Methodism Madness

While recent postings may have been a bit flip with regard to the pratfalls and pretentions of our friends in the BDS “movement,” it needs to be stressed that for those infected by the divestment virus, BDS is no joke.

Take for example the Methodist Church. Flirtation with anti-Israel divestment by Mainline Protestant churches has been the subject of frequent discussion here at Divest This, especially since it was the Presbyterian’s vote in 2004 to begin a process of “phased, selective divestment” in the Jewish state that anchored boycott and divestment projects worldwide until church members overturned that decision two years later (by a margin of 95%-5%).

In 2006 the Methodists also rejected divestment (unanimously) at their annual conference. But because BDS once found a home (albeit briefly) within one of these venerable institutions, certain church members refuse to let it go, regardless of how many times they are told no, and regardless of how much pain and division such efforts cause within their communities.

Both the Presbyterians and Methodists have quasi-democratic structures in which individual churches or groups of churches can propose resolutions to be voted on when the church meets as a whole at bi-annual conventions. I say “quasi-democratic” because these resolutions tend to get driven by small groups of activists within a church, rather than bubbling up from the broader grassroots, meaning most church members are never aware of what is being decided in their names.

In the case of highly controversial issues (such as gay marriage or gay clergy), these matters have been around long enough and have received so much coverage in the mainstream press that heated debates within the church generally represent the differing opinions of large numbers of members. But in the case of church divestment resolutions, these are always driven by small groups of single-issue activists, often working behind the scenes to try to get their measures passed quickly and quietly, so they can later turn around and claim that BDS is embraced by millions.

It’s been more than five years since divestment was rejected by the aforementioned lopsided margins of 95-100%. Yet the passing of boycott resolutions by individual churches which are then pushed up for national votes has become entrenched as part of the catechism of Mainline church politics.

To get a sense of the corruption this causes, one need only look at how the matter is playing out this year among UK Methodists. Similar to some of the political maneuvering that took place with the Presbyterians in 2010, this year it was the turn of the UK Methodists to stack a committee for the sole purpose of getting BDS rammed down the throat of the organization, with calls for diversity of opinion within the group making these decisions (i.e., voices who were not already loyal anti-Israel partisans) rejected as “unhelpful.”

The bald power grab represented by insisting that a decision-making body not include anyone who might question pre-ordained choices (in this case to boycott Israel) would be bad enough in the context of secular politics. But what are we to make of such grubby behavior within a group claiming that their political decisions are driven by “Christian Witness,” (i.e., representing the will of God himself)?

Now this is the UK and as has been noted before, Britain is where the worst of the worst in terms of BDS seems to have migrated of late. In contrast, good news out of California indicates that in the US BDS proposals are being voted down at the local level, long before they make their way to national conference. This is no small matter since it indicates that more people are becoming involved with the issue at the grassroots and at an earlier stage. And if history is any guide, BDS efforts always tend to collapse when exposed to multiple opinions in the light of day.

The backdrop to all of these votes and debates is the massive decline in membership within Mainline Protestant churches over the last forty years. Rabbi Yehiel Poupko analyzes this phenomenon in his masterful booklet Looking at Them Looking at Us, but it is also worth reading this analysis of decline specifically within the Methodist church posted at a United Methodist web site. In it, the author is trying to make the case that the decline in church membership is multi-causal, and I was interested to read his reason #2 which seems to indicate that certain high-maintenance lay people have a tendency to dominate some local churches, warping organizational priorities and driving many members away.

I doubt the author had in mind BDS activists who have been using the church as their plaything (at the expense of all other members and all other issues for decades), but it would be interesting to find out how many people who have left the Methodist churches in recent years have follows in the footsteps of my friend Will Spotts who was finally forced to walk away from the Presbyterians in disgust over the lopsided, unfair propaganda propagated within these organizations at the expense not just of the Jewish state but also the reputation of the church itself.

Another Victory for Justice

Yet another church has come to its senses vis-à-vis refusing to make anti-Israel boycotts official policy for their religious institution.

The United Church of Canada has been roiled by debate on the Middle East for over 30 years. Like the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches in the United States, a small but vocal minority within the Canadian Church has been pushing harsh anti-Israel motions (including calls for boycott and divestment) for decades, with little to show for itself, beyond a souring of Christian-Jewish relations in Canada and deep bitterness within the church itself.

This year church members finally said “enough” voting down boycott and divestment motions nearly unanimously. While divestment advocates may search for scraps they can pass off as some kind of victory (given that they have brandished the United Church of Canada for years as their ultimate success story), they’ll have trouble categorizing one more unanimous rejection (just like the Methodists gave them last year) as anything other than what it is: the people in the pews refusing to buy their snake oil.

As noted here and here, the only outcome of church divestment projects to date has been misery within the churches themselves. Perhaps Canada will serve as one more example of how to begin to get the toxins divestment brings with it out of a civic organization (hopefully for good).

So where has divestment been successful?

FAQ#9: If divestment has failed at colleges and universities, has it been successful anywhere else?

In 2004, a number of Mainline Protestant churches (notably the Presbyterians and Methodists) passed resolutions calling for divestment of their retirement portfolios from stocks identified by BDS activists as supporting the Jewish state. In fact, the success divestment had in penetrating major churches was the anchor for the BDS movement between 2004 and 2006.

As with universities, however, support for divestment in the churches turned out to be extremely shallow. While some church leaders supported divestment (as did a few regional churches, like the New England Methodists), the rank and file categorically rejected divestment calls, voting down divestment by margins of 95%-5% (the Presbyterians) or unanimously (the Methodists) in 2006 and reaffirming those decisions in 2008.

During this period, divestment was also attempted in some US cities (notably Somerville, Massachusetts and Seattle, Washington), but lost badly in both places. The same bait-and-switch tactics that played themselves out on campus were also tried at other institutions, but ultimately good sense prevailed and divestment was rejected.

Thus Sayeth the Lord!

Divestment debates are ongoing matters at many “Mainline” Protestant churches. I’ve talked before about how anti-Israel divestment resolutions, begun by local churches, find their way to national forums (notably the Presbyterians and Methodists who meet every few years within quasi-democratic frameworks to vote on resolutions submitted from “the field”). While these resolutions get routinely voted down at a national level by whopping majorities, that seems to just give local activists the go-ahead to try to re-craft their rejected calls for resubmission two or four years hence.

Rabbi Yehiel Poupko’s booklet Looking at Them Looking at Us: A Jewish Understanding of Christian Responses to Israel (published by the Jewish Center for Public Affairs, and sadly not online) is required reading to fully understand why these votes keep coming up again and again among Protestant denominations such as the Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and UCC. In his essay, Poupko highlights two critical points:

· Mainline churches are in steep decline, due to falling birthrate/aging of members, and a lack of perceived spiritual vitality, especially among youth who (if interested in religious affiliation at all) are increasingly attracted to growing evangelical churches, whom “mainliners” perceive as competitors

· Mainline churches are the most prominent American institution committed to dissent on US foreign policy matters. Quoting Poupko: “while a variety of advocacy efforts are centered in labor unions, universities, and interest groups, it is primarily in the mainline Protestant churches that persistent voices against American foreign policy are heard. It is from the churches that the resources flow which facilitate dissent.”

These two issues are linked, with politics filling a void left by a spiritual vacuum among churches dealing with modernity and struggling to find their own unique identity in an increasingly secular and ecumenical world. And having staked out foreign policy as their “turf,” choices often get made based on competitive positioning with rival churches (notably more conservative fundamentalists). While it would be an oversimplification to say that Presbyterian or Methodist choices on matters such as Israel and the Middle East boil down to “if the fundamentalists support Israel, we oppose it,” it’s also fair to say that mainliner’s choices are impelled as much by secular and church politics as they are by “Christian witness.”

As already noted, divest-from-Israel resolutions managed to pass national church votes at the height of divestment’s success in 2004, but have since been defeated time and time again. But at a local level, groups like the New England Conference of United Methodist Church have continued to draw up long lists of companies they want to see the church divest from as part of a high-profile, national action. Remember that the primary goal of divestment is to get a prominent institution like a national church to put its weight and reputation behind their cause. And getting this to happen often requires the same type of rough-and-tumble politics we’ve seen at other institutions such as limiting debate to only one side of the issue, or forcing controversial resolutions that allegedly speak for the whole church by votes of a small subset of members (often members of highly partisan political action committees).

While politics is politics, churches face particular problems when these tactics are exposed (as they have been a national conferences) since church members claim to be taking political stances not simply as institutions but as prophetic voices. Time and again, church members describe their anti-Israel stances and resolutions as cases of “bearing witness,” implying that their statements are made not simply on behalf of themselves or their own church, but in the name of God himself.

My friend Will Spotts pointed out both the human and spiritual problems behind such behavior in his groundbreaking work Pride and Prejudice: The Presbyterian Divestment Story:

“’Thus sayeth the Lord.’ This description of our own opinions can easily result in an unwillingness to actually entertain evidence that contradicts what we have declared to be true – namely that Israel is to blame for violence in the region, that Israel is to blame for the Palestinian refugee crisis, and that Israel is morally deficient for attempting to use a physical barrier to protect its citizens. Since this prophecy has been issued in our name, we, as Presbyterians might do well to remember the stern biblical condemnation of the practice of claiming to speak for God where God has not spoken.”

Churches engaging in politics thus face greater dilemmas that other institutions dealing with the divestment issue (such as schools, cities and unions). For if their engagement with the Middle East wells up from a prophetic tradition, why are so many of church debates characterized by the grubbiest political behavior? Today, even at churches where divestment is not on the agenda, condemnation of Israel serves as constant backdrop with steady streams of speakers, films, art shows and other materials (some directed at children) that straddle the line between education and propaganda. Yet how many times have these churches sought out alternative voices to help them wrestle with some of the most vexing political issues of the day vs. taking their own hidebound political stances literally as gospel?

As I noted during the Presbyterian divestment debates in 2006, one would think that religious institutions would strive to be an example to the rest of us regarding civil and informed debate, especially on the toughest and touchiest of issues. And yet time and time again, these very churches exemplify some of the least attractive sides of our political culture: self-righteousness, insensitivity to others, disinterest in dissenting opinion (including efforts to shield other church members from alternative viewpoints), all wrapped up with the troubling notion of “bearing witness,” implying as it does that their very secular political choices are, in fact, the work of the divine.

A thesis I’ve been discussing since getting onto the anti-divestment bandwagon has been how divestment, designed to inflict moral damage on the Jewish state, tends to boomerang on those who advocate it. “Who will trust our words in the future? Why should they?” was the quote of one Presbyterian after a particularly egregious incident involving the church’s 2008 debate over divestment. Indeed, Israel reputation will survive the slings and arrows tossed at it as partisans try to revive the divestment strategy over the coming years. The question is, will the churches’?

Church Divestment

Wow – Well last week got away from me! Time to catch up on another divestment-related issue that I’ve not talked about yet: the churches.

A number of people have seen talk of Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) breaking out on many campuses, Web sites and other forums (including the upcoming Durban II, which promises to be as big of a fiasco as Durban I), and express legitimate concern that the BDS campaign is a major threat facing Israel and its supporters.

But keep in mind that what seems like on BDS campaign is really two:

  • The BDS noise machine consisting of people calling for boycott, divestment and sanction against the Jewish state, or using BDS as a hook to hang their propaganda regarding “Apartheid Israel”
  • The BDS program of trying to get respected, well-known institutions to sign onto the boycott/divestment message, thus providing anti-Israel protestors the chance to say “Hey, it’s not just us who say Israel is an Apartheid state! Look [fill-in-the-name-of-a-famous-university-church-union-city-or-other-institution-here] agrees with us.”

A free society provides limitless opportunity for people to make noise, regardless of the quality of their arguments, or their level of personal hygiene. Given this, we shouldn’t confuse the volume of BDS “conversation” on the Web or elsewhere with actual political success. Given anti-Israel advocate’s unspoken alliance with wealth and power, they will always have a bigger megaphone than those fighting for human rights of people like Tibetans or Kurds. Whether this noise machine is talking about BDS, Apartheid, War Crimes or some other imagined Israel crime or hoped-for punishment, we shouldn’t assume that increased volume or increased focus on one accusation or proposed retribution vs. another constitutes progress for BDS forces.

In fact, a dispassionate look at where BDS stands today (vs. five years ago) vis-à-vis progress in getting respected institutions to sign onto their project shows a movement in retreat. Given the level of invective involved with the noise-machine noted above, dispassion on this subject is not the easiest thing to maintain. But if you look at where divestment was in 2004 vs. where it is now, you see a movement that has actually lost substantial ground, which is why it has to substitute pretend victories (Hampshire, Motorola) for real ones.

This is where the churches, notably the Mainline Protestant churches come in. In 2004, these churches (notably the Presbyterians and Methodists) were the anchor for the entire US divestment project. Yes, divestment petitions were drawn up on many campuses around the country, but actual divestment was immediately rejected by school leaders, which provided students (the vast majority of which also rejected divestment) to routinely out-petition divestment advocates ten to one. During this period, it was the official Presbyterian Church in the US (PCUSA), whose 2004 decision to explore “phased, selective divestment” of church retirement funds from companies doing business in Israel (a decision replicated by leaders of other Protestant groups) that gave divestment advocates a hook upon which to hang a story of success. Thus these churches provided divestment advocates the oxygen they needed to push their program into not just other churches, but also universities, cities and unions.

The reasons the Presbyterians became aligned with anti-Israel forces calling for divestment are complex and interesting (too complex to sum up in one blog posting, although two great resources on the issue are Will Spotts’ Pride and Prejudice and Rabbi Yehiel Poupko’s review of contemporary Christian attitudes towards the Jewish state “Looking at Them Looking at Us” which is unfortunately not available online).

For purposes of this discussion, the important point is that these churches walked away from their divestment stance in 2006 once church members (who hated divestment) were given the opportunity to address a pro-divestment position that had been supported primarily by official church leadership. Even after the Lebanon war, these churches showed no interest in returning to the issue, voting again in 2008 to reject divestment by overwhelming majorities. While a few pro-divestment holdouts still refer to the Presbyterians and Methodists as allies, this represents either wishful thinking that these churches will return to their 2004 position, or intentional deception which characterizes anti-Israel activism of a small number of individual churches with the church as a whole which rejected divestment (twice) by margins of 90-100% over the last two years.

This history provides important lessons now that BDS has once-again become the strategy of choice for anti-Israel agitators. First, the ability of divestment activists to capitalize on even a fragile victory (as the churches turn out to have been), demonstrate the need for eternal vigilance by members of civic organizations whose institutions have been targeted for manipulation. Secondly, that the greatest threat facing BDS programs is not the all-powerful-Israeli-lobby (booga, booga, booga), but the movement’s own excesses and reputation of divestment as a political loser.