The 221st General Assembly of the PCUSA is meeting this week in Detroit. There are many important and fascinating topics they will discuss, debate, and vote on. Among them is Divestment, or whether or not the denomination should divest from American companies that create products used in the Palestinian territories to demolish homes, enforce segregation, and protect land that Jewish settlers have taken illegally from Palestinians.
As a Presbyterian pastor who has written a book on the subject of Israel and Palestine– as a pilgrim — I have spent many hours reading and praying about the Land of the Holy One. A week ago I wrote a blogpost that the Christian Century posted, which looked at the situation from the point of view of a pilgrim. (I say, essentially, that the land itself is a unique witness to the faith, and therefore a gospel, the “Fifth Gospel” as Jerome called it.)
But I’ll also admit: I was trying to write something authentic while sidestepping the politics of the issue. The reason for my hesitancy (which some might call caution, others cowardice) is that I understand the arguments both for and against the push to divest. It is not a simple or straightforward subject. I told myself I wasn’t qualified to offer an opinion. I’m a pilgrim, not a politician.
But I have been reading about this subject for a decade. The Presbyterians were one of the first denominations to hear the call of the Palestinian Christians and respond. I understand the passion behind the movement to divest. It says, essentially: If you won’t listen to me, perhaps you’ll listen to my money. This is an economic approach to justice, which certainly has a long history and many successes to its credit. (Think South Africa.)
At the same time I hear the concerns of those who fear that divestment will hamper interfaith dialogue. They say it creates discord between Presbyterian and Jewish leaders. Some say with tremendous passion that previous denominational activity has already created an intolerable level of discord. We must stop now if we want to salvage our interfaith relationships.
So why go out on a limb? Do we want to be known as a bunch of liberal out-of-touch Christians? Do we want to risk giving the world a reason to throw the name anti-Semitic at us?
Is it even worth the pain and agony? Let’s be real: Our denomination is only 1.8 million members, not exactly earth-shaking in its reach. Will our vote even matter? It will if other denominations follow suit.
Complicating the debate is the word “apartheid.” This has come into play more widely since it was used in “Zionism Unsettled” (published by the Israel Palestine Mission Network), a document that I don’t endorse. I have reservations. But I hear some important messages. The word “apartheid” was applied because Palestinians are not given the same rights as Israelis. Instead Palestinians live in a sort of limbo-land without citizenship, without access to employment, their movement severely restricted, in intolerable living conditions, and without adequate water supplies.
I’ve thought a lot about whether we should apply the word “apartheid” to Israel. I believe in the power of words and don’t want to be loose. The word “apartheid” is so deeply painful! But I have come to believe it is also accurate. And it is not a new word to be applied to this situation. President Jimmy Carter used “apartheid” powerfully in his 2007 book, and it has only become a greater reality since then. Recently Archbishop Desmond Tutu urged Presbyterians to divest, saying economic pressure is the way to end apartheid.
“Apartheid” is a galvanizing word. It begs that justice be done. As Christians, justice and mercy are two of our key values. We are called to discipleship by Jesus Christ. Our discipleship defines us as a community of faith. How can we live out our discipleship if we turn our back on these imperatives? We must call upon our moral courage.
Perhaps you disagree. If you believe the word “apartheid” is the wrong word, then history will prove it so. And if you’re one of the leaders concerned about interfaith dialogue, I sincerely hope that any increased friction will provide opportunity for your creative (though painful) dialogue with Jewish partners. Also let it be stated: Not all Jews are against divestment. Many Jews are deeply pained by the actions of Israel.
As I stated earlier, I am a pilgrim, not a politician. But I am also a disciple and a pastor. One thing I know for sure is this: as the month and years go by without a movement toward justice, the options become fewer. This is because movement away from justice and mercy will always constrict. But movement towards justice and mercy will branch out like streams of living water.
Presbyterians believe that the Spirit operates in groups. I trust it is operating even now, in Detroit. I continue to hold the commissioners in prayer.