PCUSA Divestment – Results

I understand that we can’t count on anything until the final gavel sounds at the Presbyterian 2012 GA on Saturday, but assuming last night’s victory holds, there are a few important lessons to be drawn from this most-recent continuation of the BDS movement’s decade-plus-long losing streak.

First off, we need to keep in mind that this is not the first, the second nor third but actually the fourth time the Presbyterians have rejected joining the BDS “movement” and instead opting for engagement as a means to play a peace-making role in the region.

Once BDS Twitterers had finished howling derision at church members they had previously showered with praise (once their unexpected loss became apparent), they quickly reverted to “by losing we actually won” mode, citing a closing gap in the margin they have lost by over the last eight years.

But this calendar fails to take into account that BDS actually won in 2004, meaning the BDSers only hope right now is that in 2014 (i.e., ten years after they last managed to win a major battle) they might be able to get back to where they were a decade previously.

The extremely tight vote that killed off divestment last night (333-331 with two abstentions) is definitely the best lubricant for a BDS spinning-wheel trying to turn manure into gold.  But we need to keep in mind that this close vote was over the question of whether or not to do something extraordinary by PCUSA organizational standards: reject a committee report supported by a large percentage of that committee (one that embraced BDS) and replace it with a minority report that rejected divestment.

Given that committee reports tend to get rubber stamped in the General Assembly, it’s telling that the dynamic around PCUSA divestment votes tends to be built around church leaders stacking the committee that gets to bring forth BDS proposals, only to have those proposals shot down by the membership.

It’s also worth noting that once the minority report was accepted by this tight margin, the vote to embrace its call for positive investment (vs. negative divestment) passed by a much more traditional anti-BDS margin of 63%-37%, indicating that no more than a third of members fall into the “divestment or nothing” camp.

The gap between the tight first vote and more traditional second one also highlights the fact that we might be comparing apples to kumquats if we just look at the numbers associated with each year’s key vote that killed off divestment for that year.  For whenever the Presbyterians (or any church or civic organization for that matter) have been given a clear and unambiguous choice to embrace or reject a divestment proposal, rejection of BDS always wins big.

Which is why the BDS brigade within the church and their enablers amongst the Presbyterian leadership put so much effort into eliminating all possible options, other than a request for members to support or reject a report that had passed committee by a wide margin.  In 2006, for example, there was no ambiguity that members were being asked to rescind the divestment policy they had enacted in 2004 which may be why that vote was so lopsided (95%-5% to rescind).  This explains why the BDSers put so much effort into obscuring what they were actually trying to achieve this time around, and worked so hard to funnel voters in just one direction.  And still they lost.

They lost despite making PCUSA divestment their top priority, especially after behind handed an even more embarrassing defeat by the Methodists a few months ago.  They lost despite the tremendous resources they put into trying to convince both churches to climb onboard the BDS bandwagon, which included cold calling delegates and flying supporters into the meeting to lobby hard to get their motions passed.  And they lost despite the fact that the organized Jewish community decided to not put similar effort into filling the GA with their own back-slapping and arm-twisting lobbyists, preferring instead to simply alert church leaders and members that our patience with getting slapped in the face every two years was at an end.

I suppose that this is the point where I should take back some of the negative comments I’ve been making about the church over the last week or so (or keep them in reserve in case last night’s victory is somehow reversed before the end of the GA).  But I’d like to think that some of that commentary, written far more in sorrow than in anger, might still resonate with the majority of Presbyterians who still don’t seem to want their church associated with a sociopathic movement like BDS.

After all, church behavior (or, more specifically, the behavior or church leaders) was indeed appalling before, during and after last night’s vote.  They continued and continue to push ahead with BDS, with Kairos and with all of the other paraphernalia of ugly anti-Israel polemics, despite being told four times by the membership’s voting representatives that the people in the pews prefer engagement to punishment of just one side in the Middle East conflict.

This GA, like the last GA (and the one before that) was accompanied by acts of bad faith between PCUSA leaders and their supposed friends in the Jewish community to whom they kept making promises of moderation they never intended to keep.  And the behavior of those leaders continues to degrade the institution, making it that much harder for PCUSA to be taken seriously about any matter whatsoever.

Now it may be that in two years time the divestment brigade will find the right combination of words and political maneuvers to get the Presbyterian Church back on the BDS bandwagon, regardless of the views of the majority of church members.  But by then, it’s not entirely clear what we’ll be talking about when we talk about “The Presbyterian Church.”

There are hard days ahead for an institution in decline and bitterly divided about so many issues.  And I wish I could say that last night removed the BDS albatross from around the church’s neck.  But that day, sadly, still seems far, far off.

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 – Struggling to Care

As the PCUSA divestment debate winds to a conclusion, I’ve been surprised how difficult it’s been to gin up the emotions (anticipation, gloom, excitement) that usually come to the surface in the run-up to a big BDS vote.

Perhaps I am simply suffering from a sense of false optimism, hoping that the divestment measures that have passed the vote of a stacked and/or largely uninformed committee will be voted down in the plenary (the same dynamic that played out during previous Presbyterian votes on the subject).  But given that, even on good days, I figured BDS stood a better than 50:50 chance of passing this week, optimism cannot explain this atypical lack of anticipation.

It’s possible I’m simply protecting myself (both emotionally and politically) in case the church does decide to rejoin the BDS movement by convincing my mind and heart to be indifferent to the results.  But given the level of enthusiasm I recently felt during a far more important BDS battle (the Methodists) and a far less important one (Park Slope Food Coop) – two votes with outcomes just as uncertain as the Presbyterians – this doesn’t feel like either an intentional or subconscious game of managing expectations.

Perhaps I have been hanging around BDSers so long that some of their lessons have rubbed off on me.

After all, the boycotters never let their repeated failures get to them – or even acknowledge to themselves or others that they have suffered a setback.  Have they ever responded to questions as to why, if their “movement” has been so successful, that investment in Israel has skyrocketed during the BDS decade?  Have they ever been willing to acknowledge the fact that their “victories” (such as the Olympia Food Coop and even PCUSA in 2004) are exceptions that prove the rule (since no other food coop or church has shown the slightest interest in buying their snake oil)?

Given that divestment champions will never acknowledge the endless victories of their opponents, or even respond when caught trying to pass off lies (such as the recent TIAA-CREF hoax), it’s not entirely clear why Israel’s supporters need to respond to every one of their baits, just because a hundred BDS Twitter feeds insist we must.

Digging a little deeper, however, there are some emotions I’d rather not confront that might be short-circuiting the usual feelings of anticipation accompanying a major BDS battle: disappointment laced with a fair amount of disgust.

We’ve already talked about what this week’s vote is really about: the right of the BDSers to speak in the name of every man, woman and child in the Presbyterian Church in declaring Israel an “Apartheid State” (i.e., a nation of racist murderers), and to blanket the world in propaganda encouraging others to follow the PCUSA’s lead in boycotting “Apartheid Israel.”

The fact that there is nothing approaching consensus on this political opinion within the church means nothing to the boycotters and their enablers, an indifference matched only by the belief that the Jewish community’s patience with being kicked in the teeth on a bi-annual basis is endless.  And if this vote might lead to more hardening of positions on both sides, leading to more suffering and greater chances for conflict, what do the divestment-volk care?  All they want is the right to be able to brag that they brought PCUSA back into their fold, regardless of the cost to anyone else inside or outside the church.

In the past, I’ve been able to pin blame on this bi-annual misbehavior on radicals inside and outside the church who have made it their life’s work to drag the organization under their umbrella.  But looking at the behavior of too many Presbyterians this time around, I can’t help but fear that the cancer represented by BDS attitudes has spread beyond a core group of fanatics.

We’ve all grown used to the manipulative arguments, the truncated versions of history, the silencing of dissenting voices that have accompanied PCUSA divestment debates in the past.  But the level of dishonesty accompanying this year’s debate seems to indicate that the church’s readiness to bear false witness is climbing close to the same level as the one practiced by the BDS “movement” as a whole.

Why else would long-ago debunked fake Nelson Mandela quotes not get called out when they were brought up before not one, not two but EIGHT church forums dealing with the divestment issue?  Why would committee members contort the language of their resolutions and discussions to claim that divestment was something other than divestment and a boycott something other than a boycott?  And why would they pretend that this entire debate was a continuation of an ongoing discussion of corporate engagement, rather than the recycling of divestment resolutions rejected three times before?

Having gotten to know many kind and thoughtful Presbyterians over the years, I suspect my current emotional state has something to do with the sympathy I feel for their pain as they watch a church they have dedicated their lives to become a place best characterized for its dishonesty, hypocrisy and impotence.

Israel and its friends certainly have nothing to fear if an organization like PCUSA decides to embrace these three characteristics by ignoring its members, ignoring its friends, and ignoring its mission to make joining the BDS “movement” its top priority (leaving just enough time to simultaneously manage a vanishing membership and internal civil war).

No doubt I’ll be watching video feeds of the final debates and votes (unless the kids want to do something outside while those debates are going on), but I shall do so with an air of melancholy as a church with a 400 year old history demonstrates its readiness to join other organizations (such as the Green Party – remember them?  I thought not.) that have clutched BDS to their breast as they sunk beneath the waves for the third time.

PCUSA Divestment – Who Pays?

In his latest posting on the subject of this week’s US Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) General Assembly (GA), Will Spotts talks about the wall surrounding the hearts of too many people in the Church which seals them off from comprehension of the harm their activities over the years have caused, and the hatefulness their words and deeds represent. 

Previous to this, he talked about not a wall but a gap, notably the enormous chasm between the absolute evil they assign to the Jewish state (best represented by the “Apartheid” label which, in effect, accuses Israel of being a nation of racist murderers – making Israel’s supporters in the Jewish community accessories to racism and murder) and the triviality of the steps they want to take to deal with this perceived evil.

This walling off from reality and gap between word and deed makes sense once you realize that the church is desperate to find a way to look as though it is doing something important and virtuous without actually doing anything that would involve a genuine act of self sacrifice.

I tend not to use the “Well if you’re going to boycott Israel, you might as well throw your computer away” argument (if only because others have used it better than I could).  But it’s worth noting that the entire BDS effort is designed around providing options for organizations like PCUSA that require no one in the organization to deprive themselves of anything they find useful or take for granted in their day-to-day lives.

Remember that the BDSer’s goal is to get an institution like the church to take a position, any position, which would allow the boycotters to brag in their next set of press releases that “PCUSA agrees with us that Israel is an Apartheid state, which is why you should boycott Israel too!”  So providing them an easy on-ramp to such a decision, one in which the price gets paid by people other than the decision makers, is a cornerstone of BDS strategy.

And who will pay a price if a divestment vote is passed during the upcoming GA?

Not church leaders or the BDS activists (both inside and outside the church) supported by these leaders.  For they seem to be able to avoid responsibility for their behavior year in and year out (which is why they keep doing what they do GA after GA since, simply put, there is no price to pay).  And, surprisingly, not Israel which has managed to weather this kind of abuse for years while maintaining a civil society, growing an allegedly “boycotted” economy and defending itself when necessary.

No in this instance, the price will be paid by church members outside the small circle of Presbyterians who have made getting the church to boycott Israel their life’s work.

Many of these members have made it clear in votes taken in 2006, 2008 and 2010 that they don’t like the church’s lopsided Middle East policy (even if they have no particular love for the Jewish state).  For these people, the leadership is yet again making it clear that an embrace of BDS takes higher priority than the opinions of the people in the pews.

The price will also be paid by those in the church who value inter-faith dialog and relationships, especially if the Jewish community finally decides to cut ties to PCUSA, rather than continue to live with the bi-annual slaps in the face during GAs dedicated to unending Israel bashing.

The price is already being paid by Presbyterians worried that the church no longer seems to carry moral weight in the wider society.  (When, after all, was the last time you saw the media calling on a Presbyterian leader to discuss the moral dimensions of the issues of the day?)  And how could church behavior over the last decade – which has included ongoing abuse of friends, ignoring of member concerns, and the making and breaking promises to both Jews and Presbyterians looking for more even-handed church policy – do anything but wreak havoc on the church’s reputation for honesty and integrity?

In fact, the ultimate price seems about to be paid by the church as a whole which (like the Romans who decided to engage in one civil war after another just as their empire was collapsing) looks ready to continue to divide into smaller and smaller units, just so one part can join the BDS movement without being bothered by those pesky Presbyterians who have other opinions.

With church membership both plummeting and aging and a church polity ready to turn division about secular political issues (including the Middle East) into a new set of formal and permanent schisms, I can envision a day when a smaller, older and even less relevant church finally passes a divestment resolution which no one else notices and cares about.  And it may very well be that this day will arrive sometime in the next two weeks.

PCUSA and Israel – Politics

The divestment debate that will be taking place later this month at the US Presbyterian Church’s (PCUSA) bi-annual General Assembly (GA) is fundamentally a political one.

This seems like an obvious statement of fact, but once the debate revs up it will more and more take on the language of a morality play with sides and positions wrapped in the language of religion.  I want to talk about this language in my next posting, but before looking at the words that are being used to describe a political set of decisions, its best to understand as much of the actual politics as we can.

To begin with, any debate on the Arab-Israeli conflict is fundamentally a political one.  There are two sides to a conflict and whether one defines those sides as powerful Israelis vs. helpless Palestinians (the BDS political framework) or tiny Israel vs. the vast and wealthy Arab and Islamic worlds (the position of Israel and its supporters), PCUSA delegates are not being asked to stake out a theological position but to take sides in a specific political struggle.

Now taking sides is not necessarily required by the Presbyterians or any other church.  In fact, all of the Mainline Protestant churches that have been asked to vote on divestment (which goes beyond taking a side and actually begins punishment procedures against the side that has been rejected) have chosen to instead vote down BDS in favor of policies which ask the parties to the conflict to seek peace with one another.  In other words, PCUSA is being asked (for the fifth time) to reject the calls for compromise and negotiation that they and other churches have been making for years in favor of officially coming down on one side of a political conflict.

The way these decisions get made within the church represents another level of politics: church politics.  This is not a subject I ever knew much (in fact anything) about.  But once the church decided to make political decisions that dramatically impacted people outside their walls (including Israel and its supporters), then knowing how those decisions got made became critical.

Fortunately, Will Spotts has been documenting the specifics of political operations within PCUSA for years (see here and here), which gives we outsiders a glimpse of the particular style of sausage-making that goes into the creation of church policy.  And while you’ll need to read Will to get a full sense of the process, suffice to say that all of the grubby backroom dealing, stuffing of committees, truncating of debate, and hidden influence from outside lobbyists one sees in government, corporate or other institutional decision-making is well represented within the church.

There is another political issue hanging over all of the Mainline Protestant churches: how they are supposed to deal with the twin problems of decline and division.  Membership in the PCUSA, for example, has declined by more than 40% in the last 40 years as fewer and fewer children of aging members make a commitment to the church (choosing instead secularism or some other form of Christianity – such as Evangelicalism which is growing at the expense of the Mainliners).

Those that remain are divided over whether they need to more tightly embrace the theological issues that make them uniquely Presbyterian or continue to immerse themselves in Ecumenicalism which is increasingly defined as partnership with other Mainline churches in secular political activity (like BDS).  Theological division has already caused several splits within the church, with the rival Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) being just one of many splinters churches making up as much as a quarter of US Presbyterians today.

Historically, these splits have taken place of doctrinal issues or (more recently) issues regarding gay marriage and clergy.  And individual churches leaving one Presbyterian group for another have led to bloody fights over money and property, highlighting another political angle to the Presbyterian story – the economic politics associated with an institution with billions in land and retirement assets, high costs, and a diminishing dues-paying membership.

PCUSA has maintained its lead position within this network of Presbyterian sub-churches by keeping an open door to members whose doctrinal differences have not yet led them to bolt the mother church.  But this “big tent” has prevented church leaders from accomplishing many of the things they clearly want to do, including passing anti-Israel divestment resolutions that have long been rejected by voting members who are supposed to have the final say on what the church stands for.

While the endless pushing of divestment and other divisive legislation at GA after GA demonstrates the inability of PCUSA governance to resist manipulation by single-issue fanatics within their ranks, the unwillingness of the leadership to reign in those fanatics for the good of the church (not to mention Presbyterian-Jewish relations) demonstrates that these leaders may just be in the market for a new set of followers.

What I mean by that is that if these divisive issues finally lead to another major break within PCUSA (which seems likely), the part of the church that would make its priority the continuing embrace of controversial secular political positions would be smaller than today’s church, but could still call itself PCUSA.  So rather than trying to win over the membership by presenting a better case, church leaders seem ready to let those that disagree with them go their own way, leaving a rump church that won’t have to bother with divisiveness since it will now be a smaller group made up primarily of the like minded.

You will hear very few of the issues discussed above spelled out in such stark political terms when the General Assembly meets next week.  Instead, these matters will be debated using a vocabulary of faith, witness, love and other religious terminology.  And being a faith-based organization, the use of a religious vocabulary is more than appropriate – but only if it serves to illuminate, rather than obscure, the more “this-world” political decision-making that will be unfolding when the Presbyterians meet in Pittsburg to talk about their future.

PCUSA – Victory and Nausea

I suppose I should be happy with the final outcome of last week’s Presbyterian General Assembly. Divestment was voted down (for the third GA in a row), the Middle East Study Committee’s ridiculously lopsided report was gutted (removing its most egregious sections and curbing the group’s excesses), and ugliness such as accusations of Apartheid were dismissed out of hand. And yet the experience of watching this year’s GA left me feeling profoundly ill.

My first reaction to this surprise nausea was guilt. Have I gotten so used to big and decisive victories against BDS that any sort of ambiguous outcome is disappointing? Certainly successful anti-Israel votes that called for the US government to withhold aid from Israel and the decision to denounce (rather than divest from) Caterpillar Tractor (votes that will surely be used by anti-Israel partisans to imply the Presbyterians are back on board their program) made 2010 less of an unalloyed victory for our side than in years past.

But then again (and with all due respect to the centuries-old Presbyterian Church), it’s been quite some time since an American political administration looked to the PCUSA’s governing bodies for moral guidance. And as far as denunciation is concerned, given how many times the church itself has been denounced for its immoral behavior regarding the Middle East over the last decade, PCUSA offers organizations like Caterpillar an object lesson on how to let such critiques simply bounce off a hardened shell of unquestioned self-righteousness.

Perhaps it is instead a disruption of the narrative I’ve been working under that led to this bout of queasiness. After all, I’ve been working under the assumption that most of the church’s excesses were the result of a corrupted leadership more committed to ruthless interfaith partners in the Arab Christian community than to their own members, coupled with out-of-control political activists whose only link to the church is their efforts to leverage its reputation for their own partisan campaigns. Under this storyline, the church’s rank and file were my heroes, the people that could be counted on to reverse any appalling votes that made their way out of stacked committees onto the GA floor.

But this rank and file has itself been changing over the years. As has been noted before, PCUSA is in the process of disappearing, having lost half its members just in my lifetime. But this shrinkage is not simply a matter of older members dying and no fresh blood coming in. In fact, whole churches have left and are continuing to leave the PCUSA “family,” joining other branches of Presbyterianism or Protestantism. And while these departures are driven more by conflict over social and doctrinal issues than over PCUSA’s attitudes towards the Middle East, with each departure the rump that is left behind becomes more homogeneous and less interested in listening to other opinions. And when individuals (such as Will Spotts), depart the church specifically over the ugliness that’s transpired over the years regarding divestment and other Israel-related matters, the church loses a crucial voice of conscience that should have been listened to all along.

And then there is the question of language. This was actually the third General Assembly I’ve watched via online video feed, and I must admit to having first been intrigued by the religious and spiritual vocabulary that permeated every discussion. In our secular age, it’s impressive to find people who can bring the language of faith to even mundane topics like church budget analysis.

But pulling God via “Christian Witness” into a discussion of political matters has its pitfalls (indeed, Presbyterians routinely identify these pitfalls when other churches drag the Almighty into political areas with which PCUSA leaders do not agree). At the very least, telling voting GA delegates that Witness and their spiritual conscience should drive their decisions more than the views of the members these delegates are supposed to represent implies that the spirit works far more strongly within people attending church conclaves than it does for those populating the pews back home.

And so we come to this year’s Assembly where I got to watch speaker after speaker apply this spiritual language to the most appalling, lopsided, uninformed, unfair, chilling and nasty accusations that by now have become part of the PCUSA liturgy. It was not the Deity that caused a resolution dealing with Christian-Jewish relations to be shelved, while one on Muslim-Jewish relations to be accepted. It was raw politics, the same politics that ensured that Israeli’s alleged human rights abuses would be treated with passionate scrutiny, while the human rights abuses in Muslim lands (including abuses against Christians) would be swept under the carpet.

So maybe it was watching bullying power politics pushing nasty, immoral decisions dressed up in the language of holiness that led to my aforementioned feelings of nausea. Yes, I know there were people working behind the scenes to fight this injustice who were also using the language of spirit to conduct their battles. But as these heroes continue their rearguard action to prevent the church’s reputation from sinking still deeper, they seem to be confronting higher and higher concentrations of church members who are either behaving abominably or condoning such behavior through inaction.

Why should any of us even care, I suppose. After all, there are already three times as many Jews in the US as Presbyterians and, if present trends continue, in 2-3 more GAs there will be more Reform Jews in the US than Presbyterians (meaning come 2016 the Presbyterians may have to send representatives to Jewish meetings to lobby against resolutions condemning their church).

As I’ve said before, Israel will survive the slings and arrows thrown against it by the phalanx of ruthless hypocrites who make it their life work to defame the Jewish state. But what of an organization that year by year is creating an internal reality whereby wicked behavior can be presented and celebrated as the ultimate act of goodness?

In all of history, there have been very few Lex Luthors or Magnetos leading organizations with names like The Legion of Doom or the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Rather, acts that we see today as the ultimate evils were, at the time, hailed by their practitioners as supreme examples of virtue. Watching this same history unfold before my eyes over the last few weeks is, no doubt, the real reason why a satisfactory outcome from this year’s Presbyterian General Assembly still leaves such an aching feeling deep in my stomach, if not my soul.

PCUSA – Moving in the Right Direction?

Because a number of US political leaders and Israel’s Prime Minister were attending last April’s AIPAC Policy Conference final dinner, security was tight which meant most of us had to wait in line over an hour to get through the metal detectors (an appliance commonly found at pro-Israel political events, although strangely enough, not at anti-Israel ones).

While most people were annoyed by this long wait, it was actually the highlight of my evening, for I got to stand next to and talk to a group of women from Aglow, a women’s Christian organization I had never heard of before. Looking at their Web site after the event, it occurred to me that this organization’s stance on many issues would likely appall Presbyterian leaders (although not necessarily rank and file members). But, as fate would have it, the Aglow member closest to me in the AIPAC mob/queue was a Presbyterian.

When I told her about what was likely to happen at this year’s denominational General Assembly, she just shook her head and informed me that this was all a game being played within the Church whereby PCUSA leaders let activists run amok in committees during the time between GA’s, but that once everyone gets together, over-the-top proposals generally get voted down by rank and file delegates. She also added that the level of nonsense that tends to emanate from GAs on the subject of the Middle East has so soured church members that do not attend or follow PCUSA politics that most churches simply ignore policies voted on at such events.

Sure enough, it looks as though common sense is beginning to peek its head into General Assembly discussions over the last 48 hours. Some of the most egregious portions of the Middle East Study Committee’s Breaking Down the Walls report have been nixed or modified for the better, and attempts to turn the MESC into a perpetual Star Chamber have been nipped in the bud. Demands to divest from Israel or have it declared an Apartheid state won’t be making it to the floor, and the general tone seems to be turning towards curbing the excesses we’ve seen coming out of the committees over the last few months.

I suppose I should be grateful that grownups seem to be ready to take the wheel on PCUSA Middle East policy, and I surely am grateful – tremendously so – to the wise members of the delegate ranks who have managed to keep an open mind despite the propaganda that passes for debate within the church.

That said, regarding the church as a whole I find it a bit strange to be ready to say “thank you” to an organization just because it’s done me the favor of not declaring my people’s national homeland a racist stain on humanity, or PCUSA’s “flexibility” in simply condemning those that do business with Israel, rather than divesting from them.

If you follow the politics of not just the Presbyterians, but Mainline Protestantism generally, you’ll find that the most divisive issues are: (1) ordination of gay clergy; (2) whether to religiously sanction gay marriage; (3) modification of liturgy; and (4) official church stances on political issues – most prominently Israel and the Middle East.

As Will Spotts has pointed out, of all these controversial issues, only votes on Israel tend to involve the church doing harm to people who are not members of the organization. There is legitimate controversy over gay marriage and other matters, but at the end of the day, it is the church itself that has to live with the consequences of decisions made in those areas. But when the church passed its infamous divestment decision in 2004, it was Israel and its friends (many of whom had never heard of the Presbyterian General Assembly before that date) who had to deal with the worldwide propaganda campaign that was built upon that decision.

In 2006, activists pushing the church to maintain its divestment policies claimed that they were a great gift by the church to friends and allies within the Palestinian Christian world that should not be taken away. But as I pointed out then, what kind of gift is it for one group of people (PCUSA) to give another group of people (Palestinian Christians) something that is not there’s to give (Israel’s reputation on a platter)?

I sincerely hope that votes that will take place between now and when the Presbyterian conclave finishes this weekend will continue to go in the right direction. But I more sincerely wish that the organization as whole finally faces up to the fact that they have a problem and stop torturing their own members (not to mention those of us who have not chosen to join their church).

And if church leaders and hardcore anti-Israel activists determine that they must give Sabeel and other allies a gift, could they please make it something they actually own themselves (such as a confession of their own sins, rather than a recitation of someone else’s). Or barring that, there’s always a Whitman Sampler.

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 – Process vs. Spirit

I was going to write something on the social aspects of Israel bashing within the Presbyterian Church, but Dexter Van Zile beat me to the punch with his insightful comments on the subject which can be read here.

We’re a day away from when matters before the various PCUSA committees get forwarded to the plenary where votes determine whether or not measures become official church policy. As has already been mentioned, the committees have generally been stacked against Israel getting a fair shake, and those advocating condemnation of the Jewish state are calling most of the shots with regard to what information gets communicated to the full assembly. So even more than in previous years those advocating fair treatment for Israel will have to count on the good sense of the everyday Presbyterian delegate.

In thinking through the way decisions are being made in the quasi-democratic structure of the Presbyterian Church, I remembered that the synagogue I recently joined had just passed policies regard when and how the temple could take official stands (i.e., stands that spoke in the name of the synagogue) on controversial political matters.

The steps needed to get this to happen would strike some as cumbersome. First, an issue has to be brought up within a relevant committee, or (if triggered by an individual concerned temple member) would be referred to committee. It must then move up another level (to the VP of a so-called “cluster,” or group of committees) before being forwarded to the temple’s Executive Committee and then (if passed) onto the full board for a final vote, after which it becomes official temple policy.

While not required, consultation with senior clergy is highly recommended throughout the process and the clergy itself, while having more flexibility than members to take public stances on political matters, is also bound to go through proper procedures in order to officially speak for the temple as a whole.

Undergirding this seemingly excessive bureaucracy is the assumption that the temple community contains many diverse voices, particularly on the most controversial matters of the day. And while it’s safe to say that a majority of members probably fall into the political demographic associated with the Boston and Cambridge suburbs, the safeguards put in place by the procedures mentioned above are designed to minimize the chance that a members will wake up one day to discover a political message is being delivered by their temple (i.e., in their name) that they both find abhorrent and never even knew was being discussed.

Now this is not to say that Jews have gotten this system buttoned down correctly. In fact, I know of other temples, as well as secular Jewish organizations, that function much more like PCUSA than my temple in terms erring on the side of openness vs. carefulness. But while the potential harm from a process heavily weighted towards achieving consensus means my temple might someday have trouble weighing in on important matters, the downside of the alternative is now on full display at the Presbyterian GA.

As is being made abundantly clear right this minute in Minneapolis, the fact that many thousands of Presbyterians (including large numbers who will not be voting on church policies) are profoundly uncomfortable (if not openly hostile) to how the church portrays the Middle East conflict or the policies it sets with regard to the politics of the region. Yet this fact does not in any way inform what gets onto the agenda and what doesn’t.

Is the fact that members voted down divestment 95-5 four years ago something that needs to be taken into account when assessing church investment policy, or just a stumbling block that can be overridden if divestment advocates simply continue to push their agenda year after year after year, regardless of the will or interests of other members of the church? Will Presbyterians who do not follow church politics closely be happy or appalled if they discover next Monday that their church has once again become the poster child for divinely inspired political invective targeting one and only one country in the Middle East (the Jewish one)?

If this GA is like the last two I’ve watched via online broadcast, many advocates on both sides of different issues will point out that delegates have a higher calling than simply representing their constituents, a calling to speak (and vote) based on the divine spirit of Christian witness.

There is some appeal to such thinking (especially within a spiritual community) until you realize that – absent direct communication from the almighty – individuals are required to discern what Christian witness means on their own. And while I have no doubt in the quality of soul of people taking part in such decisions, we are all subject to moral weakness, including a susceptibility to being bullied or manipulated into making poor decisions at the behest of aggressive partisans telling us we have no moral choice, other than to do what they say.

It is specifically within an organization where the conscience of legislators is raised above the responsibility to represent constituents that safeguards (like those in place at my temple) are most needed. Alas, for a Presbyterian Church, the only thing standing in the way of going over the precipice one more time is the hope that the majority of delegates gathered in Minneapolis are wise enough to ignore the sirens of partisanship (which includes the very top leaders of the church) and act to restore good faith and sound judgment into church thinking on Israel and the Middle East.

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.

PCUSA – Motivations

“I was thrown out of [college] during my freshman year, for cheating on my metaphysics final. You know, I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”

— Woody Allen

There are two often-discussed potential motivations for the kind of mendacious behavior of many PCUSA activists with regard to Israel that I generally avoid.

The first is anti-Semitism. Generally, I avoid accusations of this type, not simply because they tend to immediately get people’s backs up, but because they imply knowledge or understanding of what is truly inside people’s minds and hearts. And while pointing out how some accusations against Israel speak to ancient anti-Jewish tropes is fair game (especially if those using such tropes may not know they are doing so), claiming to be able to read into people’s soul is just the thing that got Woody Allen into trouble all those years ago.

Claims by supporters of divestment and other anti-Israel measures that they are only doing what they are doing in the name of “Christian Witness” is the second motivation I tend to discount, especially since it claims specific understanding of not simply a human soul, but the word of God. If Christian Witness requires dozens of anti-Israel measures to appear before every PCUSA General Assembly, and nothing similar to be said regarding hundreds of far worse human rights abuses on the planet, forgive me for thinking the driver of such decisions is not divine but mortal.

As a doctor friend once told me with regard to diagnosing illness: if you hear hoof beats, assume they come from horses and not zebras. And while the oldest hatred or the spirit of the divine could be the source of anti-Israel animus within PCUSA, I prefer to ignore that potential zebra and look instead to a more likely horse of church and secular politics.

I’ve already discussed some macro-political matters within the church that seems to be motivating divestment and other anti-Israel activity at the last several Presbyterian General Assemblies, notably as a church leadership distant from its members being pushed in various directions by aggressive ecumenical partners (notably Palestinian Christian groups like Sabeel) at the expense of less demanding partners (like the Jewish community).

But one other issue came to mind when I was recently cruising various sites and blogs to gauge reaction to next month’s upcoming GA debate. On more than one occasion, supporters of various Overtures and reports criticizing Israel highlighted what they saw as a worrying alliance between “right-wing Jews” and Evangelical Christians, the latter being seen as supporting the former out of some primitive mis-reading of scripture that required the ingathering of Jews to Israel in order to hasten the coming of Armageddon.

Now no doubt one can find Christian supporters of Israel who believe in such things. But is that what primarily underpins the high level of Evangelical support for Israel? Or might this support be motivated by something simpler and more earthly, such as recognition that Israel is, in fact, a reasonably good place in terms of human rights (including religious freedom), certainly in comparison with its most prominent foes. In other words, what’s weirder, Christians whose co-religionists are being abused across the Muslim world finding common cause with Jews who have suffered and are suffering similar attack and persecution, or a Presbyterian Church which finds common cause with the persecutors in the name of “Christian Witness?”

There’s also the little matter of how much the rank and file of the Presbyterian Church resembles not just Evangelicals but the American public as a whole with regard to general support for Israel (reflected by huge PCUSA majorities rejecting divestment in 2006 and 2008). In other words, might the only major difference between Evangelicals and Mainliners be that it is only in the former where the opinion of leaders and flock are in synch?

American church attendance has stayed steady (actually grown slightly) during the very period when membership in the Presbyterian Church has tumbled into a death spiral, which means those looking for a religious experience seem to be looking to places other than PCUSA for such an experience.

Now it’s possible that Evangelical churches are growing at the expense of the Mainliners by selling snakeoil, a perverted blend of Biblical literalism laced with primitive mythology, in order to draw in people who would otherwise flock to PCUSA’s doors. But Presbyterians should also consider the alternative that, in addition to providing people a more appealing religious experience, these growing churches may also be offering people (including former Presbyterians) a place where their opinions can be heard, not buried in an avalanche of half truths and false accusations that will be the mainline attraction at this year’s Middle East debate at the Presbyterian GA.