Salvation History in the Presbyterian Hymnal
Letter by Nahida H. Gordon, Introduction by Rev. Chris Iosso
Mary is warned by Simeon in the Christmas story that “a sword will pierce her heart” (Luke 2:35). Frankly, this letter from Professor Nahida Gordon, a Palestinian American Presbyterian, makes me uncomfortable because it challenges the sentimental side of Christmas and insists on the liberation side. The birth narratives of Jesus in Luke and Matthew are brilliant claims of divine favor on an oppressed and subjugated people – then Israel under Roman occupation – but also “to all people” (Luke 2:10, 29-32). Nor is that divine favor only material or political; Christmas points to an incarnation whose spiritual and other dimensions are still unfolding.
I understand and appreciate the salvation history that the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God, uses in its ordering of hymns, from creation to consummation, though I do not believe that salvation works in a particularly linear way. I understand the dangers of supersessionist language, even as supersessionism is being practiced quite literally in Israel/Palestine through the land and heritage grabbing of annexation and the settlements. And I remain what might be called a “soft Zionist” on the need for Israel to exist, within negotiated and internationally recognized boundaries, alongside a vibrant Palestinian state, with a Jerusalem shared with Christians and Muslims. But Dr. Gordon’s letter asks the justice questions about the naïve use of “Israel” in many Christmas hymns, and it seems to me that the notes the hymnal provides for these hymns do not address her questions. Are they even aware of them?
So as the Christmas season draws to a close and “regularly scheduled” music replaces the Christmas hymns that have so saturated commercial space as well as church space, we still believe “let justice begin in the House of the Lord.” Yes, we follow the tradition of broadening that house from the Temple in Jerusalem, and yes, in singing we do re-connect to that whole salvation history. But that salvation history is not over. And it includes Jews and Muslims doing justice as well as us, facing our holy assumptions, and seeking for all people to worship “in Spirit and in truth.”
I understand the dangers of supersessionist language, even as supersessionism is being practiced quite literally in Israel/Palestine through the land and heritage grabbing of annexation and the settlements.
The most heartfelt and perhaps equally threatening answers to Dr. Gordon’s questions come in this blog by Presbyterian Pastor Rev. Thomas Are, Sr. He gets the concern. His answers (and questions) may not be yours, but he knows that the question of who is God’s chosen people requires a theological answer, lest it be dismissed as a beautiful insight turned tribal weapon, wielded by many religions and nations over time.
Thus this post gets at the on-going liberation side of Christmas. Let us see the glory of God in that stable-born baby. Let us exchange thoughtful and loving gifts. Let us talk to each other and turn off the TV, and watch how much we drink and eat, joyfully. Let us share in the spirit with family and friends, and God be with those who feel particularly isolated or alone: the self-named Samaritans are only a phone call away if one is depressed.
-Rev. Chris Iosso, General Editor
Open Letter – Nahida H. Gordon
October 2, 2013
Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk, PCUSA
Rev. Neal Presa, Moderator, PCUSA
Elder Linda Valentine, Executive Director, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Rev. Chip Hardwick, Director, Office of Theology, Worship, and Education
Prof. Mary Louise Bringle, Chair, Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song
Rev. Kathrine Cunningham, Moderator, Israel Palestine Mission Network
Rev. Raafat Zaki, Moderator, National Middle Easter Presbyterian Caucus
Rev. Carmen Rosario, Moderator, Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns
Rev. Paul Hunggap Huh, Chair, Moderators Racial Ethnic Task Force
Rev. Andries J Coetzee, Pastor, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Wooster, Ohio
My Fellow Presbyterians,
The Session of my church, Westminster Presbyterian Church (Wooster, Ohio), ordered the new PCUSA hymnal and it was with dismay upon its arrival that my Pastor, Rev. Coetzee, and I discovered that the second sectional heading of the hymnal which includes hymns 49 to 81 has the heading “God’s Covenant with Israel”. This heading is wrong! Was not the covenant fulfilled in Jesus Christ and is it not now time to take this view seriously and to act and speak accordingly? Moreover, because the government of Israel has conflated their name with that of the Biblical Israel, the use of the heading “God’s Covenant with Israel” lends credence to present day Israel’s propaganda that they are God’s chosen people and that God gave them the land of Palestine. This heading demonstrates a lack of inclusiveness of Palestinian Presbyterians in our midst and it lacks mindfulness of the meaning of the word “Israel”.
Of some concern is that in reviewing the names of the committee members in charge of the new hymnal, I see that none are of Palestinian or Middle Eastern ethnicity. Was the hymnal sent for review to ACREC (Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns) and if so, what kind of input did they have? This insensitivity to an ethnic group belies our church’s 208th General Assembly affirmed goal to be 20% racial/ethnic by the year 2010 (minutes, 1996, Part 1, p. 378).
I am always told, however, that what is meant by “Israel” is Biblical Israel and not today’s Israel; but do all Christians know this?
Because I am a Palestinian Christian, I am uneasy with the word “Israel” in “God’s Covenant with Israel” – I am always told, however, that what is meant by “Israel” is Biblical Israel and not today’s Israel; but do all Christians know this? With the prevalence of Christian Zionism, which the GA repudiated in 2004, I highly doubt it. Even if not intentional, this language is inflammatory, misleading, and hurtful.
I frequently wonder why so many in our denomination are enamored with talking about Biblical Israel and God’s covenant with it when Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of that promise. Could it be that some Presbyterians feel kinship with modern day Israel which, like us, is a settler nation and has created itself in the land of the indigenous peoples of Palestine? Is it possible that somehow lifting up Israel helps hide our guilt over our own country’s founding which resulted in the near annihilation of the Native American peoples and their replacement with colonists from all over the world? Jesus weeps to see how in the land of his birth, the Palestinians have been ethnically cleansed from their homeland, how their human rights are violated, how the government of Israel flouts international laws again and again in its mistreatment of the Palestinian people.
I, a lifelong Presbyterian, born and baptized as an infant as a Presbyterian in Jerusalem, Palestine, have been deprived of my home and community in Palestine, ethnically cleansed along with one million other Palestinians (750,000 in 1948 and 250,000 in 1967), and deprived of the right (enshrined in international law) to return to my homeland along with what is now over 7 million other Palestinians most of whom are refugees living in refugee camps. How can these old wounds be healed if they are not even acknowledged by my own church? Healing follows forgiveness, but acknowledgement is needed too. An official publication of the PC(USA), the new hymnal, appears to laud and identify with my persecutors who stole my childhood and a life that should have been lived as a Palestinian. This lack of mindfulness and inclusivity by my church is painful indeed and continually reopens my old wounds. Does the PC(USA) not want Palestinian Christians, who trace their spiritual lineage back to Pentecost, in the fold? Is it that difficult to be sensitive to issues that are still an ongoing conflict in the world where people are suffering every day?
How can these old wounds be healed if they are not even acknowledged by my own church? Healing follows forgiveness, but acknowledgement is needed too.
I write personally and am not representing any PC(USA) entities. On behalf of all Palestinian Christians and our church partners in Palestine/Israel, I request that all future printing of the new hymnal include a change made to the heading of the section in question. Deletion of the words “with Israel” which has major political connotations, would be fair. Or using the heading “God’s Covenant with God’s people” would be agreeable and not offensive in this highly volatile arena.
Your response to my questions and request would be welcomed.
Nahida Halaby Gordon
Elder, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Wooster, Ohio
Moderator (2011-2013) National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus
Professor Emerita, Case Western Reserve University
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