the 221st General Assembly

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.

I do not say the direction most of the PC(USA)’s institutional voices want to take is categorically wrong. I do say that it has never been sufficiently examined in order for Presbyterians – and General Assembly commissioners – to make that determination.

I personally have several problems with that direction – that really demand answers beyond pseudo-justice or pseudo-prophetic language that informs no one. I’m not saying I demand answers … I have no standing. I am saying this: any action taken by the General Assembly will be a moral action – but the question remains whether that action will morally bad or morally good. Over the next few days I will elaborate on these.

1. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), like many Christian organizations, has never adequately theologically addressed its relationship to Judaism. It has attempted this – in some cases it has done good work at sketching the outlines. But as this years, Zionism Unsettled document illustrates, that work is far from sufficient.

2. Is this (divestment and a strong anti-Israel stance) really what Presbyterians want? Do the actions of the General Assembly – or, for that matter, the permanent committees, employees, networks of the PC(USA) – accurately reflect the beliefs of Presbyterians? And does that matter?

3. What is the desired result? This is manifestly unclear (as various parts of the PC(USA) pull toward different outcomes and strategies). As importantly, are the actions the PC(USA) decides to take likely to achieve that result?

4. The PC(USA) has – at least among its employees, officials, news outlets, networks, permanent committees – demonstrated a quantifiable bias. The problem is not, as many in the activist community seem to imagine, a problem with uneven actions. The problem is one of uneven information. Commissioners are expected to make decisions – and, in fact, Presbyterians and non-Presbyterians are presented by the PC(USA) by information that is specifically weighted to only one side in the dispute. It is impossible for people to draw an accurate conclusion when the information they are provided is deliberately limited in this way; it is immoral for them to try when they know that information is limited; and it is immoral to pass off one-sided information as if it were the whole story. (The information itself might be valid as part of a larger picture, but the PC(USA) has systemically refused to present that larger picture.) Such a thing is dishonest, of course, but is honesty important in Presbyterian decision making? Does it matter?

5. The PC(USA) makes, has made, and desires this General Assembly to make common cause with people who may have very different goals than most Presbyterians would actually consider moral or Christian. For example, the centerpiece of the PC(USA)’s advocacy has been divestment, but it has included all three elements of boycott, divestment, and sanctions. These together join the PC(USA) to a larger campaign – whose goals and participants’ tactics might give Presbyterians pause and might conflict with Presbyterians’ larger goals as a church organization. Is this OK?

6. The PC(USA) – or its offices, officials, networks, committees – has both originated and repeated items that were extraordinarily biased against Israel, items that contained anti-Judaic themes, and (IMO shamefully) items that contained classical antisemitic tropes. At one point in 2010, an overture passed the General Assembly that had appended to it – as part of its rationale, an unsubstantiated allegation that unnamed American Jewish organizations were involved in setting fire to a Presbyterian church and possibly sending a bomb to Presbyterian headquarters. So the question is this: is antisemitism OK? Are anti-Judaic themes OK? So far, the PC(USA) jury is still out.

7. Is the PC(USA) unaccountable for the actions of its parts? Do its mission networks, advisory committees, paid employees, officials act on their own? Does anyone buy the notion that they speak to the church and not for the church? And if they do, why do they use press releases to non-Presbyterians in speaking to the church? Does anyone actually (not rhetorically) believe for one moment that the PC(USA) powers that be would not find some way to disapprove of actions on the part of these groups if they did, in fact, disapprove of them?

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