Friday, 16 January 2009

Partial prelates pronounce on Gaza

Catholic bishops in Britain have encouraged their flock to 'protest against the Israeli assault on Gaza', according to the Tablet (subscription required). Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham told the Catholic weekly that he 'approved of a prominent Catholic presence at demonstrations held in London last weekend'. 

All well and good, you might think, and it's surely healthy for the Church to be fostering engagement in the political process. But given the unusual nature of this intervention, one wonders why the bishops singled out this particular issue - and whether they will follow it with a call for Catholics to join protests against Hamas' rocket attacks on Israeli civilians? Given Hamas' record of church-burning and forced conversions in Gaza, surely Christian self-interest, as much as anything, might prompt the bishops to be a little more even-handed? 

One can perhaps forgive Bishop Kenney, who was speaking by phone from Bethlehem, for a certain ignorance of the precise nature of the London demonstrations that he was urging Catholics to join. Not so Bruce Kent, vice president of Catholic peace organisation Pax Christi, who spoke at the Hyde Park rally, where he claimed that any 'genuine religious person' would regard the actions of the Israelis in Gaza as 'barbaric and illegal', or Nottingham justice and peace worker Paul Scola, who felt compelled to attend the demonstration to show 'solidarity with the Palestinian people' (again: just the Palestinian people? aren't the people of Sderot worth just a little solidarity from 'justice and peace' workers too?).

How to explain the partial nature of this Catholic response to the current conflict? Some may not find it surprising, given the long history of Catholic antisemitism, which was certainly rumbling below the surface in Vatican Cardinal Renato Martino's recent tasteless comparison of Gaza to a 'big concentration camp'. My own view is that it reflects a naive understanding of 'peace' by many on the Christian left, one which they share with many secular 'peace' activists. On this view, a state of peace is worth preserving at all costs, however unjust or oppressive, and those who disturb that 'peace' are to be condemned. This is odd, given the rhetoric of organisations such as Pax Christi (of which I was a member in my  far-off liberal-Catholic youth), which has always argued that genuine peace must be rooted in justice. Surely genuine 'peace' activists should condemn both the racist rhetoric and terrorist tactics of one side, and the excessive use of force by the other, rather than reducing a complex conflict to a one-sided morality play?

Previous posts on the 'Christian left' here, here, here and here.

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