The 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is beginning and I am taking part as an observer. One of the more contentious issues facing the assembly is whether to accept the advice of the Mission Responsibility Through Investment process which over the past decade has come to the conclusion that it is necessary for us to divest from three American corporations (HP, Motorola Solutions, and Caterpillar) which are benefiting from Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
As always when the assembly grapples with controversial subjects there are people wondering why we can’t all just get along. From seminary faculties calling for “mutual forbearance“, to friends and colleagues fretting that the assembly might do something which “further divides the church”, to a bevy of big-steeple pastors sending out an open-letter paternalistically proclaiming their intent to “change the tone of the debate” – such appeals are at best a well-intentioned exercise in missing the point. At worst, they are attempts to intentionally derail the business of the assembly by making us all fret about civility instead of injustice.
Here I want to respond to that open-letter opposing a boycott-divestment-sanctions strategy in relation to Israel-Palestine.
It goes without saying that in any debate we should adhere to the golden rule and treat our interlocutor as we wish to be treated, but our concern for civility rises to the level of an obscenity when it obstructs concrete action on real injustice. People are dying in Palestine right now. It is appropriate for our debate to take on a bit of urgency as we attempt to settle how we must respond.
Furthermore, it is hard not to read such concern for civility as disingenuous when just two paragraphs after the authors declare themselves “deeply disturbed by the escalating conflict within the PC(USA) over the church’s policies toward Israel/Palestine” they proceed to indulge themselves in a flagrant attempt at condemnation by association, casting aspersion on a host of overtures coming before the assembly because the white supremacist David Duke read a study guide (which is in no way connected to the overtures, incidentally) and made some unsolicited public comments about it. Is this their idea of elevating the debate? Comparing their opponents to the KKK?
The rest of the letter is no better. It is a string of straw men and red herrings which I will address in future blog posts. It is capped off with some pious platitudes and it utterly lacks anything resembling a concrete suggestion for nonviolent peacemaking in relation to Israel-Palestine.
In fact, what they explicitly request is that the assembly does nothing; reject all the overtures related to boycott, divestment, or sanctions; avoid any condemnation of the illegal occupation or the system of laws which discriminate against Palestinians which Desmond Tutu has labelled, according to the 2002 Rome Statute of international law, as apartheid; and certainly don’t advocate any other possible political solutions than the one which we have been continuously advocating to no effect since 1967. In other words, they don’t want the PC(USA) to do anything of substance, anything which has any teeth.
And that is precisely why divestment is generating so much controversy in our denomination and its proponents are being called uncivil, and anti-semitic, and worse: because divestment is the first meaningful nonviolent resistance to Israel’s occupation of Palestine that we have contemplated. We are in danger of actually doing something of real importance here. Hold on to your hats.
Jeremiah once called bullshit on some false-prophets who wanted everyone to keep pretending everything was just fine and go about their business as usual. “Peace, peace” they said, but there was no peace. There is no peace in Palestine and we cannot continue with business as usual. Business as usual in this case means more homes demolished, more refugees, more death, more walls, more checkpoints, more illegal settlements, more resource theft, more human rights violations…
Go ahead and call me uncivil. It’s time for some justice.