the 221st General Assembly


Committee 4 is now recommending that the PC(USA) reconsider its support for a two-state solution.  This would necessitate a report to be prepared for the 222nd GA.

And who should prepare such a report?  That bastion of fairness and honesty bias and bigotry, and bulwark of accuracy error, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.

[You may remember, for example, an occasion when then ACSWP member, Ronald Stone was widely quoted as saying:

“As an elder of our church, I’d like to say that, according to my recent experience, relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogue with Jewish leaders.”

“Also, we praise your initiative for dialogue and mutual understanding. We cherish these statements that bring us closer to you. We treasure the precious words of Hezbollah and your expression of goodwill towards the American people.”

You may also remember a ridiculous history of the Middle East provided by ACSWP in 2003.

Or perhaps, you recall the ACSWP report on violations of religious freedom that singled out ISRAEL among all the nations of the world for sole criticism …

They’re bound to be an unbiased source.]

And what resources should these reporters use?

Well, they should consult with “mission networks”:  The ONLY relevant “mission network” is the IPMN – famous, among other things, for its lapses into direct antisemitic tropes – tales of Khazars for example, and manifestly and inexcusably false accusations directed at unnamed American Jewish groups of arson of Presbyterian churches and sending a bomb to Presbyterian headquarters in Louisville.

They should consult with “national caucuses”:  Here again, the only relevant one would be the National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus.  Again, not noted for its openness to any Israeli narrative.  Also not noted for any great concern for the well-being of Israeli Jews.

 

It goes on.

 

UPDATE:  Naturally the committee passed this.  However, we have to wait to see its final form.  It may not be as bad as the proposal itself.  BUT whatever the case, for this committee, at least, the future existence of Israel is now in question.  Think about that.


Now the PC(USA) 221st GA committee considering “Middle East Issues” is debating a boycott of HP products.

Here’s a thought – why not designate all the companies you wish to blacklist with a yellow, six-pointed star?  Think of how much time that would save the faithful …

 

UPDATE 1:  They did not recommend the boycott.

UPDATE 2:  Now they’re reconsidering Presbyterian support for a two-state solution.  This has always been tepid at best ….


The PC(USA) General Assembly committee considering “Middle East Issues” voted to recommend divestment.

I understand the vote was 45 to 20.

Oooh they their parents must be so proud.

 

For clarity:  this is not the GA’s final word on the subject.  It must still pass the vote by the whole assembly later in the week.

 

How unfortunate for Presbyterians that stupidity has taken the place of ethical and moral witness.

 


How’s that again, ACREC?  You’re supposed to be the PC(USA)’s Advocacy for what exactly?  Oh … “The Advocacy Committee for Racial and Ethnic Concerns”.  Hmmm.  Your “Advice and Counsel” on Overture 04-09 – “Resolution on Equal Rights for All Inhabitants of Israel and Palestine and on Conversations with Prophetic Voices” would be deliciously ironic if it weren’t so sad.

For the uninitiated:  Business items considered by a General Assembly are first taken up by committees of GA commissioners.  In theory, these are able to delve more deeply into specific topics and then return recommendations to the whole assembly.  In the majority of, but by no means all cases, the committee recommendations are followed by the plenary.

But before items ever get to these committees, they are vetted by permanent standing committees of the denomination.  These are not GA commissioners.  They are basically the ‘religious’ version of bureaucrats.  They give advice to the committees, and they often provide resource people to “help” the committees’ deliberations.  This practice ensures a certain degree of institutional control over the outcome – in spite of the fact that the GA itself – the commissioners – are in theory, the highest governing body of the PC(USA).

So … ACREC attached its recommendation to pass Overture 04-09.  Committee 4 – the actual commissioners considering “Middle East Issues” – dutifully approved it.  But in the middle of ACREC’s “advice” we find this gem quoted:

The ADL [Anti-Defamation League] goes after anti-Semitism with a fist, it goes after Israeli racism with a sigh. As a matter of fact, the ADL and the entire American Jewish establishment should suspend their campaigns against anti-Semitism indefinitely and take a look at what’s going on in Israel.

Now, the quote is taken from an article by Larry Derfner in the Jewish Daily Forward.  Obviously, therefore, it must be just fine for ACREC to quote it without context.  Just putting it out there.

Just what, exactly?  What function does it serve?

Is ACREC really suggesting that antisemitism isn’t a problem?  That “the American Jewish establishment” should ignore antisemitism?  Perhaps there is something uniquely hypocritical in Jewish concern over antisemitism … at least in ACREC’s fevered imagination.  Perhaps an ethnic minority should not be concerned by attacks on its members?

Or is the point more visceral?  Is it more intended to cultivate distaste for American Jews … who might, just might, oppose the institutional PC(USA)’s ultra-biased preferred narrative on Israelis and Palestinians?

Rather an interesting choice for a committee supposedly dedicated to racial ethnic concerns …

 

Will Spotts


It is probably not a good sign when repeat Dexter episodes are both more appealing and more uplifting than the PC(USA)’s 221st General Assembly.

I have been silent for the most part this time around.  This a partly a product of personal factors.  But it is mostly a function of my desire not to discourage those Presbyterians and others who are fighting for fairness and to avoid PC(USA) antisemitism – whatever I might think of their prospects.

The fact remains that the arguments being offered for divestment and other actions are basically either daft, facile, dishonest, or don’t follow logically.  The fact remains that commissioners are likely – as they have been in each GA from 2008 on – to give these arguments far more credence than they deserve.  Fairness has lost ground at each assembly – in part because commissioners tried to ‘split the difference’, in part because commissioners tried to oversimplify the situation (and the entire debate), in part because commissioners overestimated their own competence and importance, and in part because the process is immorally skewed by many officials and permanent committees within the PC(USA)’s corporate organization.

This year, it seems, the arguments boil down to … “Do justice …”, “Jewish feelings versus Palestinian suffering and oh so objective Presbyterian facts…”, “Desmond Tutu is for BDS so we should be too…”.  All of these have in common a reliance on official and unofficial PC(USA) false information about the situation on the ground, about the nature of divestment, about the global BDS movement, about the actions of Israelis, about the actions of Palestinians, about the placement of blame.  The basis is unbalanced.  It cannot yield an accurate, moral, or ethical result.  Period.

If you want to have this discussion, you need to actually present the facts … all the facts, and you need to actually listen to the many perspectives – not hold a Presbyterian Passion Play every two years with good Jewish villains and innocent victims.

Be that as it may, the fact is, I have expected this GA to do something shameful – to continue the trend since 2008 – perhaps divest, perhaps do something equal offensive. And since that expectation is discouraging to those who are trying to help, I have remained rather quiet.

Will Spotts

 

 


Talking Heads, Sermons, and Disheartenment.

In Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Aunt Alexandra is described as being “positively irritable on the Lord’s Day”. It is a trait I share with Aunt Alexandra. In the book, Scout traced this feature to the effects of Aunt Alexandra’s formidable “Sunday corset”. My irritability, on the other hand, usually stems from the “service of Christian worship”.
When I was younger, I imagine I had different reasons for being uncomfortable with church. Some of these were probably legitimate – things that bothered me; things that, truth be told, probably still bother me. Others were more a case of me being a whiner – it’s too long … it’s boring ….
Today, I’m more irritable on Sundays than on any other day of the week because I’m disheartened. Now, I have little problem with the inane things we sing that pass for hymns. I do find myself stopping to think of the words, often being puzzled, often disagreeing with the messages cloaked beneath their thin religious veneer, often dropping out of the singing. I have little problem with the forms of worship – again minor quibbles. I generally enjoy the special music. I can’t fault scripture. I’m not keen on pre-printed group prayers – usually I don’t find much beyond the Lord’s Prayer to be needed; and the confession often makes me laugh. Group prayers of confession rarely reflect my sense of my own sins. [That is a topic for another day … or year.] These ‘prayers of confession” more often reflect what their writers think we should feel bad about, or the values they think we should adopt. I’m not opposed to an offering, though I’ve often thought that we could go without the offering and not really miss it.
I admit, I’m inclined to laugh at the pretension that what we do in our twenty-first century church meetings is derived directly from scripture or the practices of the early church. Some things are mentioned in the New Testament, and others are attested by early church writings – but much of what we do week to week is made of whole cloth. I’m not imagining that that somehow makes our practices illegitimate. It doesn’t. They just don’t live up to their pretensions.


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? Read the rest of this entry »

Similar Coins


I’m highlighting a post from my other blog. This is not about the PC(USA) on Israel and Palestine. It is not about the PC(USA) at all. But it has a certain relevance.

No matter how much I grouse about this fact, the PC(USA) bears a striking similarity to the secular political landscape. Naturally, the PC(USA), like most mainline denominations, has made numerous forays into secular politics. For all the prophetic church language, these stances have been identical to secular political stances. But that’s what I’m talking about.

There are two overarching, meta-narrative sorts of philosophies in secular politics. You might call them progressive and conservative. You might imagine them as right or left wing. And this has been the case for literally centuries. Multi-party systems suffer from the same (to my mind clumsy and inaccurate) groupings. There are parties of the left and parties of the right. To form coalitions, these really mimic a two party system.

For the last four decades, the PC(USA) and its predecessors have seen a similar struggle between progressives and conservatives. All but the most ostrich-like would have to concede that the conservative side has lost ground on every front. Now in a church setting these have considerable theological meanings not found in secular politics. But the setup is essentially the same. PC(USA) internal politics and secular politics are not two sides of the same coin, but two very similar coins.

One of the reasons for this similarity is, in fact, the intrusion of secular politics into the PC(USA). But that is an inescapable side-effect of theological progressivism. While individual self-identified theological progressives may not share this view, progressivism as a philosophy / theology equates secular political action with spiritual act.

I am persuaded that one of the reasons for the failure of conservatives within the PC(USA) – whether there concerns are theological, spiritual, or political – is a feature also found among conservatives in secular politics. The situation is not identical, but the premise is.

 

Conservatives – mostly in the GOP, but also in other far smaller parties – are foundering. They may or may not do well this November, but that’s quite beside the point. The problem is, even if they do quite well, they will remain unable to actualize a conservative vision.

 

(From my point of view, this has been the case for my entire life. Even when their rhetoric wins, even when they convince enough of the American people they are right, that rhetoric is not translated into policy. Which is, of course, the only point of politics. Policy is all that matters – not on discreet issues but across the board. The fact is, there have been discreet issue policy changes, but the overall, across-the-board policy direction that is decidedly not conservative, continues basically unabated.)

 

No doubt conservatives will argue with this assessment. While progressives may also deny its truth – that is more for public consumption. The basic fact is that the country has been and continues to move in a particular direction. Attribute it to cultural evolution, to the tide of history, degeneration, to whatever framework appeals to you – but it is an overall truth.

 

Of late, conservatives, and the GOP in particular, has struggled more than usual.

 

This is not a product of a hostile media – though conservatives do have far fewer media allies than progressives. It is not a product of IRS and related government suppression of conservatives – though that is appallingly anti-Constitutional and an abuse of power. It is not the result of their failure to reach out to minority groups – though their efforts have been less than effective. It isn’t even the result of the great appeal of progressive arguments – they’re not markedly superior to conservative ones. All of these may be factors, but they’re minor factors.

 

The main problem is that conservatives suffer from big tent syndrome. I don’t mean here that conservatism is a big tent, but that there are four or five different types of conservative. These have conflicting goals and priorities. They have incompatible philosophies. For these reason, conservatives have been unable to select compelling national candidates; conservatives have been unable to articulate a clear point of view; conservatives have fought nasty and personal battles among themselves – that are, at times, as beyond the pale as anything progressives are able to throw at them; conservatives have singularly lacked the ability to unite around their common ground. And most importantly, conservative voters have faced the choice of voting for what they see as the lesser of two evils, or staying home.

 

I personally believe the GOP will continue to founder until it decides what it truly is. I notice that progressives have the same problem on paper – progressive subgroups want mutually exclusive policies – but when it comes to campaigns, they don’t seem to suffer from the same effect. Read the rest of this entry »

 

The PC(USA)’s elephant


Underlying most of the unresolved questions I raised about the PC(USA)’s decisions on Israelis and Palestinians, there is a larger question.

It is the single largest source of contention – and it is one Presbyterians commissioners to the 221st General Assembly should have to conclusively answer yes or no if their views are to be taken seriously.

Should there be a Jewish state?

I don’t mean a state perhaps called Israel.

I’m not even asking about the two state solution – which is up for debate at this year’s GA.

The fact is, some people within the PC(USA) argued for a two state solution that meant one Jew-free state of Palestine, and one multi-ethnic, multi-religious state with a Jewish minority. (That is the NET EFFECT of the disparate demands made on Israel by various PC(USA) GA’s and interest groups.)

It occurs to me that this question is the PC(USA)’s elephant in the room when it comes to Middle East policy.


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. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s That Time Again


In even numbered years in spring, I find myself getting sucked in to all the drama which is the PC(USA)’s General Assembly. This year, it is slated to take place in Detroit from June 14 through June 21.

To get an idea of both the ‘official’ tasks and scheduled activites, check out the docket and schedule. As in past years, specific business items can be found on the pc-biz site. PC-Biz is the best place to follow the items commissioners will consider.

In anticipation of a busy GA season, I am in the process of reorganizing this blog. The menu items that appear at the top of this page provide links to 2014 issues, to commentary on past general assemblies in 2012 and 2010, to a few older posts from between 2005 and 2009, to the Bearing Witness website (run by Jon Haber), and to my (new) other blog. (Surprisingly enough, it is a blog about other topics.) Read the rest of this entry »


I have a love / hate relationship with the PC(USA).

For those who don’t know – perhaps those who see or hear an item in the news, a statement by various PC(USA) officials or groups – the “Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a corporation,” is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States.  It is not a large denomination; it boasts fewer than two million members.  It is not a particularly wealthy organization; as odd as I find the concept, there are, in this world, individuals with more assets than the PC(USA).  Throughout the history of the PC(USA) and its predecessors, it has wielded a greater political and social influence than its numbers would suggest.  Even in the formation of the U.S. Government, Presbyterians played an active role.  Its historical traditions are Christian, Protestant, and Reformed (Calvinist), and it is named for its unique form of governance – by ruling and teaching elders working together.

There are things about the PC(USA) that I love.  Many Presbyterians I know are wonderful people – people I genuinely like and admire; but I suppose I could say the same thing for many denominations and religious groups.  I am very drawn to and share many traditional Presbyterian beliefs. It is not a one to one correspondence; there are issues where I part company with historic Presbyterianism – where I do not believe it best represents biblical Christianity.  Nonetheless, from my point of view the Westminster Confession is unequaled among documents of its type.  I have a great respect for the theory of Presbyterian polity – especially in its anti-elitist, non-hierarchical elements, and in the roles that laity, elders, and clergy played. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »


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? Read the rest of this entry »

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