Some people will look at that headline as the pre-positioning of sour grapes in case this afternoon’s vote does not go well, while others might suspect that I’m trying to find any means to avoid spending the afternoon watching a political debate wrapped in religious clothing whose jarring style is so wonderfully described by my old friend Will Spotts.
Both accusations (particularly the second one) probably have a grain of truth to them. But let me try to outline why a Presbyterian vote to re-instate their divestment policy from 2004 will have far less impact than it did when divestment was first passed ten years ago.
First, when that original divestment vote took place in 2004 it was a bolt from the blue. Only those in the Jewish community who had been following the degeneration of discourse on the Middle East that had been going on in the Presbyterian Church over the previous decade knew that it might be coming. And even the leadership of PCUSA didn’t think much about the passage of a resolution to begin a process of “phased, selective divestment” from the Jewish state (to the point where that year’s GA moderator didn’t even mention the vote as one of the important items to come out of that year’s General Assembly).
This element of surprise meant no one really understood how that vote came about and, absent such information, they took as given statements coming from church leaders and external divestment advocates that this vote represented the will of a 2.2 million member church, a decision supposedly representing the moral condemnation of an established and still-respected institution.
But that was before analysts like Will Spotts’ provided the kind of detailed analysis needed to understand the politics behind this decision, politics that we have seen play out in public in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012. And if sausage making and legislation are two procedures one never wants to get too close to out of fear of triggering violent nausea, watching the hardball tactics, dishonest and manipulative campaigning, and nasty innuendo blanketed in a religious vocabulary that has constituted church debate over this subject for the last decade has made it clear to all that any decision to re-participate in the BDS “movement” represents, at best, the success of a fringe minority to force its accusations into the mouth of another civic organization.
That aforementioned surprise in 2004 also meant the Israel’s supporters within the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds (including many Presbyterians) needed time to figure out what was going on and how to respond. But after ten years of being kicked in the teeth, ten years of having promises broken, ten years of lies about Israel as a nation of racist murderers treated as gospel fact and preached from the alter, these communities know what they need to say if the boycotters manage to find the right combination of backroom politics and front-room deception and moral blackmail to drag their sordid divestment measures over the finish line.
No speculation is required to understand what will happen next if divestment does pass this afternoon since we saw this exact same story play out ten years ago. Jewish organizations will decry yet another betrayal by alleged interfaith partners (although this time likely calling that abusive relationship off for good). Thousands of Presbyterians will wake up this weekend to discover what is being said in their name (yet again) on an issue many of them chose (and even voted) to stay neutral on again and again. Condemnations will rain down on PCUSA from across America’s civic landscape. And as church leaders turn to those they thought would become their alternative ecumenical partners (i.e., groups like Jewish Voice for Peace), they will find their new friends have fled the room (after a brief chest-thumping victory parade on the Assembly floor) in order to spread the word that “Israel is an Apartheid State – See the Presbyterians say so!” to the world, leaving behind others to deal with the wreckage.
And even as defenders of such a decision (presuming it takes place) point to those tiny clauses inserted into their divestment measures to earn them the checkered flag (such as a clause which claims that the church is not participating in the BDS movement, despite voting to take part in an activity that is BDS’s middle name), don’t expect them to expend much effort telling the boycotters to stop shouting otherwise through bullhorns across the planet.
So this afternoon’s divestment vote is taking place within an organization whose biases and behavior on all things Middle East are now well known by Jews, Presbyterians and civilians alike. So while Presbyterian BDS might create a brief media bump for the boycotters, it won’t take long before those stories are replaced by ones talking about a denomination that has lost all moral bearings, if not become totally senile, during its declining years.
Speaking of decline, I did a little spreadsheet work on the numbers appearing in this piece and calculated that the year in which the membership of the church will decline to 0 is 2040 (i.e., within the lifetime of most people reading this, although not within the lifetime of most current Presbyterians whose average age is 62).
Well before then, however, numbers will fall below a million (meaning they will be outnumbered by affiliated Jews in the US), but the nature of such an institution means that a final implosion will happen well before the last PCUSA member kicks the bucket. For a church that maintains over 10,000 congregations will probably start running into serious trouble once the average number of members per congregation falls below 100 (which, according to my calculation might happen as soon as 2020). And, as numbers continue to decline, there may come a point where PCUSA remains nothing more than a real-estate holding company and retirement home, best remembered for a long glorious history they abandoned to become a bullet point on the boycotter’s next PowerPoint slide.
I should point out that, as someone familiar with American religious and intellectual history, I take no joy at the decline of a Mainline Protestant movement that has defined so much of what this country means. But watching how the attack on Israel has played out in the church over a decade, my thoughts turn to those brave people in the pews who have kept this monster at bay for so long. And for those kindly ones, I pray that they can again act as a brake on the schemes of their corrupted leaders or, failing that, can find a safe lifeboat before the ship finally goes down.