by James M. Wall
(See Updated Comment from PCUSA Commissioner Pete Bloss at end of Comments.)
Who “won” the Minneapolis Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly?
To answer that question, we first need to ask, who did not win?
When a “What’s Good for Israel” spin is set in rapid motion, you know you are witnessing the work of an operation that left Minneapolis surprised and disappointed at the outcome.
Something had to be done, and quickly, before the public–and the folks back in Tel Aviv–heard that the Protestant/Israeli Iron Wall had been breached.
Something, indeed, had to be done, and that something was to launch a ”save the Jewish-Christian dialogue” media blitz. The blitz included a second Newsweek appearance this month in a column by Katharine R. Henderson, president of Auburn Theological Seminary.
With respected Protestant leaders like Henderson as allies, the state of Israel tried to do exactly what the US private healthcare industry did when it kept a public option out of President Obama’s health care bill: Control the process in their favor.
In a fancy bit of footwork, health care lobbyist Liz Fowler rotated between a job as a public policy adviser to WellPoint Inc, the nation’s largest publicly traded health benefits company, and a position as a top advisor to Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont), who receives massive campaign funds from the insurance industry.
Bill Moyers reported on his television program how Fowler killed the public option in the bill. Fowler, by the way, has a new job. President Obama asked her to implement the health care bill for the administration. This news appeared July 14, in the Billings Gazette. The national media ignored the story. The revolving door between lobbyists and government appointments is no longer important in Washington.
That is how the Lobby system works. A lobby recruits allies, develops plans, cultivates decision makers, and pays to control the final outcome of legislation affecting its client. With Liz Fowler in control, the private health care industry got the health care bill the health care industry wanted.
It works the same way with the Israel Lobby. Experienced in such matters, the Lobby knew what it had to do when confronted by all those “bleeding heart” Progressives in the Presbyterian Church (USA), which for years has been the lobby’s greatest nightmare, a denomination that will not stay on the reservation.
The Lobby has had a much easier time of it with Episcopalians and Lutherans, historic state churches accustomed to following a national consensus.
But oh, those Presbyterians. It was time for the Lobby to call on friendships inside the denomination, cultivated over many years with a single goal in mind: Protect, by any means possible, the “fragile” relationships between Christians and Jews.
Here is how it works:
Give a rabbi and a neighboring Presbyterian pastor free passage to the Holy Land. Provide their church and synagogue members with low rates in Israel’s finer hotels. Travelers walk where Jesus walked.
By the time Holy Land travelers prepare to return home, religiously aglow, the entire delegation will be singing “kum ba yah” around the closing banquet table.
Some of those Presbyterian travelers might end up as voting commissioners when the General Assembly of the PCUSA meets to discuss a “controversial” report on the Israel-Palestine situation.
I do not know the background of one PCUSA commissioner who came to Minneapolis to vote on that “controversial” report in Minneapolis in early July. I have no idea why he thinks the way he thinks. (For
But I do know his story, because he told it to Josh Nathan-Kazis, who wrote about this particular commissioner for the on line edition of the national Jewish publication, Forward.
This commissioner sure sounds like he has sung a few choruses of “kum ba yah” with his Jewish neighbors, as is his right, and indeed duty, as a member of the Jewish-Christian dialogue caucus in the PCUSA.
The blogger’s headline, Presbyterians Tone Down Report On Israel After Jewish Lobbying, could serve as a text for our discussion here on how lobbying works when it involves Presbyterians and Jewish lobbyists.
Here is how the Forward blogger tells the story:
Ask Pete Bloss why he worked against resolutions critical of Israel at the general assembly of the largest Presbyterian group in the United States, and the Gulfport, Miss., resident speaks more about Hurricane Katrina than about Israeli policy.
“The richness and diversity of points of view in the Jewish community really became clear to us when Jewish college groups started arriving,” he said, recalling the Jews who worked with his church on reconstruction projects after the 2005 disaster. “
We koshered our kitchen for several weeks.… We had rabbis teaching the Old Testament in our Sunday school classes. It was just wonderful to share things.”
An elder in his local Presbyterian church, and a practicing attorney, Bloss said that hosting the influx of Jews who came to help “probably energized us, and people like me, to say that when incredibly unbalanced things were taking place with the general assembly, that we wanted to try to be a part of bringing that back into balance.”
Commissioner Pete Bloss went to Minneapolis to cast votes on matters related to a resolution presented by a General Assembly Committee. He believes he witnessed “incredibly unbalanced things” taking place at the GA. He was determined to play a part in “bringing that back into balance”.
(See Comment below from Commissioner Pete Bloss, written in response to this posting.)
There, in a nutshell, was the battle of Minneapolis, the 219th General Assembly of the PCUSA, as witnessed by one of the soldiers involved, an attorney from Mississippi.
The “incredibly unbalanced things” Commissioner Bloss was determined to bring back into balance included the PCUSA’s acceptance of the overture, Toward Peace and Reconciliation in Mideast (supporting the Goldstone Report).
The Goldstone overture was supported in committee, 38-9, with 5 abstentions. It was accepted by the full plenary. The overture may be read on line.
The MESC report endorsed an overture which calls on the US government to end all military funding to Israel until Israel agrees to stop settlement construction. It passed in the committee 47 to 1 vote, with 3 abstentions.
The military aid overture was also approved by the General Assembly plenary.
On July 16, six days after the GA ended,, the Palestinian organization Miftah reported that US Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro announced that the US would give Israel “the largest security package ever, $2.775 billion to “help advance the peace process with the Palestinians”.
The GA received the “controversial” Kairos theological statement which had been written by leaders of the Christian churches in Palestine and sent to American churches.
What makes it “controversial” is that it reflects the influence of liberation theology (read a concise history of of Liberation Theology, here), which reached international theological acceptance through:
Lectures given by Gustavo Gutiérrez in Montreal in 1967, and at Chimbote in Peru on the poverty of the Third World and the challenge it posed to the development of a pastoral strategy of liberation were a further powerful impetus toward a theology of liberation.
Its outlines were first put forward at the theological congress at Cartigny, Switzerland, in 1969: “Toward a Theology of Liberation.”
The importance of the Kairos document to the Palestinians was summed up by one GA Commissioner who said, “Kairos is for Palestinians what the Letter from a Birmingham Jail is for African-Americans.”
So it was that the supporters of the Middle East Study Committee report, which was eventually adopted by the General Assembly, with modifications, retained the Kairos document intact, including its reliance on liberation theology.
BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) also remains in the MESC report, accepted by the GA. Its presence in the GA-accepted document remains as an anathema to the Jewish-Christian Dialogue supporters among GA commissioners.
The MESC Report did not ask the plenary to divest its funds from Caterpillar. However, the permanent GA committee on investments had agreed to “denounce” Caterpillar for refusing to respond to PCUSA objections to CAT’s sale of bulldozers to Israel.
On July 13, three days after the close of the GA, Miftah reported that “Israeli occupation authorities demolished six houses in the eastern sector of the city in Essawiyeh and Beit Hanania. One of the homes, located in Beit Hanania, was inhabited at the time it was demolished.”
The Kairos document emphasis on liberation theology remains in the GA’s final report. It is available for study and application in individual congregations.
Coinciding with the news of the US “security” $2.775 billion gift to Israel, and the destruction of the home in Beit Hanania with the family still inside, a second column on the GA appeared in Newsweek, co-authored by Auburn Theological Seminary President Katherine Henderson.
Her first column on the GA was co-authored with Gus Niebuhr; this second one was written with Henderson’s Auburn colleague, J.C. Austin.
Henderson moonlights as a regular contributor for Newsweek. This second column gets right down to some 1960s civil rights history that Newsweek readers would remember, even those largely unfamiliar with Presbyterians.
The Henderson-Austin column begins with the familiar trope, “what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem”.
What does the Presbyterian Church (USA) have to do with the Middle East anyway? For us, the conflict is personal. We have a long history of friendship and collaboration with the Jewish community. We stood side-by-side in the Civil Rights struggle, forging a deep bond in the crucible of jail cells.
To this day, we work together on issues like poverty and immigration, convinced we share similar values for “repairing the world” and that we can be more effective together.
The problem with evoking the civil rights era is that the issues before the General Assembly this summer were not about past struggles for civil rights in the US. At Minneapolis the issue was the violations of human rights of Christians, Jews AND Muslims, today, at this very moment in Israel/Palestine.
Henderson-Austin did finally get to the Palestinians, but only to some of them.
And Presbyterians have a long history with Palestinians, too, especially the Christian community. Palestinian Christians come to the United States to study in our seminaries and work with our churches.
When we take our pilgrimages to the Holy Land, we go to Jerusalem and Bethlehem and the Galilee not simply to see the sights and buildings testifying to the history of Christianity, but the “living stones” of our faith in the region, the Palestinian people who have kept the faith alive since Jesus walked those lands and to whom we are bound in shared belief and ministry and spirit.
That is embarrassing. “Especially the Christian community”? Don’t they hear what they are writing? They embrace only certain Palestinians?
Did Henderson’s fellow Holy Land travelers ever once ask their Israeli guides to take them to Gaza to visit the Muslim mosque built over the traditional site of Samson’s suicidal show of strength? (Judges 16:1)
Muslims are God’s children. They are not “others”, but part of our common humanity. In God there is no “us” and no “others”. “Us and them” is a western colonial concept which is both immoral and evil.
So who, exactly, won at Minneapolis?
Bottom line is that the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly made enormous progress in its 219th assembly by linking military aid to Israeli settlements, denouncing Caterpillar, approving a Kairos document written by Palestinian Christian leaders, and, by demanding that the Jewish-Christian Dialogue study paper, which was expected to receive an easy endorsement, be rejected and sent back for further development.
Is that a “win”? You decide.
This much we do know, for sure, when the next set of General Assembly commissioners see the Jewish-Christian Dialogue study paper, they expect to see a document written with “more people at the table”, including Palestinian Christians.
And who knows, maybe the new table will include Muslim representatives, fellow religionists who lived peacefully with their Jewish and Christian neighbors in Palestine until the Zionist enterprise entered the modern political picture.
The picture at the top is an AFP/Gettty image of children in Gaza. It appeared on the Middle East Channel, a Foreign Policy blog.