The Presbyterians’ Gradye Parsons On Gaza

22 Jul

I recently reloaded a Tweetdeck App I used when tracking activity during last month’s Presbyterian GA, where a tweet informed me that Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk for PCUSA, released a statement on July 16th calling for an end to the conflict currently underway in Gaza and in the skies over Israel.

Now normally, I might be tempted to critique this statement, making note of the Mr. Parson’s choice to devote a quarter of his document to list every Palestinian victim by name, the use of the passive voice (are Hamas rockets “indiscriminately fired” or does Hamas indiscriminately fire them – and at who?), or the tendency to trace all conflict back to that metaphysical entity: “the illegal Israeli occupation.”

But given that PCUSA decided to add calls for an end to rocket fire and suicide bombing (or, at least in the latter case, their condemnation – although an end to those would kind of be good too), I’ve decided to lay off a line-by-line analysis in favor of seeing just how widely this call has been listened to now that the church decided to make its moral voice heard through last month’s divestment votes at the 2014 General Assembly.

I began with a Google news search which allows me to sort by date to see if any news sources had picked up on what the Stated Clerk no doubt felt was an important and newsworthy statement from an institution that made all kinds of news just a few weeks ago when they passed their divestment policy.  Strangely, nothing seemed to show up regarding news coverage of the church’s Gaza statement.

Knowing full well that such an online search was just a starting point, I repeated my search with other search engines (Bing, Yahoo and the meta-search engine Dogpile).  But even here, no media coverage seems to show up (even in papers that covered divestment with at least one story).

Undaunted, I went directly to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN and Boston Globe web sites and did individual searches there.  Again, nothing.

Finally, I went back to Google which allows you to search the entire Internet with a date range to see if anyone picked up on the story.  And, outside of the Presbyterian publications Presbyterian Outlook and The Layman, not one non-Presbyterian media outlet seems to have noticed the church taking a stand on what they have decided is their A #1 top international priority: the Arab-Israeli conflict.

How can this be?  After all, the church has decided to put at risk its relationship with every Jewish organization in the nation – secular and religious – outside of Jewish Voice for Peace in order to establish its moral bone fides on this issue.  Supporters of the churches old/new divestment policy have spent days on end congratulating the organization for its moral courage and insisting that last month’s votes put the group on the right side of history. So shouldn’t someone take heed of what a group on that right side has to say about the very topic they decided was the most vital of the day?

Unless, of course, last month’s GA choices simply generated a week of “man-bites-dog” stories, after which the public fell into the default mode of ignoring the pontifications of a church that seems more interested in listening to anti-Israel partisans outside its ranks than to its own membership (which, you should recall, voted down divestment four times before finally giving those partisans the answer they wanted).  And, perhaps calls to stop raining rockets down on Israeli cities might have had more impact had they been made when the Presbyterians were all together making statement after statement and passing resolution after resolution about the region, rather than waiting for Israel to return fire before finding something to say after a near decade of rocket fire/war crimes directed against the Jewish state.

To be fair, perhaps this statement was directed at the parties to the conflict, rather than the press.  In which case, I think Israel’s Prime Minister succinctly expressed a view of church political opinion shared by not only his countrymen but a majority of American Jews and Christians (including Presbyterians).

And if Israel’s supporters now look at PCUSA as an organization that cannot be trusted, the Palestinians know it can be trusted – to only take action in support of their positions, offering everyone else generic prayers, Zionism Unsettled, and demands that their open partisanship be treated as acts of love.

So, after a decade of demanding that divestment must be the policy of the organization, PCUSA finds itself distrusted by one side in the conflict, taken for granted by another, and utterly ignored by everyone else as they slide their way towards physical oblivion that matches their non-existent moral footprint on the world stage.

The Brain on BDS

17 Jul

The sheer amount of reality that must be ignored to maintain a BDS mindset can sometimes seem staggering.

Middle East commentator Max Boot lists the number of obvious truths that must be denied in order to portray Israel as the sole or primary aggressor in the most recent clash between the IDF and Hamas in Gaza, including:

  • That Israel gave up “land for peace” with its 2005 Gaza withdrawal and received nearly a decade of war as a consequence
  • Thousands of missiles fired indiscriminately by Hamas to maximize civilian casualties vs. highly targeted attacks by Israel designed to minimize them
  • That Israel accepted a cease fire which Hamas rejected (and continued firing missiles)
  • That Hamas deliberately locates its weapons among civilians in hope of protecting their arms or, even better, causing casualties among their own population which they can exploit in a propaganda war

But this list only covers the most recent outbreak of violence.  To the list of unquestionable facts that must be ignored to maintain the BDS mindset one could easily add:

  • The numerous land deals Israel offered both Arafat and Abbas which were rejected since they carried the price tag of genuine peace
  • The role played by powerful state actors (such as Iran) in arming and financing those Palestinian factions most ready and willing to pull the trigger, not to mention the various propaganda campaigns (including BDS) carried on by powerful nation states who continue to be at war with the Jewish state
  • The terror campaigns (euphemistically called Intifadas) which required the security measures (such as a separation barrier) those with the BDS mindset protest so loudly

For some reason, however, pulling the usual levers does not seem to be as effective this time around.

Perhaps BDS-style propagandists have gotten lazy, anticipating that a gullible media and public will swallow their propaganda whole, regardless of its transparency.

In the past, #GazaUnderAttack imagery tried to slip in a few faux images into a stream of otherwise genuine (although context-free) photos of Palestinian suffering.  But this time around, the trend seems to be to just grab any photo of an explosion or dead Arab (whether they come from previous conflicts with Israel, from conflicts that don’t involve Israel – such as Syria, or from Photoshop).  When even the BBC has gotten tired of being played for saps, it’s clear that even those with no love for the Jewish state will eventually react to being treated with this level of contempt.

As Western nations and the media have shown less inclination to do the bidding of the BDSers and their allies, whatever remains of the old “anti-Israel not anti-Jewish” mask has quickly dropped to the ground.  Thus the physical attacks that were the exception (at least outside the Middle East itself) are now the rule at anti-Israel protests.  And with the rise of hashtags along the lines of #HitlerWarRight dominating “anti-war” discourse, the notion that protests are just “criticizing Israel policy” has moved from questionable to ludicrous.

At the center of all this pathology is the sociopathic BDS mindset I’ve described on this site several times over the last five years.  It’s one thing to have biases (which are common to all mankind), and the phenomenon of shielding yourself from information that contradicts pre-conceptions is a sad but common malady in the era of customized news (i.e., reality) feeds.  But to cut yourself off from so much obvious truth and shout down or beat up anyone insisting you face it represents more than an extreme version of the common desire to avoid confronting things that contradict existing beliefs.

No, these behaviors only make sense once you realize that the boycotters and their fellow travelers have, in effect, created their own fantasy world filled with brave knights (themselves), damsels in distress (Palestinians) and wicked sorcerers and dragons (Israel and its supporters).

Within this fantasy world, any action is justified to vanquish evil (as defined within the BDSers own universe) and anyone who does not fall into the category of knight, damsel or monster has no purpose other than as a prop or extra in the drama going on in the boycotters own heads.

I’ve often highlighted how the majority of true evil in the world was carried out by those absolutely convinced in their own unshakable virtue.  And as rockets fire from Gaza, “human rights” activists fight for a “cease fire” (to give their allies the chance to rearm), and Molotov Cocktails are thrown in Paris, we are all witness to this sad phenomenon bracing to blanket the entire globe.

Things Fall Apart

10 Jul

Every couple of years, we are given a reminder of how much the choices of both pro- and anti-BDS campaigners are constrained (if not driven) by geopolitical forces beyond the control of even the most effective, thoughtful and successful activist individuals and organizations.

Going all the way back to 2001, the pre-cursor to today’s BDS “movement” originated at the Durban II conference (a UN event which, by definition, makes it a conference of state actors).  While the original agenda for that event was supposed to be the fight against global racism, that goal was quickly abandoned in favor of supporting racism, notably, the racist campaign to brand Israel as the inheritor of Apartheid South Africa (the so-called “Apartheid Strategy”).

An associated Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) conference, which consisted of organizations under the sway of those aforementioned state actors (demonstrated by their following the lead of the nation-states making decisions at the adjoining main conference), helped distill that “Apartheid Strategy” into a set of tactics that involved recruiting civic organizations (such as schools, churches and municipalities) – by any means necessary – into embracing a position we today refer to as BDS.

That strategy laid fallow for several months as the world’s attention turned to 9/11 and its aftermath (the defining geopolitical events of the 21st century). But once another quasi-state actor (Yasir Arafat, whose source of authority was always the nation-states of the Arab world which declared his PLO to be the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”) decided to unleash a terror campaign on Israel, another state actor (Israel) was forced to respond.

It was this response that led to global street protests, part of a galvanization of domestic political activity directed at Israel and its supporters, activity that had post-Durban blueprints ready to follow.  But that agenda might never have been activated (and our counter-activity never needed) had state actors and other powerful geopolitical forces not created the war-and-peace framework to which all of us had to respond.

Since then, the same game has played out every 2-3 years: in Lebanon (’06) and Gaza (’09, ‘11 and today), with either Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza choosing to start a war (through kidnapping, bombing or missile-launching campaigns), triggering an inevitable Israeli response.  But Hezbollah and Hamas were and are not grassroots organizations working on their budgets during the day and firing rockets at night, but forward military allies of those from whom they receive their weapons and money – notably nation-states like Iran.  And even if geopolitical alliances might change from year to year, the reason Hamas receives multi-million dollar arms shipments and checks while Tibetans must endure with bumper stickers is that the former has friends in the capitals of powerful nations, while the latter does not.

As the street protests we saw in ’02 repeated themselves in ’06 and ’09, they quickly morphed into an extension of the wars they were allegedly protesting.  Put simply, those claiming the title of “peace activists” (who are ready to shriek in your face or punch your lights out if you refuse to acknowledge them as such) pretty much have nothing to say when missiles fly from Lebanon or Gaza into Israel.  But once weapons start firing in two directions, suddenly these once-somnambulant peace warriors roar to life, taking to the streets to demand an immediate cease fire, followed by war crimes trials of any Israel who dared to return fire.

These choices make no sense whatsoever if we were dealing with a genuine peace movement.  But if you realize that these activists (and the BDS tactic they re-committed themselves to in 2009) are part of the arsenal of war, then all the facts fall neatly into place.

For war is not just fought with guns, missiles, tanks and planes.  It is also fought with propaganda.  And the goal of propaganda arm of the anti-Israel war movement is to limit Israel’s military choices while maximizing those of the Jewish state’s weapon-wielding enemies.  So the reason you never see pressure applied to Hamas in response to kidnapping murder and missile attacks – while Israel’s response triggers immediate calls for a cease fire – is that those demanding a halt to two-way (vs. one-way) war want to ensure groups like Hamas are not so degraded that they aren’t free to rearm and restart their war another day.

While I promised to give the Presbyterians a rest, I’ll use them as an example of the dynamic I’m talking about.  For during an entire week allegedly dedicated to praying and thinking and talking about peace in the Middle East, did PCUSA ever make their devotion to the Palestinian cause conditional on an end to kidnapping and rocket fire, or threaten some put their divestment program on hold until kidnapped boys were released and missiles stopped landing in Sderot?  Nope.  Instead they offered generic prayers for peace while directing all condemnatory resolutions with teeth at the target of kidnappings and rocket fire.  In short, their choices made them part of a war project, which is why so few people inside and outside their organization take their self-characterization as peacemakers the least bit seriously.

The difference between earlier eras of joint military-propaganda operations and those taking place today is that the entire region is now aflame after an Arab Spring turned from Islamist Winter to a pan-Middle East war of all against all.  And as nations rise and fall and new organizations and alliances emerge to fill various vacuums, geopolitical actors with money, arms and power continue to be the decision-makers regarding what happens next.

In a way, this Arab civil war has precedent in the 1950s and 60s when the monarchs who ruled the region either lost their heads or fought to the death against secular dictators who hoped to redraw the map of the Middle East in their favor (with the global superpowers playing their role by arming and supporting an ever-shifting set of allies).

Today, as those remaining monarchs and aging dictators (or, more specifically, their sons) find themselves in a new death match against religious fanatics, the major difference is that nations which spent three generations justifying limitless violence, a violation of every norm of war and peace, and the weaponization of the vocabulary and machinery of human rights in their fight against Israel now find themselves on the receiving end of the same weapons (including propaganda weapons) they originally hoped would be targeted at the Jews alone.

While some of the geopolitical actors creating facts (and corpses) on the ground have different names than earlier tyrants, all past and present wannabe dictators and Caliphs are joined in representing the latest variant on mankind’s oldest enemy: ruthlessness.

Long-time readers will recognize what I’m talking about when I use that term (and, if not, you can grab a cup of coffee and read this series on the subject).  But for purposes of this discussion, we need to keep in mind that when the next BDS proposal gets made by people brandishing photos of dead Gazans (including those that are just recycled pictures of dead Syrians), those pushing for such proposals are not grassroots peace activists but weapon systems that both support and are supported by equally militant geopolitical actors.

This does not diminish the need to fight against such propaganda efforts everywhere and always.  But as we do so, we need to maintain a humble understanding that the ultimate decisions over whether there will be war or peace are – as always – in the hands of those holding the reigns of power, hands that will either pull or not pull triggers based on things other than what we do or say or write.

Reverend Ufford-Chase’s Faux Dialog

8 Jul

It’s now officially time to call it quits on the whole Presbyterian issue and move onto other vital matters, such as the disintegration of the entire Middle East (or at least those portions rarely mentioned in discussions of a “Middle East Conflict” that seems to include Israel, the Palestinians and precious little else).

But before saying goodbye to this topic, I have to mention this article written by Rick Ufford-Chase which provides techniques and talking points to anyone who must engage in interfaith dialog between Presbyterians who support the church’s return to their 2004 divestment position and the vast majority of Jews who were justifiably appalled by that decision.

Like Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick, Reverend Ufford-Chase is one of those PCUSA leaders whose fingerprints can be found all over the PCUSA divestment project.  The moderator for the 2004 General Assembly where divestment was first voted in (as a last-minute decision, with barely any debate), Ufford-Chase seems to have dedicated the last decade to undoing every “No” vote taken against divestment (in ’06, ’08, ’10 and ’12) in order to once again get his pet cause made PCUSA policy.

The first problem Ufford-Chase is likely to run into is finding someone to take his advice, given that many (probably most) Presbyteries were either (1) unaware that the divestment issue was once again going to throw the church onto the front pages (and create new rifts with the Jewish community) or (2) were actively hostile to the leadership’s divestment obsession all along.

But for those clerical and lay leaders who do want to explain church policy to alleged interfaith partners, Ufford-Chase recommends a format for organizing one’s talking points, one which puts a central argument in the middle of a triangle (in his case, that “Presbyterians are committed to bringing about peace for all Israelis and Palestinians”), then putting statements that support this main thesis on the corners of the triangle, with each statement supported by stories or further statements.

In this case, Ufford-Chase’s corners are filled with talking points with which anyone who has followed this debate will find familiar (“Presbyterians do not invest in companies that violate human rights,” “The Occupation must be dismantled and Settlement expansion must be brought to an end,” “Presbyterians seek both an internationally recognized State of Israel and a viable Palestinian State”), with evidence (interestingly) consisting not of facts but of stories that can add a human face to statements being presented as true.

While this might seem like a useful technique for organizing an argument, I could just as easily draw my own triangle which focuses on a different characterization of the PCUSA’s decision such as “A minority within the church has been committed to dragging the Middle East conflict into the organization for over a decade,” and then support my characterization with statements about how PCUSA leaders (including Ufford-Chase) have betrayed principles of Presbyterian governance, broken promises to the Jewish community, and suppressed dissent in order to get their way.  And, again, each of my statements could be well supported by stories and evidence (starting with detailed research, like the work of former PCUSA member Will Spotts).

Now one way genuine interfaith dialog could proceed from such an exercise would be for Rev. Ufford-Chase and I to swap our triangles and attempt to find common ground between them or, failing that, to agree to disagree.

But given how much church leaders have banished Presbyterian voices challenging their preferred (and highly truncated) presentation of facts over the last decade, what are the chances that a church member trying to engage critics outside of the church will be willing to listen to those critics’ legitimate concerns?  In which case, Rev. Ufford-Chase’s Techniques and Talking points become not a means for engaging in a genuine (and challenging) conversation, but a way to ensure any conversation is always brought back to a preferred set of talking points – ones which require an interlocutor to accept their opponent’s assumptions in advance or be accused of refusing to engage in “dialog.”

As I mentioned previously, I’ve reached out to a couple of people who claimed to thirst for the chance to engage with those who disagree with church divestment policy, and while my sample size is pretty trivial, I have noticed increasing discomfort whenever the conversation veers towards questioning PCUSA’s self-characterization as loving, unbiased, peace-makers.

Even keeping in mind the fact that Jews and Christians are destined to come at these issues from different vantage points (a challenge eloquently described in Rabbi Poupko’s Looking at Them Looking at Us), there is a difference between genuine dialog that involves people trying to find common ground and faux-dialog in which one side will only continue if their central premises go unchallenged.

Remember also that there is another audience for Rev. Ufford-Chase’s message: those fellow Presbyterians who warned that a return to 2004 would mean a return to the rifts and acrimony that followed PCUSA’s original divestment vote.  For this group, a call for interfaith dialog (just with Jews, by the way, not with the church’s Palestinian peace partners who are using PCUSA divestment policy as their latest propaganda weapon) is meant to imply that church leaders are holding an outstretched hand which the Jews refuse to grasp.

Perhaps a strategy based on faux dialog masquerading as the real thing will convince some uninformed souls of PCUSA’s sincerity.  But given the number of people within Ufford-Chase’s own organization who are reaching out to apologize to their Jewish partners for PCUSA behavior (rather than try to explain it away), I suspect Ufford-Chase and other BDSbyterians will have a hard time convincing many members of their own church that this move represents anything other than an attempt to gorge on their divestment cake without suffering any consequences.

PCUSA – Saying Goodbye

2 Jul

Now that a week has passed since the PCUSA decided to turn the clock back to 2004, rejecting four previous General Assembly votes and moving full-steam ahead on divestment once more, there is very little to do but watch the completely predictable consequences of their decision play out.

Remember that this is a church which has been told for over a decade that divestment – which would lump the Jewish state in with Apartheid South Africa and genocidal Sudan – represented an assault on Israel’s legitimacy and a direct attack on the most important Jewish project of modernity.

They have been told by their members time and time again that divestment does not translate to a form of peace-making and even-handedness, but rather represents taking a side in the conflict.  They saw those same members say “No” in divestment votes taken in ’06, ’08, ’10 and ’12.  And still divestment advocates within the church (enabled by a leadership that has more in common with Sabeel than with their own parishioners) pressed on.

This alliance of boycotters and corrupt leaders continued with their single-minded program, even after Zionism Unsettled shouted to the world the real agenda behind those anti-Israel partisans who have forced divestment onto the church for over a decade.  And they took their vote the moment Israel was looking for its now-murdered children in one territory controlled by the PCUSA’s Palestinian “peace partners” and rockets were being fired into the country from another.

As I’ve noted before, the Jewish community is diverse (i.e., often at each other’s throats – especially on matters related to the Middle East), but patient (as demonstrated by a decade of turning the other cheek while PCUSA prepared the next slap).  But patience ceases to be a virtue when it enables immoral behavior.  And I think it’s telling that in a community as diverse as ours, advocates for BDS are one of the few groups not allowed inside the Big Tent.

And so the condemnations have poured in from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements who agree on little beyond the holiness of Torah and an abhorrence of BDS.  Even stronger statements have been issued by virtually every community organization in the country (other than Jewish Voice for Peace – the “interfaith partners” PCUSA leaders obliquely refer to when they claim that divestment has support within the Jewish community).

More importantly, Presbyterians who warned church leaders what would happen if they continued to insist on pressing divestment are speaking out.  And while I don’t expect whole churches to break away from PCUSA over last month’s divestment vote, I have heard from individual Presbyterians that this vote was the last straw that has caused them to start looking for a new religious home far from the contamination of Louisville.  And given the options churches have to leave this branch of the denomination and still be considered Presbyterians, it would not surprise me to see emigration contribute to the decline of PCUSA as much as the death of the old and disinterest of the young.

A number of people have commented on the “deer-in-the-headlights” performance of PCUSA Moderator Heath Rada as he took to the airwaves trying to explain that last month’s vote does not diminish his denominations love for the Jewish people and devotion to Israel’s continued existence. But after 2004, after Vigilance, after Zionism Unsettled, and after a decade of hearing Presbyterians take to the stage on GA after GA accusing Israel of every imaginable crime, it should come as no surprise that the Jewish community has finally decided to judge the organization by its deeds, rather than its words.

The only thing about the aftermath that caught me off guard was this call by PCUSA leaders asking individual churches to reach out to synagogues with whom they have good relations to explain that a return to 2004 should not be seen as an attack on Israel, a joining of the BDS movement, or anything other than an act of peacemaking and love (supported by statements saying just that within the divestment resolution which passed at the 214 GA).

The trouble is, any Presbyterian Church with a strong relationship with the local Jewish community knows those statements are just a form of equivocation by an organization that – even while assuring their Jewish “friends” that they are not part of the BDS “movement” – can’t seem to find the time to ask that movement to stop claiming PCUSA as a friend and example of what other churches should do immediately.

In other words, local church leaders who have built up enough trust to explain PCUSA policy to offended Jews are the very ones who warned PCUSA of the perils of continuing to push a divestment agenda at all cost.  Which means that Louisville is counting on those Presbyterians most against the policy they forced onto the organization to repair the damage their reckless decisions have caused.

Perhaps pastors like Mark Davidson will be able to sit down with his local interfaith partners and convince them that PCUSA is sincere in its love and peacemaking (after riding over to the synagogue on a bus plastered with the anti-Israel ads his church has sponsored).  But my guess is that the Jewish community is ready to maintain friendly and productive relations with local Presbyterians who (like most Presbyterians) reject divestment, cordial relations with those who support the policy, and no relations with PCUSA at a national level.

In other words, our involvement with PCUSA should be treated as an entirely local matter.  Which means we should treat Louisville and whatever Louisville and its real friends and partners at Sabeel, IPMN, and JVP cook up over the next two years with the same indifference and contempt it will be shown by the rest of the world.

As I noted last time, one of the strengths of American religious culture is the ease with which someone who dislikes their local church is free to start their own.  And while PCUSA has shown itself ready to fight to the death to hang onto its property, hanging onto its membership seems pretty low on their agenda.  So perhaps this year’s GA can mark the beginning of a new era of Jewish-Presbyterian relations, one which has no use for a PCUSA national organization and agenda that has caused so much misery to others while hastening the death of their own denomination.

Presbyterian BDS and the Attack on Common Sense

23 Jun

Occasionally, a critic will show up in the comments section of this site questioning my claims of sympathy with civic groups suffering from having had the Middle East conflict dragged into their organization by boycott and divestment advocates.

It’s a reasonable challenge, given that I never had anything to do with groups like the food co-op movement or the Presbyterian Church until I became engaged with them over my particular political issue.  But such an accusation assumes that engagement can’t involve learning and growth, especially as it provides access to people with whom I can empathize (given that my own journey began when divestment reared its ugly head in my home town a decade ago).

Since emotional attachment and empathy are both psychological constructs difficult to “prove” through the written word, let me instead provide an argument over why the PCUSA’s recent decision to return to the BDS fold is such a tragedy (for the Presbyterians, not for Israel), after which you can decide how much such an analysis reflects sympathy vs. sour grapes.

Any discussion of American Mainline Protestantism (of which Presbyterianism is a part) must begin by pointing out that the United States was founded and built by Mainliners and entirely led by them until the election of the Catholic John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Now their decline in both numbers and influence in the second half of the 20th century has created some anomalous behaviors (best summarized in Rabbi Poupko’s mini-masterpiece Looking at Them Looking at Us), notably a critique of US foreign policy driven by church members who often resemble a retired CEO lecturing successors from the sidelines about everything they’re doing wrong.

Such contemporary oddities should not, however, blind us to the remarkable role Presbyterians and other Protestant churches played in creating the founding principles of the nation, including religious tolerance and pluralism.  This is not to say that Protestantism is inherently more tolerant than other faiths (as testified by centuries of post-Reformation religious wars in Europe).  But in the United States (unlike Europe), no denomination had the numbers to establish themselves as the official state church, which meant that pluralism and tolerance were matters of self-interest to groups that might be a majority in one part of the country, but a minority in another.

As Joseph Bottum describes in his book An Anxious Age, this peculiar dynamic allowed churches to foster patriotism based on a shared American identity while also giving institutions with no official role running the country a platform to critique the society in which they lived.  And as Mainline Protestantism has declined to the point of potential extinction, no other institution – secular or religious – has been able to provide an alternative moral language to replace the one originally provided by Protestant Christianity.

Getting back to matters specifically related to the Presbyterians, Will Spotts (author of Pride and Prejudice - which describes how the original 2004 PCUSA divestment policy came about) has justifiably criticized the process used by the organization to come to conclusions about weighty matters – including international politics – a process where (among other problems) “time limits and workload has the effect of precluding competence.”

While I can’t argue with any of the particulars Will describes, I would urge people to consider the driving force behind such a process as not hubris but the Common Sense philosophy I talked about a few weeks back.

Just as a reminder, Common Sense – like Presbyterianism – originated in Scotland (not a coincidence, by the way) and laid out a means for knowledge creation and societal organization that assumed every question could be answered or problem solved by small groups of committed individuals working together cooperatively.  The Church’s decentralized political structure as well as the devolution of powers to the small, local community envisioned by America’s founders all derive from Common Sense principles which many of us still long for (even if we no longer understand what they are or where they originated).

But Common Sense ran into challenges the moment society became too complex to allow every decision to be made like a jury trial.  Modernity, industrialization, transportation that allowed national and international travel, all led to the rise of a new political order: technocracy, where trained and skilled experts would make a bulk of the decisions on the behalf of the citizenry.

Now there is nothing inherently wrong with this new type of power relationship.  We all benefit, after all, by having our electrical grids designed by engineers rather than a group of citizens chosen by lot.  At the same time, much of contemporary political debate that is force-fit into categories such as Left vs. Right make a lot more sense once you realize that nostalgia for living in a Common Sense community in an era when that is no longer possible drives much of our political thinking (at least at the subconscious level).

Unfortunately, if the PCUSA’s committee-based decision making reflects a desire to hold onto Common Sense principles within an institution (or sub-culture), it has yet to come to grips with how much technocrats within the organization have inevitably come to run the show.  And unlike the electric grid example I just used, in the case of PCUSA those technocrats are not experts but authorities (the full-time PCUSA professionals working out of Louisville Kentucky) whose decision making is not driven by unique knowledge and expertise but by a political agenda.

As we have seen over the last ten years of debate over divestment, such agenda-driven authority-crats are more than willing to subvert Common Sense principles in order to get their way.  For example, no genuine Common Sense community would be asked to vote in divestment at the last minute of a conference with minimal input from the membership (as happened in 2004).  And if Common Sense still reigned within the organization, a huge majority of members rejecting divestment in 2006 would have been the last word on the matter.

These new authorities, however, have tools at their disposal that allow them to portray their choices as something other than their own dictates.  There is a reason why PCUSA has chartered multiple committees to bring a certain point of view into discussions on the Middle East while Presbyterians who have alternative viewpoints must fend for themselves.  And is it reasonable to assume these committees could have become so packed and lopsided without the ascent of the church’s professional leadership?

Even the notion of divestment welling up from the grassroots through the Overture process is subject to manipulation since it’s been made apparent to all that Overtures on certain matters (such as criticism of Israel) will be put into action whenever a GA rolls around (thus encouraging activists who hold this position to submit multiple Overtures on the matter) while other issues will, at best, be filed under “Miscellaneous.”

What this all adds up to is a system whereby an elite drives their political agenda within the church while creating the illusion (through a corrupted GA process) that decisions are still being made by the men and women of the pews.  In other words, what we saw in Detroit last week was an attack not just on Israel and its supporters, but on the very decentralized, citizen-based, Common Sense principles upon which the Presbyterian Church was founded.

I suppose I could channel the spirit of Chicago Presbytery (the one that proposed new church liturgy to make a distinction between the Jews in the Old Testament and the ones living in the Holy Land today) and try to come up with language that would clarify the distinction between the Presbyterian Church which made so much difference in the world during its first four centuries and the mutant entity that traveled under that name in Detroit last week.  But feeling more generous than Chicago, I simply wish that those hoping to reform PCUSA back to sanity or, more likely, follow the time-tested American tradition of leaving to found their own alternative, will rediscover those things which led them to Presbyterianism in the first place, including the Common Sense principles that Louisville has worked so relentlessly to eradicate from PCUSA.