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?
Or should we view a General Assembly as a contest between the forces of light and the forces of darkness? Was it from heaven or from hell?
People of a certain temperament would have it that this General Assembly was a great movement of the Holy Spirit. The more skeptical among us will see it as a naked political process; it may or may not be rife with corruption, but it certainly has considerable corruption potential.
Is a General Assembly a sociological curiosity. Is it a vestige of a time when church councils were married to power and people hung on their ever word?
Those concerned with specific issues will speak of victories and defeats and of the efforts of lobbying groups.
No matter how entertaining the evaluation process might prove, I’m going to pass. I suspect it is inevitable that the way we to choose to frame a General Assembly will say less about the thing itself than it does about us and our agendas. Instead, I would like to take the conversation in a different direction.
First, though, we must acknowledge what the commissioners actually decided. GA 220 acted on four proposals that were distinctly hostile to Israel. One of these passed. 1. The assembly declined to embrace divestment from CAT, MSI, and HPQ. The assembly declined to single out Israel for special scrutiny and criticism as a violator of religious freedom. The assembly declined to label Israel an apartheid state. The assembly DID call for a boycott of “all Israeli products coming from the occupied Palestinian Territories” and for “all nations to prohibit the import of products made by enterprises in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.”
However one might wish to regard these actions, however one may attempt to spin them, they are what they are. We would do well to avoid the deadly twin tendencies to believe our own spin or to believe the spin of others. Anyone concerned with fair and honest dealing on Middle East issues (a concern a church organization ought to have) must avoid getting baited into a ‘who won – who lost’ argument that is bereft of substance and distracts from the work at hand.
More importantly, those concerned for fair and honest dealing must depart from our standard operating procedure.
Prior to 2004, they didn’t really pay any attention to (increasingly shrill and hostile) PC(USA) statements; the original phased, selective divestment decision put the PC(USA) on the map on this issue. That action coupled with unfortunate, publicized Presbyterian Hezbollah visits (that included an element of fawning praise for Hezbollah and a highly contentious comparison between Jewish and Muslim leaders) created a storm of reactions from people within and outside of the denomination. That dynamic guaranteed far more scrutiny of subsequent General Assembly actions on the subject.
Sadly, a self-destructive pattern has emerged.
Each successive GA has featured a list of proposals increasingly hostile to Israel – some of them truly outrageous. In each case, most of these have been rejected, but a couple (even of the outrageous items) have passed. In each case, those concerned with truth and basic fairness felt as if they had dodged a bullet, hoped that the PC(USA) was turning a corner, imagined some light at the end of the tunnel. In their euphoria, there was a tendency to downplay and ignore the hostile (often untrue and always problematic) items that were passed. And they would turn their attention to other things until the next assembly rolled around.
Their opponents – mostly institutional players, members of national committees, denominational officials, staff – on the other hand, made a sport out of regularly wresting actions away from commissioners’ clear intent and followed their own desired course.
The bottom line here is this: in spite of the efforts of many who opposed unfair and dishonest stances toward the situation of Israelis and Palestinians, the denomination has consistently moved (perhaps at a slower pace) in the same, one-sided direction.
At the end of GA 220, we are in a worse place than we were at its outset. At the end of GA 219, we were in a worse place than had been at its beginning. At the end of GA 218, we were in a worse place than we would have been if it had never taken place.
For those who oppose the anti-Israel bias and sometimes antisemitism within the PC(USA), to put down this issue now and plan on a repeat of the strategies of past GA cycles would be unwise and self-defeating. It would be to concede the truth to a death by a thousand cuts.
And, in the strongest possible terms, I urge those who actually care about these issues to refrain from putting them aside because of GA burnout and exhaustion. I urge you not to do what we have done each prior time. I urge you not to move on and ignore this – as if the results of the this GA were “good enough”. That is a recipe for ultimate, long-term failure.
Until and unless we look long and hard at three things, we will be condemned to pushing the rock up the hill over and over and over again.
First, we need to seriously grasp how we got here. What happened? How did this situation within the PC(USA) come to be in the first place?
Second, we need to understand what they want. I mean here, regardless of General Assembly actions, there is clearly an intensely strong and unremitting institutional push against the State of Israel and perhaps, at times, against the Jewish people. Now it may be that the anti-Judaic and antisemitic themes that intrude into the activism are only employed in service of the anti-Israel hostility – not the other way around. That is certainly a possibility, but those themes have historically proven themselves so dangerous that to employ them for some other end would be, at best, criminally irresponsible. The question we need to come to grips with here is this: what would satisfy them? What is the goal of the hostility? What actions by Israel, by the Jewish community, or by others are sought through this type of activism?
Third, we need to figure out what to do about it. Whether by accident or by design, this campaign ultimately affects wider attitudes toward Israel and the Jewish people. Insofar as the campaign is unfair and untrue, those wider effects must be mitigated. Is it possible to effectively counter it within the PC(USA)? Most of us just want it to end, but how might that be achieved?
It is these questions that I believe we would do well to explore.