|UMW Middle East study provides mission context|
By Linda Bloom*
April 7, 2008 | NEW YORK (UMNS)
For more than 75 years, United Methodist Women has sponsored "Schools of Christian Mission" as a means of informing and educating its members.
But complaints have arisen about the geographic study on Israel-Palestine that was used in 2007 and will be used again this year. The complaints call into question the study’s depiction of the issues between Israelis and Palestinians.
The purpose of the geographic study, according to Harriett Olson, chief executive of the Women’s Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, is to provide a context for the mission of the church. The division, which produces the studies, is UMW’s administrative arm.
Much of the 223-page mission study focuses on the political history of the region, accompanied by a "personal history" commentary by the author, the Rev. Stephen Goldstein, a Board of Global Ministries executive. Included is a study guide with personal stories of Israelis and Palestinians, study questions and worship materials, written by the Rev. Sandra Olewine, a board missionary.
The other two studies being offered in 2008 are "Giving Our Hearts Away: Native American Survival," and a spiritual growth study titled, "I Believe in Jesus."
Disturbed by study
On Feb. 13, a group called Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East issued a press release announcing it was "deeply disturbed" by the UMW’s Israel-Palestine mission study. The group criticized what it believed to be "factual errors, misrepresentations, material omissions and distortions" within the study.
The Rev. Archer Summers, senior pastor, First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto, Calif., and a member of the Fair Witness executive committee, called the study a "blatant attempt to portray Jews and Israelis in as damning a light as possible," particularly by stereotyping Jews as aggressive, belligerent, racist and vengeful.
A Feb. 19 statement from the Board of Global Ministries noted that the study considers Israel as a secular state. "The study analyzes political actions and aspirations," the statement said. "It seeks to expand the dialogue regarding this matter by including viewpoints rarely heard in public discourse."
Olson told United Methodist News Service that the Israel-Palestine mission study was not intended as a report of the church or a textbook. Nor does it advocate for divestment from Israel as a political tool, although Fair Witness has tied it to that issue. "It’s not about divestment," she said. "The Women’s Division has not taken a position on divestment."
Geographic studies for the schools of mission often examine the political and cultural complexities of particular areas. The 2005-2006 study was on India-Pakistan, and the Middle East was a focus in 1958, 1979 and 1992. The next study will be on the Sudan.
"The studies don’t attempt to summarize everything that is available," Olson explained. "I think that people who are critical of the church’s views (on Israel-Palestine) are similarly critical of the study."
General Conference positions
Through General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, The United Methodist Church has affirmed the role of the United Nations in resolving the Middle East conflict, especially as stated in U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. General Conference, which meets every four years, is the only entity that officially speaks for the entire United Methodist Church.
A current General Conference resolution on "Opposition to Israeli Settlements in Palestinian Land" emphasizes a "just and lasting peace" between Palestinians and Israelis.
"We seek for all people in the region an end to military occupation, freedom from violence, and full respect for the human rights of all under international law," says the resolution. The statement also calls for an end to new or expanded Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories, a withdrawal of Israeli military forces to the 1948 ceasefire line, or Green Line, and dismantling the part of the wall of separation that is not on the Green Line but on Palestinian land.
Bishop Jane Middleton
"We also urge the Palestinian Authority and all Palestinian religious leaders to continue to publicly condemn violence against Israeli civilians and to use nonviolent acts of disobedience to resist the occupation and the illegal settlements," the resolution says.
Another resolution on Christian-Jewish relations points to "our responsibility as Christians to oppose anti-Semitism whenever and wherever it occurs."
Claims to the land
United Methodist Bishop Jane Middleton of the Harrisburg (Pa.) Area, who co-taught the Israel-Palestine study last year in the denomination’s Central Pennsylvania Conference, pointed out that several major religions are tied to the region.
"It is clear that there are many claims on that land," she explained. "The biblical claim (for Jews) is the one that certainly all persons who care about our sisters and brothers in the Middle East would recognize."
Such a claim is not denied by United Methodists, Middleton said. "The study was clear in recognizing that a two-state solution is the only possibility to bring peace."
The bishop, who has visited Israel and the Palestinian territories several times, noted that the power balance in the region continues to hinder the peace process. "Palestinians have been repressed and oppressed in tragic ways," she said. "At the same time, we have to recognize the desire for Israelis to live in peace and not be threatened by rockets and suicide bombs."
Ruth Daugherty of Lancaster, Pa., a former Women’s Division president, taught the Israel-Palestine study in the regional school of mission and four conference schools of mission in 2007. "In introducing the study, I talked about the complexity of the issues," she said. She noted that understanding the long history of the region is important to seeing "what has occurred politically."
Hope for peace
The hope, she added, is for reconciliation and a peaceful resolution between Israelis and Palestinians. "This is not a study that says what should be done," said Daugherty, who has visited the region four or five times. "It is a study that says this is the situation, a very complex situation."
As an instructor, she expected her students to look at the materials and reach their own conclusions. Daugherty said she "tried to get people to see both Palestinians and Jews as being persons created by God. There is suffering on both sides, and there is a desire by both people to have their own country, their own nation."
United Methodist Women and its predecessors have offered mission studies on an annual basis since 1930, and Middleton said she respects the organization for being in the forefront of educating the denomination on complex issues and how to make a difference in the world.
"I can remember when United Methodist Women introduced studies on China at a time when China was seen as an archenemy of the U.S. and studies on apartheid when apartheid seemed impossible to overcome," she added.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or email@example.com.
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Statement on mission study
Book of Resolutions
Past denominational statements