The General Assembly is now considering Middle East Issues.
If you’re interested, you can follow it live here.
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…)
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:
What a GA 220 divestment decision will do:
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  Middle East and Peacemaking Issues. (I will look more closely at several of these in subsequent posts.)
When you examine the business before Committee  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.
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.