dethrones Christ in his church. This is a more controversial point, because it cuts against bishops, presbyteries and the like as well as contemporary apostles. Christ rules his church by his word; God's people are entrusted to that word, not to successor-apostles. I am of the opinion that this means congregationalism - I have quoted Barth to this effect elsewhere.

5. I can't help thinking it must be a personally unhelpful label for people to bear. But I can't say much about that, with my limited experience of those involved.

6. It is hardly reformed thinking! That's not very important, except that when you stretch definitions this far I wonder whether they mean anything at all anymore...

Here endeth the controversy. Perhaps.