PCUSA Divestment – This Just In

I’m kind of stunned to be typing these words, but with regard to this year’s Presbyterian General Assembly (drum roll please): BDS Loses Again!

As many of you know, I’ve been fairly resigned to the likelihood that the Presbyterians would do to themselves what they did in 2004 and drag the denomination into another two years of internal and external strife, all so a few BDSers could brag to their friends that they finally got the church to vote the “right way,” after having had divestment rejected in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

But once again, sense that was nowhere to been seen in the leadership of the Church, or the partisan-packed committees they enabled, seems to still exist within the membership of the organization.  While church members can’t quite bring themselves to fully understand that, far from being a “peace movement,” BDS is the propaganda arm of a war movement that will quote scripture and subvert the vocabulary of human rights to get its way, the saner wing of the Presbyterian Church seems to know enough to avoid handing their name and reputation over to a third party that shares none of their interests.

I’m a bit blurry eyed from starting at Twitter feeds all night, but expect more commentary in the AM.

And in case you’re wondering what hashtag you want to use tonight, I believe that #BDSFail is starting to trend.

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 Divestment – Ethos

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.