People say that denominational decisions are like law and sausage. If you love them, you don’t want to see them getting made. But I love the way we Presbyterians govern ourselves. I geek out over our historic principles. Have you heard these beautiful, high-minded words from 1788?
~ God alone is Lord of the conscience
~ Truth is in order to goodness
~ It is our duty to exercise mutual forbearance
When the General Assembly met this June, in Detroit, it was the 221st time that the Presbyterian Church has assembled to figure out how to be the church together. We assemble because we believe that the Spirit moves in an unique way among groups of people who seek the Spirit’s guidance. We don’t allow absentia voting. If you’re not in the room to feel the Spirit, you’re not part of the process.
Sometimes I wonder what John Witherspoon would think if he knew that thousands of people watched the meeting via live stream, all over the country. Could anyone at the first meeting of the General Assembly in Philadelphia in 1789 have envisioned such a thing? Times change. (The electronic voting is different today than it was in 1997 when I was a commissioner to the 209th in Syracuse.)
But in other senses, the Presbyterian process hasn’t changed all that much in two centuries. The process is still an orderly one: motions, minority reports and amendments, all with the goal of “perfecting” a motion which then goes to a vote. Underneath the order there is ardor. That’s a quip you’ll hear repeated, because it’s true. Each commissioner cares deeply about our church. Otherwise would they spend a week in a convention center in Detroit, clicking on voting gizmos? The stockpiles of Legos and Twizzlers on their tables don’t offset the grueling schedule these folks endure. Yet they know it’s an honor to be there, and to be entrusted with a vote.
I watched (via live stream) the discussion about whether or not to divest from three American companies whose products are used to support the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, particularly in illegal Jewish settlements. Commissioners stated passionate convictions. Others stated equally passionate, but perhaps opposite, convictions. Each person got their one minute. Watching the process moved me. Part of me thinks that this is what the Kingdom of God looks like, a parade of people using their brains and hearts and paddles and pens — and even their commas — to get it right for the church they love.
The vote itself was mesmerizing. When the graphic popped up on the screen, it was apparent that the motion had passed by a razor thin margin (310-303). There was a moment of shock and disbelief. And then the people stood to sing a hymn about peace.
I wasn’t a commissioner, so I didn’t cast a vote. I can’t say what swayed the individuals who voted. But I can say what swayed me:
~ Presbyterians believe that money is a moral matter. We do not invest funds in corporations involved in weapons, alcohol, tobacco, or gaming. We have begun discussions about how to divest from fossil fuels. We talk about money as a moral matter because Jesus talked about money. A lot. Ever so much more than he talked about sex.
~ It’s not disputed that the products of these three companies are used in an oppressive occupation, or as was repeatedly said, “for non-peaceful purposes.” We heard the voice of Palestinian Christians and want to be a witness to their pain and suffering, and to stand beside them.
~ The committee members charged with Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) said that all attempts to dialogue with the three companies in the past years have failed completely.
~ A commissioner from South Africa (Andries Coetzee) thanked the body for divesting from his country in the early 1980s. He said: “When you divested from apartheid in South Africa you invested in my humanity.” That was powerful testimony.
~ Rabbi Rick Jacobs said that he could arrange an audience with President Benjamin Netanyahu if we voted down divestment. I believe that invitation backfired. In fact, the plus/minus margin (4 votes) may have evaporated right there.
I’m a pastor and I care about interfaith relationships. When I went on a pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine, it was so personally transformative that I wrote a book about it. I wondered if my pilgrim experiences would be helpful to others.
When I met with Bill Eerdmans, Jr., who agreed to publish the book, he commented, in his dry way: “Remember — Christians don’t like to read about the Holy Land. They only like to argue about it.”
We’ve certainly been doing our share of arguing. Others are watching and have joined the fray. It’s a mess. Still, I’m trusting the process and praying for the church. Join me?
Shalom, Salaam, Peace!
My Open Letter to the PCUSA (posted before the meeting) is here. It begins: Why are Presbyterians fixated on Israel?