A major assumption surrounding this year’s PCUSA divestment vote (which can also be said for all the votes the church has taken on the subject) is that a “Yes” on divestment by the Presbyterians should be taken seriously as a moral statement. But is this a reasonable assumption?
Part of the reason we think this way is that publicity surrounding the church’s 2004 vote was cast in these terms. But 2004 was a unique year, especially given that the PCUSA divestment story was such a major surprise (even to most Presbyterians), and BDS itself was still a relatively new phenomenon. Given all of the activity surrounding the 2004 event, no one stopped to ask the simple question of why the Presbyterians were being taken so seriously on this matter, given how little pronouncements by the church have impacted any public discussion about any political matter for decades.
The weight one can assign to the moral pronouncements of the church (or any institution) rests entirely on the organization’s ethos, i.e., the level of respect the organization has earned by its own actions and behavior.
Now any organization that’s been around for centuries (like the Presbyterian Church) starts in a good place, ethos-wise, since people are normally deferential to an institution that’s been shaping minds and hearts for this long. And, with the exception of those who are hostile towards religion on principle, most of us are respectful to an institution (and the people who make it up) that is dedicated to more than worldly matters.
But age-old institutions (like people with long lists of credentials) can and do frequently misbehave, which is why ethos is primarily earned through one’s current behavior. And it is the current behavior on the part of the church that makes this week’s votes a referendum not on Israel but on the church.
We’ve already talked several times about how church members time and time again have expressed their displeasure at the political positions leaders and activists in the church were taking in their name, some going so far as to leave the church in disgust.
Now I suppose it’s possible that divestment represents a majority of church opinion. But more than likely, it represents an opinion that can be made official church policy if positioned carefully among the small number of members who vote at General Assemblies, with primary decision making carefully channeled through committees stacked with BDS partisans.
In other words, the many, many anti-Israel votes coming up this week at the Pittsburg GA are not being brought because a majority of members support them. Rather, BDS activists within the church (aided by church leaders) are taking advantage of the fact that a majority of members are probably indifferent to the whole subject (and ignoring the fact that many thousands of members are appalled by such votes).
If indifference to their own members doesn’t strike a blow against PCUSA’s ethos, then the harm the church is doing to people outside of their community certainly does. As Will Spottshas pointed out, most of the divisive political issues causing fissures with church polity (many having to do with gay marriage and clergy) at least only inflict damage to the church itself. Not so divestment which is designed specifically to harm Israel (by signaling it as so odious to be alone in the world at deserving economic sanction). Divestment also harms the Jewish community (the vast majority of which supports Israel). It harms Presbyterian -Jewish relations (which will likely never be the same if a divestment vote wins this week.) And it harms the chance for peace, given that it holds out hope for Israel’s foes that an option exists (i.e., BDS) that doesn’t require the compromise and negotiations needed for peace to be achieves.
If lack of concern for one’s own members and for former friends and partners aren’t enough to question the ethos of those hoping to stand in judgment of the Jewish state, there is also the reputation for honesty required to be considered an “honest broker.”
An honest broker, for example, would not promise its’ Jewish friends that church opinion would be more open minded and balanced one year, only to turn around and ram even more hostile anti-Israel resolutions down the organization’s throat a year after that. It wouldn’t release the one honest appraisal of the impact of church policy and bask in praise for this honesty, only to take down that report weeks later and replace it with one more piece of lopsided anti-Israel agitprop (and “forget” to tell anyone this switcharoo had taken place). And it would not limit discussion of Middle East politics to a tiny subset of militant activists, only inviting others to “join the discussion” well after all decisions had been made.
It’s one thing to stack the deck of committees, truncate debate and limit the exposure of decision makers to just one set of opinions if you’re playing the politics of Chicago City Hall. But the Presbyterian Church is claiming to not be engaging in politics, but to be “bearing witness” to a human struggle with moral dimensions. And if one is claiming to speak on behalf of God (the ultimate claim when one talks of “Christian Witness”), then it’s hard to escape the conclusion that church leaders – partnered with BDS activists – are engaging in the grubbiest of political maneuvering in order to shove words into the mouth of not just millions of church members, but into the mouth of God him/her-self.
A person (or organization’s) ethos is what determines if moral pronouncements should be taken seriously (and even if statements of fact should be taken at face value). So as committees meet in Pittsburg to decide if the church will once again become a wholly owned subsidiary of the BDS “movement,” it is not Israel’s reputation that is being decided upon but the reputation of the Presbyterian Church itself.