PCUSA is not BDS and is pro-Israel!

The Presbyterian Church USA has been accused of being influenced by and aligning with the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement and of taking action that is anti-Israel and pro-Palestine. This is simply not true. Most commissioners that I talked to had never heard of BDS. None that I talked to had read “Zionism Unsettled” and found verbal summaries of it to be disgusting. The PCUSA has long been a supporter of Israel and will continue to be. I am deeply sorry the action has been misunderstood, misinterpreted and has caused pain for our Jewish friends. Speaking for the vast majority of Presbyterians at the General Assembly, I can clearly say there was no malice intended. We too seek peace, justice and reconciliation.

This is a summary of what the General Assembly 2014 actually did (for more detail read: PCUSA Divestment):

The 2014 PCUSA General Assembly APPROVED a resolution saying that the radical study guide “Zionism Unsettled” did not represent the views of the PCUSA. It was written and published by a radical fringe group within the denomination. Most all religious groups – including Jews and Muslims – have radical fringe groups whose views different widely from the majority.

We APPROVED a resolution that acknowledged and confessed our own complicity in both the historic and current suffering of Israeli and Palestinian yearning for justice and reconciliation.

We REAFFIRMED Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation.

We DECLARED our commitment to a negotiated two-state solution (two states for two peoples) in which a secure and universally recognized State of Israel lives alongside a free, viable, and secure state for the Palestinian people.

We voted to REJECT any proposed DIVESTMENT and economic SANCTIONS against the state of Israel.

In accord with our church’s decades-long socially responsible investment (SRI) history, we did vote to sell off our stock in three AMERICAN companies until we are fully satisfied that product sales and services by these companies are no longer in conflict with our church investment policy.

To be clear, we amended this action to add: “This action on divestment does not mean an alignment with the overall strategy is not to be construed or represented by any organization of the PC(USA) as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.”

We voted to encourage Presbyterians to travel to the Holy Land.

We strongly affirmed the General Assembly (2014) does NOT endorse BOYCOTTS of Israeli or Palestinian products.

And we agreed to urge all church institutions to give consideration to INVESTMENT in Israel-Palestine that advance peace.

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PCUSA Divestment

I am certain most of you have seen something in the news about the divestment issue before the General Assembly. Most of the headlines that I have seen suggest that the Presbyterian Church has divested “from Israel” and has joined the BDS movement, which stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Frankly, I do not know much about the BDS movement, but I have been told by my Jewish friends that it is a secular organization whose goal is the destruction of the modern state of Israel through economic means.

For the sake of truth and peace and the Gospel, it is terribly important that people read and understand that the PCUSA has emphatically NOT joined the BDS movement and has consistently affirmed the existence of Israel and its right to defend itself – a stance which was repeatedly reaffirmed this week. You might not like the action, but read it and please understand it first!

Anyone who is vaguely knowledgeable about the politics in the region knows that the Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza are ONE impediment to peace. All Jews I have talked to acknowledge this. The Assembly voted to divest church funds from three companies whose products are used by the State of Israel in destructive and violent activities on the West Bank and in Gaza. (We have voted in the past to divest from alcohol, tobacco, firearms and gambling companies, and, as part of our global warning concerns, we are also considering divesting from companies whose main product is fossil fuels.)

(The exact action of the Assembly is at the bottom of this post.)

We are selling stock in 3 American (not Israeli) companies, who have allegedly not been responsive.

We did NOT “divest from Israel.”

We actually voted to call for more INVESTMENT in Israel.

We do NOT support sanctions against Israel.

We support the “two state” solution, affirmed by many.

We do NOT support a boycott of Israeli products.

We do NOT seek to harm Israel.

We do NOT expect our small divestment to affect HP, Caterpillar and Motorola Solutions adversely.

We affirmed Israel’s existence as a sovereign Jewish nation.

We did NOT “choose” the Palestinians.

We elected NOT to continue to profit from violence and destruction.

The media is, of course, having a “field day” with this, and unfortunately religious leaders – Jewish, Christian AND Palestinian – are twisting this action to fit their own agendas. Most of us knew this would happen. The church, of course, must do what it believes to be right and true and good – even if that decision results in harsh criticism. We have known persecution before in our history!

For those for whom this action is offensive, please know, first, the vote was close 51% to 49%. The vote passed by 7 votes – the same margin by which it failed last time. I am sure it will come up again in two years for reconsideration. It ain’t over till it’s over.

Presbyterians believe in the “freedom of conscience.” Reasonable minds will disagree. A decision – any decision – was going to anger or disappoint half of the church. Jesus didn’t say blessed are those who talk about peace. He said blessed are the peace-MAKERS.

 Below is the exact wording of the action that passed.

Please read the ENTIRE action of the General Assembly!!!

The PC(USA) has a long standing commitment to peace in Israel and Palestine. We recognize the complexity of the issues, the decades-long struggle, the pain suffered and inflicted by policies and practices of both the Israeli government and Palestinian entities. We further acknowledge and confess our own complicity in both the historic and current suffering of Israeli and Palestinian yearning for justice and reconciliation, the 221st General Assembly (2014) recommends the following:

     “1. Reaffirm Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders in accordance with the United Nations resolutions.

     2.   Declare its commitment to a negotiated two-state solution (two states for two peoples) in which a secure and universally recognized State of Israel lives alongside a free, viable, and secure state for the Palestinian people.

      3.     Reject any proposed divestment and economic sanctions against the state of Israel or any application of the PC(USA)’s corporate engagement policies toward such ends. Instruct the Presbyterian Foundation and the Board of Pensions of the PC(U.S.A.), to divest from Caterpillar, Inc., Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions, in accord with our church’s decades-long socially responsible investment (SRI) history, and not to reinvest in these companies until the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee of the PC(USA) is fully satisfied that product sales and services by these companies are no longer in conflict with our church investment policy. This action on divestment does not mean an alignment with the overall strategy is not to be construed or represented by any organization of the PC(USA) as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement.

    4. Reaffirm PC(USA)’s commitment to interfaith dialog and partnerships with the American Jewish, Muslim friends and Palestinian Christians and call for all presbyteries and congregations within the PC(USA) to include interfaith dialogue and relationship-building as part of their own engagement in working for a just peace.

     5.   Call for all foreign aid given by the U.S. government—including aid to Israel and the Palestinian Authority—to be comprehensively and transparently accounted to the American people and held to the same standards of compliance with all applicable laws.

     6.   Call for church advocacy for foreign-aid accountability to be directed toward its universal adherence rather than targeted for selective application to some recipients and not others.

     7.    Encourage Presbyterians to travel to the Holy Land, and give broad support to the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities throughout the Middle East.

     8.    Affirm the importance of economic measures and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians that support and advance a negotiated two-state solution. To that end, the 221st General Assembly (2014) does not endorse boycotts of Israeli or Palestinian products.

     9.    Urge all church institutions to give careful consideration to possible investments in Israel-Palestine that advance peace and improve the lives of Palestinians and Israelis.”

Same Sex Marriage

Here is a draft of a note that I wrote for my colleagues in the Denver Presbytery:

June 19, 2014

Dear Brothers and Sisters of the Presbytery of Denver,

We, your Commissioners, write to inform you of the actions that the General Assembly took today. Although you may have read something, you know how complicated these things are within our polity.

The GA did approve an Authoritative Interpretation which – in essence – permits teaching elders to perform same-sex marriages in states where it is allowed. (It is still not legal in Colorado.) This action, assuming it is not brought up again for reconsideration at this Assembly, will take effect on Saturday.

The actual AI reads in part:

“Worship is a central element of the pastoral care of the people of God (W-6.3001, W-6.3010) in which a teaching elder’s discernment of the leading of the Holy Spirit is indispensable. The necessity of ensuring the exercise of freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture (G-2.0105) in the planning and leadership of worship has deep roots in our Reformed tradition and theology. Because a service of marriage is one form of such worship, when a couple requests the involvement of the church in solemnizing their marriage as permitted by the laws of the place where the couple seek to be married, teaching elders have the pastoral responsibility to assess the capabilities, intentions, and readiness of the couple to be married (W-4.9002), and the freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture (G-2.0105) to participate in any such marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform. Exercising such discretion and freedom of conscience under the prayerful guidance of Scripture, teaching elders may conduct a marriage service for any such couple in the place where the community gathers for worship, if approved by the session; or in such other place as may be suitable for a service of Christian worship. In no case shall any teaching elder’s conscience be bound to conduct any marriage service for any couple except by his or her understanding of the Word, and the leading of the Holy Spirit …”

Several amendments related to this AI were also passed.

Please note: the AI seeks to preserve the “freedom of the conscience” and does not imposed same-sex marriage upon any church or pastor who does not concur with this action. This was very important to the Assembly and great care was exercised to insure that pastors and churches have discretion.

The other crucial element that was passed by the General Assembly was a redefinition of marriage, largely, striking “between a man and a woman” and inserting the words “two people.” Because this action calls for a change in the Book of Order, this action will be sent to the presbyteries for concurrence and will require a 2/3 vote. Only God knows whether or not this action will pass and be added to the Book of Order, but your commissioners are skeptical that this change will make its way into the BO.

The GA was completely respectful of those who might be adversely affected by this action. There was no expression of jubilation. It was a holy moment. Collectively, we did not celebrate or mourn. Many expressions of unity and respect were offered throughout the proceedings.

In conclusion, we sang:

God of grace and God of glory,

On Thy people pour Thy power.

Crown Thine ancient church’s story,

Bring her bud to glorious flower.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,

For the facing of this hour,

For the facing of this hour

 

May it be so.

 

From Detroit Abounding in Hope,

John Bell

Jean Demmler

Sarah Savage

Loye Troxler

Caleb Chincoya, Youth Advisory Delegate

The Excitement Begins at GA 2014!

The commissioners have been working very hard. I just walked into my hotel room and it’s 10:30 pm. My room service dinner is on the way! (The “official” commissioners dinner was cut short tonight, and I missed it due to some politicking.) So again, I am just going to report the facts – with an interruption for dinner! 

The first important business: how about that USA win in the World Cup? Wow!

On Sunday most commissioners went to local churches. I sat in my room most of the morning waiting for a call from a fellow commissioner who wanted me to sign a commissioners resolution regarding a day of conversation and prayer with Jewish, Muslim and Christian (both Israeli and Palestinian) leaders. I met her at the tracking booth, filled out the paper work and signed my name. The resolution eventually passed the Middle East Committee and was adopted by the General Assembly. Yippie!

Sunday afternoon was filled with reports that were mandated from the last assembly. Good stuff, but most of the reports were READ by monotone speakers. (A resolution to condemn drones is coming later in the week. Get it?) Most commissioners were bored.

Committee meetings started Sunday night and ran through Tuesday night. This is when the assembly seems to have gone silent. Nothing really happens until committee reports start coming in late on Tuesday. On Tuesday we found out that the “hot button” issues were approved in committee and will be coming to the floor of the General Assembly. We WILL vote on same-gender marriage – sort of, and we will be asked to vote on a resolution to divest from companies whose products are used by the Israelis on the West Bank and Gaza. Lost is those media-friendly stories and a thousand great things the church is doing.

My committee was Committee 13 – Theological Issues and Institutions. While our work was not very trying or very hard, it was tedious and we did some great things! We approved the new President of Princeton Theological Seminary, Craig Barnes. We gave theological education awards to Jack Rogers and Cynthia Campbell. Our committee approved the Belhar Confession, which we will send to the floor for full approval. And we approved the study of a new, lighter, more friendly Directory of Worship. I had the honor of being the first one to raise my hand to approve the Belhar Confession, so I made the actual motion. Historic!

[Our committee report was the first one, and I am pleased to say that all of our recommendations were accepted.]

Moderator Heath Rada (nic-named “Moder-ada) and his vice Larrissa, who’s last name I need to remember, are doing a great job!

Oh, I almost forgot, but worship on Monday, led by Lillian Daniels, exceeded my expectations. She is the author of the book and blog Spiritual but Not Religious. She said a lot of things that are true of our age and helpful. I will try to find a copy of her remarks.

Dinner is here ……. good night from Detroit! (Red Wings still suck!)

John

 

Long Day at GA!

Wow. It’s 11:30 pm as i sit to write. I just got back to my room. This will not be a long post!

My alarm went off at 5:30 am Detroit time, which is 3:30 am Denver time, and we only had breaks for meals. No nap! I am tired.

I rose early so I could get a good seat at the Middle East Peace Fellowship breakfast. I was not disappointed. I would love to write more about it, but there were three articulate speakers – a Palestinian, a Jew and a noted journalist (Gustav Niebuhr) – all spoke about a two-state solution and begged commissioners to vote against divestment proposals. 

This was followed by what were essentially caucuses. Several rooms were set up for commissioners to come, listen, and talk.

Opening worship was at 11:00, and it was powerful as you might imagine. A bagpipe troop began it by playing “Scotland the Brave.” The highlight for me was a young black man from Detroit who rapped a song, perfectly spiritual song. Congregational singing at GA is always moving, because you have several thousand voices singing as if they all meant it – passionately and with volume!

The afternoon was mostly administrative stuff and PR moments from the Office of the General Assembly. We clapped a lot. The show stealer, however, was a take-off/spoof of Les Miserables starring GA heavy-weights. Watch it: GA LES MIS SPOOF.

To make a long story short, the late afternoon and evening meetings were dominating with IT problems. Voting method A – internet voting – failed. Then, the “old” clickers malfunctioned. So the moderator was elected by a paper ballot! It was crazy! It tried the patience of all of our souls, but I saw no one leave. We hung in there until the bitter end, which came just after 11:00.

By the way, Heath Rada, of Montreat, NC, won the election in a landslide. He is a ruling elder and ran against two teaching elders. To be honest, any of them would have been fine. They basically all said the same thing, which is why – I guess – Rada won. You do expect a bit more out of the clergy. Since it was a verbal/theological tie, I voted for the ruling elder, as did the large majority.

ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.

 

PCUSA General Assembly 2014

I was elected by the Presbytery of Denver to be a commissioner to General Assembly this year. I will leave soon for Detroit with three other commissioners from Denver and spend slightly over a week in meetings, deliberating and voting on various matters before us. It’s a complicated affair. The subtleties are generally lost on journalists who often report stories erroneously.

According to the PCUSA website:

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) meets biennially in even-numbered years. It consists of commissioners elected by each of its 173 presbyteries. The GA is full of activities: business sessions, committee meetings, an exhibit hall, daily worship services, and mission tours sponsored by the  Committee on Local Arrangements. 

The assembly acts on hundreds of items of business, which it receives through the reports and recommendations of various assembly entities, and through overtures from synods and presbyteries.

First, let’s talk about commissioners.

Commissioners are elected by Presbyteries. Denver has four commissioners. Two are ordained clergy or “teaching elders,” and two are “ruling elders” or lay people ordained to largely administrate the local congregation and the larger church, if called upon. It is imperative that there are at least as many ruling elders as teaching elders. This means – in theory – the clergy can always be out-voted by lay leadership. For a denomination that draws it roots from the 16th century Protestant Reformation, this in important.

In reality, clergy are generally (There are exceptions!) more prepared, more equipped and more confident and dominate the proceedings. Furthermore, since it is a rare honor for individual clergy to be elected, denominational bureaucrats and executives of “middle governing bodies” (presbyteries and synods) have a great deal of influence over the proceedings. Most “regular” congregation-based clergy like me are only sent to General Assembly once or twice in a career and some never. I am not suggesting that this is a bad thing; however, it is the way it is. The levels of knowledge, participation and influence vary greatly.

Importantly, Presbyterians believe in “freedom of the conscience.”  This means that Presbyterians do not have to believe or buy into everything that General Assembly does or declares. There will be a number of votes that do not go my way. I will find myself in the minority on a number of issues. This does not mean as a Presbyterian clergyman I must change my mind or reverse course or stick narrowly to the party line; rather, when I lose a vote, it simply means that I do not share the “common wisdom” of the majority. It’s humbling to lose a vote, but with our form of government it’s going to happen and it’s not the end of the world!

The Presbyterian system of government is very much like that of the United States, because the United States largely plagiarized us! Everything I love and hate about the American system of government are the very things I cherish and despise about the General Assembly. There is one very important difference, however. Unlike representatives, who are elected by the people to represent their interests in Congress, commissioners are not elected to represent their presbyteries’ interest. They are elected and commissioned to seek and do the will of God. This means that presbyteries, nor sessions, nor denominational executives, cannot instruct or dictate to a particular commissioner how to vote on a certain issue. Each commissioner is expected to be educated on the issues, study, engage in the debate, listen, pray, seek Heavenly guidance, and vote his or her conscience.

The “hot button” issues this year promise to be same sex marriage, divestment from companies that engage in destructive behavior on the West Bank, a proposed thinning or elimination of synods (It’s complicated!), a new creed (Belhar), and a new directory of worship. I am sure other issues will emerge that will require great debate and acrimony.

Maya Angelou

Last week, my daughter, Megan, received a great thrill. A close friend from Wake Forest, called her up and asked her to be his “plus one” at a memorial service for Maya Angelou. Most Americans know something of Maya Angelou, author of Why The Caged Bird Sings and writer & reader of an majestic poem at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration (“On the Pulse of the Morning”). But few seemed to know that she had been a full, active professor at Wake Forest University for 32 years and a visiting professor as far back as 1973, according to one source. Megan and, her friend, Joe, both graduated from Wake Forest in 2008. Joe had been one of Dr. Angelou’s favorite students and personally wrote his recommendation to medical school.

Joe lives in New York, Megan lives in D.C., and the memorial service was at Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Rehearsal was at 7:00 pm on Friday night, the service was at 10:00 am on Saturday morning. Joe met her in Washington, they drove down to Winston-Salem together on Friday. They were back in D.C. in time for dinner on Saturday night. It was a whirlwind trip, but the whirlwind of emotions were even more powerful – for her and for me.

The two-hour event was part-church-memorial-service, part-music-show, part-roast, part-literary-tribute. I watched the live broadcast on OWN – the Oprah Winfrey Network. Numerous people spoke – relatives of Dr. Angelou, Andrew Young, Bill Clinton, Cicely Tyson, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, beloved Wake Forest Provost Ed Wilson to name a few of the notables. Musically, numerous African-American gospel singers belted out old “Negro Spirituals.” The Winan brothers reigned supreme. Lee Ann Womack, the token Southern country singer, sang her hit, “I Hope You Dance.”

In my humble opinion, Dr. Serenus Churn, pastor of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, arguably the least credentialed person on the podium, stole the show. When his turn came near the end of the service, he nailed it! (#proudtobeapastor)

However, ALL speakers were articulate and poignant. I cried through most of it. Bill Clinton pointed out that Dr. Angelou was mute in her early years before God gave her a voice – “And what a voice it was!” He then said God called her home at this time because God wanted his voice back. Nice. Oprah wept. Michelle tried to speak “for everyone” but it was clear she spoke primarily to Angelou’s influence over strong black women.

Dr. Maya Angelou was a talented, spirited, gifted person who accomplished a ridiculous number of things in her lifetime. I cannot claim to be an authority of her written work, but I have read many of her published words. Her main message that comes through to me is the awesome power of humanity, endowed within us by a mysterious Creator. She speaks of the power of humanity to overcome, to rise, to triumph, to be victorious, to be the true self – your self – unashamed, unabashed and ferocious. It is a message of unrelenting, unrepentant, unyielding resilience – the same theme Jill Abramson, the former editor of the New York Times, chose to speak about at Wake Forest commencement last month days after she was fired from her dream job.

Listen to Dr. Angelou read a great poem: Still I Rise.

When life knocks you down, do yourself a favor and pick up something written by the immortal Dr. Maya Angelou.