Divestment Press Conference at the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA)

Divestment Press Conference at the 221st General Assembly of the PC (USA) – PHOTO: Roger Powers

Recently a group of former moderators issued a letter to the commissioners of the 221st General Assembly in response to an earlier distributed letter written by the same kinds of folks who urged the commissioners NOT to vote for divestment. You can read the contents of that letter, A Response to the Open Letter from Former Moderator John Buchanan and his Colleagues, but in the meantime I wanted to offer my own thoughts. READ: Duel over divestment prompts spate of letters and resolutions from The Outlook.

When I was moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) towards the end of my term I remember receiving thousands of emails with the subject line, Presbyterian Church USA Ready to Declare War Against Israel. This email call-to-action was enacted because the upcoming General Assembly was, again, going to tackle questions around Israel-Palestine. During my term we were debating the ordination of LGBTQ folks, same-sex marriage, the Lordship of Jesus Christ, but no other topic generated such passionate opinion and heated interactions as Israel-Palestine.

This year, our 221st General Assembly is no different.

While many lament the attention that diverted from other aspects of our work and ministry, the reality is that the energy around this decision is real, has wide-reaching implications and deserves our careful discernment. As I wade into these waters, I realize that there are some who hold opinions that are not going to change and believe that anyone who believes differently about Israel-Palestine is simply wrong, misguided and worse. I also know that the  passion with which those views are held often manifest themselves in ways that run the gamut from violence to grace. Because my views on divestment and other questions around Israel-Palestine are not as developed as others, I try to hold all the voices of affirmation and accusation in tension and with some modicum of understanding and compassion. I also try to remember that everyone is seeking to follow their conscience faithfully even if that leads them to a conclusions in polar-opposition to my own. Keywords: try and try.

Albeit with much anxiety, wrestling, trepidation and prayer, I stand in support of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s divestment from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions, three companies profiting from non-peaceful pursuits in Israel-Palestine.

At some point we do have to make some decisions, symbolic or not, because from the activity around this week’s vote on divestment [Just google “presbyterian church divestment”] at our General Assembly in Detroit, this decision will have a wide-reaching impact. I also believe that, while there is great diversity in opinion about divestment and other issues, using the lack of a unified voice to justify silence is a decision that has its own set of implications. So in this case, there is no real “no-action” as whatever is decided will have ramifications for us here and our partners in Israel-Palestine. For those of you who are not familiar with this specifics of what is going on, the body of my denomination tasked with overseeing how our funds are invested, Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI), has recommended that the Presbyterian Church (USA) divest from any companies who profit from non-peaceful pursuits in Israel-Palestine. While we already have a boycott on products produced on illegal Israeli settlements, this call to divest is the final and last resort — and one that has not come to lightly or quickly. The crux of the decision lies in the final MRTI recommendation and the following resolution:

The Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment has been seeking to engage companies profiting from non-peaceful pursuits in Israel-Palestine since the directive of the 216th General Assembly (2004) and the reaffirmations and actions of subsequent Assemblies. This process of engagement has, in the case of three companies, produced no substantive change and, in the judgment of this Assembly, is likely not to do so in the future. Under the church’s regular process of corporate engagement (approved by the 116th General Assembly of the PCUS (1976) and reaffirmed as policy after reunion), the final step is to recommend divestment from companies where engagement is not resulting in any change. Therefore, in accordance with the actions of prior Assemblies, we direct that Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions be placed on the General Assembly Divestment List until such time as they have ceased profiting from non-peaceful pursuits in Israel-Palestine, as defined by prior General Assembly actions.

Read the entire MRTI Report [PDF]. I suspect that I am not the only one who is struggling with this, so let me offer my thoughts on divestment and the Presbyterian Church (USA).

You are an anti-Semite . . . As one who works around race issues, I realize that the more claims NOT to be something, the more one probably is. So in response to the claims that anyone who supports divestment is de facto anti-Semitic and denies the right for Israel to exist, I will just say, that I hope that is not the case. I also know I must hold this response in tension with those who also say that by keeping the status quo, we are complicit in supporting Islamophobia, oppression of Palestinians and the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements into Palestine. Please know that this is the tension that has in many ways kept me out of the conversation in any significant way. In the end, we are divesting from American companies that are profiting from non-peaceful pursuits and not divesting from Israel or the Jewish people.

This is only symbolic . . . One of the arguments against divestment is that it will have little impact because it is merely symbolic. I agree with at least part of that statement. I very much agree that a divestment decision will be  symbolic and that pulling our funds away from Caterpillar and Motorola will not impact their financial bottom line. That said, it is the very symbolic nature of this decision that is EXACTLY why I hope that we approve the recommendation. If the symbolic nature of our pending decision won’t matter, why is there so much energy being spent trying to defeat or approve it? Because this symbolic decision does, in fact, matter.

But what about Zion Unsettled? . . . One of the tactics to encourage NOT supporting divestment is to pull the focus from divestment and socially responsible investing to the recent publication of a congregational curriculum by one of our mission networks, Zionism Unsettled. I have yet to read the curriculum itself, but this is NOT what is at debate at this point, the question is, ” Should we invest in companies that we determine are profiting from non-peaceful pursuits?” While certainly complicating the debate, I feel that to draw the focus to this publication as an argument against following what we, as a denomination has historically committed to about our investments, is misguided and misleading. Still, here is a good example: Chicago Presbytery’s response to Zion Unsettled [PDF] and the response from the Israel/Palestine Network.

Trust the process . . . for many years, I have been part of a denomination that would not allow openly LGBTQ people to be ordained as elders. But despite my disagreement and defeat after defeat after defeat I remained because I trust the process and despite those defeats, I trust the people called to the tasks of our committee work. As a Presbyterian and as frustrating as it may be, I believe that over the long-haul, people called together are more equipped that I, by myself, to discern the will of God. In other words, even if I disagree, I trust the process and in this case, I trust MRTI and their recommendation.

I trust my friends . . . many will be surprised to see my name attached to the above-mentioned letter, as I have not spoken out much on the topic of Israel-Palestine. Many from both “sides” of the debate have asked, inquired and challenged me to “pick a side,” but it has not been until recently that I have been compelled to do so in a more public way. But the reality is that, while I have stayed tucked away in the luxury of this middle space, my relationship and friendship with former moderators Rick Ufford-Chase and Fahed Abu-Akel as well with others who have been patient with me, have convinced me that divestment is the right decision at this point and time. Sometimes you have to be satisfied NOT knowing everything about everything and trust the people around you.

And finally, if you have not read about Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s letter to us, the Presbyterian Church (USA), he has called us to approve the divestment actions ending with this paragraph,

The overtures proposed at the General Assembly are not about delegitimizing the State of Israel, but about ending its suppression of 4,000,000 Palestinian sisters and brothers. It’s about naming an unjust system and refusing to participate in it.  The stubbornness of Israel’s leaders in wanting to hold onto and settling land that is not theirs can only lead to tragedy for both peoples.  For the sake of them both as God’s cherished, the strong witness of the two overtures is the only peaceful route left in the cause of justice and ultimate reconciliation.  My prayers today are with the members of the General Assembly and with all the peoples of the Holy Land in Israel and Palestine.

As people read and respond to this post, I am under no delusions that I this will be a space for measured interaction. As I mentioned before, I know all too well, how passionate people can be. I would love to be surprised, but please know that I will delete comments and block folks as is my right. It’s my blog, afterall. That said,  I rarely delete comments and give lots of leeway, but if I deem any comments to contain violent rhetorical, personal threats and/or vulgarity [see comments policy], I will delete and block away. Please know that my prayers are with the Assembly, the commissioners, those who will rejoice, those who will mourn and for those who are impacted by the decioins we make about this an all issues facing our church and the world. May seek, know and trust that God is moving through it all. Bruce

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