the 221st General Assembly


In defending his trademark diet from criticisms that it was unbalanced, Dr. Atkins argued that the proper corrective for an existing imbalance was imbalance.

He may have been right … or not, but the premise has some merit.

One of my chief concerns with Presbyterian activism and advocacy about Israelis and Palestinians – for as long as I have observed it – has been that it is one-sided; that it is not balanced.  A few months ago I watched a live stream of the Evangelicals for Social Action’s Impact Holy Land Conference.  One of the speakers asserted that, when talking about the Holy Land, balance should be a four letter word.

I was kind of taken aback by this claim.  I was familiar with it, of course, because the same assertion has been made in various PC(USA) contexts.  Usually this was a bromide offered as a rebuttal to charges of a lack of balance in PC(USA) materials on Palestinian and Israeli issues.  Most luminaries did not attempt to deny that there was an imbalance – because such a denial would rightly be met with laughter.  But the general thinking was that imbalance was justified.

So is it?  Should balance be a four letter word to Presbyterians? Read the rest of this entry »

Similar Coins


I’m highlighting a post from my other blog. This is not about the PC(USA) on Israel and Palestine. It is not about the PC(USA) at all. But it has a certain relevance.

No matter how much I grouse about this fact, the PC(USA) bears a striking similarity to the secular political landscape. Naturally, the PC(USA), like most mainline denominations, has made numerous forays into secular politics. For all the prophetic church language, these stances have been identical to secular political stances. But that’s what I’m talking about.

There are two overarching, meta-narrative sorts of philosophies in secular politics. You might call them progressive and conservative. You might imagine them as right or left wing. And this has been the case for literally centuries. Multi-party systems suffer from the same (to my mind clumsy and inaccurate) groupings. There are parties of the left and parties of the right. To form coalitions, these really mimic a two party system.

For the last four decades, the PC(USA) and its predecessors have seen a similar struggle between progressives and conservatives. All but the most ostrich-like would have to concede that the conservative side has lost ground on every front. Now in a church setting these have considerable theological meanings not found in secular politics. But the setup is essentially the same. PC(USA) internal politics and secular politics are not two sides of the same coin, but two very similar coins.

One of the reasons for this similarity is, in fact, the intrusion of secular politics into the PC(USA). But that is an inescapable side-effect of theological progressivism. While individual self-identified theological progressives may not share this view, progressivism as a philosophy / theology equates secular political action with spiritual act.

I am persuaded that one of the reasons for the failure of conservatives within the PC(USA) – whether there concerns are theological, spiritual, or political – is a feature also found among conservatives in secular politics. The situation is not identical, but the premise is.

 

Conservatives – mostly in the GOP, but also in other far smaller parties – are foundering. They may or may not do well this November, but that’s quite beside the point. The problem is, even if they do quite well, they will remain unable to actualize a conservative vision.

 

(From my point of view, this has been the case for my entire life. Even when their rhetoric wins, even when they convince enough of the American people they are right, that rhetoric is not translated into policy. Which is, of course, the only point of politics. Policy is all that matters – not on discreet issues but across the board. The fact is, there have been discreet issue policy changes, but the overall, across-the-board policy direction that is decidedly not conservative, continues basically unabated.)

 

No doubt conservatives will argue with this assessment. While progressives may also deny its truth – that is more for public consumption. The basic fact is that the country has been and continues to move in a particular direction. Attribute it to cultural evolution, to the tide of history, degeneration, to whatever framework appeals to you – but it is an overall truth.

 

Of late, conservatives, and the GOP in particular, has struggled more than usual.

 

This is not a product of a hostile media – though conservatives do have far fewer media allies than progressives. It is not a product of IRS and related government suppression of conservatives – though that is appallingly anti-Constitutional and an abuse of power. It is not the result of their failure to reach out to minority groups – though their efforts have been less than effective. It isn’t even the result of the great appeal of progressive arguments – they’re not markedly superior to conservative ones. All of these may be factors, but they’re minor factors.

 

The main problem is that conservatives suffer from big tent syndrome. I don’t mean here that conservatism is a big tent, but that there are four or five different types of conservative. These have conflicting goals and priorities. They have incompatible philosophies. For these reason, conservatives have been unable to select compelling national candidates; conservatives have been unable to articulate a clear point of view; conservatives have fought nasty and personal battles among themselves – that are, at times, as beyond the pale as anything progressives are able to throw at them; conservatives have singularly lacked the ability to unite around their common ground. And most importantly, conservative voters have faced the choice of voting for what they see as the lesser of two evils, or staying home.

 

I personally believe the GOP will continue to founder until it decides what it truly is. I notice that progressives have the same problem on paper – progressive subgroups want mutually exclusive policies – but when it comes to campaigns, they don’t seem to suffer from the same effect. Read the rest of this entry »

 

The PC(USA)’s elephant


Underlying most of the unresolved questions I raised about the PC(USA)’s decisions on Israelis and Palestinians, there is a larger question.

It is the single largest source of contention – and it is one Presbyterians commissioners to the 221st General Assembly should have to conclusively answer yes or no if their views are to be taken seriously.

Should there be a Jewish state?

I don’t mean a state perhaps called Israel.

I’m not even asking about the two state solution – which is up for debate at this year’s GA.

The fact is, some people within the PC(USA) argued for a two state solution that meant one Jew-free state of Palestine, and one multi-ethnic, multi-religious state with a Jewish minority. (That is the NET EFFECT of the disparate demands made on Israel by various PC(USA) GA’s and interest groups.)

It occurs to me that this question is the PC(USA)’s elephant in the room when it comes to Middle East policy.


When it comes to Presbyterian Middle East policy decisions, not much changes.

Sure, faces and names change: since the 2004 divestment decision, the PC(USA) has a different stated clerk, a different moderator of the General Assembly, a different executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency – in fact, in 2004, the PMA was called the General Assembly Council (GAC) – then it was the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC), a different coordinator for the Advisory Council for Social Witness Policy (ACSWP), different members for these committees or boards.

Sure, specific emphases change to reflect both facts on the ground in the Middle East and advocacy trends and fashions.

But the central issues remain the same. Indeed the concerns, problems, emphases, and thrusts of PC(USA) policy – especially on Israel and Palestine – has not changed one bit in all the time I’ve observed it. No General Assembly has altered this. (Arguably, the 216th General Assembly in Birmingham in 2006 intended to do so; but if that was its intent – as I believe can be clearly demonstrated – it failed to give its actions enough force make a difference. Among other things, there were no consequences for committees, agencies, networks, employees of the PC(USA) failures to comply with GA instructions.)

The takeaway here: when it comes to PC(USA) Middle East policy decisions, we are in essentially the same place at the beginning of the 2004 General Assembly. Ten years of polity wrangling, of excessive spin, of cosmetic adjustments, of argument – in some rare cases, reasoned argument, have still left the same basic problems and questions unanswered in any meaningful or satisfactory way. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s That Time Again


In even numbered years in spring, I find myself getting sucked in to all the drama which is the PC(USA)’s General Assembly. This year, it is slated to take place in Detroit from June 14 through June 21.

To get an idea of both the ‘official’ tasks and scheduled activites, check out the docket and schedule. As in past years, specific business items can be found on the pc-biz site. PC-Biz is the best place to follow the items commissioners will consider.

In anticipation of a busy GA season, I am in the process of reorganizing this blog. The menu items that appear at the top of this page provide links to 2014 issues, to commentary on past general assemblies in 2012 and 2010, to a few older posts from between 2005 and 2009, to the Bearing Witness website (run by Jon Haber), and to my (new) other blog. (Surprisingly enough, it is a blog about other topics.) Read the rest of this entry »


I have a love / hate relationship with the PC(USA).

For those who don’t know – perhaps those who see or hear an item in the news, a statement by various PC(USA) officials or groups – the “Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a corporation,” is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States.  It is not a large denomination; it boasts fewer than two million members.  It is not a particularly wealthy organization; as odd as I find the concept, there are, in this world, individuals with more assets than the PC(USA).  Throughout the history of the PC(USA) and its predecessors, it has wielded a greater political and social influence than its numbers would suggest.  Even in the formation of the U.S. Government, Presbyterians played an active role.  Its historical traditions are Christian, Protestant, and Reformed (Calvinist), and it is named for its unique form of governance – by ruling and teaching elders working together.

There are things about the PC(USA) that I love.  Many Presbyterians I know are wonderful people – people I genuinely like and admire; but I suppose I could say the same thing for many denominations and religious groups.  I am very drawn to and share many traditional Presbyterian beliefs. It is not a one to one correspondence; there are issues where I part company with historic Presbyterianism – where I do not believe it best represents biblical Christianity.  Nonetheless, from my point of view the Westminster Confession is unequaled among documents of its type.  I have a great respect for the theory of Presbyterian polity – especially in its anti-elitist, non-hierarchical elements, and in the roles that laity, elders, and clergy played. Read the rest of this entry »

2 The Sad Truth


Over the course of my life, I have often been told “the sad truth”. The sad truth usually consisted in rehearsing my errors and sins. It was often told dishonestly – the speakers held motives of their own distinct from improving my character. It was often told hypocritically – the speakers had little room to talk. I usually responded with defensiveness and disbelief. In my mind, I quoted King Lear: “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.” And I suspect that is a common human reaction.

But it is a mistake. Whatever real or imagined motives the speakers carry, whatever hypocrisies they demonstrate, the accuracy of their charges remains unaffected. If the sad truth they are telling is indeed true, we ignore it to our peril.

There are few things we resist with such tenacity as that which we do not want to admit. Read the rest of this entry »

1. A Word


It is possible – even highly likely – that some Presbyterians desire a Middle East witness that is true, that is credible, that is ethical, that is fair. It is also highly likely that there are Christians in other denominations and people of other faiths who are concerned with the poisonous atmosphere created by bias and by the irresponsible use of antisemitic themes.

It is conceivable that quite a few people recognize the plight and the legitimate claims to justice of many Palestinian Christians and Muslims, but do not want to adopt the jingoism and hysterical one-sidedness that often accompanies over simplified solidarity campaigns. It is conceivable that quite a few people who recognize this will also recognize the fact that Israelis have legitimate claims to justice as well. Read the rest of this entry »


In Pittsburgh, the smoke clears, and the dust settles. The PC(USA) has emerged from its 220th General Assembly, having received its due flurry of media attention. Now the denomination, like a groundhog that’s seen its shadow, will recede from public notice and go about business of its own. A fair number of members and attenders of Presbyterian churches around the country remain unaware that anything even took place. At most, they will eventually receive a summary of the points someone, somewhere considers noteworthy. Observers are unlikely to get a clear picture of events.

What just happened? What does it mean really? What road is the PC(USA) on now? How do you even evaluate a General Assembly?

Is it like American Idol? “This assembly was in it to win it”. “What we really love about you is that you stay true to yourself.” “It was a bit pitchy for me.” “That was like really bad karaoke.” “It was appalling.” Will Americans have an opportunity to call in and vote? Read the rest of this entry »

Consolation Prizes


The overture to boycott all products produced by Jews in the West Bank passed.

Of course, the effects of this will be minimal – relatively few Presbyterians are aware of or participate in denominational boycotts.

 


Plenary considering Middle East Committee issues now live-streamed here.

UPDATE:  Divestment is, for now, down – possibly for good for this GA.  GA voted to answer all divestment proposals with the positive investment action last night.  But new attempts are coming up every couple of minutes. 

UPDATE 2:  Moderator ruled continued proposals to divest out of order.

UPDATE 3:  Israel = Apartheid label rejected by the GA.

UPDATE 4:  Bigoted religious discrimination overture also shot down.

UPDATE 5:  Committee 15 business finally done.  I don’t look for anyone to reopen things at this point.  (GA 221 anyone?)

I SPOKE TOO SOON – Now someone is trying to get a relief of conscience item for divestment.  GA voted for it, but the Board of Pensions said it was impossible.


[The following is a work of fiction. It is only an imaginary meeting.]

 

Somewhere in Pittsburgh, late into the night, Divestment Presbyterians are meeting, regrouping, making plans. The heat and humidity make them irritable. The news makes them irritable. Among them are some Presbyterian heavy hitters whose combined experience of navigating and influencing General Assemblies is staggering. They are filled with wrath and malice. They have come too far and worked too long to be rebuffed by a couple of nobody commissioners from the middle of East nowhere. Who do they think they are? How dare commissioners challenge their advice? How dare the Zionist rabbis try to tell Presbyterians what to do?

The room goes silent as a man enters the meeting late. He looks benign – almost soft – a kindly grandfather. They know better. They’ve seen how very clever he can be … and how very vindictive. And they defer to him like an elder statesman. He refuses to let anger dull their cunning. Only the calm and the calculating succeed. But they must get it out first – place the blame where it belongs. “You sure made a mess of things. It looks like it’s good thing I got here when I did.” Read the rest of this entry »


I know patience does not come naturally to people.  Nonetheless, it would be prudent to remember that the 220th General Assembly is not yet over

It is premature to report GA actions with any degree of certainty.

C15 @ the plenary


For those interested, the plenary of the 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA) is being live-streamed here.

Committee 15 issues are scheduled for 3:00

 

UPDATE:  Looks like they got diverted by other issues – I think this should come up after dinner at 7:30 PM


I admit it. I’m not overly kindly disposed toward GA Committee 15 at the moment. I am persuaded that, whatever the circumstances, commissioners are personally responsible for their recommendations and decisions. I was preparing a scathing post; its working title was “Oooh, You Must Be So Proud”.

But I decided it would be unhelpful at this stage. (Not inaccurate or even unfair – just indulgent.)

Instead, I want to recommend a more enlightening post written by Viola Larson on her blog, Naming His Grace

The 220th GA’s Middle East and Peacemaking Issues committee and too many controls” provides insight into the workings of Presbyterian General Assemblies. I can attest that her observations of the processes of this committee conform to what I have personally witness in other GA committees. Please read her whole entry.

Describing this committee, Larson says:

The contingent of resource people guiding the Middle East and Peacemaking Issues committee was the controlling factor. In fact, most items voted on by members of committee 15 were carefully and tightly controlled by a whole gamut of people, some interested in a one state solution, delegitimization of Israel, apartheid, the Boycott, Divestment Sanctions movement (BDS), and even people who are truly anti-Semitic.

She concludes,

It is truly unfair for a committee, who has been chosen to seek the mind of Christ and vote on policies for the church, to be overwhelmed with so many institutional Presbyterian organizations all with the same viewpoints about Israel—some of course more extreme than others. Resources are good and helpful, but this was too much of a good thing.

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