A couple of times recently I’ve had occasion to think about whether and when it’s right to refuse to engage with people whose views or actions we don’t like. The first of these was when somebody who went to Israel’s centre for the study of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem with the same Council of Christian and Jews organised group as me decided not to attend a reunion gathering because the CCJ would or could not “disinvite” Israel’s ambassador in light of Israel’s actions in Gaza. At least one of our group feels unable to attend an event at which the ambassador is present while the assault on Gaza continues. The second was during an exchange in the United Reformed Church Facebook when somebody expressed their negative assessment of Roman Catholicism in highly intemperate language. It was denied that Roman Catholicism was Christian, doctrines were ascribed to Roman Catholicism and described as demonic heresies. In response another member of the group stated their intention to withdraw not only from that thread but from the whole group if the person concerned was not denied access to it.
In both cases I feel sympathy with the opinions of those actually withdrawing or threatening to do so. Israel’s actions in Gaza are appalling and its overall policy towards the occupied territories is deplorable. Similarly it is profoundly wrong and at variance with the ecumenical vocation of the United Reformed Church to deny the catholicity of Roman Catholicism. My own theological positions, indeed, tend to stress “catholic” rather more than “Reformed” and to be interested in and open to influence from Roman Catholic thinking, which I fully accept as one part of the universal and apostolic Church.
However in neither case do I think it right to refuse to be part of a conversation in which people with whom we disagree or of whose actions we disapprove. All parties have to have the right to express their opinions, although it may sometimes be right for the collective to decide that some may not be party to some parts of the conversation using, ideally, criteria that are clear and defined in advance. Thus I would be prepared to agree that some URC forums be closed to people who clearly and repeatedly deny or reject positions established in our Basis of Union, provided that it was properly shown that they did so and agreed that they did.
The Facebook group in question is not, in fact, established on that basis. There is a code of conduct and some of the remarks in question could be held to have breached it but that equally could be argued not to have done so. To refuse to engage because someone has expressed views we find abhorrent seems wrong to me.
On Israel I see no possibility of progress without proper engagement with the state and its representatives and am, I think, opposed to the idea of boycotts directed towards it. There is a real and very serious problem for Christians in our relationships with modern Israel. A state that defines itself simultaneously in ethnic (secular Zionism) and religious (religious Zionism) terms and also appeals to liberal norms of equality under the law and democratic sovereignty is a major challenge to contemporary theological reflection on politics, especially where our proper attitude to Judaism itself is such a problem for us.
To retreat into an outrage that refuses even to recognise Israel as a full member of the community of states (implied to me in all boycott types actions) seems to me a fundamental mistake.