Thus Sayeth the Lord!

Divestment debates are ongoing matters at many “Mainline” Protestant churches. I’ve talked before about how anti-Israel divestment resolutions, begun by local churches, find their way to national forums (notably the Presbyterians and Methodists who meet every few years within quasi-democratic frameworks to vote on resolutions submitted from “the field”). While these resolutions get routinely voted down at a national level by whopping majorities, that seems to just give local activists the go-ahead to try to re-craft their rejected calls for resubmission two or four years hence.

Rabbi Yehiel Poupko’s booklet Looking at Them Looking at Us: A Jewish Understanding of Christian Responses to Israel (published by the Jewish Center for Public Affairs, and sadly not online) is required reading to fully understand why these votes keep coming up again and again among Protestant denominations such as the Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and UCC. In his essay, Poupko highlights two critical points:

· Mainline churches are in steep decline, due to falling birthrate/aging of members, and a lack of perceived spiritual vitality, especially among youth who (if interested in religious affiliation at all) are increasingly attracted to growing evangelical churches, whom “mainliners” perceive as competitors

· Mainline churches are the most prominent American institution committed to dissent on US foreign policy matters. Quoting Poupko: “while a variety of advocacy efforts are centered in labor unions, universities, and interest groups, it is primarily in the mainline Protestant churches that persistent voices against American foreign policy are heard. It is from the churches that the resources flow which facilitate dissent.”

These two issues are linked, with politics filling a void left by a spiritual vacuum among churches dealing with modernity and struggling to find their own unique identity in an increasingly secular and ecumenical world. And having staked out foreign policy as their “turf,” choices often get made based on competitive positioning with rival churches (notably more conservative fundamentalists). While it would be an oversimplification to say that Presbyterian or Methodist choices on matters such as Israel and the Middle East boil down to “if the fundamentalists support Israel, we oppose it,” it’s also fair to say that mainliner’s choices are impelled as much by secular and church politics as they are by “Christian witness.”

As already noted, divest-from-Israel resolutions managed to pass national church votes at the height of divestment’s success in 2004, but have since been defeated time and time again. But at a local level, groups like the New England Conference of United Methodist Church have continued to draw up long lists of companies they want to see the church divest from as part of a high-profile, national action. Remember that the primary goal of divestment is to get a prominent institution like a national church to put its weight and reputation behind their cause. And getting this to happen often requires the same type of rough-and-tumble politics we’ve seen at other institutions such as limiting debate to only one side of the issue, or forcing controversial resolutions that allegedly speak for the whole church by votes of a small subset of members (often members of highly partisan political action committees).

While politics is politics, churches face particular problems when these tactics are exposed (as they have been a national conferences) since church members claim to be taking political stances not simply as institutions but as prophetic voices. Time and again, church members describe their anti-Israel stances and resolutions as cases of “bearing witness,” implying that their statements are made not simply on behalf of themselves or their own church, but in the name of God himself.

My friend Will Spotts pointed out both the human and spiritual problems behind such behavior in his groundbreaking work Pride and Prejudice: The Presbyterian Divestment Story:

“’Thus sayeth the Lord.’ This description of our own opinions can easily result in an unwillingness to actually entertain evidence that contradicts what we have declared to be true – namely that Israel is to blame for violence in the region, that Israel is to blame for the Palestinian refugee crisis, and that Israel is morally deficient for attempting to use a physical barrier to protect its citizens. Since this prophecy has been issued in our name, we, as Presbyterians might do well to remember the stern biblical condemnation of the practice of claiming to speak for God where God has not spoken.”

Churches engaging in politics thus face greater dilemmas that other institutions dealing with the divestment issue (such as schools, cities and unions). For if their engagement with the Middle East wells up from a prophetic tradition, why are so many of church debates characterized by the grubbiest political behavior? Today, even at churches where divestment is not on the agenda, condemnation of Israel serves as constant backdrop with steady streams of speakers, films, art shows and other materials (some directed at children) that straddle the line between education and propaganda. Yet how many times have these churches sought out alternative voices to help them wrestle with some of the most vexing political issues of the day vs. taking their own hidebound political stances literally as gospel?

As I noted during the Presbyterian divestment debates in 2006, one would think that religious institutions would strive to be an example to the rest of us regarding civil and informed debate, especially on the toughest and touchiest of issues. And yet time and time again, these very churches exemplify some of the least attractive sides of our political culture: self-righteousness, insensitivity to others, disinterest in dissenting opinion (including efforts to shield other church members from alternative viewpoints), all wrapped up with the troubling notion of “bearing witness,” implying as it does that their very secular political choices are, in fact, the work of the divine.

A thesis I’ve been discussing since getting onto the anti-divestment bandwagon has been how divestment, designed to inflict moral damage on the Jewish state, tends to boomerang on those who advocate it. “Who will trust our words in the future? Why should they?” was the quote of one Presbyterian after a particularly egregious incident involving the church’s 2008 debate over divestment. Indeed, Israel reputation will survive the slings and arrows tossed at it as partisans try to revive the divestment strategy over the coming years. The question is, will the churches’?

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