Who “Won” the PCUSA Assembly? The Answer May Surprise You

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?

The religious arm of the Israel Lobby did not win, in spite of what you may have read in Newsweek, in the Los Angeles Times and in the  American Jewish media.

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.

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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16 Responses to Who “Won” the PCUSA Assembly? The Answer May Surprise You

  1. Noushin Framke says:

    One “winner” was process at GA – process can be our weakness AND our strength. When the Christian/Jewish dialogue paper was defeated in plenary by an 80/20 vote, it was clear that the delegates didn’t feel comfortable with leaving out certain voices from that paper – in this case, Middle Eastern Christians. So process won that one; plenary never really got into the content of the paper and it was embarrassing for the Office of Theology to get that big defeat.

    The MESC “compromise” was no compromise, really. Restating that the PCUSA believes in Israel’s right to exist with secure borders is universally understood. Why do the ZiPs (ZioPresbys – Zionist Presbyterians) think it’s so important to put this into every paper coming out of the PCUSA, when we have stated it decade after decade? Do they not believe that this is settled? We all agree that Israel has a right to exist with secure borders; it would be good for Israel to finally declare its borders so we know where they are.

    The “win” lies in the fact that the MESC report was approved with the Kairos document intact, meaning that the even though the BDS portion of it was not ‘endorsed’ by the assembly, it goes out to churches for study and they can decide individually how they want to “break down the walls.” Will our churches relate to this Palestinian “letter from a Birmingham Jail?” We shall see.

    The real “win” though is that the assembly connected the dots that Israel is violating US policy regarding the use of US military aid. They voted for the denomination to call on the US government to enforce its own laws. THIS is the win that nobody wants to talk about. The PC(USA) is coming out of its slumber and denial!

  2. Cotton Fite says:

    Amen! And again I say amen! May my shamefully cautious and reticent Episcopal church take note and be emboldened.

  3. Larry George says:

    Excellent and important, Jim. I would only add that the embarrassment of Henderson-Austin is not only a disregard for Muslim Palestinians, but that they do not even “embrace” Palestinian Christians, although they give lip service to “living stones”.

    What do they truly “embrace” of the “living stones”? In rejecting the Kairos document which represents the vast majority of Palestinian Christians, aren’t they saying that they still suspend the application of liberation theology and “civil rights” wherever the experience of Palestinian Christians ruffles the “Jewish-Christian dialogue?”

  4. Rich Littleton says:

    This last item by Jim Wall was difficult to read through. Thirty words where two words would do. Concepts cut into so many pieces that it was difficult to follow where he was going. A final conclusion that was inconclusive.

    “And your point was??….”

    Jim’s perception and analytical mind are gifts. His ethical compass is unswerving.

    So please write more clearly, more directly, more plainly.

    Rich Littleton

  5. Pauline Coffman says:

    The column reads as complicated because the actions were complicated. Jim Wall has described some of the ways the factions work. To follow it you have to be willing to ask questions of your own presuppositions, in my opinion. Truly, both sides “won” parts of the argument.

    One thing: the MESC Report did not “endorse” the overture calling for suspending military aid to Israel until they comply with US Law; the MESC Report had its own recommendation calling for Israel to abide by International Law if they want continued military aid. Coincidentally, a separate overture was passed both by the committee and the plenary session without amendments or much comment. By then, it was clear that the Presbyterians wanted to tell Israel to pay attention to human rights.

  6. Robert H. Stiver says:

    This is an astonishingly good, often headshakingly frustrating report on the machinations of those who would be greatly offended by terming their position on the Holy Land tragedy as “Hypocritical!”

  7. Brooke Leaton says:

    Why on earth would Mr. Littleton have difficulty comprehending a statement expressing the hopes that the MESC will re-examine the Kairos report and could, as you say, have a larger table that 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.”

    Do we have to send Mr. Littleton and those who hold similar views back to re-take basic “Zionism 101”. and the rising awareness that led to the 1975 UN resolution that… “determine[d] that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination”?

    Zionism a political and military movement, and uses the guise of religion and it’s connections with Christianity to suppress those who oppose the expansion of Israeli occupation, among other things.

    That 1975 resolution, although passed, was opposed by westerners probably more offended by Yasser Arafat’s presence at the UN in 1974 and his attendance at the UN General Assembly in 1975. Many forget that the Assembly was moved from the US to Switzerland because the USA would not grant Arafat a visa to attend the meeting.

    I imagine that few westerners understood and still do not understand the diffference between that military-political movement and religion.

    I am still proud that I signed a petition by other academics back in the early 70’s which supported the UN resolution. It was published (as an ad) in the NT times.

    Brooke

  8. Sam Jones says:

    Jim – thanks for an excellent summary of the proceedings at GA and ‘spin blitz’ that preceded them. Overall, and as a Presbyterian, I am pleased by this “win,” albeit incomplete and still demonstrating the sheer incomprehension of facts on-the-ground concerning the occupation by (usually well-intentioned) members of the PCUSA.

  9. Una Stevenson says:

    The GA vote was an answer to my prayers. Now Mission Responsiblity Through Invesments (MRTI), still has work to do.
    Presbyteries have to pull together to make GA work harder, especially on the paper that did not have a Palestinian Christian to speak to it.
    God’s blessings on your work.

    una

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  11. Walt Davis says:

    Jim, your “writings” are always enlightening!
    While I am pleased with many GA actions, the decision to condemn Caterpillar rather than divest continues to disturb me.

    Jesus directed some of his harshest accusations at hypocrisy. Surely those who recommended and approved censure in place of divestment were not blind to the hypocrisy of condemning CAT for profiting from the Occupation while the PC(USA) continues to profit from our stock in CAT.

    Did fear of the Zionist backlash trump faithfulness to the justice demands of the Gospel? Did guilt over past Jewish suffering trump compassion for present Palestinian suffering? Or is something else at work?

    Walt Davis

  12. Pete Bloss says:

    You are correct on one count, Mr. Wall. You do not know me. You presume to attribute motives to me and to others that are nothing more than fanciful speculation arising from your own obvious bias.

    I went to General Assembly as an elected commissioner from the Presbytery of Mississippi, charged with voting upon and considering a broad range of highly controversial and emotion charged issues, one of which was responsible Middle East peacemaking.

    It is my view that Christian denominations demonstrate arrogance and ignorance when they take sides in complex peace negotiations which have stymied even the best statesmen and diplomats for decades.

    If the Christian church, either by denomination or collectively, is to have a responsible voice in peace it must be respected by the parties. It loses that respect, and therefore its voice, when it plays favorites, given that there is enough fault on both sides and enough constructive efforts on both sides for Christians to be cautious in jumping too far in either direction.

    I belong to a local Presbyterian congregation that includes among its founding members the FBI agent who “turned” a Klansman in 1964 into a confidential informant so as to discover the bodies of the three civil rights workers (one African-American, two Jewish), buried in a dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi. He was the lead investigator in identifying the murders.

    I belong to a local Presbyterian congregation that expressed extreme outrage in 2004 when we learned that a committee of the national denomination used money from local offering plates to finance a visit to the terrorist organization, Hezbollah. Our session resolution was written by me as the then Clerk of Session of that congregation. We were not subjected to any Israeli influence in expressing our outrage. Our disgust, also expressed by many others in the denomination, was one reason that two PCUSA staff workers lost their jobs as a result of that incident.

    I was overture advocate (the floor spokesman) at the next General Assembly in 2006 in Birmingham. I presented what was called Overture 11-01, dealing with creating a balanced Middle East peace process and opposing such draconian and ultimately meaningless actions as “divestment” of ownership in Caterpillar Corporation stock. That was an overture from the Presbytery of Mississippi.

    Yes, we know something about working side by side with African-Americans and Jews and others during the civil rights movement, and again after Hurricane Katrina.

    Overture 11-01 did become the driving vehicle for what came out of GA that year on the Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

    You also do not know that at that time that my small 350 member church agreed to host the umbrella organization for interfaith disaster relief following that storm, the Interfaith Disaster Task Force (IDTF). I served on its board and as its Vice-President. Our board included most Christian denominations, as well as Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish representatives. I know a little about interfaith work following national disasters and the desirability for Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of other faiths to band together to find solutions to problems and help out the most unfortunate among us — those least able to help themselves.

    Yes, I served as a board member of what was then called the “Committee to End Divestment Now” during the 2006 GA and was pleased that we moved from destructive divestment to constructive investment strategy.

    In 2010 I was drafted to go to GA. That was not of my own doing. I was, frankly, quite busy with my “day job.”

    However, I had become concerned that the composition of the 2008 Middle East Study Committee had not been balanced. It represented a voice that needed to be heard, but did not include other voices which, in fairness, should have been brought into the debate and into the framing of the report.

    I found that Presbyterians For Middle East Peace had been formed and that it was advocating for the same things I believed — a need for the Presbyterian Church to develop trust and respect if it was to speak with any meaningful voice to bring about a true and lasting peace that would protect both the interests and safety of Palestinian Christians and Israeli citizens, Jewish, Arab Christian and Arab Muslim.

    We sought out other voices that had been lacking. That included voices from the Jewish community. This was done, it seems to me, out of our own concern that the report be balanced, not because we had any loyalty or favoritism directed to one honest voice over another.

    Yes, I attended the “St. Croix” group meetings that went late into the evening. Yes, I spoke up on the floor of the GA committee considering the biased report.

    I am grateful that the committee UNANIMOUSLY agreed that the report needed to be revised to remove some of its bias and that it also needed to go to a new study committee charged with re-writing large sections of it so as to bring in the other voices and perspectives which ought, in fairness, be considered. GA overwhelmingly agreed.

    So, with respect, no one “won” and no one “lost” on this issue at the Presbyterian General Assembly. Instead, we found another way, a better way — a way that moved away from the concept of winning and losing. A way that brings different voices together, finds common ground, and reduces the chance for speaking past each other rather than to and with each other.

    I have hope that the new report and this new way of denominationally approaching Middle East peace efforts will serve as a model of civility and of effectiveness. This is something I learned in doing interfaith work following Katrina.

    I would ask you, Mr. Wall, and the readers of this blog to work in this same constructive manner with us as we move forward with this new way of finding solutions through mutual understanding and trust.

    Pete Bloss

  13. Noushin Framke says:

    I respectfully disagree with Mr. Bloss. As a current member and past chair of ACREC, The Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns, (a permanent GA cmt), I would like to call attention to the fact that Middle Eastern Presbyterians did indeed have a victory at GA. Call it a “win” if you like. The National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus (NMEPC) was excluded from the table over the years when the interfaith paper entitled “Christians and Jews: A People of God” was being written. They received a copy of the paper when the process was finished and the paper was final. They were given 3 weeks to respond before GA deadlines set in.

    After hours of deliberations, Committee 8 which dealt with Interfaith Relations, voted 31 to 23 to send the paper back for all relevant voices to be included and a more transparent process. In plenary, the vote was a resounding 517 to 46 to send the paper back “for a bigger table.”

    As a Middle Eastern Presbyterian Christian myself, I would appreciate people in my own church acknowledging this wonderful affirmation the assembly gave us. With all the advocacy work I do, I have never known such a clear signal that our voice matters. I am grateful to our 219th assembly as are all the members of the NMEPC. Let’s not take away this wonderful “win” and the ripples it will create in the racial ethnic communities who will see that a formerly marginalized group in the PC(USA) has been treated fairly.

  14. Sami Joseph says:

    I am delighted that at long last good is in the ascendancy and triumphing over evil, no more blinded by casuistry. Christian morality is coming to the fore despite a masterly crafted widespread campaign of misleading disinformation. No-one with an iota of decency should ever remain an indifferent onlooker to the acts of cruel barbarity being inflicted upon the suffering indigenous people of the Holy Land, be they Christian, Muslim or Jewish. True Christians, should never lose sight of the fact that it is the truth that will set them and mankind free.

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  16. Awad Paul Sifri says:

    Jim, Your article was nothing short of “spectacular”. You explained a very complicated story in the clearest way possible. Truly amazing!
    As a Presbyterian Christian Palestinian, I want to thank the GA for its outstanding accomplishment in supporting justice in the Holy Land.
    It is a no-brainer that Palestinian Christians and Muslim Palestinians should be at the table of any discussion on the Middle East.
    As Palestinians, the vast majority of us call for the unity of Palestinian Christians, Muslims, and Jews as one people and one Palestinian Nation. The differentiation has been brought about by the racist Zionist political/military machinations of the 20th Century.
    Next GA would do well to come up with resolution to do with the outrageous nuclear monopoly and nuclear arsenal that Israel possesses. We need to support a nuclear-free Middle east and not allow any exceptions. Why are we avoiding the big elephant in the room?

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