A divestment fiasco

Presbyterian leaders must begin to take themselves seriously.

presbeterian 63 (photo credit: )
presbeterian 63
(photo credit: )
In 2004, a new front in the Middle East conflict and a new rift in Christian-Jewish relations opened up when the US Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) voted to begin a process of "phased, selective divestment" from companies operating in Israel. Two years later, at the PCUSA's 2006 General Assembly (GA), voting members of the church (clerical and laity) by a vote of 95% - 5% replaced that targeted anti-Israel call with one that asked for church assets to be invested "in the pursuit of peace." While the representative structure of the church means that a large number of legislative proposals (called "Overtures") will be discussed and voted on during next week's 2008 GA, expectations were that the Presbyterian meeting would resemble a similar convention held by the Methodists earlier this year, one in which church members unanimously rejected the most partisan polices on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Interfaith dialog and cooperation, even on contentious social and foreign policy issues, could continue to open up now that mainline churches have wisely chosen to take divestment off the table. But something peculiar happened on the way to this year's GA. IN MAY of 2008, a remarkable document appeared on the PCUSA Web site entitled "Vigilance Against Anti-Jewish Ideas and Bias." While church members had already spoken on this topic with their votes in 2006, this document was the first response from the leadership of PCUSA to concerns (expressed by both Jews and significant numbers of Presbyterians) that church language and action regarding the Middle East was tarnished by incorrect or biased information, one-sided accusations, and even anti-Semitic theology. This was a remarkable work in many ways. Rather than talk in bland generalities, the church document stated outright that "we are aware and do confess that anti-Jewish attitudes can be found among us" and that "anti-Jewish theology can unfortunately be found in connection with PC(USA) General Assembly overtures." The document also noted that in some materials created or circulated by the church "one finds characterizations of Zionism that distort that movement." It also noted that "The problems and suffering of the Palestinian people are attributed solely - and inaccurately - to Zionism alone." Most significantly, the statement asked church members to reflect carefully on analysis of the Middle East delivered through the prism of "liberation theology," a reference to the work of those such as the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, a Palestinian Christian group which has been the driver behind church divestment programs over the last decade. The PCUSA paper did not call for a rejection, or even a distancing of the church from Sabeel, but it did caution that intemperate language and anti-Jewish theology could not be excused just because they came wrapped in the religious-political language represented by liberation theologians. 'VIGILANCE AGAINST Anti-Jewish Ideas and Bias" was celebrated by the church's interfaith partners as well as by PCUSA's harshest internal critics. And then, with no fanfare, no announcement, without even an explanation, this document was quietly replaced by an "updated" version, one which stripped the work of any acknowledgement that the church continues, as it does, to traffic in retrograde theology and stances. Gone was direct acknowledgement of problems with the stands that the church is currently taking, and gone was the reference to Israel's sole responsibility for Palestinian suffering as being "inaccurate," replaced by broad generalizations and hints that criticism of PCUSA had more to do with misinterpretation of good intentions than with actual error. All things concrete (an acknowledgement of anti-Jewish theology, distortion of Zionist history, specific references to inappropriate language in GA resolutions) vanished, as did concern over the excesses of liberation theology proponents. As one Internet critic put it: "It is as though a liberation theologian came upon the original paper, 'Vigilance against Anti-Jewish Ideas and Bias,' took out a pair of scissors and started hacking away at it." The content of both documents will likely be discussed during the upcoming General Assembly and beyond, but the process whereby a serious statement was released, praised and then quietly replaced by such an unserious one is already causing reverberation among Jews and Christians alike. As one Presbyterian succinctly put it: "Who will trust our words in the future? Why should they?" TO DATE, the only public response to the controversy appeared in the online publication Presbyterian Outlook. In it, special correspondent Erin Dunigan takes pains to contrast harsh criticism from almost every well-known Jewish organization with support the document switch received from Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), an organization last seen putting a transparently dishonest spin on the Methodist Church's unanimous rejection of divestment (in a press release Orwellianly entitled "Methodists affirm divestment as an option to end Israel's occupation"). Given that JVP exists largely to declare anyone accused of anti-Jewish bias "not guilty" (with a Jewish accent), this attempt to avoid honest and hard questions by hiding behind fictitious Jewish conflict is just one more example of a profound lack of seriousness about important subjects. In many ways, seriousness is at the center of this whole bizarre tale. For PCUSA's choice to insert itself into contentious Middle East debates is founded on the notion that the church is a serious player, with serious concerns welling up from a profound, even prophetic perspective. Indeed, if debate this year is similar to 2004 and 2006, "Christian witness" will bracket nearly every discussion of political issues, not just on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but on every domestic and international subject being debated. BUT WHAT if the church is actually NOT serious? What if the shenanigans over the "Vigilance" paper is an admission that church leaders want to throw themselves into the middle of some of the most difficult issues in history, yet are unwilling to perform any intellectual or moral heavy lifting, preferring instead to be automatically granted the moral high ground based on what they represent (a centuries-old, multi-million person church), rather than who they are or what they've done? Sensible discussions on challenging subjects can and do take place within churches, and between churches and other communities across the country. In contrast, divestment, the "Vigilance" switcheroo and other fiascos are all traceable to a church hierarchy most distant from those thousands of small, important conversations. If PCUSA leaders are only willing to take themselves seriously, not the difficult subjects they insist be made part of the church agenda, it is just a matter of time before the damage they cause to the reputation of their institution, a reputation that took centuries to build, becomes permanent. The writer, based in Boston, has written extensively on the subject of divestment.