A Web site affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA) recently declared that “The Jewish community in the Diaspora must get a life.” It was wrong, and it was insulting, but I am more concerned about what lies behind the statement. There is a mindset even more wrong, and it is sadly growing among my fellow liberal Christians.
There are many definitions of life; none is fully acceptable or adequate. One is that life is what occupies our passions and demands our attention. The life we live is one where things matter to us. Life is in our passion, as opposed to our apathy. As opposed to lethargy, an inability to attend to much of anything, life leads us into a posture of attentiveness — seeing, hearing, thinking and giving ourselves over to that which demands our attention.
In this definition of life there are degrees of living; one is more or less passionate and more or less attentive. Dying is what happens on the lesser side of the equation. In dying it is very difficult to care, very hard to pay attention.
Liberal Christians are starting to come to life about the problems of Palestinians. We have been inattentive and dispassionate, even down right apathetic, for a good long time. Our apathy has made us complicit in lots of dying that has been going on.
We have come to life in stages. We learned that among Palestinians were fellow Christians, and this stirred our interest and we started to see and hear what we had failed to look at and listen to before. And our attitudes toward Muslims began to remind us of our lengthy and repugnant practice of antisemitism, and we began to pay more attention to all the Palestinian peoples — listening and caring and becoming increasingly passionate about their plight. In so many ways we can and should celebrate that this community of American Christians has come to life.
But passions can run dangerously hot, and I fear this is going on with many liberal Christians. Eager to come to life about the p light of Palestinians, which is a good thing, some among us have let our passion and compassion shift away from the plight of Israelis. We have let our long delayed solidarity with Jews start to slide away. And this is wrong.
Six decades ago some liberal Christians — way, way too few — directed their passion against the Nazi genocide and tried to stop the evil. In recent generations more and more liberal Christians have tried to come clean about the way our own religious life and practices have allowed abhorrent anti-Jewish beliefs and practices to persist. Liberal Christians have been coming to life about more just, more repentant, more life-affirming ways to be in community with Jews.
But it is difficult to pay attention to multiple things. It is hard to be passionate about much. It takes the fullness of life to do this.
At the heart of Christianity is the belief that God gives fullness of life. It is time for liberal Christians to attend to this belief. We need to keep passionate about the plight of Palestinians; we cannot become apathetic.
But we need to also be passionate about Israel and its deep worldwide meaning, especially for Jews. We cannot allow the coming to life we have begun in our solidarity with Jews to falter or fail.
Most of all, we need to understand that American Jews “have a life” about Israel — they care passionately, powerfully. In my experience, American Jews are full of life about the problems of Israel and the plight of Palestinians. In my experience, the ability of American Jews to pay attention to complicated and complex matters in the Middle East far exceeds that of all but a tiny minority of Christians.
If liberal Christians can balance and enlarge their passions and not burn out, we might just become one of the forces that bring fullness of life.
Reverend David Greenhaw, president of Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ.