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The Politics of a General Assembly, Part 3: Divestment

(The following is the third installment of my reflections from being a commissioner to the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA last week in Pittsburgh.)

III. Divestment

Most folks would never, at a session or presbytery meeting, try to block someone’s hard work from coming to the floor for a debate and vote. But something about the fact that, at a General Assembly, because people don’t know that commissioner from Michigan or Montana, and because they wont ever see him or her again, they feel authorized to behave in a crappy manner towards them in the name of some kind of righteous indignation.

We really began to feel the effects of this kind of slowdown on Thursday at the 220th Assembly, which got many hours behind schedule, to the point that arguably the most contentious issue before us, the issue of divestment, ended up taking place at the end of the day, after dinner, rather than earlier in the afternoon as had been previously scheduled.  In retrospect, perhaps someone should’ve moved it as an Order of the Day, so that we could’ve started with divestment fresh, rather than while running out of gas.

The day had started off quite unfairly, in many people’s opinion, mine included.  One of the traditions of the Assembly is to have religious leaders from around the world speak for a few minutes, bringing greetings from their communion or tradition.  The rabbi representing the American Jewish community, however, used his time to harangue the Assembly about divestment, a lecture which included repeated references to the Holocaust and loving phrases like “We take threats seriously” and “Those who will not speak, will commit unspeakable acts.”  It was inappropriate on so many levels– the presumption was breathtaking!–but it was also unfair in terms of our process.  He got to advocate his views for a considerable amount of time, unchallenged, with no opportunity for rebuttal. There was an open hearing at which the rabbi could have made his statement; instead, he abused his privilege of speaking to the body by disrespecting our process.  I feel strongly about the ordination of women, for example, but I can’t imagine that if invited to speak at a Roman Catholic gathering that I would use that time to deliver a broadside to the bishops on the subject.  One can only hope that the rabbi won’t be invited back by the Assembly and that future speakers from ecumenical or interfaith partners will be cautioned against taking such liberties. (Not surprisingly, all of the Arab Christian leaders invited to speak at the Assembly, either by the GA itself or by affinity groups, were denied visas to enter the country.  Coincidence?)

When the Committee on Middle East Peace finally made its motion to divest–you guessed it– a substitute motion was made, not divest but rather to invest in the Occupied West Bank.  This was a masterstroke of polity, but a completely ridiculous proposal of policy.  Presbyterians suffer from congenital niceness, which is the main reason that it had taken us eight years even to get to the point where we could make the least confrontational action possible on the issue, selling our own stocks and bonds.  But because the Jewish establishment was throwing around charges of antisemitism, and because they were threatening that Jews would wake up in the morning, read the New York Times, and think Presbyterians hated them (I had this said to myself), anything that could get them out of this and back to their hotel rooms as quickly as possible while feeling like they were doing something good, would be grasped at immediately.  Yes! Let’s write a check–the next best thing to having another study!

Presbyterians, we learned at this Assembly, have an average per capita household income of more than $76000, which the last time I checked, made us the wealthiest denomination in the country.  But money makes people both believe and do stupid things, and this Assembly fell into both of those traps.  As the staff person for the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, the Rev. Dr. Chris Iosso told the Assembly, investment in Palestine is an extremely tenuous thing.  It costs 30-40% more than the same investment made elsewhere, in large measure because the Palestinians have no control over roads, borders, land, water or much else, so there is no way to know, if you did invest. how to construct a business plan. Iosso said that much of what is called “investment” in the West Bank, is really just humanitarian aid, i.e., charity, rather than anything entrepreneurial.  No matter.  This was not about facts or good sense.  The idea that we could write a check and salve our consciences has a long and proud history in our denomination, and this was being presented as the concept’s finest hour.

I rose to speak out about this immediately, but since there were eight mics on the floor of the Assembly, I had to wait.  While waiting, I heard some pretty bad arguments, including the one by the lifelong Caterpillar employee wearing his uniform, no less, who started crying describing all the good things Caterpillar had equipment had done over the years–as if this was what was being argued, as if a multinational behemoth like Caterpillar cared two cents what the PCUSA thinks of it.  I didn’t have any time to dwell on the absurdity of this however, because I was recognized next by the moderator for two minutes to speak against replacing the main motion (to divest from Caterpillar, HP and Motorola Solutions) with the substitute motion (to invest in the West Bank).  You can listen to what I said here (about 1 hr 31 mins in).

Like the Caterpillar man, I cried too, unabashedly, after the vote was taken (331-333-2), not for a Fortune 500 corporation, but for the millions of Palestinians who had just been subjected to another beat down. This time by a church which ought to have known better, and who thought they were doing them a favor.  I am a child of the church; my grandfather was and my father is a pastor; my wife is a pastor.  I’ve been ordained more than a quarter of a century, so I’ve seen some church business meetings in my life.  But I have never been sadder, angrier, or more embarrassed by a church action than I was last Thursday night.  What I said got quoted in the New York Times, which will be nice to show my grandson one day when I try to teach him about standing for justice.  But I would’ve rather had a win for the Palestinians.

I still believe that divestment is coming, and soon.  It’s going to happen.  If the assembly would have been on track and the matter had been addressed when it was scheduled on the agenda six hours earlier, and people would’ve been less tired, it would’ve passed.  One woman stood up the next morning and said she hit 1 on her keypad when she meant 2, which alone would’ve tied the vote at 332.  When the Assembly had a night’s sleep, they voted overwhelmingly to boycott products from Israeli firms in the West Bank, a more drastic measure than divestment and something we didn’t even think possible.  More debate, less parliamentary shenanigans, in my opinion would’ve clinched it.  It’s coming, though.  When people hear the facts, they vote overwhelmingly for divestment.  The committee that listened to three days of testimony voted by an overwhelming margin of 36-11 in favor of divestment.  They did this, in large part, because they heard from more than twenty American and Israeli Jews who spoke in favor of divestment out of their deep love for Israel and their desire for its safety and security.  The anti-divestment side had equal time to make their case and just got no traction with the people who heard the whole thing. Presbyterians make decisions over long periods of time, after lots of study and reflection.  We studied this eight years, and the people who got to learn the most about the study were completely unfazed by the anti-divestment testimony, including all of the threats from certain quarters of American Judaism that we could no longer be their friends if we divested from Israel.  The MRTI committee did its work in exhaustive fashion and the GA Committee on Middle East Peace overwhelmingly affirmed their findings.  At the plenary debate you could hear the people who had no understanding whatsoever of the process other than the lobbying they had received, again, mostly from the American Jewish establishment telling them to vote no or else.  But as time passes, I am hopeful that more and more people in our denomination will take the time to study the issue (we LOVE to study!) and will realize that we have to stand up rather than sit back passively (aka writing checks) while the same thing recurs decade after decade.  We couldn’t have come this close to divestment eight years ago when it was raised.  We have come a long way.  Next time, it’s over the top.

(2) Comments

  1. You said: “The day had started off quite unfairly, in many people’s opinion, mine included. One of the traditions of the Assembly is to have religious leaders from around the world speak for a few minutes, bringing greetings from their communion or tradition. The rabbi representing the American Jewish community, however, used his time to harangue the Assembly about divestment, a lecture which included repeated references to the Holocaust and loving phrases like “We take threats seriously” and “Those who will not speak, will commit unspeakable acts.”

    While I agree this is unusual, but then who setup the docket ?? Bills and Overtures Committee? Stated Clerk ?? Moderator ??

    I would think that whomever scheduled the Rabbi to speak before the Middle East Committee should have given it some thought, but again, it may have been the luck of the draw.

    It is not the policy of the Assembly to ask that the speeches of the ecumenical delegates or guests be vetted prior to speaking. This has often caused some red faces, witness the speech of the Orthodox Priest to the 219th GA.

    That said, what about the ‘sermon’ given just before the debate/votes on the Same Sex Marriage overtures ??

    I’m not sure that you could claim that there was no idea of what the sermon was to be about, when the person asked to preach the morning before those debates, is an openly gay person.

    Those who were viewing the GA via streaming video may have also thought “The day had started off quite unfairly, in many people’s opinion.”

  2. If Mr. Simpson feels that the rabbi and his remarks about divestment were unfair, I wonder if he would concede that even though he might have been substantively for changing the language in the Directory of Worship about marriage, having E.P. Tony De La Rosa speak not long before the debate on marriage was, procedurally, also problematic. Winfield Jones

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