I was going to write something on the social aspects of Israel bashing within the Presbyterian Church, but Dexter Van Zile beat me to the punch with his insightful comments on the subject which can be read here.
We’re a day away from when matters before the various PCUSA committees get forwarded to the plenary where votes determine whether or not measures become official church policy. As has already been mentioned, the committees have generally been stacked against Israel getting a fair shake, and those advocating condemnation of the Jewish state are calling most of the shots with regard to what information gets communicated to the full assembly. So even more than in previous years those advocating fair treatment for Israel will have to count on the good sense of the everyday Presbyterian delegate.
In thinking through the way decisions are being made in the quasi-democratic structure of the Presbyterian Church, I remembered that the synagogue I recently joined had just passed policies regard when and how the temple could take official stands (i.e., stands that spoke in the name of the synagogue) on controversial political matters.
The steps needed to get this to happen would strike some as cumbersome. First, an issue has to be brought up within a relevant committee, or (if triggered by an individual concerned temple member) would be referred to committee. It must then move up another level (to the VP of a so-called “cluster,” or group of committees) before being forwarded to the temple’s Executive Committee and then (if passed) onto the full board for a final vote, after which it becomes official temple policy.
While not required, consultation with senior clergy is highly recommended throughout the process and the clergy itself, while having more flexibility than members to take public stances on political matters, is also bound to go through proper procedures in order to officially speak for the temple as a whole.
Undergirding this seemingly excessive bureaucracy is the assumption that the temple community contains many diverse voices, particularly on the most controversial matters of the day. And while it’s safe to say that a majority of members probably fall into the political demographic associated with the Boston and Cambridge suburbs, the safeguards put in place by the procedures mentioned above are designed to minimize the chance that a members will wake up one day to discover a political message is being delivered by their temple (i.e., in their name) that they both find abhorrent and never even knew was being discussed.
Now this is not to say that Jews have gotten this system buttoned down correctly. In fact, I know of other temples, as well as secular Jewish organizations, that function much more like PCUSA than my temple in terms erring on the side of openness vs. carefulness. But while the potential harm from a process heavily weighted towards achieving consensus means my temple might someday have trouble weighing in on important matters, the downside of the alternative is now on full display at the Presbyterian GA.
As is being made abundantly clear right this minute in Minneapolis, the fact that many thousands of Presbyterians (including large numbers who will not be voting on church policies) are profoundly uncomfortable (if not openly hostile) to how the church portrays the Middle East conflict or the policies it sets with regard to the politics of the region. Yet this fact does not in any way inform what gets onto the agenda and what doesn’t.
Is the fact that members voted down divestment 95-5 four years ago something that needs to be taken into account when assessing church investment policy, or just a stumbling block that can be overridden if divestment advocates simply continue to push their agenda year after year after year, regardless of the will or interests of other members of the church? Will Presbyterians who do not follow church politics closely be happy or appalled if they discover next Monday that their church has once again become the poster child for divinely inspired political invective targeting one and only one country in the Middle East (the Jewish one)?
If this GA is like the last two I’ve watched via online broadcast, many advocates on both sides of different issues will point out that delegates have a higher calling than simply representing their constituents, a calling to speak (and vote) based on the divine spirit of Christian witness.
There is some appeal to such thinking (especially within a spiritual community) until you realize that – absent direct communication from the almighty – individuals are required to discern what Christian witness means on their own. And while I have no doubt in the quality of soul of people taking part in such decisions, we are all subject to moral weakness, including a susceptibility to being bullied or manipulated into making poor decisions at the behest of aggressive partisans telling us we have no moral choice, other than to do what they say.
It is specifically within an organization where the conscience of legislators is raised above the responsibility to represent constituents that safeguards (like those in place at my temple) are most needed. Alas, for a Presbyterian Church, the only thing standing in the way of going over the precipice one more time is the hope that the majority of delegates gathered in Minneapolis are wise enough to ignore the sirens of partisanship (which includes the very top leaders of the church) and act to restore good faith and sound judgment into church thinking on Israel and the Middle East.