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From Persecution To Witness By Elizabeth Eaton,
Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
For many months now people have been asking for some kind of statement about the persecution of Christians around the world. It seems to be a straight-forward issue. Christians are suffering in Iraq and Syria, in Nigeria and Egypt. Palestinian Christians encounter intense pressure. Christians in some parts of India are threatened. Some would even claim that U.S. Christians are under siege. Atrocities committed against Christians by the Islamic State, Boko Haram, al-Shabab and others are regularly in the news. We hear that more Christians have been martyred in recent years than in the first three centuries of the Christian movement.
Each circumstance of violence against Christians is deeply painful. There are brothers and sisters around the world whose lives are part of the passion of Christ. People are targeted in some countries because they are Christians. But this is a complex issue. Are Christians suffering and dying as witnesses to the faith? Yes. But in many places interreligious conflict has been used as a calculated pretext for political gain. A narrative of religion vs. religion, or religion vs. society, is an effective way of generating support for one’s cause. And, regrettably, suspicion and fear of the “other” leads to intolerance and discrimination.
The persecution of Christians is not new. Martyrs have existed since the beginning of the
church. Stephen was martyred with the consent of Paul, who was martyred by the Roman
Empire. Paul quoted the psalms, writing: “For your sake we are being killed all the day
long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered” (Romans 8:36).
Outrage is a natural reaction to beheadings and crucifixions. The instinct to strike back is understandable. Many Lutherans accept that in a broken world deadly force might be needed. Revenge, however, is not an option for a Christian.
I pray that none of you ever suffers violence for the faith, but every generation has faced hostility. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ.”
“Martyr” is a Greek word that means “witness,” “to give testimony.” A witness can also be a symbol that testifies a promised action has been accomplished. When we speak about the persecution of Christians, the real question is: “What will be our witness?”
Here is a story about how some Lutherans in Ethiopia answered that question. It happened in one of our companion synods. Some Muslims burned down a church, thinking they were attacking Roman Catholics. Instead, they burned down a Lutheran church by mistake. They were arrested and sent to jail. In that region it’s the responsibility of families to take care of prisoners’ hygiene and food. Instead, members of the Lutheran church asked authorities if they could dig the prisoners’ latrines and feed them. That was their witness in the face of persecution.
Christians aren’t the only ones being targeted and persecuted. More Muslims have reportedly been killed by the Islamic State than any other group. Our witness must be as peacemakers and as defenders of religious minorities in our country and around the world. We must be the ones who speak out when entire religions are falsely characterized by the actions of extremists. We would not accept Christianity being defined by the Ku Klux Klan or the Christian Identity movement. We should not define entire communities by the distortion of to their religion.
The cross is God’s visual symbol that a promised action has been accomplished. It is God’s stake in the sand. It is God’s witness to the truth that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).
Current U.S. Policy, Israel/Palestine, and the Churches
A New Context Forty years ago, the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel were signed and 25 years ago, the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were signed. For many, these two events offered hope of movement towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israelis, Palestinians, and other neighboring countries. While we recognize these anniversaries, the current situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories for most of the inhabitants is one of shattered hopes. Since President Trump took office in 2017, U.S. support for Israel over the concerns of Palestinians has become explicit instead of implied. As leaders of U.S.-based churches and Christian organizations with long ties and close connections with Palestinian Christians and churches, we are deeply concerned about these developments and urge our elected officials to consider the devastating impact of these shifts on those most directly affected, as well as on the possibility of positive, constructive, and credible U.S. engagement to work for a resolution to this enduring conflict.
President Trump and Shifts in U.S. Policy At the start of his term, President Trump offered supportive words for the traditional peace process, even saying in late September 2018 that he “like[d]” a two-state solution. However, U.S. positions on key issues like Israeli settlements, the status of Jerusalem, and Palestinian refugees have shifted significantly. Publicly the U.S. has remained quiet on the issue of settlements since the start of President Trump’s administration, tacitly endorsing Israeli settlements as new construction increases.
On Jerusalem, the Trump administration officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. President Trump has given no indication that the Administration remains committed to the international promise and policy that Jerusalem should be a shared city. While Vice President Pence told the Israelis that the U.S. decision will not influence the final status of its borders, which he said was up to the parties, President Trump has declared that Jerusalem is now off the table as a subject for negotiations in a final agreement.
In a subsequent action, in early October, the administration decided to close the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem that had served as the diplomatic point of engagement for and with Palestinians. The move included demoting the U.S. Consul General. Instead of being responsible for Palestinian matters and answering directly to the Secretary of State, the Consul General in Jerusalem will now answer to the U.S. Ambassador, further diminishing the impression of U.S. respect for international convention.
The Trump administration has also proposed changing the definition of who is a Palestinian refugee. Currently, Palestinians and the descendants of Palestinians who fled or were driven out of historic Palestine during the 1948 war maintain their original refugee status. Some of these were uprooted a second time during the 1967 war when more Palestinians were displaced. The passing of refugee status to the descendants of those displaced in war is standard practice in situations of prolonged conflict. However, the U.S. seeks to strip refugee status from those descendants, meaning that most Palestinians who were born in refugee camps and who are currently considered refugees would no longer be considered as such. The goal of this change is to attempt to take the issue of Palestinian refugees’ right of return off the negotiating table.
These policy changes were a direct affront to Palestinians. The U.S. Embassy opened in May to great fanfare on a day marked by Israel as its founding and by Palestinians as the nakba (catastrophe). While this move was being celebrated by Israeli and U.S. officials in Jerusalem, Palestinians were being killed by Israeli armed forces at the Gaza border during a largely non-violent protest that was part of the Great March of Return. No statement or condemnation of the killings has been issued by the U.S. government.
The Administration’s Measures to Punish Palestinians Palestinian officials have stated that they see the U.S. negotiating team as biased due to the team’s history, current communications, and actions and therefore will not meet with U.S. officials or participate in U.S.-led negotiations. The U.S. in turn has said that since the Palestinian Authority is not taking part in U.S.-led negotiations, Palestinians should not receive U.S. financial support. The U.S. has also closed the PLO office in the United States, frozen the PLO’s bank accounts in the U.S., and expelled the family of the PLO representative to the U.S.
In January, the U.S. withheld more than half of a funding installment to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Then, in August, the U.S. announced it would halt all U.S. funding to UNRWA and formally withheld $300 million in funds that had been promised to the organization. This means UNRWA will need to heavily cut back on the services it provides to 5.4 million Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza. Schools and hospitals may be forced to close, thus depriving Palestinians of education, health care, needed jobs, and hope for a better future.
In late August, the U.S. also cut all non-security related assistance to the West Bank and Gaza, over $200 million in funds, and is also cutting funding for peacebuilding programs. The U.S. also is reported to be taking steps to discontinue funding to the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, which includes the Lutheran World Federation’s Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives. Again, vulnerable Palestinians are suffering and will continue to suffer as a result of U.S. policy decisions.
Even as the administration has decided to pull humanitarian funding, the State of Israel remains the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, receiving approximately $3.8 billion in military aid each year. This funding helps the government of Israel maintain the occupation of the Palestinian territories, making the U.S. complicit in Israel’s detention of Palestinian children in military prisons, violent repression of peaceful protestors, and demolitions of Palestinian homes and communities.
The administration is also taking actions to deny the freedom of speech to those who criticize the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. The Department of Education has adjusted its definition of anti-Semitism to include anti-Zionism and criticism of the state of Israel. Any person or group speaking at educational institutions who states their support for anti-Zionism, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement or is otherwise critical of Israel’s policies is potentially at risk for investigation and sanction by the Department of Education.
While President Trump’s administration is not the first to show its favoritism of Israelis over Palestinians, we are deeply troubled by its attempt to pursue a sweeping and coordinated set of policies designed to punish Palestinians and take away their human rights, dignity, and hope. By promoting these policies, the Trump administration makes it harder for peace to be realized and increases the chance that there will be new violence.
We support peace, justice, and human rights As Christian churches and organizations in the United States, we strongly oppose this treatment of Palestinians. Most Palestinians have been peacefully protesting for 70 years in the hopes of gaining international recognition and their own state. We call on people of all faiths to stand up in support of human rights for both Palestinians and Israelis, including the right to self-determination. We urge the Trump administration to restore humanitarian funding to Palestinians through bilateral assistance and UNRWA, and to pursue engagement in honest, credible, and serious efforts with Palestinians, Israelis, regional parties, and the international community, to seek a just resolution to the conflict. We pray that we may soon join in celebrating a region where all are at peace and enjoy their rights and liberties without regard to race and creed.
Eddy Alemán General Secretary Reformed Church in America
Joyce Ajlouny General Secretary American Friends Service Committee
J Ron Byler Executive Director Mennonite Central Committee U.S.
Rev. Paula Clayton Dempsey Director of Partnership Relations Alliance of Baptists
Marie Dennis Co-President Pax Christi International
Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer General Minister and President United Church of Christ
The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton Presiding Bishop Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Susan Gunn Interim Director Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe, General Secretary General Board of Church and Society The United Methodist Church
Dr. Nathan Hosler Director, Office of Public Witness Church of the Brethren
Rev. Julia Brown Karimu Co-Executive, Global Ministries Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ
Rev. John L. McCullough President and CEO Church World Service
Rev. Dr. James Moos Co-Executive, Global Ministries Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ
Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson Stated Clerk of the General Assembly Presbyterian Church (USA)
Rev. Teresa Hord Owens General Minister and President Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Rev. Reggie Smith Executive Director Office of Social Justice Christian Reformed Church of North America
CHICAGO – The Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) met at The Lutheran Center in Chicago Nov. 8-11. The council, which serves as the ELCA's board of directors, centered its meeting around worship, Bible study and personal reflections on faith.
As it continues to focus its work around Future Directions 2025, the council engaged in discussions around a "well-governed, connected and sustainable church," as outlined in the plan's fifth goal. Addressing efforts toward governance and building consensus around a shared understanding of its roles and responsibilities, the council approved the Preface and Part 1 of the ELCA Church Council Governance policy manual. The policy manual development committee also led discussions on Part 2 of the manual, which will address how the council can best be equipped to fulfill the roles and responsibilities outlined in Part 1.
In other action, the council elected the Rev. Philip Hirsch to a four-year renewable term as executive director of ELCA Domestic Mission, beginning Feb. 1, 2019. The council also re-elected the Rev. Rafael Malpica Padilla to a four-year renewable term as executive director of ELCA Global Mission, beginning Feb. 1, 2019.
In other business, the council:
recommended to the 2019 Churchwide Assembly the adoption of the policy statement, "A Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment;"
defined the symbols for the roster of Ministers of Word and Service as a deacon's stole and a cross. In addition, the council requested the ELCA worship team develop an appropriate rite and rubrics for the ordination of deacons, subject to the 2019 Churchwide Assembly approval of ordination as the entrance rite for the roster of Ministers of Word and Service;
formed a working group to draft a declaration to people of African descent to be presented to the 2019 Churchwide Assembly. The working group will develop in this document a confession of this church's bondage to the sins of slavery, racism, discrimination, white supremacy and quietism, and a commitment to begin the work of repentance, which this church confesses to be "the chief topic of Christian teaching;"
extended the Mission Support experiment with five synods—Nebraska Synod, Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, New England Synod, Lower Susquehanna Synod, and Metropolitan Washington, D.C. Synod. The council requested an initial report be brought to the April 2019 meeting and a final report and recommendations to the November 2019 meeting. Mission Support is the financial offerings from congregations shared with synods and the churchwide organization;
received reports on the implementation of the strategy toward authentic diversity within the ELCA and the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. The reports are in response to actions taken by the 2016 Churchwide Assembly;
approved a 2019 fiscal year current fund spending authorization of $67,164, 676; and approved a 2019 ELCA World Hunger spending authorization of $21,500,000;
approved a Church Council designated fund representing the excess revenue over expenses from fiscal year 2018, estimated to be in the range of $1.5-$2.5 million, to be released toward funding the fiscal year 2019 operating budget;
recommended amendments to the constitution of this church for adoption by the 2019 Churchwide Assembly;
adopted revision to Policies and Procedures of the ELCA for Addressing Social Concerns;
revised the Alcohol Social Criteria Investment Screen; and
participated in a conversation on racial justice;
The council also received:
reports from the officers, its committees, the administrative team and the Conference of Bishops;
an update on Always Being Made New: The Campaign for the ELCA;
a report of the Theological Education Advisory Committee (TEAC);
an update on Lutheran Services in America;
presentations from Separately Incorporated Ministries;
congregational vitality learnings; and
greetings from ecumenical partners.
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About the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with more than 3.5 million members in more than 9,400 worshiping communities across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of "God's work. Our hands," the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA's roots are in the writings of the German church reformer Martin Luther.
For information contact: Candice Hill Buchbinder 773-380-2877 Candice.HillBuchbinder@ELCA.org
CHICAGO – The Rev. Philip C. Hirsch was elected to a four-year renewable term as executive director of the Domestic Mission unit of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Hirsch was elected by the ELCA Church Council at its November meeting. His term will begin Feb. 1, 2019.
Hirsch has served as director for evangelical mission and assistant to the bishop in the ELCA Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Synod since 2009. Before joining the synod staff, Hirsch served as pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Fairfax, Va., from 1999 to 2009. Hirsch was pastor of Christus Evangelical Lutheran Church in Camden, N.J., from 1994 to 1999, and he served his first call at Epiphany Lutheran Church in Camden from 1990 to 1994.
"I am grateful for this opportunity to help serve and lead the church in its mission in the United States," Hirsch said. "I believe that Jesus Christ is the light of the world and the hope for our broken humanity. I look forward to helping our church grow in its ability to connect a younger and more ethnically and economically diverse people with the gospel. I am confident because I know the Holy Spirit always gives us wisdom, power and love far greater than the challenges we face."
Hirsch received his Bachelor of Arts from Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., in 1986 and his Master of Divinity degree from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in 1990. The seminary is one of seven ELCA seminaries. Hirsch earned his Doctor of Ministry in homiletics from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, in 1997.
The current executive director for Domestic Mission, the Rev. Stephen P. Bouman, has served since January 2008 and is retiring from the position Jan. 31, 2019.
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About the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with more than 3.4 million members in more than 9,100 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of "God's work. Our hands," the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA's roots are in the writings of the German church reformer Martin Luther.
For information contact:
Candice Hill Buchbinder 773-380-2877 Candice.HillBuchbinder@ELCA.org