I suppose I should be happy with the final outcome of last week’s Presbyterian General Assembly. Divestment was voted down (for the third GA in a row), the Middle East Study Committee’s ridiculously lopsided report was gutted (removing its most egregious sections and curbing the group’s excesses), and ugliness such as accusations of Apartheid were dismissed out of hand. And yet the experience of watching this year’s GA left me feeling profoundly ill.
My first reaction to this surprise nausea was guilt. Have I gotten so used to big and decisive victories against BDS that any sort of ambiguous outcome is disappointing? Certainly successful anti-Israel votes that called for the US government to withhold aid from Israel and the decision to denounce (rather than divest from) Caterpillar Tractor (votes that will surely be used by anti-Israel partisans to imply the Presbyterians are back on board their program) made 2010 less of an unalloyed victory for our side than in years past.
But then again (and with all due respect to the centuries-old Presbyterian Church), it’s been quite some time since an American political administration looked to the PCUSA’s governing bodies for moral guidance. And as far as denunciation is concerned, given how many times the church itself has been denounced for its immoral behavior regarding the Middle East over the last decade, PCUSA offers organizations like Caterpillar an object lesson on how to let such critiques simply bounce off a hardened shell of unquestioned self-righteousness.
Perhaps it is instead a disruption of the narrative I’ve been working under that led to this bout of queasiness. After all, I’ve been working under the assumption that most of the church’s excesses were the result of a corrupted leadership more committed to ruthless interfaith partners in the Arab Christian community than to their own members, coupled with out-of-control political activists whose only link to the church is their efforts to leverage its reputation for their own partisan campaigns. Under this storyline, the church’s rank and file were my heroes, the people that could be counted on to reverse any appalling votes that made their way out of stacked committees onto the GA floor.
But this rank and file has itself been changing over the years. As has been noted before, PCUSA is in the process of disappearing, having lost half its members just in my lifetime. But this shrinkage is not simply a matter of older members dying and no fresh blood coming in. In fact, whole churches have left and are continuing to leave the PCUSA “family,” joining other branches of Presbyterianism or Protestantism. And while these departures are driven more by conflict over social and doctrinal issues than over PCUSA’s attitudes towards the Middle East, with each departure the rump that is left behind becomes more homogeneous and less interested in listening to other opinions. And when individuals (such as Will Spotts), depart the church specifically over the ugliness that’s transpired over the years regarding divestment and other Israel-related matters, the church loses a crucial voice of conscience that should have been listened to all along.
And then there is the question of language. This was actually the third General Assembly I’ve watched via online video feed, and I must admit to having first been intrigued by the religious and spiritual vocabulary that permeated every discussion. In our secular age, it’s impressive to find people who can bring the language of faith to even mundane topics like church budget analysis.
But pulling God via “Christian Witness” into a discussion of political matters has its pitfalls (indeed, Presbyterians routinely identify these pitfalls when other churches drag the Almighty into political areas with which PCUSA leaders do not agree). At the very least, telling voting GA delegates that Witness and their spiritual conscience should drive their decisions more than the views of the members these delegates are supposed to represent implies that the spirit works far more strongly within people attending church conclaves than it does for those populating the pews back home.
And so we come to this year’s Assembly where I got to watch speaker after speaker apply this spiritual language to the most appalling, lopsided, uninformed, unfair, chilling and nasty accusations that by now have become part of the PCUSA liturgy. It was not the Deity that caused a resolution dealing with Christian-Jewish relations to be shelved, while one on Muslim-Jewish relations to be accepted. It was raw politics, the same politics that ensured that Israeli’s alleged human rights abuses would be treated with passionate scrutiny, while the human rights abuses in Muslim lands (including abuses against Christians) would be swept under the carpet.
So maybe it was watching bullying power politics pushing nasty, immoral decisions dressed up in the language of holiness that led to my aforementioned feelings of nausea. Yes, I know there were people working behind the scenes to fight this injustice who were also using the language of spirit to conduct their battles. But as these heroes continue their rearguard action to prevent the church’s reputation from sinking still deeper, they seem to be confronting higher and higher concentrations of church members who are either behaving abominably or condoning such behavior through inaction.
Why should any of us even care, I suppose. After all, there are already three times as many Jews in the US as Presbyterians and, if present trends continue, in 2-3 more GAs there will be more Reform Jews in the US than Presbyterians (meaning come 2016 the Presbyterians may have to send representatives to Jewish meetings to lobby against resolutions condemning their church).
As I’ve said before, Israel will survive the slings and arrows thrown against it by the phalanx of ruthless hypocrites who make it their life work to defame the Jewish state. But what of an organization that year by year is creating an internal reality whereby wicked behavior can be presented and celebrated as the ultimate act of goodness?
In all of history, there have been very few Lex Luthors or Magnetos leading organizations with names like The Legion of Doom or the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Rather, acts that we see today as the ultimate evils were, at the time, hailed by their practitioners as supreme examples of virtue. Watching this same history unfold before my eyes over the last few weeks is, no doubt, the real reason why a satisfactory outcome from this year’s Presbyterian General Assembly still leaves such an aching feeling deep in my stomach, if not my soul.