the 221st General Assembly

Posts tagged ‘ACSWP’

Presbyterian BDS: What you want is irrelevant, what you have chosen is at hand


When the gavel fell, the 221st General Assembly officially concluded, the commissioners began to make their ways home, and the Committee On Local Arrangements was left to clean up the details, the official PC(USA) was firmly aligned with the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. This is not really arguable in any credible way.

Now I realize this assessment will be met with protests of commissioners, of many institutional Presbyterians, and quite a few local Presbyterians. I also realize many of those protests will be offered with sincerity, honesty, and confidence. But they will be mistaken.

The language of Item 04-04 – the divestment measure, reflects the desire of commissioners to avoid association with the global BDS movement.

For example, it begins with this:

“The PC(USA) has a long standing commitment to peace in Israel and Palestine. We recognize the complexity of the issues, the decades-long struggle, the pain suffered and inflicted by policies and practices of both the Israeli government and Palestinian entities. We further acknowledge and confess our own complicity in both the historic and current suffering of Israeli and Palestinian yearning for justice and reconciliation…” [sic]

For some inscrutable reason, the text falls off into tortured grammar here. And while it might be possible to discern commissioner intent, it is really rather nonsensical. Nonetheless, it is pretty clear that the ‘prologue’ is designed to indicate that Presbyterians are really swell people who really get the complexity of the issue and mean nothing but good for everybody concerned.

Next, commissioners generously reaffirm Israel’s right to exist … not so much as a Jewish state, but something.

Then they declare their commitment to a two-state solution.

But the real clincher … the proof that their BDS is nothing at all like global BDS lies in the same paragraph as their divestment instruction:

“This action on divestment is not to be construed or represented by any organization of the PC(USA) as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.”

So there you have it … Nothing to see here, folks … This is not BDS … We’re doing this out of love ….

Some of their words might sound good. Some of them might sound kind. Some of them might sound vaguely Christian – and I have no doubt they want their “stand” to be genuinely good.

There’s only one tiny, little problem: their actions.

What General Assembly Commissioners, what Presbyterian officials, what naïve supporters want is irrelevant. What they have chosen is at hand.

Let’s look at that.

1. First there is divestment itself. Contrary to popular myth, the companies selected for this special treatment (Caterpillar, Motorola, Hewlett Packard) were not chosen at random. They were already targets of a then embryonic BDS movement. Anyone who has paid any attention at all to the BDS movement knows their campaigns specifically targeting these companies. If there was some other method, some other rubric the MRTI applied to evaluate the then current and potential holdings of the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation, it has not been revealed. How then did they zero in on these particular companies? Ecumenical partners? Well some of these are the very BDS activists who issued the Amman Call [The PC(USA) commended this call for BDS in 2008.] and the Kairos Palestine document [the PC(USA) endorsed elements of this in 2010].

Committee 4 (essentially a sub-committee of the GA) that evaluated the proposed divestment recommendation and endorsed it, was staffed with resource people who offered one perspective only. I mean here, specifically, an anti-Israel perspective. Interestingly Rifat Kassis spoke to both this committee and the General Assembly as a whole. Mr. Kassis is coordinator of Kairos Palestine; he has publicly endorsed a total boycott of Israel.

Anna Baltzer, national organizer for the BDS US Campaign to End the Occupation said this prior to the General Assembly:

…Inspired by our Presbyterian friends an [sic] allies, the US Campaign is mobilizing around the clock before and at the votes — everying [sic] from organizing outreach to decision makers to testifying in committee as an official resource expert.”

Pro-BDS former Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase spoke to the committee for half an hour. He was the moderator of GA 216 that first approved divestment in 2004.

More than one commissioners from Committee 4 expressed concern on the floor of the General Assembly plenary about the lack of balance in information available to the committee. From beginning to end, the divestment action has the fingerprints of the global BDS movement all over it.

2. Second, the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA) took conflicting, inconsistent, and self-contradictory actions. And their actions were more telling than their words.

While voting to assure the world of their commitment to a two-state solution, this same General Assembly also voted to initiate a study on whether the PC(USA) should continue to support a two-state solution. It put this study in the hands of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy – a permanent committee of the General Assembly whose record of anti-Israel animus is well-documented. This GA also insisted that the ACSWP use horribly flawed and inaccurate materials and consult with the IPMN (an unspecified, but the only relevant mission network) and the National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus. After Zionism Unsettled, the involvement of the IPMN in ANY study that concerns Israel should set off alarm bells even for the harshest Presbyterian critics of Israel.

This GA voted to assert that Zionism Unsettled – a resource endorsed by, among others, David Duke – did not reflect the views of the PC(USA), but it also voted to have the PC(USA) continue to distribute it.

This GA also voted to affirm “Occupation Free Investment in Palestine”. It commended the efforts of the pro-BDS Presbyterian Peace Fellowship’s efforts to “excludes any investment in enterprises that benefit financially from the operations of the occupation, including the expansion of settlements.”

Yes, this GA rejected the proposal “On Distinguishing Between Biblical Terms for Israel and Those Applied to the Modern Political State of Israel in Christian Liturgy”; but it insisted on adding a cryptic comment:

[W]e take the matter of language, and specifically the tension around the use of the term “Israel,” very seriously. We hope the discussion and education about the use of language continues.

Though it may be self-evident to commissioners, it causes others to wonder exactly what they are saying here. What is the nature of the distinction they wish to make, and what exactly are they trying to educate people about? One likely interpretation of this is that it is an attempt to cut the Jewish people off from their biblical heritage. Given the comments of some Presbyterian activists on the subject, it would not be unreasonable to assume that hateful meaning.

3. Third, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is not just divesting. It is already on the record as boycotting “all Israeli products coming from the occupied Palestinian Territories, including AHAVA Dead Sea Laboratories Beauty Products and all date products of Hadiklaim, The Israel Date Growers Co-Operative Ltd, often marked by the brand names: King Solomon Dates and Jordan River (not Israeli products from Israel.)” It has already “called on [its ecumenical partners] to join in the boycott.”

When the PC(USA) has called “upon all nations to prohibit the import of products made by enterprises in Israeli settlements on Palestinian land”, or when it has called upon conditioning US funding of Israel to various behaviors of Israel, it has been calling for sanctions.

The bottom line here is that any claim that divesting from companies chosen by BDS activists, boycotting products chosen by BDS activists, using BDS activists as resource persons in the committee which considered the divestment proposition – as if they were unbiased and credible sources of information, commending the Occupation Free Fund and other more stringent divestment vehicles, calling for sanctions … has every bit as much credibility as sentences that begin, “I’m not a racist, but ….”

Yes, I know this is not what the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA) wants, but it is what it has chosen.

 

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Reflections on the PCUSA GA221


 Over the next couple of days I’m going to address what just happened at the PC(USA)’s 221st General Assembly in Detroit.

I’m a sucker for quotes – a personality quirk.

As I was considering the events of the PC(USA)’s 221st General Assembly while the smoke clears, several quotes leapt to my mind:

“All the king’s horses, and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

“Only ignorance! only ignorance! how can you talk about only ignorance? Don’t you know that it is the worst thing in the world, next to wickedness? — and which does the most mischief heaven only knows.” – from Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty

“I don’t hold jail against a man, but I hate a liar.” – Will Anderson (John Wayne) in the Cowboys

There is no curse in Elvish, Entish, or the tongues of men for this treachery.” – from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers

But two quotations stood out as apt reflections of my thoughts on the assembly: “What you want is irrelevant, what you have chosen is at hand.” – Spock to Valeris in Star Trek VI; and, “The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.” – from 2 Peter 2:22.

My next two posts will address each of these quotes.

 

PCUSA GA Committee 4: another gift that keeps on giving


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.

Balance, Bias, and other Four Letter Words


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? (more…)

Majority Report: Committee 15 proposals specifically targeting Israel


At this moment, GA Committee 15 has eleven items on its proposed docket. [By this I mean to indicate GA 220 Committee 15 composed of commissioners who will deliberate on Middle East and Peacemaking Issues – not a permanent standing committee.] Of these eleven items, seven directly target Israel for criticism and/or action. One, item 15-04, supports “peaceful, diplomatic means to resolve tensions forming … between the U.S. and Iran”. It does mention Israel tangentially – but the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) makes the issue entirely about Israel and insists that the overture “points to the continued power of Israeli and U.S. political leaders and interests who favor unilateral war”. Three items recommend a different course for the PC(USA).

Israel = Apartheid Proposal

In item 15-01 the Presbytery of Muskingum Valley calls on GA 220 “to recognize that Israel’s laws, policies, and practices constitute apartheid against the Palestinian people.” This overture is supported by ACREC, the Presbyteries of San Francisco, the Palisades, the Redwoods, and by the Synod of the Covenant. ACSWP offers a modified resolution.

 

Divestment Proposals

Items 15-03, 15-08, and 15-11 call for the PC(USA) to place Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions to be placed on the General Assembly Divestment List. (Oddly, item 15-03 from the Presbytery of San Francisco enumerates only Caterpillar but mentions the other two companies in its rationale.)

This divestment proposal is advanced by the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) and the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC). It is endorsed by the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC), ACSWP, the Presbyteries of New Brunswick, North Puget Sound, Scioto Valley, San Francisco, and Palisades, and by the Synod of the Covenant.

 

Boycott Proposals

Item 15-02 is an overture from the Presbytery of San Francisco calling for the boycott of certain products from the Occupied Territories. It is supported by ACREC, ACSWP, the Presbyteries of New Brunswick and Scioto Valley, and by the Synod of the Covenant.

In item 15-06, the Presbytery of Scioto Valley calls for a response to the Kairos document, particularly in its emphasis on boycott and divestment. This overture is supported by the Presbyteries of Genesee Valley and Northern New England, and by the Synod of the Covenant.

 

Other (Astonishing) Criticism

Item 15-09 is in a class by itself. In this curious overture, the Presbytery of San Jose urges the General Assembly to:

  1. 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.
  2. Commend the U. S. State Department for reporting on the failure of Israel to protect Christian Holy sites throughout Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.
  3. Urge the Israeli government to end any and all religious discriminatory practices.
  4. Urge the Israeli government to enforce its own legal obligation to protect Christian holy sites throughout Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.
  5. Direct that the Stated Clerk contact President Obama and the Israeli ambassador to the U. S. asking them to assist in ending all religious discriminatory practices and to protect religious groups’ holy sites in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.

ACREC and ACSWP support this overture.

As observers consider this docket, a very warped picture emerges. The fact that the climate is so weighted in one direction will dictate the tenor of the conversation in Committee 15. It is true that commissioners have less actual material to consider than they did two years ago. At the same time, it is clear that the institutional weight of the PC(USA) supports a particular, lopsided viewpoint. Commissioner depending on information from PC(USA) sources will be hard pressed to hear opinions that differ from what is effectively a majority report.

I’m tempted to say they might as well just place these proposals on the consent agenda for GA 220’s giant rubber stamp and have done with it.

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.

 

 

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