“I was thrown out of [college] during my freshman year, for cheating on my metaphysics final. You know, I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”
— Woody Allen
There are two often-discussed potential motivations for the kind of mendacious behavior of many PCUSA activists with regard to Israel that I generally avoid.
The first is anti-Semitism. Generally, I avoid accusations of this type, not simply because they tend to immediately get people’s backs up, but because they imply knowledge or understanding of what is truly inside people’s minds and hearts. And while pointing out how some accusations against Israel speak to ancient anti-Jewish tropes is fair game (especially if those using such tropes may not know they are doing so), claiming to be able to read into people’s soul is just the thing that got Woody Allen into trouble all those years ago.
Claims by supporters of divestment and other anti-Israel measures that they are only doing what they are doing in the name of “Christian Witness” is the second motivation I tend to discount, especially since it claims specific understanding of not simply a human soul, but the word of God. If Christian Witness requires dozens of anti-Israel measures to appear before every PCUSA General Assembly, and nothing similar to be said regarding hundreds of far worse human rights abuses on the planet, forgive me for thinking the driver of such decisions is not divine but mortal.
As a doctor friend once told me with regard to diagnosing illness: if you hear hoof beats, assume they come from horses and not zebras. And while the oldest hatred or the spirit of the divine could be the source of anti-Israel animus within PCUSA, I prefer to ignore that potential zebra and look instead to a more likely horse of church and secular politics.
I’ve already discussed some macro-political matters within the church that seems to be motivating divestment and other anti-Israel activity at the last several Presbyterian General Assemblies, notably as a church leadership distant from its members being pushed in various directions by aggressive ecumenical partners (notably Palestinian Christian groups like Sabeel) at the expense of less demanding partners (like the Jewish community).
But one other issue came to mind when I was recently cruising various sites and blogs to gauge reaction to next month’s upcoming GA debate. On more than one occasion, supporters of various Overtures and reports criticizing Israel highlighted what they saw as a worrying alliance between “right-wing Jews” and Evangelical Christians, the latter being seen as supporting the former out of some primitive mis-reading of scripture that required the ingathering of Jews to Israel in order to hasten the coming of Armageddon.
Now no doubt one can find Christian supporters of Israel who believe in such things. But is that what primarily underpins the high level of Evangelical support for Israel? Or might this support be motivated by something simpler and more earthly, such as recognition that Israel is, in fact, a reasonably good place in terms of human rights (including religious freedom), certainly in comparison with its most prominent foes. In other words, what’s weirder, Christians whose co-religionists are being abused across the Muslim world finding common cause with Jews who have suffered and are suffering similar attack and persecution, or a Presbyterian Church which finds common cause with the persecutors in the name of “Christian Witness?”
There’s also the little matter of how much the rank and file of the Presbyterian Church resembles not just Evangelicals but the American public as a whole with regard to general support for Israel (reflected by huge PCUSA majorities rejecting divestment in 2006 and 2008). In other words, might the only major difference between Evangelicals and Mainliners be that it is only in the former where the opinion of leaders and flock are in synch?
American church attendance has stayed steady (actually grown slightly) during the very period when membership in the Presbyterian Church has tumbled into a death spiral, which means those looking for a religious experience seem to be looking to places other than PCUSA for such an experience.
Now it’s possible that Evangelical churches are growing at the expense of the Mainliners by selling snakeoil, a perverted blend of Biblical literalism laced with primitive mythology, in order to draw in people who would otherwise flock to PCUSA’s doors. But Presbyterians should also consider the alternative that, in addition to providing people a more appealing religious experience, these growing churches may also be offering people (including former Presbyterians) a place where their opinions can be heard, not buried in an avalanche of half truths and false accusations that will be the mainline attraction at this year’s Middle East debate at the Presbyterian GA.