Reverend Ufford-Chase’s Faux Dialog

It’s now officially time to call it quits on the whole Presbyterian issue and move onto other vital matters, such as the disintegration of the entire Middle East (or at least those portions rarely mentioned in discussions of a “Middle East Conflict” that seems to include Israel, the Palestinians and precious little else).

But before saying goodbye to this topic, I have to mention this article written by Rick Ufford-Chase which provides techniques and talking points to anyone who must engage in interfaith dialog between Presbyterians who support the church’s return to their 2004 divestment position and the vast majority of Jews who were justifiably appalled by that decision.

Like Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick, Reverend Ufford-Chase is one of those PCUSA leaders whose fingerprints can be found all over the PCUSA divestment project.  The moderator for the 2004 General Assembly where divestment was first voted in (as a last-minute decision, with barely any debate), Ufford-Chase seems to have dedicated the last decade to undoing every “No” vote taken against divestment (in ’06, ’08, ’10 and ’12) in order to once again get his pet cause made PCUSA policy.

The first problem Ufford-Chase is likely to run into is finding someone to take his advice, given that many (probably most) Presbyteries were either (1) unaware that the divestment issue was once again going to throw the church onto the front pages (and create new rifts with the Jewish community) or (2) were actively hostile to the leadership’s divestment obsession all along.

But for those clerical and lay leaders who do want to explain church policy to alleged interfaith partners, Ufford-Chase recommends a format for organizing one’s talking points, one which puts a central argument in the middle of a triangle (in his case, that “Presbyterians are committed to bringing about peace for all Israelis and Palestinians”), then putting statements that support this main thesis on the corners of the triangle, with each statement supported by stories or further statements.

In this case, Ufford-Chase’s corners are filled with talking points with which anyone who has followed this debate will find familiar (“Presbyterians do not invest in companies that violate human rights,” “The Occupation must be dismantled and Settlement expansion must be brought to an end,” “Presbyterians seek both an internationally recognized State of Israel and a viable Palestinian State”), with evidence (interestingly) consisting not of facts but of stories that can add a human face to statements being presented as true.

While this might seem like a useful technique for organizing an argument, I could just as easily draw my own triangle which focuses on a different characterization of the PCUSA’s decision such as “A minority within the church has been committed to dragging the Middle East conflict into the organization for over a decade,” and then support my characterization with statements about how PCUSA leaders (including Ufford-Chase) have betrayed principles of Presbyterian governance, broken promises to the Jewish community, and suppressed dissent in order to get their way.  And, again, each of my statements could be well supported by stories and evidence (starting with detailed research, like the work of former PCUSA member Will Spotts).

Now one way genuine interfaith dialog could proceed from such an exercise would be for Rev. Ufford-Chase and I to swap our triangles and attempt to find common ground between them or, failing that, to agree to disagree.

But given how much church leaders have banished Presbyterian voices challenging their preferred (and highly truncated) presentation of facts over the last decade, what are the chances that a church member trying to engage critics outside of the church will be willing to listen to those critics’ legitimate concerns?  In which case, Rev. Ufford-Chase’s Techniques and Talking points become not a means for engaging in a genuine (and challenging) conversation, but a way to ensure any conversation is always brought back to a preferred set of talking points – ones which require an interlocutor to accept their opponent’s assumptions in advance or be accused of refusing to engage in “dialog.”

As I mentioned previously, I’ve reached out to a couple of people who claimed to thirst for the chance to engage with those who disagree with church divestment policy, and while my sample size is pretty trivial, I have noticed increasing discomfort whenever the conversation veers towards questioning PCUSA’s self-characterization as loving, unbiased, peace-makers.

Even keeping in mind the fact that Jews and Christians are destined to come at these issues from different vantage points (a challenge eloquently described in Rabbi Poupko’s Looking at Them Looking at Us), there is a difference between genuine dialog that involves people trying to find common ground and faux-dialog in which one side will only continue if their central premises go unchallenged.

Remember also that there is another audience for Rev. Ufford-Chase’s message: those fellow Presbyterians who warned that a return to 2004 would mean a return to the rifts and acrimony that followed PCUSA’s original divestment vote.  For this group, a call for interfaith dialog (just with Jews, by the way, not with the church’s Palestinian peace partners who are using PCUSA divestment policy as their latest propaganda weapon) is meant to imply that church leaders are holding an outstretched hand which the Jews refuse to grasp.

Perhaps a strategy based on faux dialog masquerading as the real thing will convince some uninformed souls of PCUSA’s sincerity.  But given the number of people within Ufford-Chase’s own organization who are reaching out to apologize to their Jewish partners for PCUSA behavior (rather than try to explain it away), I suspect Ufford-Chase and other BDSbyterians will have a hard time convincing many members of their own church that this move represents anything other than an attempt to gorge on their divestment cake without suffering any consequences.

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