219th Presbyterian Assembly Faces Its Moment of Truth

by James M. Wall

Five Updates Below;

Presbyterian General Assembly delegates are in Minneapolis this week for their national gathering–held every two years–discussing, praying, arguing, and finally voting, on a wide variety of issues that will determine how the heirs of John Calvin will face the future.

This 219th General Assembly runs from July 3 through July 10.

In a nice bit of timing, John Calvin’s 500th birthday is celebrated on the final day of this year’s Assembly.

At some point during this week, the delegates (commissioners) will vote to approve or disapprove–parts or all–a report from their own Middle East Study Committee (MESC), a report two years in the making. written by a cross-section of church members, officials and clergy.

The MESC vote will be a moment of truth for the 219th Presbyterian General Assembly. Decisions made in Minneapolis will tell the world where the Presbyterian Church, USA, stands on Israel’s military occupation of 4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.

The question before the PCUSA delegates will be simple:

Do we place our moral stamp of approval on the status quo, and call for more dialogue with our American Jewish friends, or do we say to the world that the status quo is immoral, unsustainable and a blatant rejection of the finest traditions of the Jewish faith.

What brought the PCUSA to this moment of truth?

If you want to be ready to fully understand this background and what will be happening in Minneapolis this week, it helps to have a crib sheet.

The Israel/Palestine Mission Network provides the crib sheet on its website, complete with daily updates during the Assembly.

Noushin Framke (pictured here) is writing a daily blog on the IPMN page. Here is a sample from the first day of the Asembly:

Just got back from the moderator election – went so late cuz there were 6 candidates and then we had a hanging chad/diebold issue – voting machines were not working and it took a while to fix the issue – it is not 11 pm and they just adjourned.

Cindy Bolbach from Arlington, VA elected as new moderator – an elder [laity], not clergy – she sure has a keen sense of timing and humor – I like her; she gets it – reminds me of Bea Arthur! and to the question of what about civil unions, she said i am for it but this church is not! Yup – well said.

Jeff Halper [Jewish activist who runs the anti-house demolition NGO in Palestine] did a great talk today on “Is it really apartheid?” He just gets better and better. I recorded the audio – i will see if I can post it on the site soon. [Italics added]

These Assembly meetings can be invigorating and tense. At its previous national meeting in 2008, the General Assembly ran into strong opposition from supporters of Israel inside and outside the denomination who forced the creation of a Middle East Study Committee (MESC). At the time, this was seen as a delaying tactic described as a victory for supporters of Israel.

Two years later the delay is over and the 219th Assembly is in session. The MESC has done its work and is ready with its report.

Members of the Committee were appointed by the three most recent PC (USA) moderators.

The Middle East Study Group spent the past two years in meetings and study sessions, supplemented by trips to Israel/Palestine, where committee members met with both Israeli and Palestinian religious and secular leaders.

The MESC Report will bring eight recommendations to the Minneapolis meeting

A special GA committee, “Committee 14”, will assume legislative control of the MESC report, formally presenting it to the entire Assembly, where it will either be adopted, modified, or rejected.

Delegates who arrived in Minneapolis determined to support the CMES proposals have the additional backing of almost all of the living moderators, both lay and clergy of the PCUSA who presided over the denomination from 1976 through 2010.

These previous moderators sent a “Support Letter for the Middle East Study Committee”, signed by 17 previous moderators, endorsing the findings of the MESC Report and asking delegates to support the recommendations.

This Assembly arrives for its work after the United Kingdom’s National Methodist Conference  held its meeting June 24 to July 1 in Portsmouth, England.  Delegates to that Conference approved eleven resolutions in a report entitled  “Justice for Palestine and Israel”.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) general secretary, Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, congratulated the Methodists for adopting “important and forward looking resolutions” and for action by the delegates that

called on the Methodist people “to support and engage with [the] boycott of Israeli goods” emanating from illegal settlements as their response to a call of the WCC in 2009, supported by Palestinian Christians in the “Kairos document” and a growing number of Jewish organizations, both inside Israel and worldwide.

The Conference also called for a full arms embargo as an important step towards a just peace in the region.

In addition to this favorable action from the British Methodists and the WCC, the Presbyterians in Minneapolis, should they support the findings of their CMES resolutions, will find considerable support outside the churches for favorable action.

One recent example of an important media voice speaking out against the Israeli policies comes from New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, who recently wrote from Gaza that Israel’s Occupation is “morally repugnant”.

In a second New York Times column, also written from Gaza, Kristof explored the tunnel system that has been getting around Israel’s blockade by trucking in supplies and materials through tunnels dug along the Egyptian/Gaza border.

After his visit to the tunnels, Kristof wrote that Israel should halt its blockade.

No amount of hasbara propaganda can resist the power of voices in the US, like an aroused church public and enlightened journalists like Kristof who have broken through the hasbara campaign barrier.

There is an encouraging parallel between a journalist of Kristof’s stature and the Presbyterian CMES members who made their own site visits to Palestine where they reached the conclusions that now appear in the CMES report to the General Assembly.

Hasbara as a tactic is losing some of its bite, yet another reminder of the wisdom in the phrase often used by Martin Luther King, Jr., “truth crushed to earth, will rise again”.

For those still unfamiliar with the term hasbara, Jane Adas provides a valuable description of the term in an essay she wrote for the November-December, 2009, issue of Link, a publication of Americans for Middle East Understanding (AMEU):

Hasbara literally means “explanation” and is often translated as “public diplomacy,” but can perhaps best be thought of as problem solving through marketing techniques, like rebranding (Israel as the victim of Hamas’ aggression), product placement (hide the Goldstone Report in the darkest, least-frequented corner of the shop), and promotional lingo (“The side that seems to want peace more will win…” from The Israel Project’s 2009 Global Language Dictionary).

Having identified the problem to be solved concerning Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon as Israel’s failure to explain its case, [Prime Minister] Netanyahu, soon after assuming office in February 2008, formed a National Information Directorate within the Prime Minister’s Office tasked with planning the media campaign for the Gaza operation and headed by “hasbara czar” Yarden Vatikay.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a strong pro-Israeli NGO in California, headed by Rabbi Abraham Cooper, has been a leading hasbara opponent of the MESC report.

Knowing the report was being developed, the Wiesenthal Center launched an all-out hasbara attack on the MESC report, long before the report was written.

The Wiesenthal Center sent out alerts to its own constituency and to members of the Presbyterian Church, especially delegates to the GA, urging them to send e-mails critical of the yet-to-be published report, to the Louisville headquarters of the denominations.

Members of the academic community are often recruited as hasbara “agents” for reasons future psychological studies will have to determine. No doubt “Friends of Israel” faculty colleagues, either from ethnic, academic or religious motivations, are helpful in making Israel’s case in long chats in the faculty lounge or at academic conferences. They may even have traveled together to visit Israel.

I earlier commented on the essay that appeared in the Christian Century before the start of this current General Assembly. The essay was written by Vanderbilt University Divinity School professors Ted A. Smith and Amy-Jill Levine.

If the delegates want to read a counter theological argument, supporting the CMES report, delivered without venom, I suggest they read a letter from my Jewish friend and colleague, Mark Braverman, which he has submitted to the Christian Century in response to the Smith-Levine essay.

Here is the opening portion of Mark’s letter:

 

The intent of the Presbyterian Middle East Study Group Report “Breaking Down the Walls” is clear: “To break down these walls that stand in the way of the realization of God’s peaceful and just kingdom.”

But in their critique of the report published in your June 29 issue, Ted Smith and Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University, strike at the heart of this message. They ask us to believe that the report advocates “a historical narrative that points indirectly to a single state—a new social body—in which a Palestinian majority displaces Jews.”

In a shocking distortion of the Study Group’s evocation of Ephesians 2:14, they claim that “’Breaking down the walls’ in order to form ‘one new humanity in the place of two’ evokes old echoes of theological supersessionism and transposes them into a political key.”

“Old habits die hard,” lament Smith and Levine. But it is the habit of crying anti-Semitism whenever Jewish sensibilities are disturbed or the actions of the State of Israel are questioned that we must urgently confront.

Before you vote in Minneapolis this week, you sons and daughters of John Calvin, read the entire text of Mark Braverman”s letter, which is posted here.

Years from now, when you remember this week, something tells me you will be grateful that Mark Braverman, a Jewish author, shared with us his timely reading of Ephesians 2:14.

Update from blogger on IPMN daily blog:

 

“Don’t Rock the Boat?”

Don’t rock the boat?  Is that really what I heard today at the Presbyterians for Middle East Peace hosted breakfast?  In attack after attack on the Middle East Study Committee report which will be considered in Committee 14 this week , I kept hearing the same thing: “we need balance”, “it’s bad timing”, “they didn’t talk to all parties (the MESC’s mandate was clear on this btw), etc etc etc .

I heard “this is a step backwards, it’s not the right time”, and a variety of other protests that this would just rock the boat too much.  And to top it off, we got a not so veiled threat from a J Street representative that they would stop working with the PCUSA if this Report is accepted.

There was so much fear, uncertainty and doubt thrown about the room that I almost missed the fact that the Reverend Byron Schafer, a member of the MESC , retired from Rutger’s Presbyterian Church in NYC, turned redcoat and informer on this Independence Day, and revealed the inner deliberations of the group; cloaking himself in “I am allowed to speak of these things because Presbyterians pride themselves on transparency”. . . .

No, Presbyterians pride themselves by taking the side of the oppressed and the voiceless even when it puts ourselves in tough situations both inside and outside the Church. . .  .  .

A Second Update:

 

On Day Three of the General Assembly, a delegate has a question (Israel/Palestine Mission Network:

When did we Presbyterians divorce our social witness policy from the people it affects?  I ask because three different times today at the 219th General Assembly,  I was struck by comments that are reminders that while we may deliberate on policies there are real people whose pain, suffering and hope are behind all of it.

First, Dr. Mitri Raheb, minister from the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem spoke about how it struck him, as he sat through Committee 14’s open microphone session on Middle East Peacemaking Issues, that he couldn’t stop thinking that behind all the rhetoric, emotion and visceral reactions to the Middle East Study Committee’s report, was real suffering.  He reminded us that for millions of Palestinians (Muslims and Christian alike), it’s existential – they are suffering everyday from the injustice of the 43 year Occupation.

Next, the Reverend Jeff DeYoe from Ohio spoke to Committee 14 today on the Middle East Study Committee’s report and the other overtures in front of this committee. He spoke about his personal experiences about justice in this region and  that behind all the debate were people and pain, and that we are reaching a tipping point in our Denomination’s positions on the Middle East.

Last and certainly not least, over heard out of the open microphone session in Committee 12 (Civil Unions and Marriage Issues), was a comment made from an un-named Pastor to an ordained, gay Presbyterian minister:  “You know, this isn’t about the person, it’s just policy.

It’s the people stupid.

Another delegate sent this email from the floor Tuesday morning:

We may have lost the divestment battle again; the committee went for “denouncing CAT”.  Really disappointing. Tomorrow we’ll see what they do with the rest of the overtures.

My response to my delegate friend:

Your email says the committee wants to “denounce” Caterpillar without divesting Presbyterian funds from the company that builds the bulldozers that demolish Palestinian homes and killed American non violent activist Rachel Corrie.

This sounds like Hasbara agents are working the GA floor with a strategy designed from Tel Aviv.

Their strategy is to keep PR pain from being inflicted on Israel’s public image. Sure, denounce CAT all you like, just keep sending that church money from your CAT investments so they can build more bulldozers.

The Hasbara message will be that the Presbyterian anti-semites were defeated because there was no pain inflicted on CAT.  “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”

Third Update:

Noushin Framke reports on her daily blog on the IPMN page that the committee work is finished and today (Wednesday), the action moves to the plenary. She is optimistic.

The grueling committee work is done – all the results are up on http://www.PC-Biz.org

Amazingly, the MESC report passed committee unanimously with some amendments and deletions. They decided to answer the Kairos overture with the MESC so that’s that on Kairos.

The Apartheid overture was just too inflammatory and they ran a mile the other way from it – but the bottom line is that only a few years ago, the word “occupation” was too inflammatory to use and now it’s irrefutable – Apartheid has now been aired, gotten a start – the day will come that naming the problem will lead to ending the problem – which will be good for everybody – Israelis and Palestinians alike.

After the apartheid overture, they dealt with the military aid overture – a commissioner asked for Jeff Halper to speak, who was listed as a resource person. They argued for a good 5 mins on whether he should be allowed to speak. Several commissioners said no he should not speak and the chair said that if a commissioner wanted to hear a resource person speak they were entitled to hear the testimony, unless 2/3 of the group voted against it.  It looked incredibly arrogant and bad that they just wanted to silence a resource person like that. Finally, they took a vote and it was nowhere near 2/3rds so Jeff Halper got to speak. They said he had a minute!! He got up and said thank you and i won’t even need a full minute!

Halper’s concise and brilliant testimony about the US continuing to give military aid to Israel despite the fact that every year they land on the State Dept’s own list of countries who break Int’l law just anihilated any dissent that might have come up against the overture. I guess all those cocky commissioners on divestment didn’t want to try refute Jeff Halper because what he said was rock solid – you might say he nuked the fridge… the Overture passed overwhelmingly.

On to the last item: The Goldstone Report. Halper’s 1 minute testimony was so strong that many of us in the room believe that the momentum carried into Goldstone and in a few short minutes, that passed overwhelmingly too.

Too bad they never called on Jeff Halper to speak to the Apartheid overture but today was a good day for us in committee 14. It was actually pretty wild to watch all the PEPs and their ‘friends’ scurrying about when the MESC was approved. I am sure there has been a lot of strategery going on all afternoon on what to do about it in plenary.

Part 1 is over – tomorrow Plenary begins and we go into the big show! Pray for plenary to stick with the committee decisions ALL AROUND. The one downer i heard about was that the cmt on board of pensions did not vote to extend medical benefits to same sex partners – Boy, is the church behind the curve on that or what? so much for leading the way and shining a light.

 

Wednesday, the Presbyterian magazine, Presbyterian Outlook, is up on its web page with this midweek story. It is also optimistic about the passage of the MESC report.

Thursday night Update:

Noushin Framke updated her blog Thursday night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday and Saturday will be the final days of the 129th General Assembly.  Framke begins this update by pointing to the “elephant in the room”: Are interfaith considerations, i.e., relationships with the Jewish community, more important than justice in Palestine?



Framke’s Thursday blog update begins:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today we saw old tactics fail to work as they have in the past. During the debate on interfaith papers from the Offices of Theology and Interfaith Relations, we heard a Commissioner from Philadelphia basically threaten commissioners with being anti-Semitic.



He insinuated that if they voted to go with committee 8’s decision of sending the “Christians & Jews” paper back for improvement, they would be guilty of anti-Semitism.

Campbell was obviously okay with excluding all Middle Eastern Christian voices.  Thanks but no thanks, said the assembly; the vote was 80/20 to send the paper back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cynthia Campbell, president of McCormick Seminary in Chicago, got to the microphone and argued that the paper called “Christians and Jews, A People of God” was sound theology and worthy of publishing now, versus referring back as the committee had recommended



What both speakers failed to address was the fact that no Middle Eastern Presbyterians or Middle Eastern Christian partners were at the table for the writing of this paper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both Cynthia Campbell and the commissioner from Philadelphia, basically said that it’s okay that no Mideastern Christians were part of the consultation process and to go ahead and approve the paper now. The assembly voted to send the paper back and said go get a bigger table.  .  .  .  .

 

 

 

(To continue reading Framke’s Thursday blog update, click here.)



 

 

 

 

Update for Day Eight (Saturday)
The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship posted a PC(USA) news release Saturday morning. To read the entire release, click here.
MINNEAPOLIS  PC(USA) News Service:
The 219th General Assembly approved the recommendation of the Middle East Peacemaking Issues Committee on Friday regarding the report “Breaking Down the Walls,” which spotlights the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The full Assembly action followed a unanimous decision by the committee to accept an amended version of the report, which came to it from the GA Middle East Study Committee (MESC). . . . .

. . . . Among the amendments the committee made to the original MESC report were those calling for the Assembly to:

* Receive Part One of the MESC report, which contains eight individual letters to the ecumenical and interfaith community, Israelis, Palestinians and Americans, as rationale for recommendations only, not as policy.
* Reaffirm Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders.
* Authorize the creation of a seven-person monitoring group on the Middle East for the next two years. The group shall include at least one but no more than two members of the existing MESC.
* Commend for study the Kairos Palestine document (“A Moment of Truth”) and endorse the document’s emphases on hope for liberation, nonviolence, love of enemy and reconciliation. The Assembly lifts up for study the often-neglected voice of Palestinian Christians and directs the monitoring group for the Middle East to create a study guide for the document.
* Call on the Israeli and Egyptian governments to limit their blockade of Gaza to military equipment and devices and to guarantee adequate levels of food, medicine, building supplies and other humanitarian supplies and to allow free commercial exchange in and out of Gaza. The Assembly would call on the United States government to end support for the blockade that interferes with the adequacy or exchange of such items.
* Delete a majority of Part Three – study materials to be used by individuals, groups and churches for further study – and ask the monitoring group to replace it with eight comparable narratives arising from “authentically” Palestinian (Christian and Muslim) and Israeli perspectives that are pro-justice and pro-peace. The appendices in the MESC report would remain. . . . .
The 219th General Assembly of the PCUSA has just passed two significant pieces of business that further moves the PCUSA towards true justice and peace in Palestine.
The first is a denouncement of Caterpillar for their continued profiting from business with Israel that harms Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.  While stopping short of divestment as directed by previous General Assemblies and an attempt on the floor to put a deadline to divest by June 2011, the CEO of the Board of Pensions spoke and said they have devised a workable system over the decades to make divestment possible, but the assembly weaseled out and made it open ended.
It does however, further affirm that Caterpillar, of all the firms with whom MRTI has engaged, continues to disappoint in their corporate engagement with the PCUSA.  The day of divestment reckoning is coming.
The second is the passing of the Middle East Study Report as amended by Committee 14.  While the changes will seem heavy handed by some, it strikes a better balance while maintaining the spirit of our denomination’s desire to listen to the voices of Palestinian voices that are crying out for us to stand for justice and peace in the region.
I urge everyone to read the amended report, and the Kairos document as contained within approved 14-08.  Kairos is a letter from Palestinian Christian leaders and their fellowships pleading for us to hear their cry.

We are listening!!

 

 

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years.
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9 Responses to 219th Presbyterian Assembly Faces Its Moment of Truth

  1. Wilma Jones says:

    Thank you, Mark Braverman for your response to the Christian Century article regarding the MESC report!

  2. Amerisrael says:

    The Presbyterian USA, Episcapol, United Metodists, United Church of Christs, and other liberal anti-Israel church groups do not represent “mainstream” Christianity on Israel or Biblical social moral issues.

    That honor now belongs to the more “Biblically correct” conservative Christian evangelicals. Who for the most part take strong issue with liberal non-evangelical positions on social moral matters as well as their on going attempts to de-legitimise the state of Israel.

    Israel is not the”occupier”. It is the Muslims who invaded, occupied, and colonized the ME and northern Africa and spread Islam by the sword.

    http://amerisrael.typepad.com/my_weblog/2010/06/presbyterian-usa-missrepresenting-christian-values.html

  3. Martin Bailey says:

    Amerisrael loses all credibility when it identifies four U.S. denominations as “anti-Israel church groups.” As a journalist who has covered many church assemblies, and as a Christian who spent three and a half years living in Israel-Palestine, I know how carefully each of the four denominations has studied the issues, how much they have invested in first-hand research in the Middle East, and how carefully they have worded their resolutions. They are, in fact, friends of both Israel and Palestine, and seek a just and lasting peace.

  4. Harris W. Fawell says:

    Jim: Thank you for your excellent update relative to the Presbyterian 219th General Assembly being held this week in Minneapolis from July 3rd through July 10th. It is very much appreciated.
    Harris W. Fawell, Member of Congress (retired, 1999)

  5. wallwritings says:

    Thanks, Harris,

    I hope and pray the Presbyterians will do the right thing. Of course, you know politics and you know that anything can happen when voting begins,

    Jim

  6. Rod Parrott says:

    It appears that Amerisrael (whoever that is) is stepping up to the plate to perform the hasbara role. But HQ should have sent someone more qualified to judge what is mainstream Christian or not. Anyone who mispells Episcopal and Methodist, and puts a plural “s” on United Church of Christ cannot be too familiar with the churches.

    Let’s hope Presbyterians have the courage to follow their best lights.

  7. Sam Jones says:

    Sir:

    Unless you are comfortable with the likely extinction of the original and indigenous Christian community of Palestine, perhaps you should consult with their leadership on their views concerning the history and modern-day reality of the Holy Land. As to your assertion concerning what Christian evangelicals believe or do not believe with regards to the Occupation, you will be disappointed to know that more and more young Evangelical leaders, having been alienated by the neo-conservative and highly politicized antics of pastors like John Hagee, are becoming involved in this issue from the perspective of peace with justice, seeking to bless both Israelis and Palestinians, for the dignity, security, and freedom of both. They are moving away from dispensationalist ideology, which is both anti-semitic (since it calls for the eventual destruction / damning of two-thirds of the Jewish people), and incredibly destructive from a peacemaking perspective. And after all, Amerisrael, the Holy Bible calls us all to be peacemakers, regardless of our denomination.

  8. Wilma Jones says:

    Thanks to Noushin Framke for the Third Update, it lifted my hopes that the PC USA may eventually get to some
    balance regarding the Palestinian/Israeli problems that have been pushed aside for so many years by the General Assembly, without true committment toward resolution.

  9. Phil says:

    The new phrase flowing from the Presbyterian GA is “Apartheid Denial.”

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