the 221st General Assembly

Posts tagged ‘220th General Assembly’

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…)

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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

The Moral Low Ground


Whenever issues of national or global significance are deliberated at a General Assembly, commissioners are apt to encounter a peculiar temptation. They might imagine their feet planted firmly on the moral high ground as they work to discern God’s will. From this lofty, Himalayan perch they may issue criticisms and judgments as if they were removed from the situation – as if their hands were somehow clean and their vision somehow clear.

By no means a uniquely Presbyterian fallibility, this pleasant conceit encounters one major problem: it is untrue. Sometimes it even happens that people wandering around the moral equivalent of Death Valley make proclamations and take symbolic actions they falsely believe to be forceful stands for justice or peace. This is, in fact, rather likely to happen when considering Middle East issues.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)’s witness on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been hopelessly muddled. This is primarily a function of two factors – a crippling, systemic, institutional bias against Israel, and an excessive toleration for and occasional indulgence in antisemitic themes.

But for the sake of analysis, let us set those two factors aside for the moment. (It is likely that I harp on bias and antisemitism too much anyway. It does not persuade; those who do not perceive their presence already will be extremely slow to admit to them.) Let’s imagine that the portrait of Israel created by various officious Presbyterians is, in fact, accurate. Let’s imagine that Israel really is unique among current regimes as a violator of human rights. Let’s pretend Israel truly does provide the most egregious example of religious discrimination in the world. Let’s pretend that the Israeli-Zionist cabal really does exercise a stranglehold on the U.S. government and media. Let’s assume (for the sake of argument, of course) that Israel genuinely is the ultimate cause of all acts of violence in the region regardless of perpetrator or victim.

If we imagine this characterization to be accurate, then the actions contemplated by the 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA) would seem to amount to a powerful moral stand. But are they really?

First, it must be observed that Presbyterians who actually believe this slate of hypothetical propositions about Israel, have responded with an appalling lack of creativity. They put on their prophetic thinking caps, applied all of their talents and resources to the vexing problem of the pariah State of Israel … and came up with a subtle strategy that combined boycotts (such as those proposed to the 220th General Assembly), divestment (the corporate engagement process with its recommended divestment from holdings in CAT, MSI, and HPQ), and sanctions (such as the 2010 call on the U.S. to make all aid to Israel “contingent upon Israel’s compliance with international law and peacemaking efforts”). In other words, they are pushing a limited, anemic form of BDS.

Creativity is not necessarily a moral or ethical virtue. But it remains disappointing that when people believe they are combating a gross form of evil, the best they can come up with is a nuanced version of a tired, cliched strategy. One could be excused for expecting those who claim to speak prophetically – having discerned the message of the Holy Spirit – would birth a solution distinct from one proposed long ago from a purely secular political framework. Uncreative it may be, but at least it is a strategy … and as we all know, doing anything, no matter its potential harm, is better than doing nothing.

So what are the goals of such a strategy?There are only five possibilities. 1. It might be employed to apply a combination of economic pressure and embarrassment to the State of Israel and thus make it more amenable to the demands of Presbyterians and others. 2.It may be intended to cause such damage that it forces the current government of the State of Israel out of existence, assuming that whatever replaced it would be better. 3.It could be used to weaken the State of Israel, alienate it from its few allies, and make it more vulnerable to military and terrorist actions with the hopes of destroying it. 4.It could be intended to create financial hardship for corporations and prompt them to stop selling products to Israel. 5.Or it could be designed to preserve the tender consciences of participants who will then be able to believe that they have, at a minimum, not profited from the evil acts of Israel. Proponents of this global strategy have embraced all five of these goals.

In the case of the PC(USA), I would imagine the intent is limited to a combination of the first, fourth, and fifth goals only. Many activists within the PC(USA) are, after all, well meaning people who would not support violence to achieve their objectives and who are not looking for the overthrow of governments. The problem is, nuanced or not, one cannot be a little BDS. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is much larger than the Presbyterian Church. When a denomination opts to fully embrace that movement, it goes into the support column. It is a binary option. The PC(USA) will be symbolically supporting the entire program with all five of its major aims – not just the three it actually intends to support. One could call it collateral damage, I suppose, and still pretend one was accomplishing more good than ill. But again we are left to wonder what good it actually accomplishes.

Sanctions are of little usebecause General Assembly commissioners cannot put them in place. They can only appeal to governments to act. Such appeals generally garner no response whatsoever. Partly because they come from people without expertise in the field, partly for pragmatic reasons, and partly because they aren’t representative of a large number of voters.

Unless it is practiced on a truly massive scale, divestment also does nothing. It does not affect either the share price or business operations of a corporation. Many years ago the Presbyterian Church divested from tobacco companies and weapons manufacturers, yet these business have continued to thrive. Presbyterian divestment has not only been ineffective but likely gone unnoticed. If one truly wanted to change a corporation’s policies, the only effective means to do so is through boycott. That is the only tool that has actual financial impact on a corporation. For the Board of Pensions at some point to possibly consider selling shares of Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett Packard – as long as they can do so and still fulfill their fiduciary obligations to plan members – is a non-event.

Boycott alone is a satisfying option; and indeed the 220th General Assembly is being asked to consider boycotting items from two companies – companies that supply dates and cosmetic products. [Way to put yourself out there … how can you get by without them?]. The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) has advocated boycotting all products made by Jews in the West Bank, but even this is hardly rigorous.

Here’s the thing, if Israel really is what various Presbyterian statements have described it as being; if Presbyterians genuinely want to change Israeli policies; if these corporations truly are evil – whether in themselves or through their involvement with Israel; if Presbyterians don’t want to benefit from that evil, then Presbyterians will have to go much farther than they are contemplating at this General Assembly. That would be a minimum necessary requirement to take anything remotely resembling a moral stand.

I look at my Motorola phone and the two-way radios I use at work, and I wonder how many Presbyterians use Motorola products. This is pure profit for Motorola – and allows them to continue their untoward business practices. But I – along with all those Presbyterians – also benefit from the use of Motorola products. (Technically, when Google acquired Motorola Mobility, the phone became no longer relevant, but other Motorola products remain tainted.) When Presbyterian churches are blessed with the resources and the need to expand their facilities, or conversely, when these are damaged by hurricanes or storms, how many will use Caterpillar equipment? Not only will money be going to sustain Caterpillar in its production of D9s, but those churches will have entered into a mutually beneficial arrangement with Caterpillar. They will, in short, have benefited from the evils of the Caterpillar corporation. What about Hewlett Packard? The outrageous per page printing costs will certainly continue to support HPQ in its disapproved activities. Then there are the many Presbyterians employed by these companies. Are they not benefiting from the same evil? Are not their homes, their children’s education, their automobiles, their clothes all products partially provided by the (presumably) egregiously unethical business practices of their employers? Would not leaving such jobs be the only moral option? Of course, the commissioners making judgments (like the 2010 denunciation of Caterpillar) would likely not be directly impacted in quite the same personal way. Naturally it is much easier to take a strong moral stand that costs you nothing.

Then there’s the next named MRTI target: Microsoft. I wonder how many Presbyterian pastors, staff, national officials, MRTI members, elders, church members will use Microsoft operating systems in the coming years? I wonder how many MRTI, ACSWP, and GAMC reports will be prepared using Microsoft programs? I wonder if the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly will use Word to compose his communications with world leaders explicitly demanded by the General Assembly. Unless Presbyterians switch to obviously more virtuous Apple products… their moral witness will remain in peril.

The bottom line is this. Many of the characterizations of Israel contained in numerous historic Presbyterian statements are false, are biased, are one-sided. But even if they weren’t, the 220th General Assembly will have trouble converting the suggested PC(USA) actions into anything approaching genuinely moral stands that do not reek of inconsistency and hypocrisy.

Divestment is Nothing


Divestment is nothing; non-divestment is nothing.

Eight years ago this July, the 216th General Assembly earned its fifteen minutes of fame when it instructed its Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI):

“to initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel, in accordance to General Assembly policy on social investing, and to make appropriate recommendations to the General Assembly Council for action.”

When the Presbyterian News Service covered the event, the headline read, “Assembly endorses Israel divestment”.

Over the years – partly in response to negative feedback – various denominational officials, staff, news outlets have made many false (less than forthcoming) claims about this action. For example, it has often been falsely reported that this was limited to those companies “whose business in Israel is found to be directly or indirectly causing harm or suffering to innocent people, Palestinian or Israeli”. That qualifier is simply not present in the item passed by the GA 216.

Like corpses in Night of the Living Dead the divestment issue has come hobbling back to every subsequent General Assembly. This year is, of course, no exception. And every two years, proponents of divestment act as if they are supporting some moral action that is any less unfair, unhelpful, unoriginal, and vapid than it was the time before. And every two years, opponents of divestment act as if they are fighting off unreasonable forces on the fringe of the church. And every two years, both sides manage to somehow or other claim victory for their efforts.

The problem is, divestment gets headlines outside of the PC(USA). It is something people can understand and react to. Meanwhile, the PC(USA)’s tortured witness on Palestinians and Israelis has far more serious problems and sinister overtones that simply can’t get traction. It is plagued by unrelenting and easily documented bias; it has at times employed (and thus legitimated) anti-Judaic themes; and it has at times crossed the line into classical antisemitic discourse. All of this gets a big yawn …. Nonetheless, I am compelled to observe that if the same types of statements and actions were directed at any other ethnic or religious group in the world, they would be met with Presbyterian outrage.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret. Divestment already happened … at least, the only meaningful part of it happened. The decision was made in 2004; the Presbyterian process of divestment – phased, selective divestment – was launched in 2004. Only one General Assembly has intervened. In 2006 the 217th General Assembly replaced the divestment instruction with the following:

“urge that financial investments of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as they pertain to Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, be invested in only peaceful pursuits, and affirm that the customary corporate engagement process of the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investments of our denomination is the proper vehicle for achieving this goal.”

They appear to have intended the MRTI to set aside its work resulting from the 2004 instruction that singled out Israel for treatment distinct from and inferior to that applied to every other nation. But GA 217 seems to have figured without the MRTI – which continued its phased, selective divestment process uninterrupted. (For the uninitiated, “corporate engagement” and “phased, selective divestment” are, in PC(USA)land, one and the same.) The two subsequent General Assemblies have confirmed the MRTI in this work.

Bottom line: if the divestment recommendation passes this year, it will be nothing more or less than the successful outworking of the MRTI process initiated in 2004. It will not be news; it will not be a new decision. And, as the Board of Pensions pointed out, the PC(USA) will continue to own stock in the targeted companies AFTER the GA approves the recommendation … that is, if the PC(USA) in fact owns stock in the companies to begin with. The Board of Pensions has a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best financial interests of its members: so they will not sell a holding until it is advantageous to do so. And they may, under certain circumstances, purchase an MRTI forbidden item in the future.

That is not to say that a decision to place CAT, HPQ, MSI on the PC(USA)’s divestment list will be entirely without effect. It will do some things, and it will not accomplish others.

What a GA 220 divestment decision will not do:

  1. It will not harm the targeted companies. In fact, since the PC(USA) holds “a small portfolio of securities outside the Benefits Plan” solely for the purpose of proposing shareholder resolutions, since the PC(USA) insists on numerous meetings with company representatives to discuss Presbyterian criticisms, and since MRTI demands have been sometimes unreasonable … I’d imagine divestment targets would be just as happy to see the back of the PC(USA).
  2. Presbyterian divestment alone will not break the back of the Israeli economy. The PC(USA) is simply too small a player for their holdings to have any significant impact.
  3. Presbyterians will not suddenly have morally good investments in their pension funds and be able to sleep better at night. Presbyterians will continue to profit from harm and suffering just as they always have. Any sizable portfolio has holdings that, were they thoroughly investigated, would be found – either through their business practices, employee policies, or their products and services – to be morally dubious. In fact, the specific companies targeted by the MRTI have, in some regards, better policies than those of many companies NOT targeted.
  4. No Palestinian (and no Israeli) will be helped in any meaningful way by Presbyterian divestment.

What a GA 220 divestment decision will do:

  1. People outside the PC(USA) will see and recognize this as a symbolic gesture. It is kind of like a panto … in which scary looking Caterpillar products (and Israelis) appear on stage in order to get boos and hisses while courageous and prophetic Presbyterians speaking truth to power are greeted with cheers by adoring crowds.
  2. The PC(USA) will be more closely married to an international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. This General Assembly is also slated to consider boycotting a couple of items; and the PC(USA) is on the record as supporting some types of sanctions against Israel. In theory, some of the goals and objectives of the broader BDS movement are incompatible with PC(USA) statements, but trying to be “just a little bit BDS” will prove an impossible line for Presbyterians to walk.

Ridiculousness


Some ideas are worthy only of ridicule and scorn. They are so false, so unbalanced, so absurd on their faces that uproarious laughter can be the only appropriate response. You could read them as farce, enjoying their entertainment value as a mildly guilty pleasure – similar to the way some people enjoyed professional wrestling in the 1980s and Beavis and Butthead in the 1990s.

But the laughter dies on your lips the moment you realize these inherently absurd proposals are intended seriously. Some of their proponents (bless their hearts) actually believe them. Others, more calculating and strategy-minded, merely make use of them; these want people to accept absurd notions solely to advance a larger cause.

The arenas of politics and religion prove very fertile for the development and propagation of ridiculousness. This fecundity is multiplied where politics and religion are joined in unholy marriage. There are a variety of sociological reasons for that, but it mostly stems from the fact that many political activists and religionists share some personality traits and are peculiarly subject to certain kinds of temptations. Both political activists and religionists can be vulnerable to self-importance, to seeking personal significance, to a misplaced and uncritical trust in those believed to share common values, to the unfortunate combination of a sincere desire to good with an exaggerated faith in one’s ability to discern good without work.

This is not intended as an indictment. The desires to do good and to make the world better are noble things; the desire to live significant lives is laudable; even faith in one’s ability to make a positive change has much to recommend it. Instead, this is a caution: potentially positive characteristics can miscarry remarkably easily. The portfolio of traits common among activists and religionists can, at times, spur bandwagonism, faddishness, closed-mindedness, unfairness, rigidity, ignorance – all wrapped in a cloak of moral “rightness”… the self-proclaimed “high ground”.

Business before the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a mixed bag. Among many proposals to be considered by commissioners, this year’s menu features a few items that rise to the level of daft. Ideally, these would be laughed out of the committees that consider them; ideally, these would provide the whole assembly with much needed levity. Alas, the kind of dynamic that often prevails at Presbyterian general assemblies prompts commissioners to miss the joke and proudly adopt such notions.

One proposal, item 15-09, stands head and shoulders above the others in terms of comedic value. “On Human Rights and Religious Freedom of Arab Christians and Other Palestinian Citizens” takes the form of an overture from the Presbytery of San Jose. No presbytery or synod has ventured to concur with San Jose, but both the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC) and the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) have applied their keen and rigorous analytical skills and wholeheartedly endorsed it

So what makes this proposal ridiculous? I mean, concern for religious freedom is a no-brainer for a Christian denomination. Support for human rights? Also non-controversial. Factual accuracy? Parts of it are. The Christian community in Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank does face particular pressures that stem from actions of the state of Israel. Many Palestinian Christians have specifically cited Israel as a (or the) primary source of difficulties they experience. A desire to help, a desire to stand with them, a desire to intercede for them is admirable.

Nonetheless, this proposal reads like satire – a gentle ribbing of the PC(USA) for its all-too-common tendency to blame Israel first and ask questions later. Israel could be deemed responsible for global warming, for the earthquake in Japan, for the high price of peanut butter …. It doesn’t matter what the issue, as long as Israel can be singled out and blamed for it.

In this case, Israel is singled out – made unique among all nations – for its practices of religious discrimination. Are people executed for practicing their religions? Does conversion result in beheading? Are people jailed for their beliefs? What form must this discrimination take to warrant the special attention of the Presbyterian Church (USA)?

Apparently, Israel is worthy of special criticism because it fails to fund and protect non-Jewish holy sites, because it denies “free access to holy places of worship to both Christians and Muslims on several important occasions”, and because a rabbi in a yeshiva in the West Bank published an offensive book describing the circumstances when it is permissible to kill non-Jews according to halakhah.

San Jose’s overture asks the General Assembly to “commend the U. S. State Department for its annual published listing of incidents of religious discrimination by the State of Israel affecting the human rights and religious freedom of Arab Christians and other Palestinian citizens”. Now, I imagine they mean the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Reports.

The Presbytery of San Jose does cite these reports in their rationale. But a brief perusal of them reveals a number of things that presbytery chooses not to mention when zeroing in on Israeli misdeeds. For example, blasphemy and conversion are punishable by death in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. In Sudan, Vietnam, Egypt, and Afghanistan Christians face discrimination, violence, and government restrictions. In China, “only groups affiliated with one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” (Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant) are permitted to register, hold worship services, and apply to offer social services.” In Eritrea, “Religious prisoners were reportedly held for long periods without due process and subjected to harsh treatment, including forced renunciations of faith, torture, and deaths in custody.” North Korea reportedly “barred citizens from entering places of worship”. In Saudi Arabia “the public practice of any religion other than Islam is prohibited”.

One can only conclude that the Presbytery of San Jose, ACRED, and ACSWP must have thought it obvious that commissioners would be immediately familiar with the contents of the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Reports. In that circumstance, commissioners would certainly not need accurate representations of them. And if, for some inscrutable reason, commissioners were not quite that up-to-date, they would surely take the time to read them together in Committee 15.

In all seriousness, focusing on religious discrimination issues in Israel is valid.  But it would only be so in the context of an assembly that directed the same level of scrutiny at other nations around the world.  Every society and every government has problems.  The practice of singling out one society and government – which, in this case, just happen to be those of the only Jewish nation in existence – implies that that particular society and government are the worst offenders.  Even in the face of significant particular problems, this implication is unfounded.  It indicates the presence of a bias that is extreme and inexplicable.

 

Alphabet Soup (a PC(USA) primer)


A PC(USA) General Assembly is often not a user-friendly thing. It takes non-Presbyterians (and I suspect it takes a fairly large majority of Presbyterians uninvolved in national denominational politics) a while to get their bearings.

Endless tinkering has rendered the process increasingly Byzantine. Modifications that have, on their surface appeared good – the desire to increase representation and responsiveness, the desire to create a worshiping rather than deliberating governing body, the desire to lessen conflict – have had the combined effect of introducing needless complexity and making it far harder for all but a very few to know what is going on. Then there is a tendency toward insider speak – a preference for language that is less standard English and more PC(USA) English. Add to that a peculiar taste for ever changing abbreviations and acronyms … YADs, YAADs, GA, OGA, COGA, GAC, GAMC, MRTI, ACSWP, ACREC, ACWC, MEMG, MESC, PNS, BOC, BOO, GANC, GACOR, ACC, ACL, BOP, PCCEC, OTW, TWE, COTE, GAPJC, PILP.

When people pepper their speech with insider jargon and obscure acronyms, they do not generally mean to exclude and mislead, but their words often have that effect. Actions emerging from a General Assembly of the PC(USA), statements by various officials, agencies, services, committees, councils, and news reports can leave observers bewildered. Differentiation between official policy and policies that have the support of national staff and various committees or even of interest groups can often prove difficult. This creates a climate where statements can be made as if they were true and representative if unchallenged, but that allows excessive room for plausible deniability when those statements miscarry.

Since I am commenting on a General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I think it prudent to offer a few very simplified tips and definitions in the hope of helping the uninitiated navigate these perilous waters. This barely scratches the surface, but I mention these items because they are likely to come up on this blog. I would refer readers to the PC(USA)’s website for more information, but I find it rather unhelpful in untangling the web.

Presbyterian: a form of church government – government by presbyters (or elders). There was an envisioned collegiality among ruling (laity) and teaching (clergy) elders. The idea was profoundly anti-clericalist and anti-hierarchy. All elders are elected by church members.

Session: the governing body of a local church. It consists of elected ruling elders, and it is usually moderated by a teaching elder (formerly called a minister of the word and sacrament, formerly called a teaching elder). It is responsible for the day to day business of a congregation.

Presbytery: a (smallish) regional meeting of representatives – ruling and teaching elders – from local congregations. These together usually make decisions that are wider in nature than the concerns of a local church. The presbytery exercises some oversight of local congregations.

Synod: a curious creature. It’s composed of several presbyteries – and it is a higher governing body. Nonetheless, most Presbyterians are mystified by its exact nature and responsibilities.

GA (General Assembly): the national meeting of representatives from presbyteries (not synods). The only people who can vote at this assembly are ruling and teaching elders commissioned for the task by their presbyteries. A commissioner is one of these. How such commissioners are selected remains a mystery – the process varies greatly among presbyteries.

It is important to note: the General Assembly is, in theory the highest governing body of the PC(USA). There is, however, a great gulf fixed between theory and practice. Commissioners operate at a gross disadvantage. For the most part, they are amateurs … they tend to have day jobs. They can be easily swayed by the pros … national staff who eat, sleep, and breathe national PC(USA) politics; national committee members, interest groups, even single issue activists – all have more information, more consistent strategies for getting their ways, better communications, the ability to spin GA decisions to their liking. More importantly, non-commissioner participants tend to be perennial – they have the luxuries of experience and long term thinking – while commissioners tend to come to GA for a week and go home. It is fairly rare for a person to serve as a commissioner more than one or two times.

OGA (Office of the General Assembly): the office of the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly. It is responsible for planning the General Assembly meeting, constitutional services, church statistical reporting and other duties. The OGA is overseen by the COGA (Committee on the Office of the General Assembly).

GAMC (General Assembly Mission Council): a GA agency responsible to “lead and coordinate the total mission program”. Its members are members of the board of directors of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) corporation. It is responsible for basically all aspects of the mission of the PC(USA) – though it is theoretically accountable to the GA. It has oversight of things like Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, Evangelism and Church Growth Ministries, and World Mission.  Until recently, the GAMC was known as the GAC (General Assembly Council); this year they propose renaming themselves Presbyterian Mission Agency.  [As an aside, I can’t help but wonder if we’ll have a PMA – not to be confused with PDA (Presbyterian Disaster Assistance).]

ACSWP (Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy): a permanent committee “responsible for the process of developing and recommending social witness policy to the GA.” Members are elected by the GA.

MRTI (Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee): a permanent committee that views itself as implementing GA “policies on socially responsible investing (also called faith-based investing) by engaging corporations in which the church owns stock.” Its priorities are determined by GA referrals and ecumenical consultation.

ACREC (Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns): a permanent committee that theoretically “advocates for full access for all racial ethnic/immigrant groups to all programs, ministries, middle governing bodies and congregations in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) by monitoring implementation of policy and corresponding actions, decisions and issues of racial ethnic concern.”

ACWC (Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns): a permanent committee that advocates “for full inclusiveness and equality in the church and in society,” and views its role as providing “a prophetic witness to and for the church on existing and emerging issues of women’s concern.”

ACC (Advisory Committee on the Constitution): a permanent committee of the GA that advises that body on the constitutional implications of various business items before it.

Special Committee to Review Biennial Assemblies: a temporary committee which offers recommendations about adapting to the recent change from annual GAs to biennial ones. A little noticed group, they have brought proposals that have the potential to dramatically alter the Presbyterian balance of power. They have also recommended extending their mandate …

IPMN (Israel / Palestine Mission Network of the PC(USA)): a mission network focused on Palestinian advocacy. It was created by a GA, it enjoys the tax-exempt status of the PC(USA), it has access to PC(USA) distribution and information pathways, it is supported by PC(USA) staff. Nonetheless, national PC(USA) staff and officials claim they can exercise no oversight of this network.

NMEPC (National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus): an officially recognized caucus of the PC(USA). Its nine-member executive committee speaks for Middle Eastern Presbyterians to the denomination’s General Assembly, synods and presbyteries.

All committees listed here were created by one or another GA. They all theoretically operate under the auspices of the GA – though many claim some form of independence. They are all theoretically accountable to the GA, and through the representative GA, they are all ultimately accountable to Presbyterian members.

That’s a long enough list to go on with. I will try to use the full name of any office, committee, network, or group the first time it comes up; I will only subsequently employ the alphabet soup acronym. I will doubtless fail in some instances – so I apologize in advance for excluding the uninitiated.

Disneyland for Presbyterians: a GA Overview


In a little less than a month, Presbyterians from around the country – commissioners from 173 presbyteries, young adult advisory delegates, ecumenical representatives, national staff, denominational officials, observers, interest groups, activists, and seminarians – will descend on an unsuspecting Pittsburgh. A General Assembly is an event. Even in years of controversy and high drama, it has a festive element. I have heard it aptly described as “Disneyland for Presbyterians”.

Alas, in the midst of the festivities, commissioners will face a daunting slate of proposals and business items to consider. For those unfamiliar with the PC(USA)’s version of Presbyterianism, a GA works something like this. Commissioners will spend most of their week focused on a fraction of the total assembly business. That business is divided among several committees with names like, “Mission Coordination”, “Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations”, “Social Justice Issues”, and “Church Polity”. Each commissioner is assigned to serve on one. The committee will have the only in depth opportunity to consider the issues before it, and that committee will recommend a course of action to the whole assembly. Now the whole assembly will have to vote, but in most cases they will follow a committee’s lead.

This year commissioners will bandy about ideas like the overture from the Presbytery of Grace, “On Calling for An End to the Practice of Corporal Punishment in Homes, Schools, and Child Care Facilities”, or “On Supporting the United Nations” from the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. Commissioners will be soberly counseled by permanent committees of the church, advised by young adult delegates, and ultimately vote.

All kidding aside, a number of these business items actually interest me. You can follow along at home by visiting the PC(USA)’s General Assembly site, PC-biz.  Proposals are helpfully organized by the committee which will consider them.

Several proposals are coming before the 220th General Assembly that directly concern Israelis and Palestinians. Most of these will be addressed by Committee [15] Middle East and Peacemaking Issues.  (I will look more closely at several of these in subsequent posts.)

When you examine the business before Committee [15] all resemblance to Disneyland ends. The most obvious thing you notice is that there are two contradictory types of proposals. On one side you have arrayed the General Assembly Mission Council, the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, the Advisory Committee on Racial Ethnic Concerns, the Presbyteries of New Brunswick, North Puget Sound, Scioto Valley, San Francisco, Palisades, San Jose, the Redwoods, Genesee Valley, and Northern New England, and the Synod of the Covenant all calling for various schemes of divestment, boycott, apartheid labels, and a peculiar criticism of “religious discrimination by the State of Israel affecting the human rights and religious freedom of Arab Christians and other Palestinian citizens”.

In contrast to this comparative Goliath, three lonely presbyteries – New Covenant, Philadelphia, and National Capital, – have sent overtures recommending taking a different course. All three would reject divestment. National Capital would expressly reject the BDS movement. Philadelphia would reject the label of apartheid.

Two other issues related to Israelis and Palestinians are supposed to come before this GA, but at this time I cannot locate them on PC-biz. Both of them are referrals from the 219th General Assembly. “Christians and Jews: People of God” was to be re-written, and part 3 of the Middle East Study Committee report was to be replaced by narratives and a bibliography.

 

 

What You Can Expect


My purpose in this blog is to offer observations and opinions.  Readers can do with them what they want.  My focus is chiefly PC(USA) actions on Israel and Palestine, but I reserve the right to post on other topics that capture my interest.  The opinions expressed here are solely my own.

I have given up strategic and tactical considerations.  I was never very good at them anyway.  More importantly, as long as I’m thinking about how something I say might be used or misused by people with agendas of their own, a particle of falsehood will intrude into the equation.  My adventures in Presbyterianism have taught me that those with agendas will, in fact, do this no matter what approach I take.  So I here and now abandon thinking about it at all.  I do not go to cause offense, but I refuse to worry about it if I accidently do so.

Comments are welcome; abusive comments are not.  For instance, within the confines of my blog universe, an idea or an action may be stupid or evil; a person may not.  Possible motives of others may be suggested; absolute motive may not be declared.  False statements about and false characterizations of people are also off limits.

I will make two commitments for this site.  I will always be honest and candid in my opinions; and I will make every effort to be accurate and fair.  By accurate and fair I mean I will try not to misrepresent the actions and statements of others.  I will not impute motives unless they are stated.  I have no intention, however, of framing issues as their advocates might prefer:  the framing is part of the argument, not the thing itself.  As such, the framing is inherently biased.  I also have no intention of skirting foreseeable bad consequences or reads of proposals – even if these are unintended.

Having said these things, I invite you along for the 220th General Assembly ride.  With any luck it will prove interesting.  At the very least, it should be entertaining.

About 2012


This is a blog about the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). More specifically, it is about that organization’s biennial national meeting, the 220th General Assembly. Even more specifically, it is about that assembly’s business that concerns Palestinians and Israelis.

I write as a former member and ruling elder in a PC(USA) congregation. For a variety of reasons, I still attend services with that congregation. But I gave up my membership in the PC(USA) when it became clear I could no longer, in good conscience, be a part of a national organization that indulged behaviors and attitudes I found morally repellant. Figuring prominently among these behaviors and actions was the PC(USA)’s long term posture toward Israel and Palestine.

I want to make a few things perfectly clear. First, I have no objection to examination and criticism of the State of Israel or of Israeli policies. I have no objection to examination and criticism of US policies that relate to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. In fact, these can be beneficial in an open society. Like most people (at least those I know), I long for peace in the Middle East. I long for solutions that will benefit all Palestinians and Israelis.

I recognize that many Palestinians have been victimized and live in conditions I would hate. I recognize that Israeli actions have contributed to that situation. Those are facts. People immediately jump to rationalizing and defending and appealing to historic contexts – and sometimes they raise valid points, but it doesn’t change the basic facts. It is understandable that Israelis and Palestinians alike tend to argue only one side; it is extremely difficult for people to see those truths that don’t advance their cause – that may, in fact, hinder it.

I have no interest in apportioning blame. As an outsider, I see a multiplicity of blameworthy actions coming from a variety of sources. What interests me is looking toward positive ways forward; anything that offers that, I support, and anything that does not I remain neutral or oppose. (My response depends on the specific action – some cause harm, some simply do no real good.)

The PC(USA) has frequently tried to support Palestinians – particularly Palestinian Christians. That is a laudable emphasis. But the PC(USA)’s stance has often been morally problematic.

I admit, I have allowed myself to be distracted in the past by issues of process – whether GA actions have been followed by employees and permanent committees of the denomination either in spirit or in letter; whether PC(USA) officials egregiously misrepresented those actions in an attempt to get the best spin; whether incomplete, false, or misleading information was provided by employees and committees to voting commissioners; whether PC(USA) statements and actions reflect the beliefs of ordinary Presbyterians. All of these can be argued, but they’re irrelevant.

Exponentially more important are three things: 1) The PC(USA) has demonstrated an extraordinary degree of bias. In order to take moral stands, a modicum of fundamental fairness is needed. That has been noticeably lacking. 2) The PC(USA) has provided non-factual information. For a stand to be moral it must be based in truth. 3) The PC(USA) and its partners have often trespassed into the realm of classical antisemitism. Of these, the first two are problematic; the third is reprehensible.

Commissioners to the 220th General Assembly have another opportunity. They can choose to embrace bias, to embrace untruth, to embrace classical antisemitism. They can choose to reject these. Or they can choose to pretend all three are not happening.

In the past I have erred. I have sought to persuade… I have argued… I have pled… that denominational officials do something about bias and particularly antisemitic discourse, that commissioners take their responsibilities seriously and insist on full information before they vote on anything to do with the Middle East, that ruling and teaching elders get involved, that members and attenders pay attention and require basic fairness from their denomination. At a minimum I had hoped that antisemitic discourse would not be regarded as an acceptable norm within a 21st Century US denomination. And I believed that presenting information would have an impact. For the most part these pleas have reached deaf ears, have been met with yawns and hollow denials.

I won’t do that any more. My role now is to observe. Denominational officials, commissioners, members, ruling and teaching elders, members, attenders: do what you want. Do what seems good to you. I can’t pretend I don’t care; and I certainly won’t stop commenting. But I won’t plead anymore.

Posts about the 2010 General Assembly can be found at the PC(USA) on Israel and Palestine 2010.

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