The reelection of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will certainly inflame the small but outspoken segment of American Protestantism that is anti-Israel. Mainline Protestant elites, undeterred by their empty pews, have been ideologically hostile to Israel for decades. More politically significant is the growing segment of Evangelical elites, many of them shifting left on a wide range of issues, who have become more critical of Israel than is common among mainstream Evangelicals.
One recent example straddles both religious worlds. Miguel De La Torre is a Cuban-American theologian, formerly conservative, who was ordained Southern Baptist and previously taught at largely Evangelical Hope College in Michigan until his controversial left-leaning polemics evidently lead to his departure for the firmly liberal Iliff School of Theology in Denver, a United Methodist seminary.
Now a self-professed liberation theologian, De La Torre issues pronouncements more akin to United Methodism than the Southern Baptist Convention, such as his recent response to the Israeli election, of which he explained: “Israel has voted for an anti-peace and anti-Arab administration and for this it requires denouncement.” He further opined:
I stand against Israel mainly due to Prime Minister Netanyahu winning a fourth term. His win, due in part to his recent Congressional photo-op, thanks mainly to Republicans and several Democrats beholden to AIPAC, requires a strong denouncement for the path Israel is taking, a path away from developing a more just and peaceful future.
And De La Torre adds:
My preferential option towards the Palestinians is because overall, they are the ones who are suffering economic and political oppression. As a liberation theologian, I must stand with Palestinians while remaining ready to also criticize their policies.
Liberation Theology, with its narrowly conceived “preferential option for the poor,” interprets Christianity as a force for political solidarity with and ultimately liberation of the politically oppressed and economically marginalized. Its heyday was in the 1970s and 1980s, when church activists of the left identified Christian liberation with Marxist revolution. Justice-minded prelates flocked to Latin American guerrilla movements as supposed expressions not of Soviet strategic expansion but of Christian compassion.
The collapse of Communism effectively suffocated most Liberation Theology in Western churches. But a remnant of it survives to influence how some Christians view the Mideast conflict, with Israel portrayed as Western oppressor and Palestinians as the Third World victim entitled to the church’s political solidarity.
Liberation Theology was always strong on stereotypes and sloganeering, and short on specific solutions for poverty and injustice. So De La Torre predictably describes how the “U.S. unwavering loyalty to a foreign nation (that must be distinguished from a people of faith) is complicit with the continuous injustices occurring in that corner of the world.” He simplistically interprets Evangelical support for Israel as motivated by frenzied end-times scenarios. And he alleges the “AIPAC lobby, whose allegiance is to a foreign government, corrodes Congress’ commitment in placing the needs of their constituencies first.” De La Torre closes his argument accordingly:
If we are for reducing (dare we dream – eliminating) violence; if we support the two-state solution as the best roadmap toward peace; if we are against the oppression of the least among us; then we must voice our distress at governments, whether Israeli or Palestinian when their actions and pronouncements leads to greater mistrust, greater oppression, and more importantly of all, greater violence.
And De La Torre insists: “With the reelection of Netanyahu, I have no choice but to stand against his hawkish administration that more than likely will continue in its oppressive tactics.”
Of course, De La Torre, like nearly all liberation-minded religious critics of Israel, doesn’t explain what the Netanyahu government or any Israeli government should do to achieve justice and peace absent any meaningful widespread Palestinian willingness to live alongside Israel amicably. Instead, the remnant faithful of Liberation Theology see reality through a grim ideological prism that neatly divides the world between oppressors and oppressed.
How will the “oppressed” behave after their “liberation”? And what if “liberation” means war and greater oppression, as Netanyahu not unreasonably warned of a Palestinian state likely enthralled by Hamas-style Islamist theocracy that thoroughly subjugates its ostensibly liberated population? Liberation Theologians typically have not been overly concerned by the tyrannical fruits of their solidarity labors, whether in Southeast Asia or Central America. Instead, their cartoonish version of history and human nature replaced any serious concern for sustainable human rights and dignity.
The old military juntas of Latin America are long gone, as are other rightist dictatorships of past decades, against which Liberation Theology inveighed on behalf of revolution to liberate the masses. So now the main target of leftist prelates in search of a cause is a democratic regime struggling to survive in a region hostile to human rights. But churchly liberationists like De La Torre too often prefer the comfort of abstract theory versus the reality of complicated human nature as taught by traditional Christianity.