the 221st General Assembly

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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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The PC(USA) and Me


I have a love / hate relationship with the PC(USA).

For those who don’t know – perhaps those who see or hear an item in the news, a statement by various PC(USA) officials or groups – the “Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a corporation,” is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States.  It is not a large denomination; it boasts fewer than two million members.  It is not a particularly wealthy organization; as odd as I find the concept, there are, in this world, individuals with more assets than the PC(USA).  Throughout the history of the PC(USA) and its predecessors, it has wielded a greater political and social influence than its numbers would suggest.  Even in the formation of the U.S. Government, Presbyterians played an active role.  Its historical traditions are Christian, Protestant, and Reformed (Calvinist), and it is named for its unique form of governance – by ruling and teaching elders working together.

There are things about the PC(USA) that I love.  Many Presbyterians I know are wonderful people – people I genuinely like and admire; but I suppose I could say the same thing for many denominations and religious groups.  I am very drawn to and share many traditional Presbyterian beliefs. It is not a one to one correspondence; there are issues where I part company with historic Presbyterianism – where I do not believe it best represents biblical Christianity.  Nonetheless, from my point of view the Westminster Confession is unequaled among documents of its type.  I have a great respect for the theory of Presbyterian polity – especially in its anti-elitist, non-hierarchical elements, and in the roles that laity, elders, and clergy played. (more…)

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.

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