Critics of PCUSA conference say presentations were one-sided
By John H. Adams, The Layman Online, February 15, 2005
About 200 Presbyterians were in the Louisville, Ky., headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (USA) last week to hear denominational leaders solicit their support for a General Assembly resolution that has set in motion steps toward selling off PCUSA investments in companies that do business with Israel.
Denominational officials gave the stage to four Palestinians, who described oppression by the Israelis. But no Jews or Muslims spoke at the conference, which prompted at least three observers – as well as a number of participants – to raise questions about whether the PCUSA was willing to hear all sides of the argument.
One of the observers, Ron Friedman, a Jewish Christian who writes for a Christian cultural-intellectual think-tank called the Matthew’s House Project, called the meeting a “whitewash” that favored the Palestinians.
Dexter Van Zile, a United Church of Christ layman who is the Christian outreach coordinator for the David Project, a Jewish group, said, “It seems the push for divestment is basically based on the narrative offered by the Palestinians.”
Leslie Scanlon, a reporter for the Presbyterian Outlook, described the “personal and painful” stories of the five Palestinians and asked, in an editorial aside, “Can the Palestinian stories be told without telling those of Israeli Jews? What about Muslims from the region? And how can Presbyterians have fruitful conversations with American Jews if the story the Palestinian Christians tell is so powerful and so negative?”
The WorldNetDaily also raised questions about the one-sidedness of the conference, quoting one elder, Larry Rued of Florida, as describing the Palestinian panel as “full-time, paid, anti-Israel propagandists.”
“None spoke of the actions of the Palestinian Authority, which, in areas under its control, has confiscated Christian property, failed to prosecute the murderers of Palestinian Muslims who convert to Christianity, and witnessed the rise of radical Islamism that has encouraged violent attacks on Palestinian Christians, including full-scale riots that have caused a rapid increase in emigration,” Rued told the news organization.
Several participants in the conference also questioned whether the General Assembly had given careful consideration to the divestment resolution, which has alienated most Jewish organizations as well as many Presbyterians in the pews.
“It doesn’t help Christian-Jewish relations when something like this happens,” Friedman told The Layman Online. “There wasn’t any mention of Palestinian terrorists.”
Friedman said the physical dimensions of the separation wall – which the General Assembly also condemned – were exaggerated. While some sections are as tall as 30 feet, he said, others are much lower. He noted that criticism of destruction of Palestinian houses along its path doesn’t take into account that those houses were identified by Israelis as sites used for sniper attacks on Israeli citizens.
“Ultimately, they could have been more hospitable to the Jews,” Van Zile said, noting that there were “disturbing comments from the floor that seemed to feed into Jewish stereotypes” – including “assertions that the media was controlled by Jews in the United States.”
But Van Zile said he doesn’t believe Presbyterians – or even the policy – is anti-Semitic. Rather, it is unbalanced and naive, he said.
He said he was surprised by some elements of the conference, including the willingness to hold up Palestinian Christians as the ultimate authority.
“We were buffeted with the phrase Palestinian Christians on many occasions,” he said, noting that one of the confessional documents of the PCUSA, the Barmen Declaration, warns against the fusion of nationalism and Christianity.
“My reading would lead me to believe there is an obligation to subject anyone who describes themselves as Palestinian Christians to some pretty close scrutiny,” Van Zile said. “I didn’t see a lot of acknowledgement about a couple of factors. They operate in an environment that is almost entirely Muslim. The Muslim Arabs have said some pretty harsh things toward Christianity. I didn’t hear a lot about the role of Hezbollah or Hamas, about the suffering of Christians in the area.”
Furthermore, Van Zile added, the conference did not seem “to assess the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of pluralism and human rights. I find that really deeply troubling. A few weeks ago, I attended a Presbyterian event at a More Light church. I asked them, ‘What is the status of gays and lesbians in the West Bank of Gaza?’ Many of them seek asylum in Israel because Israel has a human rights movement. On the one hand, they believe in human rights, but they don’t have the validity to turn them into universal principles where they would apply to Muslim countries. Why don’t they apply them across the theological divides?”
But Van Zile said he is not discouraged. He commended a group called Presbyterians Concerned for Jewish Christian Relationships. “That group represents a huge change in the thinking of some people within the Presbyterian Church. It may be the group asks the questions to really force people to rethink their assumptions. It may be the last chance to keep the church from going off the edge.”
PCJCR is an independent Presbyterian group that sponsors an online petition that asks the General Assembly Council, which meets in March, to postpone implementation of the divestment resolution until the matter can be reconsidered at the General Assembly in 2006.
“While we believe that divestment can be a useful tool for social change, it is wrong to single out Israel as the object of a ‘divestment’ policy when other states and parties in the region are also guilty of serious human rights violations that can and must be addressed,” the resolution says.
Another online petition is sponsored by Reud, the Florida elder, and another group of Presbyterians. More than 1,000 Presbyterians have signed the petition, which calls for a special meeting of the General Assembly to overturn the divestment resolution.