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The Social Gospel Paradox

28 Mar

I’m close to finishing Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age, the subtitle of which (“The Post-Protestant Ethic and Spirit of America”) provides a valuable frame with which to close out this month’s discussion of what next for the Presbyterian Church’s relationship with Jews and Israel.

Works I’ve read (and urged others to read) over the last several years, such as the writing of Spotts and Poupko, look at the post-war era as the beginning of the end for the Mainline Protestant churches.  If you recall, this was a period when Mainliners like the Presbyterians, Methodists and Episcopalians joined in Ecumenical communion, putting aside doctrinal differences to create a joint front against growing competition from Evangelicalism and secular modernity.

While such a decision seemed perfectly reasonable and natural then (and still seems rational today), eliminating the differences between Methodist and Presbyterian gave people very few reasons to associate themselves with either church.  And so began a death spiral for Mainline Protestantism which Bottum identifies as the most important undiscussed contribution to changes in American society during the 20th century.

But the author also sees the post-war ecumenical era (and subsequent collapse of Mainline membership) as the result of decisions made much earlier, decisions that grew out of the challenges every church faced in the 19th and 20th centuries as modernism, rationalism and science began to dominate societies that once defined themselves as “Christendom.”

Mainline Protestantism managed to uniquely hold its own in the US until the 20th century due to its unusual nature of being both part of the establishment (given that, until quite recently, nearly every leader and intellectual in the nation was a member of this or that Mainline church) yet outside that establishment (since separation of Church and State and the diversity of Mainline substrates meant no particular church was ever in a position to dominate the secular political order).

From this position of insider/outsider, the churches fostered patriotism among their members while also giving their religious institutions an outsider’s platform to critique society.  Ironically, it was during a period when the churches still prioritized ministry (i.e., delivering the message of Christ within the context of specific doctrine) over politics that they were the most politically effective (think about church leadership in the fight against slavery).

The turning point for Bottum, however, was Walter Rauschenbusch’s introduction of the Social Gospel at the start of the 20th century.

Written during an age of tremendous political, economic and social upheaval, it’s no surprise that religious thinkers and writers were identifying Christ’s suffering with the suffering of the world’s marginalized and dispossessed (as defined in 20th century terms of class, race and the futility of war). But Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel approached this challenge in a way that would have long-term (and largely unintended) consequence.  For his new Gospel identified six evils that form “the social sin of all mankind, to which all who ever lived have contributed, and under which all who ever lived had suffered.”

These six social sins include:

  • Bigotry
  • Arrogance of power
  • Corruption of justice for personal gain
  • Mob madness and violence
  • Militarism
  • Class contempt

But if you look at how the Social Gospel defines these sins (as evils that have lived with us since the beginning of time), they begin to look less like human failings (the original notion of sin) and more like metaphysical forces that transcend humanity, much like God or (more appropriate in this case) Satan.

Which meant that for those who embraced the message of the Social Gospel, simply fighting against bigotry or corruption was not enough.  Rather, one had to incorporate into one’s belief system the existence of superhuman evil in the universe organized around the six social sins.  In other words, during an era when rationalism was banishing Satan from set of beliefs one could hold as a person of reason, the Social Gospel provided those same reasoned men and women a new set of spirits (really demons) in which to believe.

Rauschenbusch’s critics pointed out that a world in which man was responsible for aligning his soul against supernatural evil left little room for God and Christ.  And while the original Social Gospel followers (all pious men and women) were able to deflect this criticism, it turns out that their children found it a bit easier to orient their faith around the fight against the Social Devil rather than belief in more traditional deities. And for their grandchildren and great grandchildren, it became easier and easier to abandon this or that doctrine – even the foundational beliefs of Christianity – so long as churches remained dedicated to the battle against bigotry, militarism and the other “genuine” spiritual evils in the world.

An irony that Bottum points out is that it was the very choice to put politics (or, more accurately, a human-based and ultimately politicized re-definition of religion) before doctrine that eliminated Mainliners role in both the religious and political realm.  For as church leaders have themselves bemoaned in recent decades, when was the last time you heard a Presbyterian minister on the Sunday morning talk shows proving moral guidance on the issues of the day?

But everything you have been reading about the Presbyterian Church over the last month points out a more depressing irony that only those outside the realm of true believers will recognize.  For if you look at those six social sins listed above, you will pretty much see a list that perfectly describes Israel’s ruthless and relentless foes.  And yet these foes, through skillful deployment of corruption, class hatred, mob violence, et al, have managed to force themselves to the top of the agenda of the descendants of Rauschenbusch, meaning the BDSbyterians (and those who follow them) have thrown away God in order to embrace (rather than fight against) a very devil that makes up the remnant of their belief system.

Ballad of the BDSbyterians

26 Mar


Sorry for the delay, for those of you who can’t get enough of manic song lyrics regarding obscure situations.  (Actually, it took some time to tone down what I started to write.)

Anyway, in the spirit of the new BDSbyterian label I mentioned last time, I present a humble little ballad, sung to the tune (for the most part) of Modern Major General from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.

The Ballad of the BDSbyterians

I am the very model of a BDSbyterian
I’m open to all points of view (especially if they’re Syrian)
Don’t bother me if you’re a Kurd, Tibetan or Nigerian
I am the very model of a BDSbyterian
Don’t talk to him if you’re a Kurd, Tibetan or Nigerian
Because he is the model of a BDSbyterian
I’m also well acquainted too with Judith Buter’s fond advice,
I understand facts fed to me by Hezbollah and Mondoweiss
I’ll happily toe Barghouti’s line regarding stocks the Church should ban
Because I am the model of a BDSbyterian
He’ll do whatever Omar says, yet claim to be a thinking man
That shows he is the model of a BDSbyterian
I also am the model of a terrorist apologist
My power for projecting guilt would stun a trained psychologist
How could this be? I do not know!  Go ask an anthropologist
I am the very model of a terrorist apologist
How could he warp his conscience so?  Go ask a trained psychologist
I guess it’s cause he’s made himself a terrorist apologist
I wipe my mind of what they do to Jew or homosexual
By leveraging the force of all my powers intellectual
Hamas missiles bore me so, I’ve not regard for where they land
Because I am the model of a BDSbyterian
Once rockets launch he has no care for whom they hit or where they land
Because he is the model of a BDSbyterian
One last point which proves that I’m a BDSbyterian
The Church must do my bidding or I’ll simply make them vote again
Divestment voted down five times is just a speedbump to my plan
And that’s why I’m the model of a BDSbyterian
He’ll make them vote a hundred times, or more because he know he can
And that’s why he’s the model of a BDSbyterian
My self-regard is buttressed by inflated moral vanity
My ego soaring while ignoring crimes against humanity
So IPMN writes pamphlets that are high-fived by the Ku Klux Klan
That’s not my problem cause I’m just a BDSbyterian
So what if David Duke is now his own committee’s biggest fan?
He doesn’t care because he is a BDSbyterian

The BDSbyterians

18 Mar


I recently joked on Twitter (that most serious of places) that I tend to lose my audience once conversation turns to the Presbyterian Church.

Such flight is understandable, given that grasping Church politics requires navigating a sea of individuals and an alphabet soup of committees, some with intentionally ambiguous relations with the official organization.  It also requires enough familiarity and comfort level with the language in which religious discourse takes place to know when phrases like “bearing witness” are being deployed as words of comfort or weapons of war.

But I also suspect some Divest This fans might miss a little of the rough-and-tumble they’ve come to expect from this site whenever a BDS bully comes to call.  After all, I’ve had no problem highlighting Omar Barghouti’s role as a BDS huckster, or sending him and a representative from Jewish Voice for Peace back and forth in time in order to generate some cheap laughs at the boycotters’ expense.

The trouble is that when you use the word “Presbyterian,” you are actually describing both foes and friends of Jewish peoplehood.  After all, it is members of the Presbyterian Church who have seized key decision-making bodies related to Middle East policy-making (such as the Israel Palestine Mission Network) and used them to churn out endless propaganda of the ugliest variety.  And if there’s anyone you could assign the label “Presbyterian” to, surely it would include the leadership of the Church (which enables all the anti-Israel excess we’ve seen over the last two decades).

At the same time, Presbyterians are also at the helm of groups like Presbyterians for Middle East Peace which has done such a good job battling for reason within the denomination.  And let’s not forget the fact that the General Assembly members who have voted down divestment time and time again over the last four PCUSA GAs are both Presbyterians and friends (or at least not enemies) of the Jewish state.

But then it dawned on me, why should we continue to let the BDSniks continue to brandish the “Presbyterian” label, just because they work so hard to try to stuff their opinions into the mouth of every other man, woman and (if there are any left) child in the denomination?  After all, just as the leaders of the American Studies Association (who have demonstrated a readiness to destroy the reputation of the organization they purport to lead over the “right” to boycott their Israeli colleagues) are BDSers first, academics second, so too the Presbyterianism of the people I talked about last week clearly takes a back seat to their primary identity as anti-Israel activists.

Which is why I am proposing a new term: “BDSbyterian” (pronounced bee-dee-ess-bah-teer-ean) to describe those who have made it their life work to get the PCUSA to say “Yes” to divestment, regardless of how many times actual Presbyterians keep saying “No.”

Now if you want a sense of what a BDSbyterian looks and sounds like, I can think of no better example than Reverend Mark Davidson who proudly shares his story of how his church’s “witness activity” (which involved working with anti-Israel Christians, anti-Israel Jews and anti-Israel Muslims to plaster some of those egregious “Be with Us” ads on the side of busses in Chapel Hill) succeeded in “bringing Jewish-Christian relations in our community to an unexpected deeper and more substantive place.”

And how did a political campaign that has appalled Jewish and non-Jewish Israel supporters around the country generate such deep and substantive Jewish-Christian relations?

Apparently, beyond the Jewish Voice for Peace types Reverend Davidson was able to import (including Jeffrey Halper of ICAHD fame – who also appears on the bus ad simply as a grandfatherly Israeli), the response from the local Jewish community consisted of entirely predictable condemnations.  These were accompanies by the usual calls to have such ads banned, and it was the Jewish community’s decision to rejecting banning Davidson’s deeply offensive political speech that the Reverend decided represents some form of constructive dialog.

Adding to that, someone apparently vandalized Davidson’s Church after the ads ran and while (as far as I know) the perpetrators were never caught, the Jewish community in Chapel Hill did the right thing by joining with other religious leaders to condemn such a stark example of hatred – in spite of (not in support of) the offense Davidson’s political activity was causing the community.

In other words, after having their face slapped by an alleged interfaith partner, Davidson’s Jewish neighbors chose not to turn to the law to shut down his campaign.  They then turned the other cheek when an act of vulgar vandalism created common cause with the Davidson’s church, only to have the good Reverend say “thank you very much” while continuing to let ads condemning Israel as a nation of racist murderers and its supporters a bunch of apologists for Apartheid (but only in the nicest possible way) drive past their houses of worship on a daily basis.

So now we know what passes for “interfaith dialog” among the BDSbyterian set.  In fact, this particular BDSbyterian is so proud of his success that he is urging other churches to follow his lead, no doubt hoping that the whole church voting to divest from that bigoted, Apartheid-y Jewish state will create the greatest opportunity for interfaith dialog yet!

As you might guess, this kind of behavior is welling up the snark in me.  And now that I have something to call these people other than the Presbyterian title they crave but do not disserve, it’s time to finally get around to that BDS musical number I’ve been sitting on for a couple of years, especially now that I have someone’s mouth to put it into.

Stay tuned…

PCUSA and BDS: Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick

14 Mar


I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion over who allowed divestment to be voted on by the Aldermen of Somerville, MA in 2004, ushering in three years of conflict in a city that ultimately rejected divestment at the executive, legislative and judicial level (not to mention in the voting booth).

I mention this because even when some form of BDS activity gets snuck in through the back door of an institution (be it Somerville or the Olympia Food Coop), there is usually someone in the leadership of the institution heavily involved with the sneaking.

Previously, I provided an example of the type of single-issue fanatic driving anti-Israel invective and BDS-related activity within the Presbyterian Church, as well as the infra-structure that allows such activity to find a permanent home within the organization.  But, as has been pointed out over and over, the activity of those representing minority opinion (such as supporters of a church divestment policy that has been voted down time and time again) could only have gotten as far as it has if enabled by those in power within PCUSA.

And the leader whose fingerprints can be found on most of the incriminating evidence regarding attempts to force a position on the church despite the opinion of the membership is Reverend Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) from 1996 through 2008, the very period when BDS sunk its fangs into the organization swearing to never let go.

The Stated Clerk is tasked to manage the business of the Church’s General Assemblies, those bi-annual meetings when representatives from the various PCUSA governing units (called “Presbyteries”) meet to elect leaders and vote on church policy.

As I’ve noted many times in the past, Church culture has historically been built around decentralized decision-making, which means power is supposed to rest with the Presbyteries who get to vote on matters before the organization. But, like many institutions whose rules were constructed for simpler times, the Church has experienced an increasing hollowing out of democracy out as specialized committees, bureaucrats and professional leaders more and more determine policy with the voting membership of the Church treated like an obstacle to be overcome, rather than the sole source of legitimacy.

This is why GA voters are always asked to vote on a flurry of measures as the assembly is winding down, committee-generated measures which many voters have little time to read, much less understand or debate.  In fact, divestment was just one of many such measures related to the Middle East (most of them hostile to Israel) voted in during the last hours of the PCUSA’s 2004 GA.

Will Spotts’ Pride and Prejudice (required reading for anyone who wants to understand what’s been going on within the Church), starts by pointing out that when Reverend Kirkpatrick summed up what he thought would be the defining issues to come out of the recent General Assembly he had just presided over, divestment wasn’t even on his list.

This is indicative of a lack of understanding among many Church leaders who have increasingly turned to ecumenical partners such as the Palestinian Christian group Sabeel for all their information regarding the Middle East while also turning a deaf ear to their alleged Jewish interfaith partners trying to explain why BDS is anathema to all but the most fringe members of the community.

Given that anti-Israel resolutions had already become a staple of General Assemblies by 2004, Kirkpatrick can be forgiven for not anticipating the outrage that year’s divestment decisions would trigger. But he has fewer excuses for the dishonest way that decision was framed to Jewish organizations and the press, especially attempt to portray calls for divestment as simply bubbling up from the grassroots (behaviors also well documented in Pride and Prejudice).

By the time the 2006 and 2008 GAs rolled around (over which Reverend Kirkpatrick also presided), I was deeply involved in covering votes the church took to rescind divestment (in ’06) and confirm that decision (in ’08).  And at both conclaves, attempts to suppress voices critical of Church policy were on full display as anti-Israel partisans increasingly took central stage and, more importantly, took over the committees created to restore some sense of balance to PCUSA’s Middle East policies.

And during all that time, leaders like Kirkpatrick – rather than listening to what GA members were telling them in vote after vote – continued to portray previous GA “reverse” decisions as simple pauses on the way towards restoring the “status quo” of the pro-divestment Presbyterian Church from  2004-2006.  And given how much power continues to be centralized into the hands of the few within the organization, those few stand on pretty thin ice when they try to portray their behavior as a simple response to the will of members.  For, as with so many things BDS-related, within the Presbyterian Church some people’s opinions are more equal than other’s.

In doing a little “where are they now” research, I stumbled on this Wikipedia article on Reverend Kirkpatrick.  And while I generally recommend against reading too much into material from this particular source, I thought it was telling that the last of the four sentences that make up his entry simply states “After serving the denomination through twelve years of declining membership, Kirkpatrick chose to step down from his position.”

Such a brief article didn’t have time to point out that during a period when PCUSA’s death spiral was apparent to all, it’s Stated Clerk (like many of its other leaders) had other priorities.


PCUSA and BDS: Noushin Framke

12 Mar


While it’s easy to trace BDS-related Presbyterian excesses to acronymed organizations: IPMN (the Israel Palestine Mission Network), the church’s MRTI (Mission Responsibility Through Investment) committee and, of course, the leadership of PCUSA, we need to keep in mind that these entities and groups are made up of people.  And as we saw with the American Studies Association (ASA) academic boycott, much of the misery the organization is going through can be traced back to responsible individuals such as their new President Lisa Duggan whose behavior continues to demonstrate a readiness to prioritize the BDS agenda over the needs of the organization she has been elected to lead.

You’ve already met the exemplar of PCUSA BDexceSS I’d like to focus on today: Noushin Framke, spokesperson and Steering Committee member of the Church’s Israel Palestine Mission Network.

Framke was implicated in many of the excesses noted earlier regarding the IPMN’s notorious (and now deleted) Facebook page, including Likes of that delightful Obama cartoon and a comment that claimed Hamas should continue holding Gilad Shalit as a hostage with “Right of Return” as the ransom.  And if you (like me) prefer to judge people by something other than their behavior in the quick-and-dirty world of social media, then her call for a One State Solution on IPMN’s Facebook site should be judged alongside this article she wrote on the subject in 2010.

Now I linked that Framke piece in my discussion of IPMN, as well as to this detailed rebuttal.  And I should pause to note that while Framke (unlike other One Staters) is open and enthusiastic about the fact that a “One State Solution” must inevitably lead to an end to the Jewish homeland, her goals (which are reflected in virtually everything IPMN does) directly contradicts the two-state policy of the PCUSA which IPMN has allegedly been chartered to serve.

Whenever they are confronted by this or that IPMN outrage, PCUSA leaders break out the “IPMN speaks to rather than for the church” distinction.  But in this case, the organization is not just telling the church to abandon the policy it claims to hold, but actively working to undermine that policy by (among other things) publicly releasing and distributing anti-Zionist propaganda designed to drive home the message that a Jewish state is the result of a debased and bigoted ideology, which makes the elimination of such a state a thing all good people should strive for.

So like other single-issue partisans within the Church, Fromke is a BDSer first and a Presbyterian second.  Which is why both she and the organization she represents have no problem trying to force the Church as a whole to bend to IPMN’s will, regardless of the fact that Church members (who allegedly set policy) have rejected divestment every time Fromke and her allies have forced it onto the organization’s agenda.

You can get a further sense of this single-issue mindset in this article she has written on why progressives do not instinctively agree with her on all matters related to the Middle East.  As another commenter pointed out, her argument that those who see themselves as politically liberal but who also support Israel (or at least don’t condemn it) are “Progressives Except for Palestine” or “PEPs,” implies that the only possible position for someone who holds to a liberal world view would mirror that of Fromke and her allies.  And if they don’t, the only possible explanation is that they secretly do loath the Jewish state as much as does Fromke and IPMN but will never admit that out of fear.

If this sounds a bit like the behavior pattern of Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” you can begin to how Fromke, like her BDS allies, lay claim not just to the Middle East policies of the Presbyterian Church (the opinion of everyone else in the church be damned), but also insist that they and the alone own one half of the political spectrum. And it is from this sense of entitlement that their thoughtless, reckless and endlessly divisive behavior flows.

One would think that an organization that spends so much time working against church policy would eventually find itself marginalized within the wider organization. But when it came time to debate divestment at the 2012 General Assembly, who was on stage invoking people like Peter Beinart to insist that hostility to BDS (which characterizes virtually the entire Jewish community) is just one Jewish opinion among many?  I’m guessing you know the answer to that question.

So why would a church that spends so much effort to ensure critics of divestment efforts (such as Will Spotts who had to personally mail his remarkable work Pride and Prejudice to PCUSA delegates in 2006) don’t get a hearing let Noushin Framke take center stage at a critical debate on the subject?  I suppose this might be the case of money talking. She is, after all, the wife of Greg Framke, a former exec at eTrade.  And whether or not some of that executive salary underwrites things like expensive Mission Trips to the Middle East, it is certainly subsidizing Noushin’s full-time activist lifestyle.

But I suspect the real driver of success for Fromke and other BDS fanatics is our old friend ruthlessness.  For in a world where others are struggling to find compromise and build understanding, the ruthless are free to drive their agenda unburdened by the need to take anyone else’s needs into account.  With a self-righteousness that justifies any sort of behavior, and a world view that allows for no legitimate disagreement, the ruthless are liberated from that which binds the rest of us: actual empathy for other human beings.

PCUSA and BDS: The Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN)

10 Mar


Whenever some story emerges having to do with PCUSA’s obsession with Israel, with the relentless drive to get divestment back on organization’s agenda (no matter how many times it’s rejected), with attempts to denigrate and even demonize the Jewish state, its inhabitants and supporters, all roads seem to lead to the Israel-Palestine Mission Network (IPMN).

We saw this most recently when the organization decided the most important way to promote their (real) agenda was to drop all pretenses of peace-making and instead invest their time and resources into creating “Zionism Unsettled,” a “study document” designed to educate the flock regarding Zionism as the font of all evil (making it clear that the sooner an entity built on such a hateful ideology ceases to be, the better).

In case you think I’m reading too much into this one document, read this article published by Noushin Framke, a major player in IPMN, in which she makes it clear that support for a two-state solution (the official policy of PCUSA, by the way) is not on the agenda of a church organ (the IPMN) allegedly created to support PCUSA’s peacemaking goals.  In it, she advocates for (you guessed it) a “One State Solution,” and unlike other One Staters who try to hide their ultimate goals, Framke seems to have no problem with the fact that such a “solution” will unquestionably mean the termination of a Jewish homeland (a point taken up in more detail here).

The excess of Zionism Unsettled should also not be seen as an aberration for IPMN, a group with a history and culture of excess that has driven them to embrace classical Jew hating motifs and contemporary Jew haters, and then strike a pose as victim when their outrageous behavior is made public.

This excess received public attention in 2012 when someone noticed this charming cartoon featured on the organization’s Facebook page:


As most of you now, I’m not a big fan of guilt by association when it comes to what appears in social media.  But apparently, the reason this cartoon was posted and stayed on the IPMN page for such a long time is that it fit perfectly well with a host of anti-Semitic graffiti and links to articles by people even the BDS movement has deemed beyond the pale.  In fact, it was only when both Jewish and Presbyterian organizations went public with complaints about the kind of of sewerage IPMN traffics in that the group took action by (1) deleting its Facebook page entirely and (2) declaring that pointing out IPMN’s patience with Khazar and 9/11 Conspiracy Theorists was part of a wider conspiracy to silence them.

In other words, Zionism Unsettled is not an aberration, but rather represents the beliefs and goals of those relentlessly pushing divestment within the church.  For once you look past the language of “peace” and “justice” that serves as their gossamer apparel, the IPMN emperor is revealed in all its naked fanaticism, which explains why outcries from individual Jews and Jewish organizations, complaints about the damage the organization is causing to interfaith relations, and appeals to stop (best exemplified by five votes against divestment in ten years) all fall on deaf ears.  For gripped as they are in a fantasy ideology where they and they alone represent the true and the just, IPMN must treat everyone else (including the Presbyterian Church which has chartered them) as mere means to IPMN’s own ends.

Now it would be one thing if IPMN was some independent organization outside of PCUSA hoping to sway church policy (similar to the anti-divestment group Presbyterians for Middle East Peace).  But apparently their role as a “Mission Network” gives IPMN a special relationship in which donations to the group flows through the church, their material is distributed to churches across the nation, church leaders meet with them on a regular basis, and (as far as I can tell) the organization’s agenda sets the limits of what can and cannot be said within the wider PCUSA organization.

A story I keep coming back to occurred in 2008 when it briefly looked as through the church was ready to at least acknowledge it had a Jewish/Israel problem by publishing a  document entitled “Vigilance Against Anti-Jewish Ideas and Bias,” a remarkable confession that finally acknowledged the dark side of church policy vis-à-vis Israel and the Middle East.  But no sooner had that document been published (and praised by Jews and Presbyterians who had been urging such honesty for years) than it was quietly replaced with a “revised” version entitled “Vigilance against Anti-Jewish Bias in the Pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian Peace” that swapped earlier confessional language with the usual BDS boilerplate.

Since no one has ever fessed up to who was behind this switcheroo, I can only speculate on the role IPMN played in such debased behavior on the part of the church.  But given that this represented one more incident in which PCUSA had to humiliate itself to conform to BDS orthodoxy, is there any doubt that the BDS mindset that defines IPMN, a mindset that demands all branches of an infected organization bend to the BDSers will, was the driving force behind this incident?

Whenever it is confronted by the latest IPMN outrage (most recently “Zionism Unsettled”), PCUSA leaders describe the organization as “speaking to the church, rather than for it,” a strange characterization given that – with divestment back on the PCUSA agenda regardless of how many times members vote it down – IPMN seems to have far more sway over  church policy than do its nominal leaders and governing institutions.