the 221st General Assembly



That’s your story?

The PC(USA) has responded to concerns about divestment by issuing a FAQ.

Unfortunately, many of the listed questions aren’t really being asked. Even less fortunately, the format provides PC(USA) officials with a platform to pose a series of straw men objections they should be able to easily topple. But this document doesn’t succeed at that modest goal – some of the straw men remain standing.

[I apologize ahead of time for the length of this post, but this document has so many problems that it needs to be examined carefully. At least six out of thirteen items are seriously flawed.]

Like many denominational communications (PC(USA) and otherwise), the introduction is framed in quasi-religious terms designed to make whatever notion the speaker advances sound vaguely spiritual. This is, of course, a standard operating procedure. It plays well with a church audience (unless that audience already finds the advocated position morally dubious).

Which brings me to question #1. “What is the role of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) Committee?” I have never met a person who asked this question. Yes, if someone just threw the letters MRTI at them, most people (except Presbyterian polity geeks) would be stumped. But the name of the committee pretty much indicates the type of committee it is.

OK, so maybe it didn’t need to be there, but it’s unimportant … right? But the answer to even that question is misleading.

A. MRTI implements the socially responsible investing policies of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) by engaging corporations in which the church owns stock.

This is technically a true statement, but it implies this activity is confined to corporations in which the church naturally owns stock. It leaves out the fact that the Board of Pensions maintains a separate account to hold shares specifically in companies the MRTI wants to engage.  This is done, of course, because the MRTI sometimes wants to “engage” corporations in which the PC(USA) holds not stock.

Question #2 “What is PC(USA)’s corporate engagement process?” Again, not a question I hear being asked, but OK.

The answer to Question #3 is far more interesting, or should I say puzzling.

Why would the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s MRTI Committee engage companies doing business in Israel and Palestine?

A. A statement urging the “…financial investments of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as they pertain to Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, be invested in only peaceful pursuits” was adopted in 2006 as a result of the General Assembly’s response to numerous overtures regarding corporate engagement on Israel‐Palestine issues.

How curious. The MRTI began its corporate engage process with Motorola and Caterpillar that culminates in this year’s divestment recommendations in 2005. Yet the reader is told it stemmed from a 2006 action. Perhaps they used the MRTI time machine? Obviously these corporate engagements could not possibly be an MRTI work product based on an instruction from the 2004 General Assembly that was explicitly removed by the 2006 meeting. I mean, that would be sort of unethical.

Question #8: “Is this a blanket call to divest from all companies doing business in Israel and Palestine?” Of course it isn’t. You name three companies. The whole blanket divestment rumor only got started because of the wording of the 2004 resolution “to initiate a process of phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel.” [There was, of course, no Palestine fig leaf then.]. No one understood what “phased, selective divestment” meant. The confusion is understandable when you consider the fact that the Presbyterian News Service reported the action under the headline, “Assembly Endorses Israel Divestment”.

And then we come to question #9 …

If the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) divests from companies profiting from involvement in human rights violations in Israel and Palestine, why isn’t the church divesting from American companies that do business in Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, China, Burma and many other countries where massive human rights violations are documented?

A. MRTI along with its ecumenical partners engages many other companies doing business in countries with serious human rights challenges. Not all of the human rights violations involve corporate complicity. In addition, corporate engagement has resulted in changes in corporate policies and practices. However, in other cases where companies have refused to change, the General Assembly has placed them on the divestment list until the practices were changed. Examples are Talisman Energy in Sudan or sixteen key companies involved in South African apartheid in the 1980’s.

Ohhhh. That clears it right up. Israel is in no means alone. “We have divested from companies doing business in countries with serious human rights challenges. We treat Israel just like we treated apartheid South Africa and Sudan.” Oh sure … we’re not at all inconsistent. Oh sure … there’s nothing at all problematic in that statement. This is the rhetorical equivalent of saying, “We don’t only excoriate Benjamin Netanyahu or Ariel Sharon … we also criticized Stalin and Hitler.

Question #10: “Is the MRTI committee recommending that the PC(USA) call for an economic boycott of Israel or Palestine?

A reader is reassured that “MRTI is not recommending a boycott with this recommendation.” That’s reassuring. And it is, precisely as worded, technically true. Yet this same general assembly is considering proposals to boycott certain products made by Jews in the West Bank, and to implement Kairos’s emphasis on boycott and divestment. These proposals are endorsed by five presbyteries, a synod, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP – which seeks a complete boycott on products made by Jews in the West Bank), and the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC). That the combined effect of the proposals being called for is a form of BDS is really not arguable.

Question #11: “Some have suggested that MRTI’s recommendations are an example of anti‐Semitism within the PCUSA. Is this true?

Well, of course the authors of this document are going to admit to a problem like that … yep …

A. No. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has spoken clearly against anti‐Semitism and for the worth of every individual. In no way is this recommendation anti‐Semitic, anti‐Jewish, or anti‐Israel. For over 60 years, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has called for a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. We stand against violence, by any party, against innocent civilians, whether Israelis or Palestinians.

The only difficulty with this response is that the premise is faulty. It is not the recommendations of the MRTI that are antisemitic. They may be unhelpful; they may be unfair; but they’re not automatically antisemitic. NO – THE PC(USA)’s PROBLEM WITH ISRAEL AND THE JEWISH PEOPLE is not this recommendation per se – it is a longstanding anti-Israel bias coupled with an extraordinary toleration for and indulgence in antisemitic themes. That problem preexists divestment and remains ongoing.

A reader is told that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has spoken clearly against antisemitism. But that is not meaningfully true. There was a paper produced in 1987 “A Theological Understanding of the Relationship Between Christians and Jews” that made some strides in this direction. But that paper was received and not adopted by the 199th General Assembly – and consequently, that paper is not official PC(USA) policy. In 2008 a remarkable document rejecting antisemitism was produced jointly by the Office of Interfaith Relations and the Office of Theology and Worship – “Vigilance against Anti-Jewish Ideas and Bias”. Among other things, that document confessed that “anti-Jewish attitudes can be found among us,” and offered specific examples. Within a month this document that clearly rejected antisemitism was withdrawn, and its authors were ordered to re-write it – in order to ensure that it did not criticize any possible anti-Jewish PC(USA) activity. In 2010 another paper “Christians and Jews: People of God” was presented to the General Assembly. Among other things, it raised the concern that specific teachings and actions within the PC(USA) were problematic in their elements of anti-Jewish bias. It was rejected by the General Assembly – and authors were instructed to re-write it. In that case, a communication from a mission network of the PC(USA) that falsely accused American Jewish groups of arson and sending a bomb to PC(USA) headquarters, was presented to the General Assembly as part of the rationale for rejecting the document. It is true that in 1990, a GA did reject antisemitism, but it did not do so in any way that had any impact on Presbyterian statements, beliefs, or actions.

The bottom line here is that there is NO tradition of Presbyterian rejection of antisemitism as this FAQ implies. And even the rejection of violence it touts is hobbled when the PC(USA) has also asserted in at least two separate General Assemblies that all violent actions in the region regardless of perpetrator or victim, find their root in the occupation.

Question #12 is also misleading.

Some have said that these companies cannot comply with the General Assembly guidelines due to U.S. anti‐boycott laws. Is MRTI asking these companies to violate U.S. law?

A. No. MRTI is not asking these companies to engage in any boycott of Israel or Palestine, but rather to limit their activities in the region to peaceful pursuits.

Well … it is unclear. Corporations cannot control how people use their products – they simply can’t follow their customers around forever and police their activities. The desired result, then, has to be for these corporations to refuse to sell their products to the State of Israel. This can really only be accomplished in three ways. 1. A corporation could cease the manufacture of a product to which MRTI objects. That would be a PC(USA) desired response for, say, a tobacco company; that would mean that the PC(USA) concluded that the product itself was the problem. 2. A corporation could simply refuse to sell to the State of Israel because it is the State of Israel. That sounds rather boycottish; and I expect corporations that did this might potentially face legal consequences. 3. A corporation could craft a policy that did not specifically name the State of Israel but that was designed to disqualify the State of Israel from purchasing its products. This seems to be the option of choice. Basically, what appears to be desired is a boycott carried out with plausible deniability.

Personally, I would be interested in the answers to a couple of different questions. I don’t think these are well-understood, or that they have been satisfactorily explained.

1. What rubric do you apply to PC(USA) assets to determine that they do not violate PC(USA) desired policies?

2. Do you maintain information on all the corporations whose stock the PC(USA) holds that analyzes their business practices? If so, such a resource would be very valuable to Presbyterians. If not, how exactly do you give these corporations a green light?

3. If you do not analyze PC(USA) holdings in that manner, what is your source for engagement targets? Surely you are not relying on activist websites or rumors within the “advocacy community”.

These questions also are not generally being asked, but a FAQ that answered them might be a useful resource.

Will Spotts

Comments on: "Rarely Asked Questions: the PCUSA responds (inadequately) to divestment concerns" (1)

  1. […] Jun Will Spotts provides an admirable Fisking of an FAQ document provided by members of the Presbyterian Church to explain their divestment […]


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