PCUSA – Stacking the Deck?

In 2004, the Presbyterian Church in the US (PCUSA) voted to begin a process of “phased, selective divestment” in companies doing business with Israel. Putting aside the fact that this vote was taken towards the end of the General Assembly (with even its proponents unaware of the significance it would have in energizing the global BDS “movement” and driving a wedge between Presbyterians and Jews), divestment was built on a worldview pushed by church leaders for many years.

That view, developed in conjunction with some of the PCUSA’s interfaith partners discussed earlier, is built around “The Occupation” (implying Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but never truly defined) as the root cause of problems in the Middle East. Corollaries to this world view (stated quite clearly in Presbyterian communications on the issue) include:

· Palestinian attacks on Israelis represent responses to this root cause (“The Occupation”) and thus the only way to end terrorism is for “The Occupation” to end

· That the Israel-Palestinian issue (by which they mean “The Occupation”) must be solved in order to solve any other issue in the Middle East

Now many people would claim that this worldview puts the cart before the horse. That, unless you have a start date of 1948 for “The Occupation” (which would imply a negation of the state of Israel’s existence – something the Presbyterian leadership vigorously denies), then Israel’s control over territories like the West Bank and Gaza were the result of wars waged against it from neighboring states, and thus could not simultaneously be the cause of those wars.

Also, claiming that totalitarianism, repression of women, inter-Arab warfare, violence directed against religious minorities (including Christians), and – most recently – jihadi civil war are not the responsibility of the Arab states, but somehow can also be traced back to a root cause of “The Occupation” also seems like a refusal to place responsibility where it belongs, similar to the refusal to assign Palestinians responsibility for their own choices and actions.

When in 2006 PCUSA members voted 95%-5% to reject divestment – in the light of day and with a full articulating of the controversy before them – they were clearly expressing discomfort with the worldview of church leaders, not simply rejecting a symptom of that worldview (i.e., divestment).

This discomfort was on display in 2008 when proponents and opponents of anti-Israel measures within the church decided to create a neutral body that would help guide them to better decision making once 2010 rolled around. The language of that decision should be read in full:

“The 218th General Assembly (2008) requests that the Moderators of the 218th, 217th, and 216th General Assemblies (2008), (2006), and (2004) select a nine-member committee from a broad spectrum of viewpoints from PC(USA) members] to prepare a comprehensive study, with recommendations, that is focused on Israel/Palestine within the complex context of the Middle East. The study should include an evaluation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s mission and relationships, including an assessment of the future for the Christian presence and witness in the Middle East, an overview of the complex interactions among religions, cultures, and peoples that characterize the region, an analysis of U.S. policies that impact the area, and steps to be taken with our partners in the Middle East and the United States to foster justice, improve interfaith relations, and nurture the building of peace toward a secure and viable future for all, and report back to the 219th General Assembly (2010).”

The result of this decision was the creation of a Middle East Study Committee (or MESC) which released its report on the issue earlier this year.

Looking over the wording of the 2008 decision to create the committee, the insistence that the group include “a broad spectrum of viewpoints” was paramount. Indeed, such a request would not have had to be spelled out if church members felt they were getting their information from a “broad spectrum of viewpoints” up to that point.

So how did things go?

Well once again I turn to Will Spotts who has provided a detailed analysis of not just the membership of the MESC, but also the people and organizations the MESC visited to research their recommendations. The nine-person committee included six PCUSA Ministers and three Elders, and all but one of the nine had histories of anti-Israel bias and polemics within the church. (The one dissenting view, Reverend John Wimberly, quit the committee in disgust over its one-sided makeup.)

Four church employees assigned to the group were no less biased in their approach to the subject, and during their two years of research, the group talked with 55 individuals and organizations, 43 of which seemed to have shared the biases of the committee itself.

Needless to say, everything old is new again. The resulting report, entitled “Breaking Down the Walls” contains a reiteration and, indeed, an amplification of the worldview upon which the rejected 2004 divestment decision was based. Once again, Israel and “The Occupation” are the epicenter of all misery in the region. Once again, Israel must take primary responsibility for making things right. And just to be helpful, the report includes dozens of recommendations built on their assignment of responsibility, highlights of which can be found here.

Given that church members rejected divestment and other anti-Israel petitions in both 2006 and 2008 by huge majorities, it may seem strange that (with one exception) the only people found to put on the committee came with like-minded pre-dispositions on all important issues. And while some of us who worked to defeat divestment are not Presbyterians, many are which makes it even more peculiar that nearly no voices rejecting the 2004 worldview could be found to staff the MESC. Unless, of course, a stacked committee was the goal all along, not an unhappy or unlucky blind chance outcome.

Now stacking a committee is no crime if your organization is a political one, dedicated to one particular outcome. After all, political partisans will generally gravitate to the like minded, and even political blogs (like this one), choose issues to discuss based on our interests and pre-conceived opinions.

The thing is, PCUSA is not claiming to be a political institution, but is rather presenting itself as a distinct spiritual voice desperate to gather and present truths that will allow members to make sound moral decision. More than that, if you look through the language of the report, full of stories and statements regarding Christian witness and being guided by the spirit, it’s clear that elements of this report are meant to imply an origin drawn from the deepest well of religious faith.

Which makes the grubby politics behind MESC seem all-the-more appalling. After all, it’s one thing to cut corners, stack the deck, leave out opinions detrimental to your cause, knowingly communicate inaccurate and/or biased data, and limit your opponents from having their say if you’re a secular politician trying to ram through your desired budget or program. But what are we to make of the fact that these same hardball tactics are being used to pressure a decision that will be claimed to carry the moral authority of the 400+year-old Presbyterian Church, if not representing the voice of God himself?

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