PCUSA Divestment – Seriousness

Several people have sent me the link to this piece which highlights some points I have failed to make until now, notably:

* That divestment may not have historically had the economic or political impact assumed by those who advocate for it

* That PCUSA is not actually making decisions regarding what to do with its own money but is instead putting at risk the money of others (notably pastors and lay people invested in their pension funds)

That the PCUSA’s ongoing divestment efforts could be interpreted as passing Natan Sharansky’s “3-D” test for anti-Semitism

Like other negative behaviors and outcomes associated with PCUSA’s current attempt to rejoin the BDS “movement,” none of the points above are likely to impact the thinking of those who are driving divestment within the church since their goal, simply put, is to be able to claim they speak in the name of a 400-year old, two-million member church whenever they hurl their accusations against the Jewish State (regardless of whether those accusations were ever voted on or even mentioned during debates on the subject).

Now one would think that an organization would only make a decision with this many negative consequences after the most careful of deliberations in which every effort was made to verify facts, expand dialog, scrutinize past decisions and precedence, and honestly communicate to decision makers the exact nature and likely results (both positive and negative) associated with either a “Yes” or “No” vote.

But one of the most striking things about what’s been taking place in Pittsburgh is how little effort has been expended to ensure (much less carry out) this kind of competent debate.

I’ve already mentioned how fake quotes from Nelson Mandela (quotes that were exposed as fraudulent years ago) somehow made it unchallenged into eight different forums associated with church divestment policies.  The committee report that recommends the church carry out the divestment policies that were rejected in 2006, 2008 and 2010 is filled with similar errors of fact, both about the Middle East and about what the church actually said and did during those previous divestment debates.

Accurate information could have easily been brought before the committee if church leaders driving this process had opened up discussion to include voices that might challenge (rather than just confirm) the “consensus” preferred by those same leaders. Why not, for example, call Will Spotts as a witness, given that he has written and thought about this subject than anyone else in the country?

No doubt the fact that BDS drove Will from the Presbyterian Church would be a difficult thing for committee members to have to hear.  But the whole point of this debate, allegedly, is for the church to confront one of the most challenging political issues of our day.  But just as those driving divestment seem to be doing their utmost to ensure a divestment vote does not actually require financial sacrifice on the part of those who are voting it in, they also seem to be doing everything in their power to narrow debate as much as possible in order to ensure a specific outcome, rather than an enlightened one.

The most egregious example of this behavior can be seen in the Rationale section of the Comments page associated with the recent Committee 15 report (linked above), in a statement that tries to minimize the impact a divestment vote will have with regard to PCUSA-Jewish relations.  Rather than simply state fact – that antipathy to divestment unites the Jewish world like no other issue (with organizations as diverse as J-Street and Peace Now through JCPA and the Zionist Organization of America all condemning BDS), they instead try to claim that this unprecedented consensus actually just represents “some Jewish groups” that should be balanced with the support divestment receives from others (such as the fringe group Jewish Voice for Peace).

Now a serious, grown-up argument regarding the impact a PCUSA divestment vote would have on Presbyterian-Jewish relations would not play rhetorical games with the word “some,” but would instead communicate honestly that the vast majority of mainstream Jewish organizations – representing an unprecedented across-the-spectrum consensus on the issue – have condemned BDS and are likely to break ties with the church if they decide to vote divestment in this week.  With this accurate information as backdrop, proponents of BDS would have to argue that divestment is such a high moral priority that losing the friendship of the American Jewish community is a price worth paying.

This fundamental lack of seriousness is particularly remarkable, given how seriously the church wants to be taken on this (and other) political subjects.  In fact, the only reason people would even consider listening to the pronouncement of a church like PCUSA (vs. some other political or civic organization) is that the church claims to represent exceptional moral authority, backed not just by history, but by “spirit” and “witness” (implying divine support for their political positions).

But what becomes of that moral authority if the church acts in a fundamentally immoral way to reach its decisions?  It’s one thing to support a political-spiritual leader like Martin Luther King who was willing to suffer the consequences of his actions and speak the same true and honest words to all audiences.  But PCUSA leaders who have decided to let others suffer the consequences for church actions and who speak out of different sides of their mouths (depending on who they are talking to) have no more moral authority than a political ward healer or corporate executive manipulating unwitting council members or stockholders by carefully and deliberately truncating and circumscribing debate to achieve a pre-ordained outcome.

I still hope the people in the pews will find the courage to avoid the trap that church leaders and their BDS allies have set for them.  But even if they do so by voting divestment down (again), there is a sickness in the church that will not be cured until PCUSA divests itself from BDS for good.


PCUSA – Selfless or Selfish?

There is an interesting construct that has taken hold within the Presbyterian Church (and not just there) that allows Israel’s most vocal critics to identify themselves as being above concerns such as nationalism and other forms of particularism which they identify as the source of war and other misery. They are citizens of the world and, in contrast, we supporters of Israel are seen as narrow partisans, acting selfishly out of interest for a particular people or state.

As is often the case, Lee Harris (one of my favorite political philosophers) describes far better than I or anyone else can the irony of this self-identified cosmopolitanism as just another form of particularism. But for purposes of discussing what’s happening at the PCUSA General Assembly this week, I will try to make a couple of particular observations of my own.

To begin with, the type of activities we’ve been seeing taking place within PCUSA committees dealing with Middle East issues are probably best described as motivated by what I would call “vulgar cosmopolitanism,” rather than the more sophisticated cosmopolitanism described in detail by Harris.

Like “vulgar Marxism” which reduces every political discussion to some form of economic determinism (a la Naomi Klein), “vulgar cosmopolitanism” ironically defines global citizenship around level of support for a particular strain of nationalism.

The notion, for example, that a new state – a Palestinian state – is not just urgently needed, but represents the ultimate expression of justice and virtue is unquestioned by members of stacked PCUSA committees dealing with the Middle East. While they may debate whether such a state should live alongside or replace the state of Israel, the idea that there should be a 197th state, a 25th Arab state, a 51st Muslim state in the world goes unquestioned, as does the religious particularism (not to mention human rights abuses) within the Muslim world.

The PCUSA’s own “vulgar cosmopolitanism illusion” makes delegates particularly open to the harshest of partisan voices. For the easiest nationalism one can reject is one’s own. But when confronted by those who guard their own nationalism most jealously and fiercely (including countries who insist that repression of their own people is an internal matter which the “international community” has no business interfering with), the vulgar cosmopolitan is faced with a dilemma: face up to the limitation of their world view, or somehow convince themselves that by acting in the narrow interest of nationalist partisans representing a people not their own, they are, in fact, truly “acting globally.”

This attitude makes an individual or organization vulnerable to the nationalist most willing to ruthlessly exploit the language of internationalism and human rights for narrow, self-serving ends. In the case of PCUSA, this means that a group like the Palestinian Christian Liberation Theology organization Sabeel can pretty much have its way with the organization by threatening to “expose” the Presbyterians as not truly standing up for their cosmopolitan principles if they do not follow the dictates of Sabeel and its fellow partisans.

Thus, more than any time in the past, PCUSA itself has become what could best be described as “occupied territory” with individuals and organizations outside of the church setting the terms of debate within the organization and determining the limits of what can be discussed and what cannot. One need only look at this week’s committee work where concerns over Presbyterian-Muslim relations are allowed to impact not just discussion (or lack thereof) of human rights abuses (including those directed against Christians) within the Islamic world, but can also determine what can officially be said regarding Presbyterian-Jewish relations.

I’ve previously noted the irony of how the supposedly narrow goal of defending the honor of tiny Israel has universal implications while those who use universal ideals like human rights and the rule of law as a smoke screen for their narrow attack on the Jewish state are the ones sacrificing global principle for provincial aims.

To point out one additional irony: I (an alleged partisan who supposedly is concerned about nothing beyond my tribe and it’s homeland) am just as concerned (if not more so) with what the current debate will end up doing to the Presbyterian Church as I am with how this debate might harm Israel.

Yes, the Presbyterians rejoining the anti-Israel bandwagon will be a pain, but we’ve lived with that before between 2004 and 2006 and I have few doubts that any gains the Sabeel crowd makes this year will be reversed in two year’s time.

On the other hand, the Presbyterian Church – once a cornerstone of American civil society – is well along in the process of destroying itself. One can ask if anti-Israel animus is a symptom or the cause of the church losing half its members since 1965, but one cannot deny that this self-immolation is taking place.

While it would be insincere of me to claim a great history of love and support for the Presbyterian Church (although I’ve met many wonderful church members in recent years), this alleged particularist is cosmopolitan enough to understand that we are all worse off when a major element of civil society – through its own actions – either goes away or makes itself irrelevant to their own and everyone else’s lives.

PCUSA: And so it begins

Well PCUSA delegates are gathering in Minneapolis to begin their week-long debate on the Middle East, with (I assume) some time left over to discuss the future and fate of the Presbyterian Church in the US.

I don’t know about other writers who have spent time commenting on the upcoming PCUSA debates, but I am fully cognizant of the fact that, whatever we may have been saying about the situation within the church over the last month or two, that the fate of the organization rests solely and entirely with those delegates who have streamed into Minneapolis over the weekend.

Yes, a few hundred, maybe even a few thousand people have read what Will, Dexter, I and others have written on the subject, and some may have also visited our Bearing Witness web site to obtain some background on the relationship between PCUSA and Israel. But how many of these visitors are Presbyterians seeking to educate themselves vs. people who already agree with what we have to say (the usual demographic for a blog)? And even if some searching individuals have found their way to alternative sources of information, how can this compete with groups within the church like the Middle East Study Committee (MESC) which has the full support of the church establishment behind it to communicate its (and only its) views?

To a certain extent, this is as it should be for the debate that will be going on this week is really not about Israel at all but, rather, about the fate of the church itself.

After all, during the divestment debates in 2006 and 2008, delegates made it clear that they wanted to see a more fair, accurate and thoughtful discussion on the Middle East within the church. In fact, the MESC was created specifically for this purpose. But, once again, anti-Israel activists within this church decided that MESC was just the latest loophole to exploit, the latest committee to pack, the latest tool they could use to try to stuff their own opinions into the mouth of the church as a whole.

What is amazing about this year’s process has been that in creating the MESC, a group originally designed to take in and communicate a broader range of perspectives, PCUSA has instead spawned a report that is more biased, more unfair, more grotesquely accusative than anything that’s come before.

It’s almost as if the activists who have dragged the church into this minefield over the last two decades cannot control themselves. When presented with an opportunity to bash the Jewish state in the name of their faith, all their instincts turn to cramming in as many accusations (including more questionable theology than has ever appeared in a PCUSA document on the subject) as possible.

As we enter this week of debates, there are some positive signs within the delegate body itself. The Presbytery of Chicago, for example, has provided a heartfelt plea to reject the MESC report, and Presbyterian organizations such as Presbyterians for Middle East Peace are doing yeoman’s work trying to get another point of view injected into the discussions. And while this or that blog may not get much attention, critiques of Presbyterian actions on the part of theological scholars has raised the heat on the upcoming conference enough for anti-Israel partisans to cry foul (despite the fact that they have done everything possible to hog the microphone for the entire debate).

This is now the third PCUSA General Assembly that I’ve been covering closely and I must say that it seems at times that I am looking more at an addict than a religious institution. No matter how many times members indicate that they are not interested in a church that makes its top priority bashing the Jewish state (especially in religious terms), every two years they are back at it once again, fighting the same fights all over again.

This phenomenon is an offshoot of what I’ve referred to in the past as “The Vampire’s Kiss,” the notion that divestment, like a vampire, once invited into an organization can be virtually impossible to toss out. Having tasted the propaganda power of having their words and accusations come out of the mouth of an established organization like PCUSA, local activists demonstrate a willingness to do anything: corrupt processes and procedures, stack the deck in debate, even drag an organization to the point of ruin, to once again grasp the illusionary power of claiming to speak for more than themselves.

Sadly, if some of the nastier overtures or the MESC report itself becomes official PCUSA policy, once again thousands of Presbyterians will awake after this week to discover that propagandists are blanketing the world with accusations against Israel made in their name.

Naturally, those who have hijacked the church yet again will be too busy spreading their calumnies to notice what they have done to their brethren, especially once condemnation and ridicule start pouring onto the church itself from, among others, Presbyterians who had thought they had seen an end of this type of disgusting behavior.