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.
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.
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.
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.
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.