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.