the 221st General Assembly

Posts tagged ‘politics’

My Problem with the PCUSA GA221


 Like many Presbyterians, I haven’t gotten enough sleep this week. It takes so little to make me happy: a fresh pot of coffee, a sermon that is biblical, finding a song I like on the radio, a new book – almost any book, conversations, a watchable movie, even the weather. Last night I watched a strong thunderstorm for over an hour; it held my attention the entire time.

 But when I’m tired, all bets are off. I have to be very careful exactly how I react to things. I am overly tempted to kibitz, make snarky statements, respond in kind to unkindness, and indulge in occasionally satisfying, but not entirely helpful, rhetoric.

 Watching the PC(USA) General Assembly from afar is an experience almost designed as an irritant. I was going to keep it at arms length because almost everything that can be said, has been said. Now it’s all just words. I was all set to watch a repeat of a Dexter episode … it was either that or follow the excruciating GA committee process. Maybe I should have stuck with the Dexter episode.

(I imagine it is a sad comment when a story about a serial killer strikes me as more appealing than the GA, but that’s a separate matter.)

It should be noted, I am not now a member of the PC(USA) denomination. (I have not been for a few years. In an odd twist of circumstance, I am currently attending a PC(USA) church. And I have suspected a couple of times that my very presence causes them problems with presbytery. But that’s a story for another time.) The thing is, I have only ever been a member of the PC(USA). I have only ever been an elder in the PC(USA) – a function of the ‘warm body theory’ that governs in so many of our smaller churches. I like my local church; love the people – they are many of my friends. I have ties (of family, friendship, and participation) to several local PC(USA) churches.

So … I can’t escape it. Like it or not, what happens in the PC(USA), and what a General Assembly does affects me. And I find, no matter how troubling I might find a GA, I cannot look away. Worse, I find that I tend to be harder on or expect more from the PC(USA) than I might from, say, the National Education Association, the Teamsters, the Masons, or the GOP.

A few things about this General Assembly process bother me – more than they seem to bother others.

  1. Because I am following this from a distance, I am obliged to read twitter feeds, comments, reports, and opinions from people more on the scene. Frequently enough, I can’t resist responding – at least to their more outrageous or false statements. Sometimes I just get picky. I have a relatively low tolerance for false and misleading statements – whether the speakers believe them or not. I also have a relatively low tolerance for hearing the same old arguments that don’t hold water – that are based on false premises, that aren’t logical. Most of the time, I bite my tongue (Yes … most of the time I do). Not always.

    More troubling than these is the contempt that people show for their opponents. The jokes they try to make that aren’t funny. The way they refer to the OTHER … and just because you think yourself progressive doesn’t make your anti-Other bigotry less odious. Disagreeing is one thing; soundly criticizing and argument – no problem; objecting to a behavior – OK. But this goes much, much farther. It amounts to trying to make a joke out of people you don’t like. I read so many comments insulting people AS people. And always, it was justified because, well, if they weren’t bad or ridiculous, they wouldn’t think different thoughts than you do.

    I have zero patience with this. I find it an extremely ugly feature of the PC(USA) General Assembly.

  2. I am troubled by the great gulf fixed between the actual time and effort commissioners put into decided very difficult issues and the praise they heap on themselves and others heap on them. The fact is, many of these issues are intensely complicated. And horribly few people have enough knowledge and experience to decide them effectively.

    This GA, for example, approved a policy they called “Tax Justice”. Now, most of us can agree that the US tax system needs some work. Yet, only the tiniest portion of commissioners who voted for this understood the complexities they were swimming in. Instead, the committee relied on the expertise of the ACSWP. Such an uncritical reliance is NOT expending the effort needed to make wise decisions. Instead, this is the action of a rubber stamp committee. It is questionable whether the ACSWP put in a lot of work that wasn’t simply recycled from other progressive talking points.

    [As a matter of personal opinion, I happen to agree with a couple of features of this particular measure, but in toto, I think it somewhat horrifying.]

    However you may feel about individual actions, there is a bottom line. Without doing the work, commissioners are making pronouncements that are inescapably arrogant. Please understand, commissioners are run ragged at a General Assembly – but the time limits and workload has the effect of precluding competence. Apropos of their approach to this, the GA is being praised today because it managed to ‘complete’ its work yesterday an hour and a half early.

    Much better for everyone if they’d attempt to do fewer things better.

  3. Process is important to me. Presbyterians historically valued the admonition, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” What I have seen here – and in fact, my limited experience in presbytery meetings and watching other General Assemblies – are rampant violations of process. And the majority doesn’t much mind this because they like the outcomes.

    To me, that is inexcusable. I am persuaded that getting a desired outcome at the expense of correct process – for example, failure to give full and correct information, weighting a committee in one direction, biased moderation, peculiar parliamentary rulings – is immoral.

    This really doesn’t seem to bother people all that much. If they’re on the losing side, they know (rightly) that it isn’t fair – and therefore isn’t right and is hardly the type of action that should be carried out by a church. If they’re on the winning side, it’s all good. Or worse, their powers of rationalization allow them to lie about it – even to the point of not seeing it.

    Institutional Presbyterians have liked the phrase, “Speaking truth to power”. Now, in some instances, they have been right. But in their own processes, they fail to acknowledge that they are the ones in power. Who will speak the truth to them?

    The thing is, if there is an established process, if there is a set of rules everyone agrees to, then the unempowered minority has legitimate avenues for action. They can (and usually try to) advocate for their positions. If, however, this process is warped – I would term it corruption even where it benefits me, because that is how I see it – but more charitably, if there are procedural irregularities, unempowered minorities – the losers – are left without redress. They have no recourse. Sure, the winners make a big (and patronizing) show about unity and reconciliation, and preach to them about how they should act, but they leave them no practical options. It rings false. And to compound this with seeming gracious, spiritual sounding and quasi-Christian words is more demeaning than helpful. It is the same voice always used by the powerful toward the unempowered.

  4. I am appalled by the use of Christianity for alien political ends. Worship times designed to support certain desired vote outcomes strike me as positively obscene. [One example of this occurred in Committee 4 – Middle East Issues. During her devotions, the vice moderator decided to draw the attention of her committee to the fact that Jesus wasn’t afraid to tell the Jews that they were wrong. Of course, she seems to overlook the fact that Christianity teaches both that Jesus was Jewish, and that Jesus was God incarnate.]

    I have a bias here. I have a distaste for the practice of politics. I also find that Christianity rejects utterly the pursuit of money, political power and influence. It rejects the desire to get my way, to extend my influence, to use my money as leverage. To me, divestment is a prime example of grossly misplaced priorities. At its heart, divestment is more about Presbyterians’ (self-perception of their) money, political power, and influence, than anything else. My very first reaction to the 2004 divestment decision was this: why exactly does a Christian church [sic] have billions of dollars in investments? This very fact disturbed me – something about “Silver and gold have I none …” and camels and eyes of needles. But to use those investments as a weapon … and then claim to be speaking prophetically …. It was more than I could bear.

    Here again there is a bottom line: using religious speech to attain some other goal – no matter how much we might want it – proclaims that we believe our religion, indeed our ‘god’, exists to be used. Presbyterians – like all of us – can either work to get our way, to remake the world as we think it should be, to acquire wealth and use it as a weapon, to expand our influence in this world, or Presbyterians can follow the spirit and teachings of the New Testament. They cannot at the same time do both. None of us can.

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Similar Coins


I’m highlighting a post from my other blog. This is not about the PC(USA) on Israel and Palestine. It is not about the PC(USA) at all. But it has a certain relevance.

No matter how much I grouse about this fact, the PC(USA) bears a striking similarity to the secular political landscape. Naturally, the PC(USA), like most mainline denominations, has made numerous forays into secular politics. For all the prophetic church language, these stances have been identical to secular political stances. But that’s what I’m talking about.

There are two overarching, meta-narrative sorts of philosophies in secular politics. You might call them progressive and conservative. You might imagine them as right or left wing. And this has been the case for literally centuries. Multi-party systems suffer from the same (to my mind clumsy and inaccurate) groupings. There are parties of the left and parties of the right. To form coalitions, these really mimic a two party system.

For the last four decades, the PC(USA) and its predecessors have seen a similar struggle between progressives and conservatives. All but the most ostrich-like would have to concede that the conservative side has lost ground on every front. Now in a church setting these have considerable theological meanings not found in secular politics. But the setup is essentially the same. PC(USA) internal politics and secular politics are not two sides of the same coin, but two very similar coins.

One of the reasons for this similarity is, in fact, the intrusion of secular politics into the PC(USA). But that is an inescapable side-effect of theological progressivism. While individual self-identified theological progressives may not share this view, progressivism as a philosophy / theology equates secular political action with spiritual act.

I am persuaded that one of the reasons for the failure of conservatives within the PC(USA) – whether there concerns are theological, spiritual, or political – is a feature also found among conservatives in secular politics. The situation is not identical, but the premise is.

 

Conservatives – mostly in the GOP, but also in other far smaller parties – are foundering. They may or may not do well this November, but that’s quite beside the point. The problem is, even if they do quite well, they will remain unable to actualize a conservative vision.

 

(From my point of view, this has been the case for my entire life. Even when their rhetoric wins, even when they convince enough of the American people they are right, that rhetoric is not translated into policy. Which is, of course, the only point of politics. Policy is all that matters – not on discreet issues but across the board. The fact is, there have been discreet issue policy changes, but the overall, across-the-board policy direction that is decidedly not conservative, continues basically unabated.)

 

No doubt conservatives will argue with this assessment. While progressives may also deny its truth – that is more for public consumption. The basic fact is that the country has been and continues to move in a particular direction. Attribute it to cultural evolution, to the tide of history, degeneration, to whatever framework appeals to you – but it is an overall truth.

 

Of late, conservatives, and the GOP in particular, has struggled more than usual.

 

This is not a product of a hostile media – though conservatives do have far fewer media allies than progressives. It is not a product of IRS and related government suppression of conservatives – though that is appallingly anti-Constitutional and an abuse of power. It is not the result of their failure to reach out to minority groups – though their efforts have been less than effective. It isn’t even the result of the great appeal of progressive arguments – they’re not markedly superior to conservative ones. All of these may be factors, but they’re minor factors.

 

The main problem is that conservatives suffer from big tent syndrome. I don’t mean here that conservatism is a big tent, but that there are four or five different types of conservative. These have conflicting goals and priorities. They have incompatible philosophies. For these reason, conservatives have been unable to select compelling national candidates; conservatives have been unable to articulate a clear point of view; conservatives have fought nasty and personal battles among themselves – that are, at times, as beyond the pale as anything progressives are able to throw at them; conservatives have singularly lacked the ability to unite around their common ground. And most importantly, conservative voters have faced the choice of voting for what they see as the lesser of two evils, or staying home.

 

I personally believe the GOP will continue to founder until it decides what it truly is. I notice that progressives have the same problem on paper – progressive subgroups want mutually exclusive policies – but when it comes to campaigns, they don’t seem to suffer from the same effect. Read the rest of this entry »

 

2 The Sad Truth


Over the course of my life, I have often been told “the sad truth”. The sad truth usually consisted in rehearsing my errors and sins. It was often told dishonestly – the speakers held motives of their own distinct from improving my character. It was often told hypocritically – the speakers had little room to talk. I usually responded with defensiveness and disbelief. In my mind, I quoted King Lear: “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.” And I suspect that is a common human reaction.

But it is a mistake. Whatever real or imagined motives the speakers carry, whatever hypocrisies they demonstrate, the accuracy of their charges remains unaffected. If the sad truth they are telling is indeed true, we ignore it to our peril.

There are few things we resist with such tenacity as that which we do not want to admit. (more…)

1. A Word


It is possible – even highly likely – that some Presbyterians desire a Middle East witness that is true, that is credible, that is ethical, that is fair. It is also highly likely that there are Christians in other denominations and people of other faiths who are concerned with the poisonous atmosphere created by bias and by the irresponsible use of antisemitic themes.

It is conceivable that quite a few people recognize the plight and the legitimate claims to justice of many Palestinian Christians and Muslims, but do not want to adopt the jingoism and hysterical one-sidedness that often accompanies over simplified solidarity campaigns. It is conceivable that quite a few people who recognize this will also recognize the fact that Israelis have legitimate claims to justice as well. (more…)

Where to Now St. Peter?


In Pittsburgh, the smoke clears, and the dust settles. The PC(USA) has emerged from its 220th General Assembly, having received its due flurry of media attention. Now the denomination, like a groundhog that’s seen its shadow, will recede from public notice and go about business of its own. A fair number of members and attenders of Presbyterian churches around the country remain unaware that anything even took place. At most, they will eventually receive a summary of the points someone, somewhere considers noteworthy. Observers are unlikely to get a clear picture of events.

What just happened? What does it mean really? What road is the PC(USA) on now? How do you even evaluate a General Assembly?

Is it like American Idol? “This assembly was in it to win it”. “What we really love about you is that you stay true to yourself.” “It was a bit pitchy for me.” “That was like really bad karaoke.” “It was appalling.” Will Americans have an opportunity to call in and vote? (more…)

Consolation Prizes


The overture to boycott all products produced by Jews in the West Bank passed.

Of course, the effects of this will be minimal – relatively few Presbyterians are aware of or participate in denominational boycotts.

 

A Story


[The following is a work of fiction. It is only an imaginary meeting.]

 

Somewhere in Pittsburgh, late into the night, Divestment Presbyterians are meeting, regrouping, making plans. The heat and humidity make them irritable. The news makes them irritable. Among them are some Presbyterian heavy hitters whose combined experience of navigating and influencing General Assemblies is staggering. They are filled with wrath and malice. They have come too far and worked too long to be rebuffed by a couple of nobody commissioners from the middle of East nowhere. Who do they think they are? How dare commissioners challenge their advice? How dare the Zionist rabbis try to tell Presbyterians what to do?

The room goes silent as a man enters the meeting late. He looks benign – almost soft – a kindly grandfather. They know better. They’ve seen how very clever he can be … and how very vindictive. And they defer to him like an elder statesman. He refuses to let anger dull their cunning. Only the calm and the calculating succeed. But they must get it out first – place the blame where it belongs. “You sure made a mess of things. It looks like it’s good thing I got here when I did.” (more…)

Committee 15


I admit it. I’m not overly kindly disposed toward GA Committee 15 at the moment. I am persuaded that, whatever the circumstances, commissioners are personally responsible for their recommendations and decisions. I was preparing a scathing post; its working title was “Oooh, You Must Be So Proud”.

But I decided it would be unhelpful at this stage. (Not inaccurate or even unfair – just indulgent.)

Instead, I want to recommend a more enlightening post written by Viola Larson on her blog, Naming His Grace

The 220th GA’s Middle East and Peacemaking Issues committee and too many controls” provides insight into the workings of Presbyterian General Assemblies. I can attest that her observations of the processes of this committee conform to what I have personally witness in other GA committees. Please read her whole entry.

Describing this committee, Larson says:

The contingent of resource people guiding the Middle East and Peacemaking Issues committee was the controlling factor. In fact, most items voted on by members of committee 15 were carefully and tightly controlled by a whole gamut of people, some interested in a one state solution, delegitimization of Israel, apartheid, the Boycott, Divestment Sanctions movement (BDS), and even people who are truly anti-Semitic.

She concludes,

It is truly unfair for a committee, who has been chosen to seek the mind of Christ and vote on policies for the church, to be overwhelmed with so many institutional Presbyterian organizations all with the same viewpoints about Israel—some of course more extreme than others. Resources are good and helpful, but this was too much of a good thing.

July 3 Updates


I caution readers against acting on misinformation – as this committee is not the General Assembly. It will only make recommendations which must then be approved by the plenary. So … none of this is final. But people should be made aware of Committee 15’s current “progress”. Yep … that’s what they call it.

First, Committee 15 has voted to recommend divestment (36 in favor, 8 opposed, 1 abstained).

Second, the committee has endorsed a boycott of all products made by Jews in the West Bank (37 in favor, 8 opposed).

At the moment Committee 15 is discussing whether or not to disavow the apartheid proposal.  Currently talk seems to lean toward the opinion that apartheid is too mild a term.

One sided hate speech abounds at this meeting.

UPDATE 2:  One has to wonder about any committee that calls Anna Baltzer as an expert witness.  Apparently Baltzer, the national organizer for the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, is representing the PC(USA)’s Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC).

UPDATE 3:  Committee 15 had voted to disapprove the Israel = Apartheid overture.

UPDATE 4:  C 15 is now discussing the worst of all overtures.  In any sane discussion it would be laughed out of the room, met with the ridicule, scorn, and abhorrence it deserves.  Somehow I don’t think that will happen here

UPDATE 4.5:  It was disapproved by a vote of 26 to disapprove – 19 -3.

 


In Between Days


149 years ago tonight, in a Pennsylvania town there was relative calm between the second and third days of the Battle of Gettysburg. Nothing had yet been decided. Few at the time on either side grasped the degree to which this was a watershed moment. It would have taken very little – a different decision here or there – for our entire national history to have been re-written.

Tonight, also in Pennsylvania, there is relative calm between the second and third days of the deliberations of the Middle East and Peacemaking Issues Committee (Committee 15) of the PC(USA)’s 220th General Assembly. Nothing has yet been decided – though things already trend heavily in one diabolical direction.

So far, committee activities seem to have a surreal cast. Observers will seldom have the opportunity to witness so many peculiar notions and odd discussions assembled in one place. Two in particular merit a closer look. (more…)

Presbyterians Are Moving Up in the World


The PC(USA) has finally arrived. Proposed Presbyterian policies are getting celebrity endorsements. And I don’t mean boring celebrities, or celebrities within specific constituencies of the church. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters has endorsed the divestment action proposed by the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) and the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC).

And a number of pro-divestment Presbyterians “rejoiced with exceeding great joy”.

At last, Presbyterians can once again start getting invites to the good parties. The cool kids will finally flock to our churches. The days of trying to rationalize 45 years of membership declines are coming to an end. We’re crossing the Jordan ….

But I would caution commissioners: maybe you shouldn’t just jump on the bandwagon of the first celebrity to look your way. Maybe you should find out what OTHER celebrities think about divestment. You don’t have to decide anything today. You’ve got to the end of the plenary after all. Even Committee 15 members have until tomorrow night before the have to make a decision – regardless of their posted schedule.

Why not conduct an emergency straw poll of celebrities to see where they stand. I mean, God forbid you get stuck with a bunch of B-listers. I’m sure some of the better tabloids would be willing to help in this crisis.

All kidding aside, I don’t generally fault Waters – or any celebrity for having an opinion and for expressing it. But I do fault people for giving more weight to celebrity opinions than they do to others. Yes, celebrities do have a certain platform – they have a fan base. But their opinions are no more likely to be right than the opinions of anyone else. It would be the height of stupidity not to treat ideas and proposals on their own merits.

Additionally, I am a little concerned that the PC(USA)’s anti-Israel proposals, rather than being about justice or peace or truth or God, are more about political fashion. There are three possibilities only: 1. The church has something to offer the world different from the world. 2. The church takes its cues from the world – and is basically kind of an appendix. 3. Neither the church or the world has any more or less likelihood of being right. Judging solely by the proposals coming to the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I’m not seeing very much of option #1.

 

Will Spotts

Rarely Asked Questions: the PCUSA responds (inadequately) to divestment concerns


Seriously?

Really?!

That’s your story?

The PC(USA) has responded to concerns about divestment by issuing a FAQ.

Unfortunately, many of the listed questions aren’t really being asked. Even less fortunately, the format provides PC(USA) officials with a platform to pose a series of straw men objections they should be able to easily topple. But this document doesn’t succeed at that modest goal – some of the straw men remain standing. (more…)

The Wall


When people say “the wall” in the context of Israel and the West Bank, they generally mean the separation barrier. “The wall” is used for rhetorical effect: it summons ominous images of Berlin and Pink Floyd. For the more literate, it might conjure China or Hadrian. Some might even be put in mind of the Wailing Wall. The rhetorical use is often amplified by adding modifiers – things like “the apartheid wall”. For a while, supporters of Israel employed the term “fence”. It sounds almost friendly, pastoral. The thing is, portions of the separation barrier are a fence; other portions are a wall. And while less draconian than its detractors often imply, it is anything but friendly.

I am no fan of the separation of populations. I acknowledge the security issues the barrier is intended to address, but it does not bode well for the prospects of long term peace.

Then there are concerns about the route of the separation barrier. Some of these are clearly legitimate; others (seemingly intentionally) misquote UNSC resolutions.

The whole process applied to this one aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian contention is illuminating. Most people on all sides of the issue are unconcerned with what is real. It’s all about the spin; about how things sound; how they appear. It’s all about rhetorical oneupsmanship and jockeying for some imaginary moral high ground. Decisions are not made on substance, and what legitimate concerns the parities once had, become obscured in a haze of pure (or rather, impure) rhetoric.

This is how we have learned to get our own way – in personal relationships, in politics, and in church affairs. Even those who don’t start out on this dishonest marketing express quickly discover that getting on the wrong side of spin is a mortal liability.

Don’t get me wrong. Some statements on all sides of the Israeli Palestinian controversy have some basis in fact. Some are whole cloth, of course, but by no means all. Unfortunately the facts always seem to get twisted, turned around until the truth disappears into an extreme and simple-minded mirage.

Presbyterians get quite exercised about “the wall” in the West Bank. But there is another wall to which they remain oblivious. This wall is as wide and high and impenetrable as any real or imagined wall Presbyterians might oppose. There is a wall around the hearts and minds of Presbyterians that keeps them from feeling or perceiving the fact that their Middle East witness is compromised and the reasons why it is compromised. This is true of members, elders, denominational officials and staff, news outlets, and activists. It is even true of many who desire more fairness in PC(USA) Middle East policies and statements. Something interferes with their thinking on the subject. Something prevents them from acknowledging that there is a problem; and something prevents them from acknowledging the extent of that problem.

The facts are clear. The PC(USA) has a history of institutional anti-Israel bias that makes them unable to fairly treat the issues. The PC(USA) has a history of toleration for, encouragement of, and indulgence in antisemitic themes. There is no gray area in these classical antisemitic tropes. There is no doubt on these points. Both can be confirmed easily by examining the statements and actions of General Assemblies, of PC(USA) officials, of PC(USA) partners, of PC(USA) networks and interest groups. The task is unpleasant; it’s nauseating at times; but it is easily enough accomplished.

Yet the vast majority of Presbyterians – members, elders, pastors, various officials and committees, news organizations – simply refuse to do it. They will, in fact, employ mental gymnastics and tortured pseudo-moral reasoning to excuse and ignore bad behavior.

As a side note – if these actions and statements were directed at any other people group, we would not be having this conversation. There is no other ethnicity or religion that Presbyterians would feel comfortable treating in the same manner. We would not have denominational officials saying things like, “African American groups go nuts … because we refuse to be one sided,” or “I know how … viciously attacked any truth-tellers are by majority voices in the American Buddhist community,” or “The phrase “the right of Italy to exist” is a source of pain for some members of the … committee.”

Presbyterians would not be quoting people for our edification saying things like, “France acts as a spoiled child … Even though the state of France is supposed to be a democracy, it acts as a NAZI state,” or “Tibetans in the diaspora must get a life,” or “If we are not careful, Christian churches … will turn into Museums and be on tours run by Hindu tour guides as if in a theme park.”

Presbyterians would not be indulging in speculations about the blood purity and origin of Norwegians – suggesting that their ancestors were really Khazars pretending to be Norwegian.

Presbyterians would never dream of suggesting that Koreans control the banks or Congress or the U.S. media.

The reasons for this are manifold.

First, the PC(USA) does not really have the institutional bias problem against any of these groups – so it is very easy for Presbyterians to see just how wrong those bigotries would be. Self criticism is much harder. If a person is a Presbyterian, he or she has some vested interest in the label Presbyterian being a good thing. Instinctively Presbyterians know that the anti-Israel bias and toleration for antisemitic themes is objectively bad … therefore they cannot bring themselves to see the PC(USA) as participating in these things.

Second, even people who don’t agree with the direction of PC(USA) action recognize that most pro-Palestinian activists are decent people. It’s true. Their motivation is often good. They are spurred by compassion and empathy and a legitimate desire for peace and justice. Nonetheless, the bias itself, the tenor of the dialogue, the use of antisemitic tropes is not good. The motivation doesn’t matter at this point. Tragically, the history of the church has demonstrated exactly where this type of rhetoric always leads. It is objectively bad; it is objectively harmful; it is objectively dangerous. Surely, truly well-meaning folks could manage to advocate for Palestinian friends and partners and for human rights without indulging in a type of discourse that is always wrong, always harmful. And surely, when they can’t do so, the rest of Presbyterians should be able to confront the issue even though its practicers are “well-meaning”.

Third, there is another type of argument that has become common in the PC(USA). It runs a little something like this: a person will employ a well-known antisemitic theme and someone will – shocked and horrified – call them on it. The one who employed the theme will immediately respond, “Every time someone criticizes the government of Israel, he is accused of antisemitism.” A large number of people (in this case Presbyterians) who imagine they’d never personally indulge in antisemitic discourse, jump in to support the original antisemitic speaker. This notion is eventually amplified to rather strongly suggest that antisemitism and anti-Israel bias are ultimately a result of Israeli and Jewish action. As a certain PC(USA) mission network informed the General Assembly in 2010, ““This “anti-Jewish rhetoric” [referred to in the paper] does not arise out of a vacuum, or some inchoate reservoir of anti-Semitism. In fact, the case can be made that it is a reaction to the actions of the state of Israel.”

Fourth, to actually acknowledge the facts – that the PC(USA) has a long-standing institutional bias; that the PC(USA) is applying two double standards – one in how they judge Israel versus how they judge other nations, and the other in how they treat Israel, Judaism, and the Jewish people in Presbyterian actions and statements versus how they treat all other nations, religions, and ethnic groups; that the PC(USA) needs to take much greater care to avoid blatant antisemitic themes – is to damage relationships within the denomination. Even though true, very few Presbyterians will actually admit these things because it would cause offense and make future cooperation with their colleagues more difficult. Some of the most courageous do try to speak out, but even they constantly backpedal and downplay the facts.

The bottom line is that there is a wall that keeps Presbyterians from responding to something profoundly ugly, destructive, and unfair within their own denomination. If commissioners (and Presbyterians generally) want their Middle East witness to have integrity, if they want to actually help, if they want to (as they have said) break down the walls, they must first break down this will. Then Presbyterians will see clearly to break down others.

Will Spotts

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.

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