20111005AIM015320This week marks the 10 year anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq and President Obama’s first presidential visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. The synchronicity of these events has no doubt influenced the following reflection.

For the better part of a decade, the Presbyterian Church (USA)—and other mainline Protestant denominations—has publicly debated various boycott and divestment strategies as a way to influence Israel to cease the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and other policies that oppress or hinder Palestinian development. While I agree that these settlements are a major stumbling block on the road to a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I have repeatedly argued that divestment is a ineffective and counterproductive strategy. Given the small amount of money we are talking about and the reality that a less-than-2 million member church has much less influence than we seem to think, boycotts and divestment are largely symbolic gestures, with an increasingly small audience. These moves also alienate us from Israelis and American Jews, relationships which are vital if we actually want to have any influence in this situation. And, if we really want to have an impact, we should direct our attention to our own government and its influence in the Middle East. (If you want to divest from something, stop paying your taxes.)

Those who have passionately advocated for divestment and boycotts do so out of a deep sense of solidarity with Palestinians, especially Palestinian Christians. I get this. I’ve been in occupied territories and have seen the effects this conflict has had on Christian populations in the Holy Land. But while Presbyterians (and others) have wasted a lot of time on these strategies, these exact same years have witnessed the decimation of the Christian population in Iraq, the direct consequence of an invasion and occupation led by our own government. As many have reported this week, the destabilization of Iraq has resulted in increased persecution and violence against Iraqi Christians. Half of the ancient Christian population in Iraq has fled the country and many have been brutally murdered.

While the PC(USA) is engaged in Iraq—see here and here—where is the public outrage on par with what we hear about Israel and Palestine? Where are calls for boycotts and divestment? Where are the sustained criticisms of our government of the sort we level against Israel?

What I find most disturbing about this disparity is that our country is directly implicated in the tragedies unfolding in Iraq. Yet we spend a disproportionate amount of time and resources trying to influence Israel.

What about the log in our own eye? What about the Christians in Iraq?

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

Reader Interactions


  1. I agree with you that we seem conspicuously lacking in outrage about Iraq. We have been since the beginning…just as we were lacking in any sort of self awareness about how we got into this situation long before war ever started. (sigh)
    As you know, I disagree about your position on Israel/Palestine and what we should be doing about that. Our country is directly implicated in that too–Israel is the recipient of the most US money of any nation in the world, and a vast majority of that is in the form of military aid which is used primarily to oppress.
    If it’s not worth our “small amount of money” and dwindling influence (or even complete lack of influence, which I think is probably accurate on a large scale) to work for justice on this issue, does that mean that any individual’s action is similarly useless? The logical conclusion is that if our 2 million member church isn’t going to make a difference, then one person certainly can’t, so we might as well spend our money wherever and however we want, drive gas-guzzling cars, buy things we know are made by sweatshop enslaved children, and eat food we know perfectly well is produced by people who can’t afford it for themselves even as they poison themselves to grow it for us. But I doubt we’d encourage people to ignore the consequences of their shopping choices. Why is this different? I want us to think about the consequences of where we invest.

    Just as friends don’t let friends drive drunk–they hold each other accountable for that–friends also don’t simply stand by while a friend participates in serious injustice. If our Jewish brothers and sisters aren’t willing to hear criticism about these policies and the reality of life in an occupied colony, are they really friends? Or do they just want someone to rubber stamp their plans? I hope we’re open to the same kind of accountability of our government’s actions, of course. But let’s not pretend we’re friends if we can’t even have an honest conversation without someone getting mad and claiming prejudice and taking their toys and going home.

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