the 221st General Assembly

Posts tagged ‘GA 220’

BIAS


Divestment – as proposed to the PC(USA)’s 220th General Assembly – is a silly notion. If implemented, it will have little or no effect. It will not be a moral stand for justice or peace. It will, in fact, not be particularly moral at all. It is not an act of conscience or leadership. It will not display integrity or consistency. It is, in short, a non-issue. In fact, Presbyterians (like Ananias and Sapphira) can do whatever they want with their own money.

The singling out of Israel for special attention and criticism for religious discrimination is bigoted, immoral, and absurd.

But these are distractions from the main issue. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)’s witness on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been compromised by a crippling, long-standing, institutional bias against Israel, and an excessive toleration for and occasional indulgence in antisemitic themes. Unless this systemic problem is first recognized, admitted, and addressed, any wisdom, comment, advocacy, stand, or suggestion of the PC(USA) on Middle East issues will be received only by those people who share the same biases. This is true even where the PC(USA) is most right in its observations. At the same time, the very people Presbyterians most need and desire to persuade will respond with hostility. And that hostility will be perfectly justified in the face of bias and antisemitic themes.

This is a simple fact; but it is one that will be evaded by many Presbyterians (ordinary members, GA commissioners, denominational officials, pastors, national staff) using whatever means present themselves.

For example, in Unbound, the ACSWP’s online magazine, writers have sought to inoculate commissioners against allegations of antisemitism by casting them as a reaction to divestment designed to cause conflict in the church. They have it backwards. They seem to imagine that because sometimes criticism of Israel is unjustly labeled biased or antisemitic, and because they are vocal critics of Israel, that they are somehow immune to actual bias and antisemitism. It is an astounding leap – bias and antisemitism are the actual problems encountered within the PC(USA), but they don’t have to examine those issues because they are critics of Israel?

I have said this many times before, but it needs said again. Criticism of Israel is criticism of Israel. Bias against Israel – such as holding Israel to a standard distinct from and harsher than that applied to other nations – is bias against Israel. Antisemitism – prejudices against the Jewish people generally AND classical antisemitic themes and claims – is antisemitism. The three are three distinct things. In some cases, it does happen that one motivates another; but that is not always the case.

It is clear the PC(USA) is critical of Israel. I also find the PC(USA) – at least in its national offices, permanent committees, mission networks, staff – to be biased against Israel. Additionally, I find these have a high tolerance for and occasional indulgence in the directly antisemitic. It is needful at this point to illustrate the types of things I’m talking about.

[The following list is intended as illustration, not as representation. It merely demonstrates the recurrence of certain attitudes and themes throughout the organization.]

Presbyterian Statements on Israel, Judaism, and the Jews

“What DO [emphasis in original] Moslems believe? Moslems believe in the Immaculate Conception; Jews do not. Moslems believe in the sanctity and holiness of Jesus (but not his deity) whereas Jews think of Him as an illegitimate son. Moslems today believe in Jesus as the Messiah, whereas Jews do not. Moslem s believe in Jesus [sic] second coming and pray for it in earnest, while Jews are still awaiting the first appearance of a Messiah.”

          – Israel Palestine Mission Network of the PC(USA) (IPMN) slide presentation assembled in preparation for the 217th General Assembly (slide 17)

“If we are not careful, Christian churches in the Holy Land will turn into Museums and be on tours run by Jewish tour guides as if in a theme park.”

          – quote attributed to the Archbishop of Canterbury quoted in IPMN slide presentation (slide 18)

“Christian Zionists who advocate the rebuilding of the Temple are regressing into a pre-Christian sacrificial system, superseded, made redundant and annulled by the finished work (sacrifice) of Jesus Christ.”

          – quote attributed to Stephen Sizer in IMPN slide presentation

“The Jewish groups go nuts every time we make any statement they interpret as favorable to Palestine or the Palestinians.”

          – Jerry L. Van Marter, Presbyterian News Service director – quoted in New Jersey Jewish News

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

          – Ron Stone, then Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) member, professor of ethics at PC(USA)’s Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, content editor for Church and Society, a Journal of the PC(USA)’s ACSWP

“It is ironic that, in the Judaeo[sic]-Christian milieu of this nation, the church’s appeals, for over five decades, to the convictions of faith, to the biblical mandate of justice, and to moral consciousness have fallen largely on deaf ears. But when Mammon was aroused, flood gates of anger broke loose.”

          – Dr. Victor Makari, then coordinator for the PC(USA)’s Office of the Middle East and Europe – in “Some Disputed Barricade”, Church and Society, a journal of the PC(USA)’s ACSWP

“We’ve divested from companies involved in human rights abuses in places like the Sudan. And now, as we see those same abuses continued and being carried out in Israel and Palestine it seemed it was very important to apply that same commitment to socially responsible investment in this area of the world.”

          – Rev. Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, former Stated Clerk of the General Assembly – interviewed in “Divestment from Violence”, min 4:35

“I see a church packed with Christians in predominantly Muslim Amman, Jordan—most of them from families displaced by the 1948 invasion of Palestine by Israeli soldiers.”

          – Rev. Dr. Susan Andrews, Moderator of the 215th General Assembly of the PC(USA), Middle East Study Committee (MESC) member

“The phrase “the right of Israel to exist” is a source of pain for some members of the 2009–2010 Middle East Study Committee, who are in solidarity with Palestinians who feel that the state of Israel has denied them their inalienable human rights.”

          – MESC Report

The way the U.S. government supports Israel is a form of terrorism. You are using government helicopters and F-16s. This is the worst kind of terror!”

          – Dr. Nahida Gordon, MESC member, Middle East Monitoring Group member, IPMN treasurer

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.

           – IPMN letter to commissioners, 2010

By neglecting the reality on the ground, this report would “make nice” with certain American Jewish organizations … that have provided … support for the Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestinian lands since 1948, and used threat and intimidation to censor debate about Israel within and without the Jewish community. A report that confesses Christian guilt for the past and calls for changes in our theology and practice but neglects to mention the contribution of American synagogues to the oppression of Palestinians over the past six decades appears to us as inauthentic interfaith dialogue.”

           – IPMN letter to commissioners, 2010

Expansionist forms of political and religious Zionism have been major ideological forces behind the confiscation of Palestinian land and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by every Israeli administration since 1948 … recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” is one example of this ideology.”

           – IPMN letter to commissioners, 2010

The package (a bomb?) sent to 100 Witherspoon St in 2004, the fire in a Rochester church, the picketing of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship event at GA when Professor Norman Finkelstein was a featured speaker, and the many visits of teams of Jewish neighbors to local Presbyterian churches are examples of these tactics.”

           – IPMN letter to commissioners accusing American Jewish organizations of arson and terrorist acts that NEVER HAPPENED, 2010

The founding narrative of the State of Israel links the modern-day Jews’ claim to the land of Israel/Palestine to their direct genealogical descent from the ancient Israelites. Recent anthropological scholarship shows that this widespread belief is very likely a myth, not historical fact. Shlomo Sand, an expert on European history at the university of Tel Aviv, and author of When and How Was the Jewish People Invented? posits that the Jews were never exiled en masse from the Holy Land and that many European Jewish populations converted to the faith centuries later. Thus, he argues, many of today’s Israelis who emigrated from Europe after World War II have little or no genealogical connection to the ancient land of Israel.

           – IPMN website posting. Here the IPMN is not advancing an argument that is inextricably linked to the vilest forms of antisemitism. They’re only innocently talking about Shlomo Sand’s opinions.

[W]hy were the Palestinians deemed to be an expendable people for the purpose of assuaging the guilt of Western Christianity?

           – Dr. Nahida Gordon

I know how … viciously attacked any truth-tellers are by majority voices in the American Jewish community… I personally plead for a reversal of the apartheid actions that now are integral to Israeli … policy. …[T]he ghastly wall … is such a reminder of the Soviet unjust endeavor to exclude. And I would hope for the negotiation of a land swap that will inconvenience the fewest possible Palestinians and Israelis in a realistic understanding that, as painful as it is, the clock cannot be turned all the way back to 1948 but that reparations can be made.”

           – John Huffman, MESC member

““Israel acts as a spoiled child,” remarked one Israeli activist. “America has helped create this undisciplined child. It depends on the U.S. for its lifeline of funding and weapons.” She continued to say “that even though the state of Israel is supposed to be a democracy, it acts as a NAZI state.” She did not feel she could live in the country much longer if it continued to be an oppressor, ignoring human rights.”

           – Lucy Janjigian, MESC member, here innocently quotes an unnamed Israeli activist

In this season of Lent, it seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of Palestinians around him. It only takes people of insight to see the hundreds of thousands of crosses throughout the land, Palestinian men, women, and children being crucified. Palestine has become one huge Golgotha. The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull.”

           – Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek, founder of PC(USA) partner organization, the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center

Bereft of power to do otherwise, we stand and watch as a whole people is victimized, terrorized, debased, degraded, and even slaughtered. A madness has absorbed Israel, and a war criminal sits in its highest position of power. Under his direction, genocide is being perpetrated, and there is none able to stand against him except the desperate people who are his victims … We feel the presence of the Prince of Darkness . . .. On the day that marked the outbreak of the new Intifada his servant was grinning into the press cameras as he paraded through the Muslim sanctuary with the intention to desecrate. And that same servant went on to assert his rule over the instruments of force and coercion and degradation. His faithfulness to his master is long standing.”

           – Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour, general secretary of the PC(USA) ecumenical partner the Middle East Council of Churches

The efforts, often violent, to establish a Jewish homeland on land occupied for millennia by Palestinians have been a source of the resentments that lead to terrorism … Violence may quite understandably arise from within a group that presently feels it has been deprived of the use and control of the land over which it has had a long period of recent control.”

           – ACSWP document approved by the 216th General Assembly

…the only “just” solution is ONE binational state, with equal rights for all the citizens. YES, this means NOT a Jewish state, whose idea is an anachronism, anyway.

           – Noushin Framke, IPMN communications director, Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) member

Kairos Palestine’s call for BDS today is as if the Jews in 1930’s Germany had been able to rise up and boycott everything German in an effort to wake the world up regarding Nazi oppression and genocide.”

           – IPMN press release

The singular triumph of the Zionist movement is that it invented a state and a people – Israel and the Israelis – from scratch.

           – IPMN quote from facebook page

The modern nation of Israel resembles the ancient nation of Judah, not only in the gathering darkness, but in the greed and injustice that has corrupted the people as a whole. That greed and injustice is a cancer at the very core of Zionism.

           – Rev Craig Hunter, opening sermon, IPMN annual meeting, October 19, 2010, Chicago, IL

Commissioners to the 220th General Assembly might be best advised to pause before making statements or taking actions that criticize, condemn, and judge others in an area where their credibility is impaired, and first set their own glass house in order.

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.

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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