Brian McLaren, Christian Social Justice and the Boycott of Israel

June 15, 2009
Seismic Shock

This week the Jerusalem Post identifies three of the most prominent evangelical critics of Israel as Jimmy Carter, Stephen Sizer and Brian McLaren. Whilst Carter is world famous, and I have discussed Sizer at length on this blog, Brian McLaren is less well-known.

Brian McLaren is a leading figure in the Emergent Church movement, which seeks to deconstruct traditional church culture and move away from the conservative American evangelicalism. McLaren is portrayed on his website as someone who takes peace and social justice seriously. Thus, it is important for Christians who listen to McLaren to closely scrutinise his approach to social justice and the accuracy of his statements.

McLaren signed the Joint declaration by Christian Leaders on Israel’s 60th Anniversary, which was organised by Ben White and Philip Rizk. McLaren’s interest in global social justice focuses in particular upon the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the immediate aftermath of the Gaza war back in January, McLaren urged his readers to take these words of Ben White seriously:

THERE are often two obstacles to the taking of an appropriate stance to ‚ ­wards a just peace in Palestine/Israel by Churches and Christian groups in the West. First, it can be difficult to formulate a meaningful critique of Israeli policies without attracting cries of “excusing terrorism” or “anti-Semitism”. The latter accusation is especially levelled against Christians who join the global movement to put pressure on Israel by using boycotts and disinvestment.
More than ever, Christian leaders and Churches need to stand up and be counted. This could mean many things: pilgrimages that show solid ‚ ­arity with Palestinians; targeted boycotts of Israeli products; writing to MPs; inviting Palestinian speakers; twinning; film screenings; selling Palestinian-made goods.

So here we have Brian McLaren, a leading proponent of Christian social justice, drawing attention to Ben White’s call for boycotts against Israel (I am sure McLaren is ignorant of Ben White’s bigoted attitudes towards Israel and Jews, his approach to antisemitism and antisemitic violence, his flirtation with Holocaust denial, as well as his view that boycotting Israel itself is “˜non-violent resistance’ that is designed to go hand-in-hand with violence resistance).

So should Christians really take Ben White’s call for an anti-Israel boycott seriously, even when endorsed by so widely-read a figure as Brian McLaren? And should Christians sympathetic to the Palestinian national cause join in anti-Israel boycott campaigns?

The Engage group of academics, itself a progressive, left-wing movement concerned with social justice and sympathetic to Palestinians, has already dealt with Ben White’s arguments for a boycott of Israeli academics as part of the boycott movement against Israel (for more visit the BDS website).

Back in 2007, Mira Vogal wrote (referring to the proposed UCU boycott of Israeli academics):

“”¦Engage came into existence to oppose the growing phenomenon of left antisemitism which, most notably in the case of the boycott campaigns, often takes the form of anti-Zionism. The boycott calls have aims that are utterly unrealistic. The 2007 academic boycott call lacked proper aims or endpoints and in their absence the campaign was obliged to rely heavily on depicting Israel only as an atrocity. And if Israel is beyond redemption then people who oppose its frenzied condemnation must be reprehensible people. And if most Jews are in the ranks of those reprehensible people, then watch out Jews. Engage, which is left-wing, against the occupation and skeptical about nationalism, exists primarily to make and illustrate these points.”

And here’s the crux of the matter: the organised global boycott movement against Israel includes a call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israelis from other countries. And surely excluding individuals based upon the country they are from is racist. It doesn’t matter what you say, what matters is where you were born. It is socially unjust. Christian leaders interested in social justice should be able to find productive methods of encouraging peace in conflict zones. Israel-Palestine should be no different (although it appears to be for Stephen Sizer).

Using socially unjust, racist boycotts in an attempt to create social justice is morally and intellectually flawed. Whilst it is of great concern that Brian McLaren does not appear to recognise this in his blog post from January, it is still hopeful that McLaren will publicly distance himself from the organised global anti-Zionist boycott movement.

As Conor Foley puts it:

We need more critical engagment, open debate and dialogue. Bans and boycotts achieve precisely the opposite effect.

Of course, when it comes to racism, Brian wouldn’t want to be seen as adding more fuel to the stereotypical fire that Christians are judgmental, insensitive, reactive, more ideological than theological, and so on. If this is true of anti-Hispanic racism then what of antisemitic racism?

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