the 221st General Assembly

Ridiculousness


Some ideas are worthy only of ridicule and scorn. They are so false, so unbalanced, so absurd on their faces that uproarious laughter can be the only appropriate response. You could read them as farce, enjoying their entertainment value as a mildly guilty pleasure – similar to the way some people enjoyed professional wrestling in the 1980s and Beavis and Butthead in the 1990s.

But the laughter dies on your lips the moment you realize these inherently absurd proposals are intended seriously. Some of their proponents (bless their hearts) actually believe them. Others, more calculating and strategy-minded, merely make use of them; these want people to accept absurd notions solely to advance a larger cause.

The arenas of politics and religion prove very fertile for the development and propagation of ridiculousness. This fecundity is multiplied where politics and religion are joined in unholy marriage. There are a variety of sociological reasons for that, but it mostly stems from the fact that many political activists and religionists share some personality traits and are peculiarly subject to certain kinds of temptations. Both political activists and religionists can be vulnerable to self-importance, to seeking personal significance, to a misplaced and uncritical trust in those believed to share common values, to the unfortunate combination of a sincere desire to good with an exaggerated faith in one’s ability to discern good without work.

This is not intended as an indictment. The desires to do good and to make the world better are noble things; the desire to live significant lives is laudable; even faith in one’s ability to make a positive change has much to recommend it. Instead, this is a caution: potentially positive characteristics can miscarry remarkably easily. The portfolio of traits common among activists and religionists can, at times, spur bandwagonism, faddishness, closed-mindedness, unfairness, rigidity, ignorance – all wrapped in a cloak of moral “rightness”… the self-proclaimed “high ground”.

Business before the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a mixed bag. Among many proposals to be considered by commissioners, this year’s menu features a few items that rise to the level of daft. Ideally, these would be laughed out of the committees that consider them; ideally, these would provide the whole assembly with much needed levity. Alas, the kind of dynamic that often prevails at Presbyterian general assemblies prompts commissioners to miss the joke and proudly adopt such notions.

One proposal, item 15-09, stands head and shoulders above the others in terms of comedic value. “On Human Rights and Religious Freedom of Arab Christians and Other Palestinian Citizens” takes the form of an overture from the Presbytery of San Jose. No presbytery or synod has ventured to concur with San Jose, but both the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC) and the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) have applied their keen and rigorous analytical skills and wholeheartedly endorsed it

So what makes this proposal ridiculous? I mean, concern for religious freedom is a no-brainer for a Christian denomination. Support for human rights? Also non-controversial. Factual accuracy? Parts of it are. The Christian community in Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank does face particular pressures that stem from actions of the state of Israel. Many Palestinian Christians have specifically cited Israel as a (or the) primary source of difficulties they experience. A desire to help, a desire to stand with them, a desire to intercede for them is admirable.

Nonetheless, this proposal reads like satire – a gentle ribbing of the PC(USA) for its all-too-common tendency to blame Israel first and ask questions later. Israel could be deemed responsible for global warming, for the earthquake in Japan, for the high price of peanut butter …. It doesn’t matter what the issue, as long as Israel can be singled out and blamed for it.

In this case, Israel is singled out – made unique among all nations – for its practices of religious discrimination. Are people executed for practicing their religions? Does conversion result in beheading? Are people jailed for their beliefs? What form must this discrimination take to warrant the special attention of the Presbyterian Church (USA)?

Apparently, Israel is worthy of special criticism because it fails to fund and protect non-Jewish holy sites, because it denies “free access to holy places of worship to both Christians and Muslims on several important occasions”, and because a rabbi in a yeshiva in the West Bank published an offensive book describing the circumstances when it is permissible to kill non-Jews according to halakhah.

San Jose’s overture asks the General Assembly to “commend the U. S. State Department for its annual published listing of incidents of religious discrimination by the State of Israel affecting the human rights and religious freedom of Arab Christians and other Palestinian citizens”. Now, I imagine they mean the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Reports.

The Presbytery of San Jose does cite these reports in their rationale. But a brief perusal of them reveals a number of things that presbytery chooses not to mention when zeroing in on Israeli misdeeds. For example, blasphemy and conversion are punishable by death in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. In Sudan, Vietnam, Egypt, and Afghanistan Christians face discrimination, violence, and government restrictions. In China, “only groups affiliated with one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” (Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant) are permitted to register, hold worship services, and apply to offer social services.” In Eritrea, “Religious prisoners were reportedly held for long periods without due process and subjected to harsh treatment, including forced renunciations of faith, torture, and deaths in custody.” North Korea reportedly “barred citizens from entering places of worship”. In Saudi Arabia “the public practice of any religion other than Islam is prohibited”.

One can only conclude that the Presbytery of San Jose, ACRED, and ACSWP must have thought it obvious that commissioners would be immediately familiar with the contents of the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Reports. In that circumstance, commissioners would certainly not need accurate representations of them. And if, for some inscrutable reason, commissioners were not quite that up-to-date, they would surely take the time to read them together in Committee 15.

In all seriousness, focusing on religious discrimination issues in Israel is valid.  But it would only be so in the context of an assembly that directed the same level of scrutiny at other nations around the world.  Every society and every government has problems.  The practice of singling out one society and government – which, in this case, just happen to be those of the only Jewish nation in existence – implies that that particular society and government are the worst offenders.  Even in the face of significant particular problems, this implication is unfounded.  It indicates the presence of a bias that is extreme and inexplicable.

 

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