Genocide, Metaphor, and the Renewal of American Congregations

Metaphors are powerful. Given their ability to shape praxis, metaphors should be chosen carefully, especially when they are proposed as ways to imagine structures of life and thought.

First published in 2015, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, a book from Tod Bolsinger, Vice President of Fuller Theological Seminary, has taken the American congregational strategy conversation by storm. Bolsinger and his thoughts on how congregations can navigate the changing (and therefore unmapped) American cultural landscape have been the subject of regional workshops and congregational study far beyond Fuller’s primary community of evangelicals.

Within mainline churches, resources like Canoeing the Mountains provide concepts for comprehending and perhaps reversing trends of congregational and denominational decline. These shrinking institutions are eager to find ways not only to ensure their survival, but to continue what they understand to be their mission.

Canoeing the Mountains is proving popular. Groups within my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) have recommended the book as a resource for congregational change. In the ELCA, the Delaware-Maryland Synod featured it in a workshop offered at its synod assembly while an Oregon Synod guide to “transformational leadership” employs Canoeing the Mountains as its first introductory metaphor.


The Main Metaphor

Business advice literature is filled with small, easy to read books characterized by simple stories and a central metaphor for interpreting problems within a particular system. Canoeing the Mountains, along with other books and pamphlets in the church growth industry, applies this genre of business literature to the challenge of congregational renewal and survival.

How does the central metaphor of Canoeing the Mountains, announced in its title, inform how American Christian communities view themselves and their challenges? Here’s what the book’s promotional blurb tells us:

Explorers Lewis and Clark had to adapt. While they had prepared to find a waterway to the Pacific Ocean, instead they found themselves in the Rocky Mountains. You too may feel that you are leading in a cultural context you were not expecting…. Tod Bolsinger brings decades of expertise in guiding churches and organizations through uncharted territory…. If you’re going to scale the mountains of ministry, you need to leave behind canoes and find new navigational tools. Reading this book will set you on the right course to lead with confidence and courage.

The central metaphor of Canoeing the Mountains, then, is the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804–1806) commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to map the territory he had just acquired from Napoléon Bonaparte. Known as the “Corps of Discovery Expedition,” the group’s exploration and mapping extended the legal claim of the United States over the territory, a step toward realizing Jefferson’s vision of continental expansion.

What does all this mean for mainline Christian leaders who are exploring this metaphor? Mainline churches are hemorrhaging members at an alarming rate; as a result, bishops and pastors in Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian communities, among others, are grasping at whatever analysis and proposed technique they can find. The organization needs a solution (or many solutions) to slow the loss and potentially pull even. It is no surprise, then, to see congregations and synods gravitate toward “leadership” books like Canoeing the Mountains.

In a political climate of toxic populism, these churches imagine themselves to be countercultural. The ELCA, for instance, publicly laments its overwhelming whiteness and rejects toxic masculinity, recently electing two Black women as synodical (regional) bishops. How, then, does the central metaphor of Canoeing the Mountains fit into this self-perception?


Metaphor Breakdown

While management manuals rely on stories and metaphors, these are not often based in real events within human history. It is here that the central navigational metaphor of Canoeing the Mountains hits the shoals of reality.

In American discourse, the Lewis and Clark expedition has been taken as a metaphor for the American spirit. Popular American historian Stephen Ambrose calls it a tale of “undaunted courage.” Unfortunately for Bolsinger and his readers, the “Corps of Discovery Expedition” was no metaphor.

The goal of the expedition was to manifest the rights of European (in this case, Anglo-American) communities over territory through an application of the “Doctrine of Discovery.” As Robert J. Miller says in his history of the Doctrine of Discovery, “This international law had been created and justified by religious and ethnocentric ideas of European superiority over the other cultures, religions, and races of the world. In essence, the Doctrine provided that newly arrived Europeans immediately and automatically acquired legally recognized property rights in native lands also gained governmental, political, and commercial rights over the inhabitants without the knowledge or consent of the Indigenous peoples.”

The “Corps of Discovery,” led by two white male military officers, was commissioned by a slave-holding US president interested in exerting legal title over territory recently acquired from a competing colonial empire. Jefferson was, in part, interested in consolidating territory beyond the Mississippi River where he could extend the influence of civilization and, in some pockets, relocate tribes ethnically cleansed out of white settler spaces. Thus, from a Native perspective, the expedition marks the beginning of the bloody nineteenth century in North America (it was equally bloody elsewhere), a “Century of Dishonor” that included Native American genocides and led to a “Trail of Broken Treaties.”

For these reasons, among others, several Christian communities worldwide have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, to the great appreciation of their Native members. In a stark contrast, Canoeing the Mountains offers the Doctrine of Discovery as a map for congregational renewal.


American Christianity’s Settler-Colonial Future?

But what if you want to listen to the music without paying attention to the lyrics? In other words, what insight might Bolsinger offer for congregations if they can get past the racial genocide manifested in his book’s central metaphor?

Canoeing the Mountains invites congregations to see themselves as the explorers, Lewis and Clark. Changing American culture is understood as mountains the explorers could not navigate with canoes. Bolsinger offers himself as a guide through these navigational challenges.

According to the metaphor, congregations and their leaders—once comfortable in what Bolsinger describes as “Christendom”—are setting off into a wild, untamed wilderness. Bolsinger, as a guide, becomes a combination of French mountain man Toussaint Charbonneau and his Shoshone slave/wife/squaw, Sacagawea.

If congregations decide they can choke down his putrid metaphor and follow Bolsinger to the other side, what do they receive in return? His main insight is primarily racial. Bolsinger’s view is that the looming ethnic reality that, by the 2040s, “the United States will become a true ethnic plurality” means that “God is taking our churches into uncharted territory in order for the church to become even more of a witness for the future of the world.”

His recommendation for navigating that change? Emulate Lewis and Clark, who “made decisions … with a leadership style that was decades, even centuries before their time.” These decisions involved having “a woman in leadership” and that “a native [sic] American woman and a slave [were] given a vote.” Bolsinger does note that, upon return, Lewis refused to free his slave, York; this doesn’t make its ways into a metaphor of congregational leadership.

As the metaphor of Canoeing the Mountains spins out, it becomes clear that “Christendom” is a bastion of white, masculine, civilization while the “mountains” are an uncomfortable landscape of racialized and gendered otherness that must be mapped, charted, controlled, and claimed. In short, to continue the metaphor, Bolsinger’s Christendom is the known, the civilized; the wilderness is savage.

The Corps of Discovery was a white, male, Christian expedition intended to penetrate and take possession of savage, virginal wilderness. The expedition was a unidirectional conquest intended to prepare the way for the imposition and expansion of civilization. As George Washington wrote, “the gradual extension of our settlements will as certainly cause the Savage as the Wolf to retire; both being beasts of prey though they differ in shape.”

Just as Lewis and Clark allowed a Native woman to accompany them because she demonstrated her utility in pursuing their goals, Bolsinger weaves a multicultural strategy of including non-white and non-male voices as instruments for achieving the expansionist goals of androcentric, possessive whiteness. This is not an exchange, where the church is transformed through its engagement with culture; it is a penetration of “Christendom” into new spaces, replacing whatever else had been there before—the essence of settler coloniality.

President Jefferson was the author of the continental vision inaugurated by the Corps of Discovery. This vision was the basis of President Jackson’s policy of Indian removal, leading to the Trail of Tears. It is a death certificate to the indigenous peoples of this continent. All of this was underwritten by white, western European, colonial Christianity.

Given the churches’ complicity in American crimes committed against enslaved Blacks and dispossessed Indigenous peoples, it is difficult to understand how the central metaphor of Canoeing the Mountains—the Corps of Discovery Expedition and its inherent promotion of the Doctrine of Discovery, American Indian genocide, and androcentric multiculturalism—can serve as an appropriate basis for guiding congregational renewal.

Robert O. Smith is Chickasaw pastor and academic living and serving in Jerusalem. He is the author of More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013).


Questions and Responses on the Current Middle East Crisis

More than one friend has asked me questions over the past few days about the current situation facing the Middle East, now making headlines as a conflict between the State of Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although I don’t understand myself to be an expert on the region (I know many people far more qualified to share their opinions), I’ll offer some thoughts. If you disagree or have other questions, please let me know. As I say to my students: if I don’t know the answer (or a good approximation of an idea), I’ll find someone who does!

Why is Israel bombing Syria?

While Israel is conducting airstrikes in Syrian territory, it is primarily attacking Iranian military targets. Over the past year, Israel has conducted close to 100 strikes in Syrian territory intended to limit Iranian military capacities close to Israeli-controlled territory. Over the past two days, Israel, with support from the US Department of Defense, said it was expecting retaliation from Iran for one of those earlier attacks. After two days of preemptive strikes in response to this perceived threat, Iranian forces launched 20 missiles toward Israeli-controlled territory in the occupied (Syrian) Golan Heights. Although none of those missiles hit Israeli targets, Israel launched a much more comprehensive attack on 50 Iranian positions in Syrian territory. Israel has repeatedly stated that it will not allow Iran to 1) gain a strategic position within Syria, or 2) allow Iran to supply Hezbollah, a Shi’a Lebanese militia, with Iranian weaponry.

How did we get to this point?

This particular phase of open conflict is a continuation of a much longer trajectory that began after World War II. The Iranian Revolution in 1979, which overthrew a US-supported government to Shi’a Islamic theopolitical leadership, was particularly anti-American. In the context of the Cold War, Iran developed a close relationship with the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Iran was “contained” by Iraq, led by the US-supported dictator, Saddam Hussein. The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, intended to transform the country into a democratic utopia, instead created a vacuum of regional order, leading to the creation of several Sunni terror groups, including, eventually, Islamic State.

The other unintended consequence of the US failure in Iraq was the complete disruption of the regional balance of power. Now, instead of being “contained” by the threat of war with Iraq, Iran was free to project its power to counter US allies in the region: Jordan, Saudi Arabia and, most of all, Israel. In recent years, the Israeli-Iranian partnership has been openly hostile, with a more than a few clandestine clashes.

How is the JCPOA connected?

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, often called the “Iran nuclear deal,” was negotiated to limit Iran’s ability to engage in research and testing toward the development of nuclear weapons. The “deal” ensured that Iran would not continue pursuing nuclear weapons while still being able to develop enriched uranium for electrical power production. The European Union and the US, under the Obama administration, saw this deal as beneficial for Israeli interests in addition to their own. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been a vocal opponent of the JCPOA; the deal was a central part of his disagreement with President Obama. President Trump, now surrounded by American critics of the JCPOA, including National Security Adviser John Bolton, has pulled the US out of the deal. Significantly, the major increase of Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria occurred just one day after the US announcement. Although the EU and Iran are publicly committed to the continuation of the JCPOA, it could falter without US participation. All of this has created a conflicted environment; recent military confrontations could therefore intensify into significant clashes.

What does all this mean for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Since the so-called “Arab Spring” started in 2011, regional uncertainties have overshadowed efforts to address the specificities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both Israel and allies like the United States have argued that resolving the conflict has fallen from anywhere near the top of strategic priorities in the region. As a result, Palestinian concerns have been ignored, relatively speaking, while Israel has reaped the benefits, especially in arms sales and military aid, of being a strategic ally.

The Trump administration’s approach to the region reflects these changes in strategic perspective. The American diplomatic team—led by Ambassador David Friedman, Jared Kushner, and Jason Greenblatt—has actively encouraged the minimization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among other US allies in the region: Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Although neighboring Arab states are uncomfortable with “normalizing” relations with Israel while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is utterly unresolved, regional strategic interests against Iranian power are driving in that direction. Moreover, the American team encouraged moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, now understood by the United States to be the capital of Israel (the embassy’s new signs say ‘Jerusalem, Israel’ in sharp contrast to all other US administrations since 1947).

That the US embassy in Jerusalem is opening on Nakba Day (a day of Palestinian remembrance of what they consider the 1948 catastrophe), also coinciding with the beginning of Ramadan, is being interpreted by Palestinians as a fundamental rejection of their national identity and historical political narrative. This sense, along with the normalization of Israeli claims on Jerusalem and on maximal Jewish claims on territory between the Jordan and the Mediterranean leaves Palestinians with little “political horizon” for the hope of any just resolution to the conflict.

What should American Christians be advocating in this time?

Christians in the United States have quite a bit to say about how the Trump administration is handling the Middle East. At the very least, we should have a humanitarian concern for communities in Syria adversely affected by the proxy war being fought in their cities, towns, and villages. The Syrian people have suffered enough. The Trump administration should be challenged to put forth a coherent, comprehensive strategy for cessation of conflict in the region; adding war on top of present conflict helps nobody. As with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, our common goal should be the flourishing of all human communities in the region—minority, majority, political, and religious.

American Christians should take historical responsibility for the mess created in the Middle East by the long history of British and American imperialism, including the 2003 invasion of Iraq, led by George W. Bush and Tony Blair. While there are legitimate concerns about the projection of Russian and Iranian power in the region, there are also legitimate concerns about the projection of US and EU power.

Christians in the United States should listen carefully to Christians in the Middle East. The voices of the Middle East Council of Churches, most often communicated through the World Council of Churches, can inform our advocacy. The historic churches have much to teach about their relationship with Muslim neighbors and their experiences as numerical minorities. Western Christians must listen first before we act and advocate. In places like Syria and Iraq, continued conflict places Christians, along with all their neighbors, under serious threat. Their voices should be taken seriously.

One of the consistent messages of Christian communities in Jerusalem—the city of Jesus’ death and resurrection—is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can not be neglected if the region is to be healed. In other words, the conflict is central rather than incidental to the dysfunctions of the Middle East, including the complications of the Arab Spring. The Trump administration should be challenged in o respect international law, especially in its dealings with Jerusalem—a city of (at least) two peoples and three faiths. Again, the well-being of all communities, not just favored parties, should be the driving concern. Exceptionalism feels good in the short term but the American goal should be lasting results grounded in peace with justice.

Finally, Christians concerned with historic Christian presence in the Middle East, including the Holy Land now comprising Israel and Palestine, must stand against forms of fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity that would rather see prophecy unfold than care for the wellbeing and continuity of vulnerable communities. In particular, dispensationalist Christian Zionism—rapture theology in the mode of Hal Lindsay, for instance—has been waiting to see conflict between Israel on one hand and Russia and Iran on the other. This mode of prophecy interpretation turns Christians into cheerleaders for conflict, war, and bloodshed. Our call, in contrast, is to not just proclaim peace, but to work for peace—seeking again the wellbeing of all Christian communities, not just those that check boxes on our prophetic timelines.

I hope this little run-through of some questions about the current Middle East conflict has been helpful for you. Please feel free to share this with people who may find it helpful and ask questions you think others are asking in these confusing times.

Robert O. Smith is Director of the University of Notre Dame’s Jerusalem Global Gateway. Smith is author of More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013) and editor, with Swedish scholar Göran Gunner, of Comprehending Christian Zionism: Perspectives in Comparison (Fortress, 2014).

Refuse to Normalize US Gun Violence

Normalization. This is but one of the challenges of living as an expatriate in the Israeli-Palestinian context. What I mean here by normalization is the sense that what was once disconcerting, stress-inducing, offensive, or disgusting becomes … normal.

Here, guns are everywhere. Jerusalem is saturated with a massive number of Israeli soldiers, private security, and various levels of police, each with sidearms and black assault rifles. Together, they make up the unofficial catchall referred to as the ISF—Israeli Security Forces. At any given time, Damascus Gate contains 50 firearms at the ready.

The sight of so many weapons was once shocking. Now, I hardly notice. For me, for the most part, these guns have become normalized. What I am describing is a subjective experience, likely different for every person. I’m not speaking primarily about the political strategy of normalization, where governmental policies are so pervasive and logical that they become accepted by all who live here, Palestinians and Israelis alike. But it is related.

What strikes me is that the massive firepower available in Jerusalem does not increase security. It does not increase even a sense of security. Instead of experiencing security, a militarized and mobilized Israeli civilian population is taught again and again to trust that these guns, these tear gas canisters, these barriers, will protect them from an ever-present threat of Palestinians who want nothing more than to kill them and their children.

Far from engendering comfort and ease, the arsenal of Israeli Jerusalem supplies a constant reminder of the threat looming on the other side of the road, the other side of the wall, the other side of the service counter. Palestinian Armenian legal scholar Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian describes the cycle of threat and fear in her latest book, Security Theology, Surveillance, and the Politics of Fear (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

There is no doubt that Jewish Israelis have reason to live in fear. Attacks have occurred, of greater and lesser scale. The person who feels that she or her society have nothing more to lose may indeed choose a path of violence that ends with stabbing an Israeli civilian and likely being shot and killed by one of Jerusalem’s many guns. Rockets are fired out of Gaza and the Sinai. Firepower alone cannot stop these sorts of attacks. But still the show of force continues.

The normalization of violence came back to me this week with the latest school shooting in the United States. To be clear, the latest school shooting of sufficient magnitude to be reported by US national media. This was the eighteenth shooting on school property in the US in 2018, just at the midpoint of February.

I remember asking my younger son (he’s 17 now) what the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas made him think. Nothing much, he shrugged. It’s become normal. He reported a similar conversation at his school here in Jerusalem about what happened in Florida. Nothing new here. It’s a real problem that the United States isn’t dealing with.

What I’ve noticed as well is that the response to this Florida school shooting has resulted in the same responses from politicians and social media mavens. The same cartoons, the same memes. The same declarations that this “wasn’t terrorism” (presumably because the alleged shooter is not Arab and/or Muslim) but just a “disturbed young man” (that from Pierre Thomas of ABC News).

The sameness of the response indicates a normalization, a numbing to the horror of gun-related violence in the United States. The numbing blunts all possibilities for political response. Simply attacking a lobby—in this case, the National Rifle Association—accomplishes little.

It is time to admit that the US system is broken. It is helpless in the face of this particular form of violence. Why? Because this violence is woven into its foundation.

The Constitution of the United States of America has guns written into its text. In the US, guns are no mere commodity. They are enshrined as a right (well-regulated, no doubt, but enshrined).

But guns are not the only factor of this violence threaded through the US Constitution. The Constitution, though partially self-correcting, contains the logics of male superiority over women and white supremacy over African-descent and Indigenous communities, along with others who show up.

As Americans, we are guided by our Constitution. It is our norming norm for interpreting our common life. Presently, interpretations of the Constitution—especially the Second Amendment—are dominated by narrow and simplistic readings. But that mode of reading cannot be separated from other pockets of power preserved within the text.

Normalization—both political and existential—suggests that you should just accept the status quo. If there are problems, they’re too big to fix and others are in charge. What we see in Jerusalem, however, is that this situation just isn’t normal. It’s not good for Israelis or for Palestinians and it can’t be normalized.

The same is true for this epidemic of gun violence, especially school shootings, in the United States. Any international comparison chart shows that what we Americans experience just isn’t normal; we shouldn’t accept it as such. There is a lot of violence in the Middle East, but it doesn’t look like this.

But to challenge this unacceptable normality, Americans will need to revisit our foundational documents, including the US Constitution. We must revisit—and likely remake—what makes us the United States of America.

It is time for people to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work of out-arguing the simplistic arguments of the NRA and showing just who is fighting for weapons manufacturers and who is fighting for freedom, liberty, and justice for all America’s children.



Robert O. Smith is Director of the University of Notre Dame’s Jerusalem Global Gateway. Smith is author of More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013) and editor, with Swedish scholar Göran Gunner, of Comprehending Christian Zionism: Perspectives in Comparison (Fortress, 2014).

Toward Practical Ecumenism: On Catholic-Lutheran Relationship

The following text is an address I delivered on 1 February 2018 at the Ratisbonne Monastery in Jerusalem, which houses the Jerusalem Campus of the Faculty of Theology of the Salesian Pontifical University. The occasion was the opening of the Spring 2018 semester of the Graduate Diploma in Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism. The official title was “The Relationships between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Communities, in the Light of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation” but I’ve renamed it for the blog.

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

It is a great pleasure to be here with you today at the Jerusalem Campus of the Faculty of Theology of the Salesian Pontifical University. I am particularly happy to be with you as you open this semester of studying the Christian Churches within the context of the Graduate Diploma in Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism. This Diploma emphasizes an area of study and expertise beneficial and necessary not just for Christian communities, but for the wellbeing of the societies and communities the church is called to serve.

In John’s gospel, we read that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3.16–17). Building on this inclusive, embracing vision of the Gospel—the Good News—the Apostle Paul proclaimed that the work of God in Christ Jesus brought lasting peace since “in his flesh he . . . has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph 2.14). In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul concludes that because “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them . . . the message of reconciliation” has been “entrust[ed] . . . to us” (2 Cor 5:17–19).

This vision of God’s reconciling embrace in Christ Jesus and call to the ministry of reconciliation has animated my career of engagement across lines of ecumenical and interreligious difference. Because we confess that Jesus is the incarnation of a universal God with a universal mission, we are called into a life of global awareness with unceasing commitment for the wellbeing of the poor, the least of these, the communities placed on the margin by the logic of the world. The joint commemoration of the Reformation undertaken by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church provided reminder upon reminder that God’s concern is not for our particular confessions or our particular communities alone, but that we are called into God’s mission for the sake of the world.

Fr. Gustavo invited me here to speak about “The relationships between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Communities, in the light of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.” This is a wonderful topic; you are fortunate to be studying the theme of ecumenical relations between the churches during this remarkable year.

I will attempt to do justice to such a profound and far-reaching title. As he will share with you, however, I did protest to Fr. Gustavo that the topic falls outside of my precise academic expertise. What that means for you, dear students, is that in this address, you will largely be spared the dry minutiae of academic precision. I will be a bit more experiential in my approach, which will hopefully spark some conversation between us.

For the past several years, I served as the Special Adviser to the President of the Lutheran World Federation, Bishop Munib Younan. One of the greatest achievements of his time as LWF President was the joint commemoration of the Reformation in Lund, Sweden, co-hosted with His Holiness, Pope Francis. I was blessed to attend that event, an experience that changed my heart. But before I tell you how it changed my heart, you need to know a bit about me and how I worked with Bishop Younan to prepare for the event.

Presently, I am a Lutheran pastor working for a Roman Catholic University in partnership with the Vatican’s Tantur Ecumenical Institute. I’ve had more than one person say “and it’s okay for someone who’s not Catholic to work there?” Tantur was set up after the Second Vatican Council to continue the pursuit of Christian unity so beautifully envisioned during the Council. It’s an ecumenical institute. So yes, it’s okay that I am there!

I am an ordained Minister of Word & Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The ELCA, which has its churchwide office in Chicago, is one of the 145 member churches of the Lutheran World Federation, which is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. The LWF membership represents over 74 million Christians in the Lutheran tradition in 98 countries across the globe.

I am originally from the US state of Oklahoma, the state directly on top of Texas. Oklahoma was designated as “Indian Territory” before it was made into a state. I am a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, a tribe ethnically cleansed out of the southeastern US in the mid-1800s. Oklahoma is now a politically conservative state, with a great deal of support for politicians like President Trump. I was raised in a Pentecostal megachurch, the sort of evangelicalism now growing in many places around the world.

During my teenage years, my family and I stopped going to church. In contemporary congregational theory lingo, we became “de-churched.” Part of it was that we moved to Germany, where my father had a position with the US Government. The Protestant church on the army base (this was in the early 1990s) was, in a word, boring. It wasn’t until much later that I found out it was Lutheran. But the deeper reason we became unchurched was that the evangelicalism of my youth was infused with something called the Prosperity Gospel.

The Prosperity Gospel teaches that if you believe the right way, if you pray the right way, and especially if you give money to your church, you will live a life of blessing, especially financial prosperity. That so-called Gospel makes sense in places as diverse as suburban Oklahoma City or rural Nigeria. The problem in my family, though, was that I had a brother who died of leukemia when he was just five years old. Later, I would find out that church members had blamed my parents for not having enough faith for him to be healed. His death left them with tremendous pain and the additional burden of judgment for their apparent failure. When I was a teenager, though, all I knew is that the constant drumbeat of the Prosperity Gospel didn’t make sense in my life.

But it was also a tradition where any question probing the teaching was rejected as a lack of faith. So eventually, I just stopped asking questions. At least within the church. I took my questions elsewhere—to literature, to history, to philosophy. Eventually, during my university years, I found myself asking all of these pent-up questions to a Lutheran pastor. She wasn’t afraid, and she wasn’t dismissive. And soon after, I was confirmed as a Lutheran. It was a quick jump after that to discerning a call to ministry. The next year, I was in seminary.

While at seminary, I found a new love: the study of Christian theologies of other religions. Through the study of Islam, I was exposed to a new world of religious ideas. I was of course aware of other religions; what I did not know was the long history of interfaith engagement and dialogue. I wound up writing an additional MA thesis comparing Nicene, Arian, and Qur’anic Christologies and developed a sense of interfaith ethics.

All of this is what first brought me into relationship with Christians from Palestine and other Arab countries. That included an opportunity to build a relationship with the Rt. Rev. Munib Younan, who, when I was in seminary, was near the beginning of his 20 years serving as Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. All of this is what brought me to Israel and Palestine in late 2002, in the middle of Second Intifada.

After serving in parish ministry in central Texas during my years of PhD coursework and some time as Lutheran Campus Pastor at the University of Chicago, I was invited to join the churchwide staff of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as Global Mission Director for the Middle East and North Africa. During my time in that role, I continued our church’s focus on accompanying fellow Lutherans in the Holy Land. That brought me directly into a working relationship with Bishop Younan.

Our relationship intensified through the years of the so-called Arab Spring. Through the World Council of Churches, I was able to develop relationships on behalf of the ELCA with other churches in the Middle East, especially those living in Syria and Iraq under conditions that could be described as genocidal. It was in these relationships that my responsibility as a Christian from the United States became clearer: in order to be in right relationship with these sisters and brothers, I needed to acknowledge the destruction wrought by US policies in the Middle East.

Bishop Younan was a constant conversation partner as we—from our very different perspectives and roles—sought to navigate a region and an ecumenical landscape changing before our eyes. When he was elected as President of the Lutheran World Federation, I soon found myself assisting him—informally, always as a volunteer—as he prepared the many necessary speeches and sermons.

It was quite exciting for me to realize that Bishop Younan’s term as President would include the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. Quickly, plans began to form for a joint Lutheran-Roman Catholic event. I soon found out that nice ideas like that quickly develop into an entire world of work.

One of the first tasks was to develop the theological and historical foundations for joint commemoration. That joint foundation came in the form of a document titled “From Conflict to Communion,” produced in 2013 by the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity. In a way, this document and all that followed it can be understood as the fruit of 50 years of intensive dialogue established as a result of the Second Vatican Council, the same spirit that led to the founding of Tantur Ecumenical Institute.

But we needed to arrive at several other mutual decisions and understandings before a major event could be planned. First, we needed to agree that the Reformation is not Lutheran alone; it is a broadly ecumenical reality itself. We cannot forget the reforming work of Wycliffe and Hus, both of whom inspired Luther. And we will soon come upon anniversaries related to Zwingli and Calvin, two equally important Reformers. Our other understanding is that the Reformation is not European alone. Christianity now has a global reach. Although the story of the Reformation begins in Europe, the geographic center of Christianity has crossed into the Global South. A Eurocentric commemoration would not be true to the realities of Christian witness over the past 500 years.

The other deep question had to do with what we could call a gathering focused on the Reformation. Was it a celebration? Do we celebrate divisions in the Body of Christ? The decision was made to call any joint efforts a “Commemoration” of the Reformation, a neutral word for a shared observing of an historical reality.

This is quite different from how many Lutherans—at least in my American experience—have observed the anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Every year, “Reformation Sunday” celebrations in churches too often devolve into a sort of Lutheran triumphalism. Too often, our celebrations focus less on what Bishop Younan calls “the freshness of the Gospel” than on some supposed triumph against Roman Catholic Christianity or some abstract notion of “the Pope.” I am sure many Catholics also have their same unhelpful conceptions of Martin Luther and Protestantism in general. These feelings, of course, do nothing to promote Christian unity or ecumenical cooperation.

I was therefore deeply grateful to see early drafts of “From Conflict to Communion.” The document examines the stories we tell about one another and provides guidance on how we can reconstruct the historical narratives that we have built up over the past 500 years. I continue to be inspired by the five “Ecumenical Imperatives” that form its conclusion. They are short, so I will read them here:

  • The first imperative: “Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced.”
  • The second imperative: “Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.”
  • The third imperative: “Catholics and Lutherans should again commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal.”
  • The fourth imperative: “Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.”
  • The fifth imperative: “Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.”

The joint commemoration prayer service in Sweden involved a great deal more negotiation. Everything—from the location to the various statements, messages and sermons, to every element of the liturgy, including vestments—was the subject of careful study and negotiation. That level of practical cooperation, although sometimes frustrating for everyone involved, was a beautiful manifestation of the commitment to walk together in this new era of ecumenical cooperation. It showed that we could truly live in the theme chosen for the occasion: Together in Hope.

As important as the official ceremonies and statements of the joint commemoration were and will continue to be, it was something that happened the day before October 31—Reformation Day—the day before His Holiness, Pope Francis, joined the LWF President, Bishop Younan, and General Secretary, Martin Junge—that changed my ecumenical heart.

As I reported via Facebook to people who were following my experiences, I was in Lund for this major ecumenical event, but I haven’t always been the most stereotypically ecumenical person. As I think you can tell, I really like being Lutheran, just like I hope you love being Catholic. Lutheran doctrine provides a theological and philosophical touchstone for my life and work. When I first discovered the tradition, I appreciated its embrace of critical thought, its commitment to absolute human equality before God, and its willingness to take risks in confronting power.

I admitted that I was, at some level, skeptical of the week’s events. Are we simply embracing the same power against which we have defined ourselves for centuries? Just what was it we were so excited about in Lund? That Sunday morning, Oct. 30, I wrote that the major public events would have little meaning without a strong process of ecumenical reception. The big event is important, but not as important as the one Lutheran-Catholic couple in your own congregation who could eventually openly receive the Eucharist in both of their churches. Gestures of openness and embrace at the top of the ecclesiastical hierarchy only matter if that same embrace is offered in your neighborhood.

And then it happened.

That Sunday morning, as we neared the completion of normal Sunday worship at the Lund Cathedral, the main doors of the church opened and we were joined by another congregation. A buzz went through several of us who hadn’t fully understood the previous announcement in Swedish: there, with a banner, a processional cross wrapped with olive branches, and an icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe, were the priests and the entire congregation of Lund’s St. Thomas Aquinas Parish.

As they processed to the front of the Lutheran cathedral, their choir joined the Lutheran choir for a beautiful, shared song. As the leadership of both congregations joined around the altar, Bishop Younan, as President of the LWF, was invited to address the now-combined congregations. As we closed the worship in song, Lutherans handed their worship books over to Catholic neighbors eager to join in a shared hymn. Everyone, including me, had tears in their eyes.

My skepticism evaporated. The prayer I had posted earlier that morning was being fulfilled before my eyes. It was a doubtful prayer, and in that moment, I recalled the verse from Mark’s Gospel: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (9.24). That morning, I saw and felt what ecumenical unity can be. Seeing Pope Francis and Bishop Younan embrace the next day was impressive, but not as important as what I saw in the cooperation between local parishes.

Now that I have shared some of my personal experience and you are ready to study the official documents underlying the Joint Commemoration of the Reformation, I would like to speak more directly about the possibilities of what we can call Applied Ecumenism or Practical Ecumenism. When you are finished with this course of study, what will you take with you in the parishes and offices you will serve?

The events in Sweden included a broader public event in the Malmö Arena. There, the World Service division of the Lutheran World Federation and Caritas Internationalis—our churches’ aid and development agencies—signed a declaration of intent for cooperation. As I said in my opening comments, the growth of mutually affirming relationships between Lutheran and Roman Catholic Christians strengthens our mutual capacity to respond to the needs of the world, seeking the flourishing of human communities far beyond the limits of our confessions alone. LWF World Service and Caritas were doing that before any such document was signed; but signaling our intent for meaningful integration and cooperation implies a globally significant partnership.

Constantly improving relationships between Roman Catholics and Lutherans also allow us to more fully promote women’s voices and leadership within our communities. The Lutheran Archbishop of Sweden, Antje Jackelén, was a local host of the Joint Commemoration. During the prayer service at the Cathedral, Pope Francis embraced her. This was not in the official protocol for the event; it was a spontaneous act of gratitude between leaders of two Christian communities.

Although I am a strong advocate for women’s leadership at all levels within the church, I am not necessarily raising the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood. We should be troubled, however, when questions of gender become a stumbling block. Unfortunately, this feeds the simplistic misogyny of many men throughout the world, many claiming to be religious leaders. The American Protestant ideologue John Piper comes to mind. He recently claimed that no woman should be allowed to teach in seminaries since only men are fit to be pastors. My only guess is that he hasn’t reflected on the examples of St. Paula and St. Eustochium, who assisted St. Jerome in his translation of the Vulgate. The internal challenge of Christianity—a challenge we share with Jews and Muslims—is recovering the beautiful, inclusive complexity of our traditions from those like Piper who reduce people to being pawns in their theological games.

When misogyny is wrapped in theological justification, people are afraid to challenge it. Speaking as a man to men training for ministry, we need to be aware of how these dynamics operate to silence women and reinforce fears rather than moving the conversations forward. We are seeing a global groundswell of women’s voices and women’s leadership, women reclaiming their time and women refusing to act as objects of male desire. The Roman Catholic Church has a sophisticated, empathetic structure for justifying its stances concerning gender relations and ordination. Catholic women are deeply engaged in the leadership of the church, with many serving as academic leaders, seminary instructors, and close advisors to every level of church leadership, including Pope Francis. It is time for us to deepen cooperation in the area of gender justice so we can contribute to global change.

When you go into your new assignments, especially if it is into the hyper-local work of parish ministry, I urge you to maintain global awareness. You have the immense privilege of international travel and experience; you can serve as your congregation’s window to the world. This global perspective will directly enhance your ability to nurture ecumenical and interreligious relationships in your ministry context.

The situation here in Jerusalem provides ample evidence that local issues have global implications. I will briefly address practical ecumenical and interreligious cooperation in relation to the three interlocking areas international law, global migration, and climate justice.

  1. International Law. Wherever you serve, the stability and legitimacy of international law will be an issue of concern. The steps being taken by the United States, Russia, and smaller states like Israel to exercise sovereignty in ways that disrupt and sometimes break international conventions have broad, unintended implications. This is especially the case for people living under dictatorial and totalitarian regimes. Even as our churches work at regional and global levels, advocating for fair and stable legal and humanitarian structures, local ecumenical and interreligious alliances will likely become more essential for promoting the wellbeing of communities throughout the world.
  2. Global Refugee / Migration Crisis. There are 65 million refugees in the world today. These are people displaced by famine, by war—people who bear the image of God. This figure is supplemented by a huge number of what can be called economic migrants. Because of its unique concern for demographic factors, the State of Israel, despite its relative wealth, welcomes none of these people into its borders. In the coming days, we will see if the Israeli government follows through on its promise of rounding up and deporting asylum seekers and economic migrants. You can be sure that other governments throughout the world—including the United States—will be monitoring the international response to see what they can do with undesirable, undocumented populations. Christians, alongside other religious communities, have an opportunity to speak out forcefully for the dignity of every human being, insisting that no person is illegal.
  3. Climate Justice. As the international community continues to grapple with the best ways to assess and respond to the global challenge of climate change, the churches have an important platform to seek justice, especially for the most vulnerable. Climate change will continue to create more refugees and migrants, increasing strain on global systems. Many coastal communities will find themselves under water. While the wealthy will simply relocate, what will happen to those without economic means? Climate justice engages local and international systems of law and culture, seeking the dignity and wellbeing of the most vulnerable. Ecumenical and interreligious alliances facing these issues head-on will ensure that decisions are not informed by profit motives alone.

None of these global challenges can or should be faced by any religious community alone. But for collaborative efforts to be successful, we will need to follow the wisdom of moving “from conflict to communion,” especially as we consciously reconstruct the centuries of narratives we have told about our supposed religious opponents. Lutherans and Roman Catholics have, I hope, shown the way toward reconciliation for the sake of the world. Similar efforts must take root throughout Christian ecumenical efforts and within interreligious dialogues. Among other religions, we must start first with Jews and Muslims, taking responsibility for our Christian contributions to millennia of conflict and persecution, manifesting themselves today in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. As Lutherans and Catholics have found, the first step toward repairing the relationship is confession. Sincerity opens a world of new possibilities.

In conclusion, I want to again provide a word of affirmation for the program of study you are undertaking as you earn the Graduate Diploma in Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism. We live and work in a world of political forces that compromise the core values of all religious traditions, that seek to divide rather than unite, that encourage us to develop immoral perceptions of our neighbors.

But we are called to a different path. The message of the Gospel extends far beyond the complicated but improving relationship between Lutheran and Roman Catholic Christians. As disciples of Jesus—even if we follow in slightly different paths—we now freely affirm with another that we follow the One who has broken down the dividing wall” (Eph 2.14), the One through whom we have been reconciled to God and to one another, the One who has “entrust[ed] the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor 5:19).

Robert O. Smith is Director of the University of Notre Dame’s Jerusalem Global Gateway. Smith is author of More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013) and editor, with Swedish scholar Göran Gunner, of Comprehending Christian Zionism: Perspectives in Comparison (Fortress, 2014).


Critiquing Christian Zionism, Old and New

In its August 30, 2017, issue, The Christian Century published a review article by ELCA pastor and professor Peter Pettit assessing recent work from Anglican theologian Gerald McDermott promoting what McDermott is packaging as a “new Christian Zionism.” Both the article and the two books under review cite my own monograph, More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013).

I submitted a comment as a “Letter to the Editor,” but it was far too long to be published as such. So I am sharing it here instead. I hope this can be a resource for other progressive Christians seeking to address the complex of issues surrounding Christian Zionism, including Jewish-Christian and Muslim-Christian relations alongside the quest for a just, sustainable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Let a new conversation commence.


Dear Editor,

I read with great interest Peter Pettit’s critical review of recent work from Gerald McDermott on what he heralds as a “new” Christian Zionism. By “new,” both Pettit and McDermott mean non-dispensationalist. On the basis of an historically-informed theological position, they formulate a Christian Zionism that doesn’t rely on rapture schemes or other elaborate apocalyptic scenarios.

My own academic work on the topic of Christian Zionism—More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013)—is cited in support of these efforts. While Pettit describes the book as “coherent,” McDermott (in both books under review) says it is “the best analysis of seventeenth-century Zionism among Puritans.” While it is true that I make a definitive case to sever analysis of Christian Zionism from the regnant concerns of premillennial dispensationalism, that is but a surface reading of my overall critique.

McDermott and Pettit are heavily engaged in a constructive project, whose overarching theme seems limited to “how to be a better Christian Zionist.” In this narrow conversation, they ignore basic questions raised in academic analyses. Critical, analytical work like mine and that of the scholars Göran Gunner and I assembled over several years to participate in the American Academy of Religion Seminar on Christian Zionism serves a different purpose.

I am sympathetic to some of the questions writers like McDermott and Pettit raise. I share their uneasiness about attitudes engendered by Christian supersessionism (more commonly known as “replacement theology”). All Christians should be wary of the reprehensible millennia of anti-Jewish theological teachings and the deadlier forms of anti-Semitism that emerged in the modern era, laying the groundwork for the Shoah.

Attentiveness to that history and its continued implications leads to the exigent claim of Christian responsibility. That sense of Christian responsibility should also include concern for centuries of Christian theological constructions of the Muslim other (i.e., “enemy”) concomitant to centuries of western Christian chauvinism concerning their Orthodox and Oriental coreligionists. With respect to the Holy Land, Christian responsibility demands direct commitment to seeking a just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict while embraces each of the many communities that now belong to the land. In is in this context that my own academic work seeks to critique the way Christian Zionists enact what I identify as an English Protestant tradition of Judeo-centric prophecy interpretation.

That tradition of engaging Scripture, which McDermott seeks to revive and refine, imagines Jews through Christian theological lenses. Any contemporary form of Christian Zionism, even while affirming the integrity of Jewish existence and identifying a special status for the State of Israel, ultimately manipulates Jewish existence for Christian purposes alone. Jews and Judaism thus become mere means for Christian theological ends.

In an era following the Crusades, the Holocaust, and 50 years of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, Christian historical responsibility indicates that theologizing about the existence of other ethnic and religious communities has led to disastrous results. As Franklin Littell, a pioneer of post-Holocaust Jewish-Christian relations, put it, “To teach that a people’s mission in God’s providence is finished, that they have been relegated to the limbo of history, has murderous implications which murderers in time will spell out.” Simply put, it is unethical to theologize about the God-ordained existence or non-existence of another people or community of faith.

In this new round of conversation, Christians in the United States cannot forget that our theological attitudes have direct political implications for communities in today’s Middle East. Purportedly theological efforts like Christian Zionism—in both dispensationalist and non-dispensationalist forms—function politically to protect structures of official U.S. military, political, diplomatic, and monetary support for the State of Israel.

In the first sentence of his review, Pettit suggests that “talking about Israel is one of the most dependable . . . ways to fracture a congregation.” This statement serves to reinforce the familiar refrain: “it’s all just so complicated; I suppose we just shouldn’t say anything.” Reticence on critical issues is tantamount to an abdication of ethical, indeed, religious responsibility.

Now is the time for a new conversation about Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations, a new conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a new conversation about historical Christian responsibility. Let us indeed have the courage to create something new.

Robert Smith



Robert O. Smith is Director of the University of Notre Dame’s Jerusalem Global Gateway. Smith is author of More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013) and editor, with Swedish scholar Göran Gunner, of Comprehending Christian Zionism: Perspectives in Comparison (Fortress, 2014). He is a Co-Moderator of the World Council of Churches’ Palestine-Israel Ecumenical Forum.


“Only a Pawn in Their Game” – Charlottesville and Me

According to family lore, a great-great uncle of mine was a personal bodyguard to Robert E. Lee, the Confederate General whose statue Charlottesville, Virginia, has voted to remove. Even though my heart wasn’t with the thugs demonstrating to protect the statue, I recognized part of myself in them. 

Instead, I thought of the Bob Dylan song, “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” debuted in July 1963 after Medgar Evers was assassinated on June 12. 

Dylan’s song is a brilliant analysis of how systemic racism keeps white men locked in a system of inequality and violence. “The poor white,” Dylan says, is taught “in his school … 

To protect his white skin / To keep up his hate / So he never thinks straight / ‘Bout the shape that he’s in / But it ain’t him to blame / He’s only a pawn in their game. 

The same, Dylan says, is true of the assassin, who is not worth being remembered with a name.

Although Dylan’s song — which he sang later in 1963 during the March on Washington — could be read as letting the individual off the hook for heinous actions, he points to broader systems manipulating white racial fragility and rage. The actions of the individuals are certainly terrible, but outrage needs to be directed also at the power structure encouraging these pawns to act.

Yesterday, here in Jerusalem with a quasi-legal CNN feed, I saw a great deal many pawns marching in Charlottesville. They had no intention of engaging in a peaceful demonstration; that’s why they brought clubs and shields and pepper spray. They were emboldened by what they have been told is their political moment; that’s why they didn’t hide their faces. 

More than the marching and the violence, I recognized the ideas animating those pawns. I went to the same schools and, especially, the same gun shows. To be sure, I also saw myself in the rainbow of ecumenical and interfaith clergy participating in the counter-protests to offer a witness of faith beyond exclusion. I am a doctorate-holding professor and ordained pastor, whose left-leaning politics are no secret to anyone.

However, my teenage years in suburban south Oklahoma City could have been a seedbed for the sort of extremism we’ve seen in Charlottesville. Before I moved to Europe at age 16 (my parents couldn’t have anticipated what that international experience would do to me), I grew up hunting, fishing, and shooting. I was constantly surrounded by an arsenal of firearms.

I remember quite well the disaffected, no-way-up middle class emptiness of 1980s suburban Oklahoma City. I was fed a steady diet of suspicion of the federal government and, even if it wasn’t always so explicitly stated, white racial pride … despite the fact that I am also an enrolled Citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. 

Later, after my time in Europe, I remember being at a gun show in Oklahoma City and meeting Randy Weaver, whose son and wife had been killed in a 1992 FBI/ATF siege on their cabin in northern Idaho. The same federal crew had raided the Branch Davidian compound in Waco in 1993. These two events catalyzed Timothy McVeigh, leading to his own act of domestic terrorism in 1995.

Many other people besides me have devoted their careers to researching how people get radicalized. That hasn’t been the focus of my work. But the popular perceptions of people drawn to join these groups and participate in these rallies are often quite wrong.

A white supremacist willing to engage in public, political violence (the most basic definition of terrorism) has noticed things changing around him. The basic order of American society has changed, and his particular norms (heterosexuality, hyper-masculinity, nationalist cultural Christianity, and whiteness) are no longer the highest norms for American society. 

Those are still the norms of American society, mind you, but they are not as strong as they used to be. Difference is accepted more and more. Things are slipping.

A white supremacist invading Charlottesville to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee is not doing so to seek privilege and power. Rather, that person is threatening violence to protect privilege and power they think they already have. They are there to beat back the savages and to reestablish what they believe to be a God-given order which has them situated firmly on top.

Recognizing elements of that culture in myself does not mean I accept or condone it. Comprehension does not imply sympathy. As former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted, “There is only one side.” 

Addressing events like what happened in Charlottesville means going beyond condemning the actions of individuals. The actions are bad. The ideas driving the actions are pernicious. The malevolent intellectual forces generating and refining those ideas to cynically motivate racial resentment are still worse. 

The problem we face is that the current occupant of the Oval Office has intentionally fanned the flames of those ideas, presenting them as solutions to problems he has utterly no intention of fixing. And he knows that the chief architect of those ideas — Steve Bannon — is the one who brought him to the dance. 

What the white men who invaded Charlottesville need to know is that the movement they have decided to join — now calling itself the Alt-Right, but associated with many past organizations proclaiming white supremacy — has been lurking around in the shadows for a long time, waiting for its chance to return to national prominence. 

The racial supremacist Alt-Right has jumped on the opportunities provided by President Trump’s racism, both overt and implied. But they are the same as Trump, using intellectual manipulation to drag white men into their camp. They can’t be trusted any more than a billionaire claiming to represent the common man. 

All of this is to the detriment of those who think they are taking something back or making something great. The Klan and organizations like it rely on insecurity and fear to find their success. Their success is not in challenging systems of government or trends in society; their success is solely bound up in creating pawns to validate their existence, either by showing up at their meetings or suggesting to other potential pawns that they really aren’t that bad. 

Because these organizations thrive on the weakness of their pawns — their fragility and fear — they are never interested in building the strength that comes through unity in diversity. They are only interested in pawns who will work to protect structures of power for others to enjoy. 

Bannon has long advocated for varying forms of fascism. With Trump, he identified his patsy. They are seeking to hold the country hostage to a vision that turns every white male into a jackbooted thug subjugating and persecuting every form of difference. That appearance of strength is, in the end, the most profound weakness, a weakness only a pawn could accept.

My intention in sharing my awareness of at least a small sliver of the culture animating the white invaders of Charlottesville is not to validate their actions, but to help my fellow leftists better understand their opponents. Those men won’t listen to me anyway. 

But there is work to be done. We are in a crisis and people are dying. I wrote this because I couldn’t keep silent. I was horrified by what I saw, and I was horrified that I saw elements of myself in those awful images from Charlottesville. But I must own up to that if I am to be part of the solution. Let it begin with me.

Robert O. Smith is Director of the University of Notre Dame’s Jerusalem Global Gateway. Smith is author of More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013) and editor, with Swedish scholar Göran Gunner, of Comprehending Christian Zionism: Perspectives in Comparison (Fortress, 2014). He is a Co-Moderator of the World Council of Churches’ Palestine-Israel Ecumenical Forum.

Can Holy Leaders Stop Holy War in the World’s Holiest City?

The present crisis in Jerusalem threatens to engulf the entirety of Israel and Palestine, change the emerging order of the Middle East, and exacerbate global tensions. Centered on the holy site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, this current moment in the decades-long nationalist struggle between Jews and Palestinians could be marking a shift from a predominantly political to a predominantly religious mode of engagement. Given this shift, it is essential that religious representatives be brought into the political dialogue.  

For many in the secularized West, it is counterintuitive to think that more religious involvement, rather than less, is helpful in the present situation. If religion is part of the problem, how can it be part of the solution? Diplomats and politicians have serious doubts about whether holy men in holy robes can offer anything close to the right response to the possibility of a holy war.  

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the shift from predominantly political to predominantly religious has been happening for several years. Muslim concerns about Zionist designs on Al-Aqsa have sparked violence for nearly a century; such fears were part of the motivation for the 1929 riots resulting in the deaths of many Jews in Hebron (though many more were protected by their Muslim neighbors). Religious commitments have always been part of this conflict over a land perceived as holy by different political communities, each with access to varying levels of worldly power.  

One of the defining features of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is its seeming intractability. The presence of religious commitments to particular pieces of geography (within the larger whole animating some religious passions) contributes directly to this dynamic. The shorthand understanding among foreign policy specialists on the topic of religion and politics is that political struggles can always be solved through dialogue, engagement and, most of all, compromise. When religion becomes the main driver of a conflict, the motivation for compromise is diminished.  

If you believe that the entirety of Jewish identity is bound up with living in Hebron and being able to pray at the Temple Mount, what motivation is there to compromise with Palestinians? For this person, even the State of Israel is a means to an end, a tool, for achieving religious purposes. That person is willing to take up arms even against her own state to advance a religious ideal.

Also reflected within segments of the Palestinian population, this type of religious logic—a blend of politics and religion best understood as theopolitical—can have explosive consequences. 

Palestinian Muslim Jerusalemites have been profoundly moved by this present perceived Zionist threat to Al-Aqsa. The people—quite apart from political and even religious leadership—have taken to the streets, organizing themselves through theopolitical rather than secular logic. At the present moment, it is meaningless to present any talk of compromise with a hostile state seeking to wrest away control of the holy site in their midst. While uncompromising, these street demonstrations have been marked by prayer and nonviolence. Only a very small minority of Muslim Jerusalemites participating in prayers around Al-Aqsa engaged in any activity that could be construed as violent. They were met, on the other hand, with a great deal of state violence from Israeli Border Police.

Political leadership alone—by which I mean leadership that is predominantly secular in nature even if tries to accommodate religious factors—cannot fully address the crisis now engulfing Israel and Palestine. Religious actors must be brought to the table. They are the only ones who can speak to their own communities, using theopolitical terms, in a way that can remove the threat from Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. 

The ideal would be if non-state religious actors could be located. In this context, however, such a search will be difficult. All officially recognized Jewish and Muslim leaders are appointed by Israeli and Palestinian governmental processes. Christian leadership is similarly compromised by involvement with state politics. The Patriarchs and Heads of Churches must be attentive to the political pressures placed on them by Israeli and Palestinian political forces, with the State of Israel often gaining more deference than the Palestinian Authority by virtue of the bureaucratic power it can wield. 

Even within this compromised reality, the situation could be addressed by the CRIHL, the Council of Religious Institutions in the Holy Land, which includes the Chief Rabbis, the Islamic Courts and the Heads of Churches. If that group can come to some level of common mind about how to address the present crisis or at least the element of dehumanization infecting all sides of the conflict, a contribution could be made.  Moreover, each of these official leaders is concerned with the historic status quo governing religious sites in Jerusalem. Their voices can be an invaluable source of perspective for secular political leadership. 

The next step is to identify religious actors within the community of NGOs. Here too there are problems for identifying organizations and persons who can contribute toward building peaceful engagement. Many of these NGOs are built around charismatic individuals rather than systematic approaches to peacebuilding and reconciliation. Many do not have a broader vision of what a sustainable peace may entail, a theopolitical theory for the future of Israel and Palestine. 

For too long, religious actors have been shut out of political dialogues concerning the Holy Land. Negotiations have preferred to leave Jerusalem—with its many layers of political and religious complication—to the end of any negotiations process. Recent crises involving Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount tensions indicate that both approaches were flawed.  

I am not appealing for a return to negotiations toward final-status issues. Nor am I suggesting that all Palestinian frustrations can be explained by religious impulses. Palestinians have very real, material objections to Israeli state policy that have virtually nothing to do with religion. But when Al-Aqsa is touched, the theopolitical impulse comes to the fore.

What I am suggesting is that identifying an appropriate cadre of religious actors who seek the best for the three religions and two peoples of this land, religious actors who embrace the humanist impulses of their respective faiths and can effectively communicate those impulses back to their communities, is an essential step toward pulling this crisis back from avoidable suffering and toward the possibility of compromise. 
Once this present crisis is reaches a point of resolution—if that is indeed possible—religious actors would be positioned to address longer-term concerns related to the overall Israeli-Palestinian situation. Religious resources, using theopolitical rationale, have greater resources to address imbalances of power and harmful policies, including Israel’s continuous encroachments on occupied territory, replete with direct harm to Palestinians. Not addressing these matter in a way that seeks the best for all Palestinians and Israelis would be an abdication of both political and religious responsibility. 

Rev. Robert O. Smith, PhD, is Director of the Jerusalem Global Gateway of the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013), and editor, with Göran Gunner, of Comprehending Christian Zionism: Perspectives in Comparison (Fortress, 2014). He sometimes thinks about things other than Israel and Palestine.

Media Critique: Identifying Allies for the Fight


In response to the recent attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt, several analysts and commentators have offered interpretations of why militant Islamists are so focused on terrorizing Egypt’s Christians. This is an important topic providing one avenue into the broader challenges facing Middle Eastern Christian communities today as they navigate a changing landscape of relations with Muslim neighbors.

Among these many analyses, this piece from Samuel Tadros, titled “Coptic Christians: Islamic State’s ‘Favorite Prey,’” caught my attention. Tadros seeks to argue that the experiences of Jews and Christians in Egypt are similar since the numbers for both communities have diminished over the past decades.

While the claim of diminishing numbers is empirically true, the comparison is virtually meaningless given the wildly different regional dynamics contributing to each community’s decline. There is no mention, for instance, of the Zionist movement’s explicit efforts to bring Mizrachi (Oriental) Jews to the State of Israel. Without recognition of this factor enticing Jews to leave Egypt, readers are left to assume that the two communities have declined for the same reasons.

But the author doesn’t stop there. Through a rather clumsy importing of a German linguistic concept, Tadros hints tellingly at Jewish experience during the Holocaust when he says that “the Northern Sinai is now ‘Christianfrei,’ or free of Christians.” This, one assumes, is Tadros’s real point: Daesh / ISIS is no better than the Nazis; Egyptian Christians (perhaps along with other Christians in the region) are the persecuted Jews facing attempted genocide in 2017.

It is a compelling argument. Given the tremendous suffering endured by many Middle Eastern Christians within the past few years, one can understand its driving emotion. Once persecuted and despised, Jews are now accepted within western society. They are sympathetic characters through whom Coptic concerns can be interpreted. There are, however, implications to this comparison that may lead to non-optimal outcomes.

The first thing to notice is that the comparison, at least in the mind of western Christians, builds a conceptual alliance between Jews and Christians in a shared struggle against Muslims. This feeds into long-standing, destructive trends in western thought. Rather than engaging in the difficult work of inter-communal engagement, such an argument, perhaps blinded by crisis and necessity, opts for unrelenting confrontation.

The call for confrontation between Jews and Christians on one side against Muslims on the other cannot be separated from the contemporary geopolitics of the Middle East. By hinting at the Holocaust (an event of such enormity it can rarely serve well as a mere footnote in an argument), Tadros appears to be calling for some sort of dramatic, external intervention. He is unconvinced that the problem can be solved internally; only conflict prosecuted from outside Egypt can make a difference.

The unspoken thrust of these arguments, most of them unspoken, is that the problem facing Christians and Jews in the Middle East today can be summed up in one word: Islam. By not articulating the distinct causes of Jewish and Christian departure from Egypt in two different eras, the reader is left to assume that bad relations with Muslim neighbors caused each community to flee. Encountering this argument, western readers are more likely than not to by reconfirmed in centuries-held negative beliefs about Islam and the Muslim world.

In the end, Tadros offers an emotional appeal rather than a clear-headed analysis of what ought to be done in the present moment. The horrible incident in Mina deserves mourning, but it must not drive us to despair. Rather than desperately seeking allies for the fight, now is the time to strengthen the voice of moderates among Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, finding a common path forward for the good of all communities in the Middle East.

Rev. Robert O. Smith, PhD, is Director of the Jerusalem Global Gateway of the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford, 2013), and editor, with Göran Gunner, of Comprehending Christian Zionism: Perspectives in Comparison (Fortress, 2014). He sometimes thinks about things other than Israel and Palestine.

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