the 221st General Assembly

Posts tagged ‘politics’

Information Update


In a previous post I mentioned two items related to Israelis and Palestinians slated to come before the 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA) that did not yet seem to be available on line.

They have since been posted on the GA website PC-biz.

The report of the Middle East Monitoring Group (created as a result of perceived inadequacies of the 2010 Middle East Study Committee Report) can now be found here.

And the current form of the paper, “Christians and Jews, People Of God: A Contribution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to the Interfaith Conversation” (that will not come for a vote until 2014 after a period of church-wide) can now be found here.

 

 

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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.

Ridiculousness


Some ideas are worthy only of ridicule and scorn. They are so false, so unbalanced, so absurd on their faces that uproarious laughter can be the only appropriate response. You could read them as farce, enjoying their entertainment value as a mildly guilty pleasure – similar to the way some people enjoyed professional wrestling in the 1980s and Beavis and Butthead in the 1990s.

But the laughter dies on your lips the moment you realize these inherently absurd proposals are intended seriously. Some of their proponents (bless their hearts) actually believe them. Others, more calculating and strategy-minded, merely make use of them; these want people to accept absurd notions solely to advance a larger cause.

The arenas of politics and religion prove very fertile for the development and propagation of ridiculousness. This fecundity is multiplied where politics and religion are joined in unholy marriage. There are a variety of sociological reasons for that, but it mostly stems from the fact that many political activists and religionists share some personality traits and are peculiarly subject to certain kinds of temptations. Both political activists and religionists can be vulnerable to self-importance, to seeking personal significance, to a misplaced and uncritical trust in those believed to share common values, to the unfortunate combination of a sincere desire to good with an exaggerated faith in one’s ability to discern good without work.

This is not intended as an indictment. The desires to do good and to make the world better are noble things; the desire to live significant lives is laudable; even faith in one’s ability to make a positive change has much to recommend it. Instead, this is a caution: potentially positive characteristics can miscarry remarkably easily. The portfolio of traits common among activists and religionists can, at times, spur bandwagonism, faddishness, closed-mindedness, unfairness, rigidity, ignorance – all wrapped in a cloak of moral “rightness”… the self-proclaimed “high ground”.

Business before the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a mixed bag. Among many proposals to be considered by commissioners, this year’s menu features a few items that rise to the level of daft. Ideally, these would be laughed out of the committees that consider them; ideally, these would provide the whole assembly with much needed levity. Alas, the kind of dynamic that often prevails at Presbyterian general assemblies prompts commissioners to miss the joke and proudly adopt such notions.

One proposal, item 15-09, stands head and shoulders above the others in terms of comedic value. “On Human Rights and Religious Freedom of Arab Christians and Other Palestinian Citizens” takes the form of an overture from the Presbytery of San Jose. No presbytery or synod has ventured to concur with San Jose, but both the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC) and the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) have applied their keen and rigorous analytical skills and wholeheartedly endorsed it

So what makes this proposal ridiculous? I mean, concern for religious freedom is a no-brainer for a Christian denomination. Support for human rights? Also non-controversial. Factual accuracy? Parts of it are. The Christian community in Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank does face particular pressures that stem from actions of the state of Israel. Many Palestinian Christians have specifically cited Israel as a (or the) primary source of difficulties they experience. A desire to help, a desire to stand with them, a desire to intercede for them is admirable.

Nonetheless, this proposal reads like satire – a gentle ribbing of the PC(USA) for its all-too-common tendency to blame Israel first and ask questions later. Israel could be deemed responsible for global warming, for the earthquake in Japan, for the high price of peanut butter …. It doesn’t matter what the issue, as long as Israel can be singled out and blamed for it.

In this case, Israel is singled out – made unique among all nations – for its practices of religious discrimination. Are people executed for practicing their religions? Does conversion result in beheading? Are people jailed for their beliefs? What form must this discrimination take to warrant the special attention of the Presbyterian Church (USA)?

Apparently, Israel is worthy of special criticism because it fails to fund and protect non-Jewish holy sites, because it denies “free access to holy places of worship to both Christians and Muslims on several important occasions”, and because a rabbi in a yeshiva in the West Bank published an offensive book describing the circumstances when it is permissible to kill non-Jews according to halakhah.

San Jose’s overture asks the General Assembly to “commend the U. S. State Department for its annual published listing of incidents of religious discrimination by the State of Israel affecting the human rights and religious freedom of Arab Christians and other Palestinian citizens”. Now, I imagine they mean the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Reports.

The Presbytery of San Jose does cite these reports in their rationale. But a brief perusal of them reveals a number of things that presbytery chooses not to mention when zeroing in on Israeli misdeeds. For example, blasphemy and conversion are punishable by death in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. In Sudan, Vietnam, Egypt, and Afghanistan Christians face discrimination, violence, and government restrictions. In China, “only groups affiliated with one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” (Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant) are permitted to register, hold worship services, and apply to offer social services.” In Eritrea, “Religious prisoners were reportedly held for long periods without due process and subjected to harsh treatment, including forced renunciations of faith, torture, and deaths in custody.” North Korea reportedly “barred citizens from entering places of worship”. In Saudi Arabia “the public practice of any religion other than Islam is prohibited”.

One can only conclude that the Presbytery of San Jose, ACRED, and ACSWP must have thought it obvious that commissioners would be immediately familiar with the contents of the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Reports. In that circumstance, commissioners would certainly not need accurate representations of them. And if, for some inscrutable reason, commissioners were not quite that up-to-date, they would surely take the time to read them together in Committee 15.

In all seriousness, focusing on religious discrimination issues in Israel is valid.  But it would only be so in the context of an assembly that directed the same level of scrutiny at other nations around the world.  Every society and every government has problems.  The practice of singling out one society and government – which, in this case, just happen to be those of the only Jewish nation in existence – implies that that particular society and government are the worst offenders.  Even in the face of significant particular problems, this implication is unfounded.  It indicates the presence of a bias that is extreme and inexplicable.

 

Majority Report: Committee 15 proposals specifically targeting Israel


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

Israel = Apartheid Proposal

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

 

Divestment Proposals

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

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

 

Boycott Proposals

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

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

 

Other (Astonishing) Criticism

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

  1. Commend the U. S. State Department for its annual published listing of incidents of religious discrimination by the State of Israel affecting the human rights and religious freedom of Arab Christians and other Palestinian citizens.
  2. Commend the U. S. State Department for reporting on the failure of Israel to protect Christian Holy sites throughout Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.
  3. Urge the Israeli government to end any and all religious discriminatory practices.
  4. Urge the Israeli government to enforce its own legal obligation to protect Christian holy sites throughout Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.
  5. Direct that the Stated Clerk contact President Obama and the Israeli ambassador to the U. S. asking them to assist in ending all religious discriminatory practices and to protect religious groups’ holy sites in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.

ACREC and ACSWP support this overture.

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

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

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.

 

 

About 2012


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.

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