149 years ago tonight, in a Pennsylvania town there was relative calm between the second and third days of the Battle of Gettysburg. Nothing had yet been decided. Few at the time on either side grasped the degree to which this was a watershed moment. It would have taken very little – a different decision here or there – for our entire national history to have been re-written.
Tonight, also in Pennsylvania, there is relative calm between the second and third days of the deliberations of the Middle East and Peacemaking Issues Committee (Committee 15) of the PC(USA)’s 220th General Assembly. Nothing has yet been decided – though things already trend heavily in one diabolical direction.
So far, committee activities seem to have a surreal cast. Observers will seldom have the opportunity to witness so many peculiar notions and odd discussions assembled in one place. Two in particular merit a closer look.
Commissioners seemed to have great difficulty with the Board of Pensions comment. The fact is the bulk of assets under discussion are pension assets. These do not really belong to the PC(USA) but to plan members. The Board of Pensions has a fiduciary duty to those members. It seems that the majority of discussion in Committee 15 so far has centered around what the committee wants to do with other people’s money.
Committee 15 also seems to be operating under the bizarre idea that people don’t like the word “divestment”. They were looking for ways to frame the exact same proposal – i.e. to divest from CAT, HPQ, and MSI – in a way that didn’t sound like divestment.
Let me make this perfectly clear: no one cares whether you call it “divestment” or “fluffy kitten tails”. It is the thing itself to which people object. Taken in isolation, Presbyterian divestment will have virtually no effect; nonetheless, its advocates hope to use the PC(USA)’s credibility to enhance their own. Of greater significance, however, divestment is a symbolic gesture, and the objection is to what that gesture represents. By divestment … even in only three companies … the PC(USA) is rhetorically placing Israel in the same category as Sudan and South Africa. Israel is cast as uniquely evil – and anyone with a sense of fairness will call foul.
Perhaps more importantly, as we move into day three, very few people seem to grasp just how much of a watershed moment this is for the PC(USA). What this General Assembly decides will shape the character of the PC(USA) for many years to come. It will shape the future of interfaith relations; it will shape the reputations of Presbyterians. It will commit Presbyterians one way or another – to BDS, to increased toleration of antisemitism, to bias and double standards, to radicalization – or to fairness, honesty, humility, and wisdom.