the 221st General Assembly

Posts tagged ‘resources on PC(USA) GA’

For General Assembly Home Gamers


Many of the controversial issues considered by this General Assembly have been considered by committees, but remain to be decided by the whole assembly.

Committee recommendations are, of course, not official actions of the PC(USA).  They are indicators of the mood of a General Assembly, and there is a higher likelihood that the plenary will take the action recommended by the committee.  Nonetheless, I’ve seen this go either way many times.

In the meantime, we wait.

If you – either Presbyterian members, or concerned non-Presbyterian stake-holders, are trying to follow this from home, you might find these links helpful:

1.  The PC(USA) General Assembly plenary meetings are live-streamed here

This, of course, would not have helped us follow committee deliberations as they were not streamed.  However, some of the reports from the committees will be presented today, and the more controversial votes will likely take place tomorrow.

If nothing else, watching this will give an insight into the odd process of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) politics.  The effect of blending religious worship, spiritualized language and church jargon with political wrangling is – and should be – rather jarring.  It doesn’t lend itself to clear thinking and good decision making.  It does, however, lend itself quite freely to the manipulation of commissioners without their complete awareness.

2.  The docket gives an indication of the times issues will be debated.

This is NOT a hard and fast thing because business items can always be reconsidered – or even sometimes rescheduled if discussions on other items go long.  But if you have an issue that concerns you closely this will give you an idea when to tune in.

The version of the docket I have linked to has Middle East issues being addressed Friday afternoon.  The item on distinguishing between “biblical Israel and the modern State of Israel” (that the committee recommended against) should come up tonight.

3.  PC-biz is a system that has been used for several General Assemblies now.

I find it easiest to follow the progress of specific items by looking under the “Committees” tab.  Here is where you will find the current status of business items – how committees handled and what action the whole GA has taken.

This is particularly useful if you want to know the exact wording of a measure, or if you want to see the supporting materials that accompany it.  The fact that many business items have been amending during the process makes this more complicated and more important to keep straight.

This was done by Committee 4, for instance in that the committee chose not to act on the MRTI divestment recommendation, but instead to amend an anti-divestment overture – keeping its more spiritual and ethical language, but adding divestment to it.  Someone simply following the overture could easily be confused because now, it takes the exact opposite action than that intended by its authoring presbytery.

 

Aside

Silence


It is probably not a good sign when repeat Dexter episodes are both more appealing and more uplifting than the PC(USA)’s 221st General Assembly.

I have been silent for the most part this time around.  This a partly a product of personal factors.  But it is mostly a function of my desire not to discourage those Presbyterians and others who are fighting for fairness and to avoid PC(USA) antisemitism – whatever I might think of their prospects.

The fact remains that the arguments being offered for divestment and other actions are basically either daft, facile, dishonest, or don’t follow logically.  The fact remains that commissioners are likely – as they have been in each GA from 2008 on – to give these arguments far more credence than they deserve.  Fairness has lost ground at each assembly – in part because commissioners tried to ‘split the difference’, in part because commissioners tried to oversimplify the situation (and the entire debate), in part because commissioners overestimated their own competence and importance, and in part because the process is immorally skewed by many officials and permanent committees within the PC(USA)’s corporate organization.

This year, it seems, the arguments boil down to … “Do justice …”, “Jewish feelings versus Palestinian suffering and oh so objective Presbyterian facts…”, “Desmond Tutu is for BDS so we should be too…”.  All of these have in common a reliance on official and unofficial PC(USA) false information about the situation on the ground, about the nature of divestment, about the global BDS movement, about the actions of Israelis, about the actions of Palestinians, about the placement of blame.  The basis is unbalanced.  It cannot yield an accurate, moral, or ethical result.  Period.

If you want to have this discussion, you need to actually present the facts … all the facts, and you need to actually listen to the many perspectives – not hold a Presbyterian Passion Play every two years with good Jewish villains and innocent victims.

Be that as it may, the fact is, I have expected this GA to do something shameful – to continue the trend since 2008 – perhaps divest, perhaps do something equal offensive. And since that expectation is discouraging to those who are trying to help, I have remained rather quiet.

Will Spotts

 

 

The PC(USA)’s elephant


Underlying most of the unresolved questions I raised about the PC(USA)’s decisions on Israelis and Palestinians, there is a larger question.

It is the single largest source of contention – and it is one Presbyterians commissioners to the 221st General Assembly should have to conclusively answer yes or no if their views are to be taken seriously.

Should there be a Jewish state?

I don’t mean a state perhaps called Israel.

I’m not even asking about the two state solution – which is up for debate at this year’s GA.

The fact is, some people within the PC(USA) argued for a two state solution that meant one Jew-free state of Palestine, and one multi-ethnic, multi-religious state with a Jewish minority. (That is the NET EFFECT of the disparate demands made on Israel by various PC(USA) GA’s and interest groups.)

It occurs to me that this question is the PC(USA)’s elephant in the room when it comes to Middle East policy.

The Same Old Song and Dance, my Friend


When it comes to Presbyterian Middle East policy decisions, not much changes.

Sure, faces and names change: since the 2004 divestment decision, the PC(USA) has a different stated clerk, a different moderator of the General Assembly, a different executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency – in fact, in 2004, the PMA was called the General Assembly Council (GAC) – then it was the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC), a different coordinator for the Advisory Council for Social Witness Policy (ACSWP), different members for these committees or boards.

Sure, specific emphases change to reflect both facts on the ground in the Middle East and advocacy trends and fashions.

But the central issues remain the same. Indeed the concerns, problems, emphases, and thrusts of PC(USA) policy – especially on Israel and Palestine – has not changed one bit in all the time I’ve observed it. No General Assembly has altered this. (Arguably, the 216th General Assembly in Birmingham in 2006 intended to do so; but if that was its intent – as I believe can be clearly demonstrated – it failed to give its actions enough force make a difference. Among other things, there were no consequences for committees, agencies, networks, employees of the PC(USA) failures to comply with GA instructions.)

The takeaway here: when it comes to PC(USA) Middle East policy decisions, we are in essentially the same place at the beginning of the 2004 General Assembly. Ten years of polity wrangling, of excessive spin, of cosmetic adjustments, of argument – in some rare cases, reasoned argument, have still left the same basic problems and questions unanswered in any meaningful or satisfactory way. (more…)

It’s That Time Again


In even numbered years in spring, I find myself getting sucked in to all the drama which is the PC(USA)’s General Assembly. This year, it is slated to take place in Detroit from June 14 through June 21.

To get an idea of both the ‘official’ tasks and scheduled activites, check out the docket and schedule. As in past years, specific business items can be found on the pc-biz site. PC-Biz is the best place to follow the items commissioners will consider.

In anticipation of a busy GA season, I am in the process of reorganizing this blog. The menu items that appear at the top of this page provide links to 2014 issues, to commentary on past general assemblies in 2012 and 2010, to a few older posts from between 2005 and 2009, to the Bearing Witness website (run by Jon Haber), and to my (new) other blog. (Surprisingly enough, it is a blog about other topics.) (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.

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.

Not the Post I Planned


This is not the post I planned to write.

That post was called “From Fictions to Lies:  Institutional Support for the MESC”.  It was a scandalized reaction to recent official and semi-official Presbyterian strategic moves to push forward the anti-Israel agenda at the General Assembly.  I found myself thinking about how best to persuade, how best to counter, how to even get a hearing from commissioners.

Then I remembered a line from the 1968 movie, Lion in Winter:

I’m vilifying you.  For God’s sake, pay attention.

(I admit it; I’m a sucker for quotes.)  When I thought of this, I laughed out loud.  It struck me as eminently appropriate; it described both what I was doing in my intended post (and what I have done in one or two others), and what the MESC, the ACSWP, the MRTI, the IPMN, and some presbyteries are doing to Israel and to the Jewish people.

I’m no good at strategy; I detest marketing; I don’t even particularly like politics – except as a study in human behavior.  I’m just a guy with a blog, spending way too much time (I don’t really have), hoping to dissuade people I actually care about from embracing something ugly, harmful, and untrue.  At that point, I realized there was nothing I could do to improve the situation – the 219th General Assembly was going to do what it was going to do, and my best response was to wait it out.

So here we are, several days later.  The 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has adjourned.  For good or ill it has completed its work.  And for the next few weeks a variety of interested parties will attempt to interpret their actions – both to Presbyterians and to people outside the denomination.

How did they do?

My first reaction is to say, “The lamps are going out in Presbyterian churches all over America; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

But that is unjust.  It is not an accurate reaction.  It is no more true than the statements that celebrate the miracle at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

More accurately, the 219th General Assembly attempted to split the difference.

They seem to be seeking the illusion of safety by carefully steering a course between the virulently anti-Israel, the occasionally anti-Judaic, the sometimes openly antisemitic on one side and the less virulently anti-Israel and moderately prejudiced on the other.  At this point commissioners do not seem to have realized that the coveted middle ground is only middle ground within the context of business items overwhelmingly skewed in one direction.

What they did that was good:

1.  They rejected divestment.

2.  They rejected the use of the word “apartheid”.

3.  They elected to only receive the first section of the Middle East Study Committee Report. As such, it has no real status in the PC(USA) – so its statements criticizing American Jewish groups, its quirky theology, its patronizing letters, and the peculiar vignettes (whose status was never clear – as these were randomly interspersed in this section) aren’t PC(USA) policy.  Nonetheless, receiving this section and using it as rationale for the large number of approved recommendations gives it some authority.

4.  They altered the language on the Gaza blockade from blanket opposition to this:

Calls on the Israeli and Egyptian governments to limit their blockade of Gaza solely to military equipment/devices and to guarantee adequate levels of food, medicine, building supplies, and other humanitarian items, and to allow free commercial exchange in and out of Gaza, and calls on the U.S. government to end any support for the blockade that interferes with the adequacy of such items or such exchange.

5.  They explicitly re-affirmed “Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders in accordance with United Nations resolutions.”

6.  They rejected the call for the MESC to become a permanent monitoring group. Instead, they call for the creation of a seven member group selected by the current and immediate past moderators (Elder Cynthia Bolbach and Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow).  This group must include at least one but no more than two MESC members; the total membership must “together comprise an authentic balance representing the fullness of the spectrum of commitments within the PC(USA) toward the people and issues in the region”.

7. They rejected part 3 of the report with its extremely one-sided history. Instead they solicited eight narratives of comparable length, four “from the range of authentically Palestinian perspectives” and four “from the range of authentically Israeli perspectives” to take its place.  These narratives and an additional bibliography are to be approved by the monitoring group.

Clearly, the GA made some improvements to the MESC Report, and clearly the GA chose to avoid extremity in a couple of business items.  Nonetheless, a great deal now hinges on the good faith of the current and immediately past moderators to select an authentic balance of participants in the new monitoring group.  It should be pointed out that a similar requirement for balance was in place when the original, highly unbalanced MESC was selected.

There is one other positive outcome I must mention – in order to be fully honest and accurate.  A large number of clearly moderate and even very pro-institutional Presbyterians (with regular critics of Israeli actions among them) recognized that the Middle East Study Committee Report went too far – was too unfair – and needed a greater degree of balance.  Even two members of the committee supported some change in this regard.  Some people place great hope in this change of heart; I am not among them.  But it is a development worth watching.

What the 219th GA did that was neutral:

1.  They switched the order of words in their partial endorsement of the Kairos document. Perhaps this helps to clarify the intent of the MESC recommendation.  Yet it still leaves an open question:  what exact elements of the Kairos document are indicated by, “emphases on hope for liberation, nonviolence, love of enemy, and reconciliation”?  [For those unfamiliar with the document, it should be mentioned that (among other things) it supports boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, and it rejects the concept of a Jewish state.  The bottom line:  the moral character of this endorsement depends entirely what exactly it is interpreted to entail.]

2.  They passed resolutions criticizing the U.S. for its military aid to Israel, and calling on the U.S. to make all aid to Israel “contingent upon Israel’s compliance with international law and peacemaking efforts.” [I have listed this as neutral because it is not a new action for the PC(USA); prior General Assemblies have made comparable demands.  Yet the modified MESC report replaced the original report’s “military aid” with the broader phrase “U.S. aid to Israel”.]

What the 219th GA did that was bad:

1.  They referred the paper, “Christians and Jews:  People of God”, for a re-write. [Rejecting the paper was not necessarily bad in itself – one could have had legitimate reasons to do so.  Nonetheless, the instructions the GA gave for the re-write, the overture to which it responded, and the fact that it passed the paper, “Toward an Understanding of Christian Muslim Relations” add up to an extraordinarily negative decision.  Among other things, this rejected paper included a Presbyterian rejection of Christian antisemitism.]

2.  They approved the inexcusably unbalanced ACSWP Human Rights Update 2010. [This committee was tasked with

Identify[ing] Violations of the Civil Rights of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the United States and Other Areas of the World, Along with Other Incidents of Violation of Religious Freedoms, as Part of the Regular Human Rights Report to the General Assembly.

The only nation the ACSWP saw fit to mention by name as a violator of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim civil rights and a violator of religious freedoms was Israel.]

3.  They denounced Caterpillar. [Although stopping short of divestment, as symbolic gestures go, I’m not sure Israel-based denunciation is any better.]

4.  They approved the rest of the recommendations of the MESC report. [See here for a more detailed listing of problematic items contained in the modified report.]

5.  They approved the Belhar Confession [which is being used by anti-Israel activists as a (false) justification for church condemnations of Israel.]

6.  They rejected the proposal to amend the process for forming PC(USA) social witness policy [which would at least have broadened Presbyterian participation in decision making.]

A great many people will try to put the best face on this set of outcomes.  Yet I cannot call the 219th General Assembly’s actions good.  The PC(USA) is in a worse position than it was two weeks ago.  It is more anti-Israel; it has taken steps to affirm biased, anti-Israel, and even anti-Jewish statements on the part of its staff, its networks, and partners; it has once again taken the lead position among anti-Israel U.S. denominations.  Yes, there are glimmers of hope:  it was not as bad as it threatened to be; the moderators may do a fairer job at selecting Middle East monitoring group members; influential Presbyterians may have started to see that there are limits to how far the PC(USA) should actually go.

Is the glass nine-tenths empty or ten percent full? I guess it depends on your perspective.

What I do know is this:

The situation of Israelis and Palestinians is very complicated.  It is not, as it is often cast, solely a justice issue with Israeli perpetrators and Palestinian victims.  There are injustices certainly – and these need to be corrected.  But this cannot be done by unjustly hearing only the concerns of one side.

It is possible to be pro-Palestinian without being anti-Israel.  It is difficult, but it is a worthwhile effort – especially for church organizations.  This requires a greater degree of creativity and work than that exhibited thus far within the PC(USA).  Yet it is a failing shared among the pro-Palestinian advocacy community and those Presbyterians committed to fairness and accuracy.

Antisemitic and anti-Judaic themes are NEVER OK.  They are ugly, dangerous, and unworthy of followers of Jesus Christ.  [Given the history of Christian antisemitism, this is an area about which Christians should be vigilant.]

Holding Israel to a standard different than that to which you hold all other nations is bias, it is prejudiced, it is unjustifiable – and it is being done here.

Criticism of Israel is not antisemitism.  Antisemitism is antisemitism.  Criticism of Israel can be biased – in which case the critic is guilty of anti-Israel bias.  Some critics of Israel also happen to dabble in antisemitic themes.  Bias is a problem, but it is the antisemitism that is THE problem – not the criticism of Israel.

The PC(USA) (like many groups involved in Middle East advocacy) has a systemic problem of anti-Israel bias, the employment of anti-Judaic themes, and the occasional use of classical antisemitic arguments.  This problem remains unaddressed by the 219th General Assembly – not so much by silence but by actual choice on the part of commissioners to reject anything that might limit it.

The penultimate Presbyterian fiction is this:  that Presbyterians in the pews are not accountable for the actions of the national organization.  It is easy to regard this as the product of eight days in Minneapolis, an event of which many Presbyterians took little notice and which has little effect on them.  But six years have passed since the PC(USA) emerged into the public consciousness with its divestment initiative.  Three General Assemblies have come and gone.  Much press coverage has been lavished on the PC(USA).  By this point, the policies of the national organization on Israel and Palestine are the property of ordinary Presbyterians – whether they agree with them or not.

Will Spotts




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