the 221st General Assembly


In defending his trademark diet from criticisms that it was unbalanced, Dr. Atkins argued that the proper corrective for an existing imbalance was imbalance.

He may have been right … or not, but the premise has some merit.

One of my chief concerns with Presbyterian activism and advocacy about Israelis and Palestinians – for as long as I have observed it – has been that it is one-sided; that it is not balanced.  A few months ago I watched a live stream of the Evangelicals for Social Action’s Impact Holy Land Conference.  One of the speakers asserted that, when talking about the Holy Land, balance should be a four letter word.

I was kind of taken aback by this claim.  I was familiar with it, of course, because the same assertion has been made in various PC(USA) contexts.  Usually this was a bromide offered as a rebuttal to charges of a lack of balance in PC(USA) materials on Palestinian and Israeli issues.  Most luminaries did not attempt to deny that there was an imbalance – because such a denial would rightly be met with laughter.  But the general thinking was that imbalance was justified.

So is it?  Should balance be a four letter word to Presbyterians?

It really depends on what you mean by balance.

If by balance, you mean that you treat all claims the same; or if by balance you mean that your actions are like those of some kindly grandmother buying Christmas presents for her grandchildren – that have to cost the exact same amount – then yes, balance would be overrated.  It is self-evident that not all claims to justice have equal weight.  It is self-evident that not all parties to a conflict have equal opportunity to resolve it.  It is self-evident that not all actions taken in a dispute are morally equivalent.  To argue otherwise would be absurd.  A morally good action is not necessarily a balanced action; in fact you could argue that a morally good action is seldom a balanced action.

In short, no one has reasonable grounds to object to imbalance in Presbyterian actions – solely and exclusively because they are not balanced.  One might object to them because they were wrong, because they wouldn’t achieve the desired goal, because they have unintended bad consequences.  But it would be unreasonable to object exclusively to imbalance.

That is the substance of Dr. Atkins’s dieting argument, and it is not unreasonable in the context of pro-Palestinian advocacy.

However, there are other factors in play here – and there are other ways in which the PC(USA)’s ‘witness’ on the Holy Land lacks balance.  Until Presbyterians (and others in the ‘advocacy community’) come to terms with those areas of imbalance, they have zero chance of making morally good, or even morally neutral decisions, and they have zero chance of taking any helpful action.  Zip, zilch, nada, none.

The accusation of imbalance hinges on two or three more substantial charges:  the PC(USA) has an extraordinary negative focus on Israel that borders on the obsessive; the PC(USA) provides information to both Presbyterians and the non-Presbyterian world that does not tell the whole story; and the PC(USA) chooses to uncritically repeat one perspective only – even when that perspective has extremely problematic elements.

These are all imbalances of information – not action.  In fact, the PC(USA)’s actions – the votes of required of GA commissioners – are all predicated on this unbalanced information.  Morally, they stand or fall by it.  And that’s where the chief problem of imbalance lies.

First, the focus itself is extraordinary.  There is a reason that since 2006, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s General Assemblies have included a committee solely dedicated to Middle East issues.  It reflects the fact that the volume of business before any General Assembly is disproportionately related to Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank.  For comparison purposes, ALL OTHER “social justice” issues are vetted by one committee; ALL OTHER “peacemaking and international issues” are vetted by another committee.  “Civil union and marriage issues” get their own committee now.  Taken in total, the number of Presbyterian statements on Israel, the number of news stories, the number of documents, the number of articles in Presbyterian publications remains legion.

This focus is universally negative.  A former Stated Clerk of the General Assembly insisted that Presbyterians saw the same types of abuses on the part of Israel that they had seen in Sudan.  A moderator of one General Assembly described the formation of the state of Israel as, “the 1948 invasion of Palestine by Israeli soldiers.”  In response to an instruction from a General Assembly to:

“Identify Violations of the Civil Rights of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the United States and Other Areas of the World, Along with Other Incidents of Violation of Religious Freedoms, as Part of the Regular Human Rights Report to the General Assembly.”

The PC(USA)’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy decided to only mention Israel by name and to single it out for special criticism for violations of religious freedom.  The ubiquity of this phenomenon raises the question, “Why?”

Second, with one exception (a paper on Christian antisemitism that was quickly withdrawn), the institutional apparatus of the PC(USA) has taken – even acknowledged the existence of – one viewpoint only.  The problem is, there are numerous perspectives and legitimate concerns of people in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza – of Christians, Jews, Muslims; of Israelis, of Palestinians; of settlers, of the secular, of the religious, of converts to Christianity; of victims of bombings, closures, terrorist murders, rockets, detentions.  All of these and more reflect the experiences of people living in the Holy Land.  But in every case, where facts are disputed, where perspectives disagree, the PC(USA) has endorsed and propagated the sole perspective of the Palestinian activist community.  Oh, sure,  you’ll have some Jews and Israelis in that community; you’ll have some Christians and some Muslims in that community – but it is that community’s perspective alone that institutional Presbyterians support.

Sometimes that support amounts to demonization of the other – from a Presbyterian insider perspective, the OTHER is anyone who disagrees with the claims of the pro-Palestinian activist community.  This is true whether that disagreement is about claims of fact, about goals, or even concern with the implied and sometimes blatant antisemitic overtones of that community’s conversation.

This is a crippling liability in the Presbyterian process.  At a General Assembly, commissioners are required to make decisions based on overtures from presbyteries and recommendations from national Presbyterian bodies.  An overture only provides those assertions of facts and arguments that support it.  That is, of course, understandable.  A recommendation from a national Presbyterian body – such as the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) or the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) – does the same.

It is here that the imbalance becomes sinister.  Commissioners are basing their decisions on one-sided information.  There’s no escaping that.  Many in the Presbyterian establishment claim they are actually providing balance by solely highlighting the perspective of the pro-Palestinian advocacy community.  In other words, they are providing balance by providing imbalance.  But the assumption that commissioners are already quite familiar with numerous other legitimate perspectives of people in the Holy Land is manifestly untrue.

It is simply not possible for the presentation of one-sided materials – to commissioners to the General Assembly, to Presbyterians generally, or to the world through publications and press releases – to result in a moral good.

There is a genuine four letter word here that might apply:  bias.

Will Spotts

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Comments on: "Balance, Bias, and other Four Letter Words" (3)

  1. Elizabeth Carlson said:

    Will Spotts’ analysis of this ongoing situation is amazing. He is so thorough and so well informed. What a valuable role he is playing to enlighten people. There is a strong BIAS within the PCUSA, though most rank and file members are unaware of what is going on. Thanks, Will, for tirelessly addressing this important issue year after year. You continue to make a difference.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. They do it because they honestly like to demonize. They are demonizers.

    It makes them feel less stained, less conscious of their inner stains, at least briefly. The relief doesn’t last long at all – that’s why they have to do it again and again. Embracing this as their remedy to their stain-consciousness becomes a fixation, an unendable obsession, one that never really relieves, never really satisfies. One can see how ultimately shallow and brief is whatever limited satisfaction it does confer. What a terribly sad path.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] on one side only. Rank-and-file Presbyterian Will Spotts senses and deplores this. Spotts wrote a remarkable document in March rehearsing the charges against Church activism on disinvestment: “the PC(USA) has an […]

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