Brown theology lives?

israelBy Benjamin E. Williams

Special to The Layman

As the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) meets in Detroit in June, it will – among other hot-button issues – be again considering its relations with Israel.  One of the most disturbing overtures concerns our hymnbooks and liturgical resources.

A Palestinian-American Presbyterian wrote to Chicago Presbytery to complain about the new Presbyterian hymnbook which had the offensive section heading of “God’s Covenant with Israel.”  In response, Chicago Presbytery penned and approved Overture 051: 07-01, “On Distinguishing Between Biblical Terms for Israel and Those Applied to the Modern Political State of Israel in Christian Liturgy.”

The overture expressed concern that this heading, “God’s Covenant With Israel” is “inflammatory, misleading and hurtful.”  Its authors, including professors, call for the Presbyterian Church (USA) to distinguish sharply between Biblical Israel, as the recipient and bearer of the heritage of faith and promises of God, and the contemporary state of Israel.  At first, this is a liturgical distinction, but with the current highly-critical attitude toward modern Israel gaining momentum in the PCUSA, it could clearly have broader implications.

As they say, it’s déjà vu all over again.  In the 1930s, the theological faculty of the University of Erlangen, Germany, was an historic and respected institution, with a concern for shaping not so much academic theology, but theology for the church.  So in order to create a new spiritual movement within the German church, infused with the full dignity of the chosen people of God and equipped with all of the Biblical promises, the National Socialist Party asked several professors there to re-assess the relationship between Israel and the Church.

Paul Althaus, Emanuel Hirsch and others complied and tried to demonstrate that the Christian Church had completely supplanted the place of Israel in God’s saving plan.  They made a careful and deliberate distinction between Israel as the Old Testament people of God, and modern Jews as their descendents.  Modern Judaism was no longer the chosen people of God, but simply one ethnic minority among others.

The Nazis were elated, adopted the Erlangen model as the theological framework for their auxiliary, Die Deutsche Christen (The German Christians).  This was “Brown Theology”, and Erlangen gained the reputation as “the Brownest University in Germany.”

Years later, Althaus, Hirsch and the others were shocked to discover they had unwittingly crafted the theological rationale to legitimize the Holocaust.  A half-century after that, when I completed my doctorate at Erlangen, the university was still burdened with its legacy of shame.

Back to Chicago: Once more professors and pastors are working to drive a wedge between the historic people of God and their present descendents.  Paul and the apostles, though, presumed their fundamental continuity.

The Gentile church had not supplanted historic Israel and the Jewish people, but was included under their aegis as, we might say, an adjunct people of God.  Paul still yearned for the day when, in the purpose and plan of God, “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11.11-12 + 25).

This is not to say that everything the modern state of Israel does is good and righteous, any more than much of what the ancient kingdom of Israel did was good and righteous.  But the unfaithfulness and imperfections of the political arm of Israel did not then, and therefore do not now, nullify the promise and covenant faithfulness of God.

For all its faults, Israel is a nation under siege, enduring daily barrages of mortar and rocket fire from enemies who are sworn to wipe it off the face of the earth.  This is a fact of life for many Israelis about which the General Assembly and its committees are conspicuously silent.  I hope the 2014 General Assembly will have the good theological sense to reject this ill-advised overture, lest one day the PCUSA is ashamed to discover it has become the architect for a second Holocaust.


The Rev. Dr. Benjamin E. Williams, lives in Reidsville, N.C.


Comments 6

  • Looking around

    I like to browse in various places on the web, often I will just go to Stumble Upon and follow thru

  • Sorry! Aug. 31, 2004 (not 2014!) – ten years ago. I don’t think there are any Palestinians left in Israel – at least not on the periphery of the Old City, where they used to hawk their wares in droves.

    • Dear Andrew,
      Thank you for rightly calling attention to injustices in Palestine. As I wrote, not everything modern Israel does is good and righteous. I suspect that is part of our frustration. We would hope that Israel, heir to the tradition of the patriarchs and prophets, would rise to the faith and challenge of the times, and be a beacon of social righteousness. We would hope that Israel, having endured the trauma of the Holocaust, would show unrelenting empathy for oppressed minorities in its midst. We are disappointed that those hopes go unrealized. Of course, the Church has often succumbed no less to the pressures of fear, self-preservation, and narrow nationalistic self-interest. It has something to do with our shared genus homo peccatis, sinful man.
      The daily attacks long predate the wall. My step-brother lived on a farming kibbutz during the ‘seventies, and spoke often of the rain of rockets and mortars that started every afternoon around 3 pm, regular as clockwork. Terror is the last recourse of the powerless. But instead of chasing away the residents, it only made them angry, and more determined to persevere. The cycle of violence continues unabated.
      I do not believe the wall provides a solution. But I understand the rationale. As you note, it has been ten years since the last suicide bombing. One side says: see, no more bombings, the wall is obsolete. The other side says: the wall stopped the bombings, so if you dismantle the wall the bombings will resume. And to support their fears, the second said points to the continued daily mortar and rocket attacks.
      I think both sides are wrong. One can never achieve peace with violence. But to bedevil Israel one-sidedly – as the PCUSA has been trying to do – for what is clearly a two-person tango of death is unhelpful and wrong-headed.
      Obviously, this was not the point of my article. I only wanted to call attention to one more case of the Law of Unintended Consequences. The Brown Theologians never meant to justify the wholesale slaughter of Jews. But once their work was done and “out there”, anyone could bend it for alien purposes. I think we run the same risk now.

    • There are over one million Arab Palestinians in Israel proper and millions more in Gaza and the West Bank. But then what are facts to an anti-Semite?

    • Not sure what you are referring to with 2004 vs 2014, but in regard to “no Palestinians in Israel”: at the present time, approximately 20 percent of the citizens of Israel are Arab / Palestinian. They hold elected positions in government and co-exist peacefully with other Israelis. This fact is often ignored by pundits who like to refer to Israel as an “apartheid” nation. The only class of people that Israel discriminates against are terrorists.

  • If “Israel is a nation under siege, enduring daily barrages of mortar and rocket fire from enemies who are sworn to wipe it off the face of the earth,” Rev. Williams, then what’s come upon them is the curse at Lev. 26:36-37:
    “36 And upon them that are left alive of you I will send a faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies; and the sound of a shaken leaf shall chase them; and they shall flee, as fleeing from a sword; and they shall fall when none pursueth.
    37 And they shall fall one upon another, as it were before a sword, when none pursueth: and ye shall have no power to stand before your enemies.”
    The last suicide bus bombing was in Beersheba on Aug. 31, 2014. There’s an immense wall running right through Palestine separating neighbor from neighbor and farmer from his land. Even the pope couldn’t get through and ended up kissing it in frustration.

Optimization WordPress Plugins & Solutions by W3 EDGE