the 221st General Assembly

Archive for the ‘2012 Archives’ Category

2 The Sad Truth


Over the course of my life, I have often been told “the sad truth”. The sad truth usually consisted in rehearsing my errors and sins. It was often told dishonestly – the speakers held motives of their own distinct from improving my character. It was often told hypocritically – the speakers had little room to talk. I usually responded with defensiveness and disbelief. In my mind, I quoted King Lear: “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.” And I suspect that is a common human reaction.

But it is a mistake. Whatever real or imagined motives the speakers carry, whatever hypocrisies they demonstrate, the accuracy of their charges remains unaffected. If the sad truth they are telling is indeed true, we ignore it to our peril.

There are few things we resist with such tenacity as that which we do not want to admit. (more…)

1. A Word


It is possible – even highly likely – that some Presbyterians desire a Middle East witness that is true, that is credible, that is ethical, that is fair. It is also highly likely that there are Christians in other denominations and people of other faiths who are concerned with the poisonous atmosphere created by bias and by the irresponsible use of antisemitic themes.

It is conceivable that quite a few people recognize the plight and the legitimate claims to justice of many Palestinian Christians and Muslims, but do not want to adopt the jingoism and hysterical one-sidedness that often accompanies over simplified solidarity campaigns. It is conceivable that quite a few people who recognize this will also recognize the fact that Israelis have legitimate claims to justice as well. (more…)

Where to Now St. Peter?


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? (more…)

Consolation Prizes


The overture to boycott all products produced by Jews in the West Bank passed.

Of course, the effects of this will be minimal – relatively few Presbyterians are aware of or participate in denominational boycotts.

 

UPDATES (ongoing)


Plenary considering Middle East Committee issues now live-streamed here.

UPDATE:  Divestment is, for now, down – possibly for good for this GA.  GA voted to answer all divestment proposals with the positive investment action last night.  But new attempts are coming up every couple of minutes. 

UPDATE 2:  Moderator ruled continued proposals to divest out of order.

UPDATE 3:  Israel = Apartheid label rejected by the GA.

UPDATE 4:  Bigoted religious discrimination overture also shot down.

UPDATE 5:  Committee 15 business finally done.  I don’t look for anyone to reopen things at this point.  (GA 221 anyone?)

I SPOKE TOO SOON – Now someone is trying to get a relief of conscience item for divestment.  GA voted for it, but the Board of Pensions said it was impossible.

A Story


[The following is a work of fiction. It is only an imaginary meeting.]

 

Somewhere in Pittsburgh, late into the night, Divestment Presbyterians are meeting, regrouping, making plans. The heat and humidity make them irritable. The news makes them irritable. Among them are some Presbyterian heavy hitters whose combined experience of navigating and influencing General Assemblies is staggering. They are filled with wrath and malice. They have come too far and worked too long to be rebuffed by a couple of nobody commissioners from the middle of East nowhere. Who do they think they are? How dare commissioners challenge their advice? How dare the Zionist rabbis try to tell Presbyterians what to do?

The room goes silent as a man enters the meeting late. He looks benign – almost soft – a kindly grandfather. They know better. They’ve seen how very clever he can be … and how very vindictive. And they defer to him like an elder statesman. He refuses to let anger dull their cunning. Only the calm and the calculating succeed. But they must get it out first – place the blame where it belongs. “You sure made a mess of things. It looks like it’s good thing I got here when I did.” (more…)

Please Just Wait and See


I know patience does not come naturally to people.  Nonetheless, it would be prudent to remember that the 220th General Assembly is not yet over

It is premature to report GA actions with any degree of certainty.

C15 @ the plenary


For those interested, the plenary of the 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA) is being live-streamed here.

Committee 15 issues are scheduled for 3:00

 

UPDATE:  Looks like they got diverted by other issues – I think this should come up after dinner at 7:30 PM

Committee 15


I admit it. I’m not overly kindly disposed toward GA Committee 15 at the moment. I am persuaded that, whatever the circumstances, commissioners are personally responsible for their recommendations and decisions. I was preparing a scathing post; its working title was “Oooh, You Must Be So Proud”.

But I decided it would be unhelpful at this stage. (Not inaccurate or even unfair – just indulgent.)

Instead, I want to recommend a more enlightening post written by Viola Larson on her blog, Naming His Grace

The 220th GA’s Middle East and Peacemaking Issues committee and too many controls” provides insight into the workings of Presbyterian General Assemblies. I can attest that her observations of the processes of this committee conform to what I have personally witness in other GA committees. Please read her whole entry.

Describing this committee, Larson says:

The contingent of resource people guiding the Middle East and Peacemaking Issues committee was the controlling factor. In fact, most items voted on by members of committee 15 were carefully and tightly controlled by a whole gamut of people, some interested in a one state solution, delegitimization of Israel, apartheid, the Boycott, Divestment Sanctions movement (BDS), and even people who are truly anti-Semitic.

She concludes,

It is truly unfair for a committee, who has been chosen to seek the mind of Christ and vote on policies for the church, to be overwhelmed with so many institutional Presbyterian organizations all with the same viewpoints about Israel—some of course more extreme than others. Resources are good and helpful, but this was too much of a good thing.

Watch GA 220


All of the decisions made by GA committee 15 are recommendations only. To be official acts of the Presbyterian Church (USA), these must be passed by the plenary. It is often the case that committee recommendations are rubber stamped – because of the amount of business a GA must consider, only committees received testimony and examine the proposals before them in any depth. Nonetheless, on controversial issues, a plenary does sometimes depart from the committee’s advice.

 

For those interested, the plenary of the 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA) is being live-streamed here.

 

The word is Committee 15 issues will likely be acted upon on Thursday.

July 3 Updates


I caution readers against acting on misinformation – as this committee is not the General Assembly. It will only make recommendations which must then be approved by the plenary. So … none of this is final. But people should be made aware of Committee 15’s current “progress”. Yep … that’s what they call it.

First, Committee 15 has voted to recommend divestment (36 in favor, 8 opposed, 1 abstained).

Second, the committee has endorsed a boycott of all products made by Jews in the West Bank (37 in favor, 8 opposed).

At the moment Committee 15 is discussing whether or not to disavow the apartheid proposal.  Currently talk seems to lean toward the opinion that apartheid is too mild a term.

One sided hate speech abounds at this meeting.

UPDATE 2:  One has to wonder about any committee that calls Anna Baltzer as an expert witness.  Apparently Baltzer, the national organizer for the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, is representing the PC(USA)’s Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC).

UPDATE 3:  Committee 15 had voted to disapprove the Israel = Apartheid overture.

UPDATE 4:  C 15 is now discussing the worst of all overtures.  In any sane discussion it would be laughed out of the room, met with the ridicule, scorn, and abhorrence it deserves.  Somehow I don’t think that will happen here

UPDATE 4.5:  It was disapproved by a vote of 26 to disapprove – 19 -3.

 


In Between Days


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. (more…)

Presbyterians Are Moving Up in the World


The PC(USA) has finally arrived. Proposed Presbyterian policies are getting celebrity endorsements. And I don’t mean boring celebrities, or celebrities within specific constituencies of the church. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters has endorsed the divestment action proposed by the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) and the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC).

And a number of pro-divestment Presbyterians “rejoiced with exceeding great joy”.

At last, Presbyterians can once again start getting invites to the good parties. The cool kids will finally flock to our churches. The days of trying to rationalize 45 years of membership declines are coming to an end. We’re crossing the Jordan ….

But I would caution commissioners: maybe you shouldn’t just jump on the bandwagon of the first celebrity to look your way. Maybe you should find out what OTHER celebrities think about divestment. You don’t have to decide anything today. You’ve got to the end of the plenary after all. Even Committee 15 members have until tomorrow night before the have to make a decision – regardless of their posted schedule.

Why not conduct an emergency straw poll of celebrities to see where they stand. I mean, God forbid you get stuck with a bunch of B-listers. I’m sure some of the better tabloids would be willing to help in this crisis.

All kidding aside, I don’t generally fault Waters – or any celebrity for having an opinion and for expressing it. But I do fault people for giving more weight to celebrity opinions than they do to others. Yes, celebrities do have a certain platform – they have a fan base. But their opinions are no more likely to be right than the opinions of anyone else. It would be the height of stupidity not to treat ideas and proposals on their own merits.

Additionally, I am a little concerned that the PC(USA)’s anti-Israel proposals, rather than being about justice or peace or truth or God, are more about political fashion. There are three possibilities only: 1. The church has something to offer the world different from the world. 2. The church takes its cues from the world – and is basically kind of an appendix. 3. Neither the church or the world has any more or less likelihood of being right. Judging solely by the proposals coming to the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I’m not seeing very much of option #1.

 

Will Spotts

Rarely Asked Questions: the PCUSA responds (inadequately) to divestment concerns


Seriously?

Really?!

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. (more…)

The Wall


When people say “the wall” in the context of Israel and the West Bank, they generally mean the separation barrier. “The wall” is used for rhetorical effect: it summons ominous images of Berlin and Pink Floyd. For the more literate, it might conjure China or Hadrian. Some might even be put in mind of the Wailing Wall. The rhetorical use is often amplified by adding modifiers – things like “the apartheid wall”. For a while, supporters of Israel employed the term “fence”. It sounds almost friendly, pastoral. The thing is, portions of the separation barrier are a fence; other portions are a wall. And while less draconian than its detractors often imply, it is anything but friendly.

I am no fan of the separation of populations. I acknowledge the security issues the barrier is intended to address, but it does not bode well for the prospects of long term peace.

Then there are concerns about the route of the separation barrier. Some of these are clearly legitimate; others (seemingly intentionally) misquote UNSC resolutions.

The whole process applied to this one aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian contention is illuminating. Most people on all sides of the issue are unconcerned with what is real. It’s all about the spin; about how things sound; how they appear. It’s all about rhetorical oneupsmanship and jockeying for some imaginary moral high ground. Decisions are not made on substance, and what legitimate concerns the parities once had, become obscured in a haze of pure (or rather, impure) rhetoric.

This is how we have learned to get our own way – in personal relationships, in politics, and in church affairs. Even those who don’t start out on this dishonest marketing express quickly discover that getting on the wrong side of spin is a mortal liability.

Don’t get me wrong. Some statements on all sides of the Israeli Palestinian controversy have some basis in fact. Some are whole cloth, of course, but by no means all. Unfortunately the facts always seem to get twisted, turned around until the truth disappears into an extreme and simple-minded mirage.

Presbyterians get quite exercised about “the wall” in the West Bank. But there is another wall to which they remain oblivious. This wall is as wide and high and impenetrable as any real or imagined wall Presbyterians might oppose. There is a wall around the hearts and minds of Presbyterians that keeps them from feeling or perceiving the fact that their Middle East witness is compromised and the reasons why it is compromised. This is true of members, elders, denominational officials and staff, news outlets, and activists. It is even true of many who desire more fairness in PC(USA) Middle East policies and statements. Something interferes with their thinking on the subject. Something prevents them from acknowledging that there is a problem; and something prevents them from acknowledging the extent of that problem.

The facts are clear. The PC(USA) has a history of institutional anti-Israel bias that makes them unable to fairly treat the issues. The PC(USA) has a history of toleration for, encouragement of, and indulgence in antisemitic themes. There is no gray area in these classical antisemitic tropes. There is no doubt on these points. Both can be confirmed easily by examining the statements and actions of General Assemblies, of PC(USA) officials, of PC(USA) partners, of PC(USA) networks and interest groups. The task is unpleasant; it’s nauseating at times; but it is easily enough accomplished.

Yet the vast majority of Presbyterians – members, elders, pastors, various officials and committees, news organizations – simply refuse to do it. They will, in fact, employ mental gymnastics and tortured pseudo-moral reasoning to excuse and ignore bad behavior.

As a side note – if these actions and statements were directed at any other people group, we would not be having this conversation. There is no other ethnicity or religion that Presbyterians would feel comfortable treating in the same manner. We would not have denominational officials saying things like, “African American groups go nuts … because we refuse to be one sided,” or “I know how … viciously attacked any truth-tellers are by majority voices in the American Buddhist community,” or “The phrase “the right of Italy to exist” is a source of pain for some members of the … committee.”

Presbyterians would not be quoting people for our edification saying things like, “France acts as a spoiled child … Even though the state of France is supposed to be a democracy, it acts as a NAZI state,” or “Tibetans in the diaspora must get a life,” or “If we are not careful, Christian churches … will turn into Museums and be on tours run by Hindu tour guides as if in a theme park.”

Presbyterians would not be indulging in speculations about the blood purity and origin of Norwegians – suggesting that their ancestors were really Khazars pretending to be Norwegian.

Presbyterians would never dream of suggesting that Koreans control the banks or Congress or the U.S. media.

The reasons for this are manifold.

First, the PC(USA) does not really have the institutional bias problem against any of these groups – so it is very easy for Presbyterians to see just how wrong those bigotries would be. Self criticism is much harder. If a person is a Presbyterian, he or she has some vested interest in the label Presbyterian being a good thing. Instinctively Presbyterians know that the anti-Israel bias and toleration for antisemitic themes is objectively bad … therefore they cannot bring themselves to see the PC(USA) as participating in these things.

Second, even people who don’t agree with the direction of PC(USA) action recognize that most pro-Palestinian activists are decent people. It’s true. Their motivation is often good. They are spurred by compassion and empathy and a legitimate desire for peace and justice. Nonetheless, the bias itself, the tenor of the dialogue, the use of antisemitic tropes is not good. The motivation doesn’t matter at this point. Tragically, the history of the church has demonstrated exactly where this type of rhetoric always leads. It is objectively bad; it is objectively harmful; it is objectively dangerous. Surely, truly well-meaning folks could manage to advocate for Palestinian friends and partners and for human rights without indulging in a type of discourse that is always wrong, always harmful. And surely, when they can’t do so, the rest of Presbyterians should be able to confront the issue even though its practicers are “well-meaning”.

Third, there is another type of argument that has become common in the PC(USA). It runs a little something like this: a person will employ a well-known antisemitic theme and someone will – shocked and horrified – call them on it. The one who employed the theme will immediately respond, “Every time someone criticizes the government of Israel, he is accused of antisemitism.” A large number of people (in this case Presbyterians) who imagine they’d never personally indulge in antisemitic discourse, jump in to support the original antisemitic speaker. This notion is eventually amplified to rather strongly suggest that antisemitism and anti-Israel bias are ultimately a result of Israeli and Jewish action. As a certain PC(USA) mission network informed the General Assembly in 2010, ““This “anti-Jewish rhetoric” [referred to in the paper] does not arise out of a vacuum, or some inchoate reservoir of anti-Semitism. In fact, the case can be made that it is a reaction to the actions of the state of Israel.”

Fourth, to actually acknowledge the facts – that the PC(USA) has a long-standing institutional bias; that the PC(USA) is applying two double standards – one in how they judge Israel versus how they judge other nations, and the other in how they treat Israel, Judaism, and the Jewish people in Presbyterian actions and statements versus how they treat all other nations, religions, and ethnic groups; that the PC(USA) needs to take much greater care to avoid blatant antisemitic themes – is to damage relationships within the denomination. Even though true, very few Presbyterians will actually admit these things because it would cause offense and make future cooperation with their colleagues more difficult. Some of the most courageous do try to speak out, but even they constantly backpedal and downplay the facts.

The bottom line is that there is a wall that keeps Presbyterians from responding to something profoundly ugly, destructive, and unfair within their own denomination. If commissioners (and Presbyterians generally) want their Middle East witness to have integrity, if they want to actually help, if they want to (as they have said) break down the walls, they must first break down this will. Then Presbyterians will see clearly to break down others.

Will Spotts

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