Special Report

Lutherans and Mighty Fortresses

A church that tolerated the Berlin Wall now finds walls unsavory if they protect people.

By 11.30.06

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The 5 million member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) recently hosted a conference in Berlin, Germany about sinister "walls." The walls under examination were the former Berlin Wall, the security wall that Israel has constructed between itself and Palestinian territories, and the as of yet unbuilt partial wall to be erected along the U.S. southern border to inhibit illegal immigration.

"We insist that God calls us to be peacemakers," explained ELCA missions executive Rev. Said R. Ailabouni. "We are committed to peace, not walls." The conference was called "Mighty Fortresses and Mustard Seeds: Life in the Shadow of a Wall," referencing, of course, Lutheranism's flagship hymn: "A Mighty Fortress is our God."

But in typical fashion for liberal Protestantism, which has largely forgotten the robust moral certitude of "Mighty Fortress" author Martin Luther, the conference was befuddled over any moral distinctions among these very different walls.

The Berlin Wall for nearly 30 years incarcerated East Berliners who chaffed under Communism. But liberal Protestantism, during almost all of those years, had little to nothing to say about that wall. At most, church liberals saw the wall at the time as merely a tragic symbol of misunderstanding and mistrust between East and West.

Only since the Berlin Wall fell have mainline church liberals, Lutheran or otherwise, been more willing to acknowledge the unpleasantness of Soviet-imposed Communism. In recent years, the Berlin Wall has become a useful metaphorical tool for condemning the Israeli security barrier and, even more recently, for assailing a security barrier along the southern U.S. border.

The moral distinctions among these walls should be obvious. The Berlin Wall was built by an oppressive government determine to imprison its own citizens. The Israeli security wall is intended to block Palestinian suicide bombers. The U.S. security barrier is meant to minimize the inflow of illegal immigrants. There is tragedy involved with each wall. But the intent behind the Israeli and U.S. walls is protection, not imprisonment of citizens. The Lutherans meeting in Berlin were nonetheless painfully disturbed and confused.

Mainline churches in the U.S., who are extremely interested in human rights abuses by Israel, to the exclusion of almost all other governments except for the U.S., have made the Israeli wall a special target. In 2005 the ELCA's governing Churchwide Assembly established the "Peace Not Walls" campaign to advocate tearing down the Israeli security barrier. Of course, the ELCA does not offer any viable alternatives to the wall, other than further concessions to Palestinian demands.

The ELCA bishop in Jerusalem, Munib A. Younan, declared in a letter read to the Berlin conference: "The wall that is surrounding us in Palestine is growing every day into a tighter concrete noose around our cities, towns, homes and churches." Younan is no doubt sincere about the massive inconveniences caused to some of his Palestinian parishioners by the wall. But Palestinian Christians, who comprise a small minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim land, must for the sake of their own survival constantly prove their nationalist credentials by condemning Israel. ELCA officials in the U.S. lack that excuse.

A Lutheran NGO official in Jerusalem explained her work among Palestinian youngsters in response to the Israeli wall. "We work with a lot of young people with art, music, multimedia. These are very important tools to break the isolation that is being imposed on [them], and at the same time [they] connect with the rest of the world."

If done with care, this work is admirable. But are Lutheran NGO's also working among young Palestinians to counteract anti-Semitism, hatred, intolerance and radical Islam? It is doubtful. According to an ELCA news service report, the Palestinians at the Berlin conference plan to "promote nonviolent resistance, to encourage church involvement internationally, and to provide services for those who are suffering because of the separation barrier."

Again, these might be laudable. But is the Israeli wall, however inconvenient, truly the chief cause of suffering for Palestinians? Through the prism of Liberation Theology that still captivates many liberal Protestants, nearly all global suffering is related to Western imperialism. From this perspective, Palestinian happiness depends upon removing the Israelis and their U.S. backers.

Similarly, from this Liberation Theology perspective, Mexico's chief problems are not poverty and corruption, but U.S. exploitation. An ELCA relief worker in Mexico City asked the Berlin conference if the U.S. should not redirect the $8 billion to be spent on fencing towards investing "in the lives of the poor, who suffer in their attempt to cross over to the United States." Others complained, accurately, of the hundreds of Mexicans who tragically perish in the desert while transiting the currently porous border. But wouldn't a security fence help prevent those deaths?

According to an ELCA blog, participants at the Berlin conference "disagreed on whether Berlin offers a parallel for the Palestinian situation. Some maintained that the Palestinian case and others, such as the U.S.-Mexico border, are different from the German example because those walls have been constructed to keep others 'out' rather than to keep their own people 'in.'"

But the mayor of Bethlehem, who was in Berlin for the ELCA conference, argued: "We are here to speak against all walls -- whether they are in Germany, Israel-Palestine, Mexico-U.S.A., or the invisible walls....As a church we should have a big stand against all walls. You build bridges of love and understanding, not walls of separation."

So much for moral nuance. But liberal theology, even more so than the "fundamentalism" that it supposedly rejects, insists on seeing the world through its own limited symbols of justice and injustice. The West, of which the U.S. and Israel are arch symbols, is by definition oppressive. All Third World people are by definition oppressed by the West. Hence, Israeli and U.S. security barriers are, for church liberals, morally indistinguishable from Berlin's old machine-gun lined Communist prison wall.

Ironically, the builders of the Berlin Wall had a view of the West not all that different from the ELCA critics who met in Berlin. But do not expect ELCA officials to grasp that irony.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.