Reflections on the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church(U.S.A.), the church’s national governing body, gathered in biennial meeting in Detroit in mid-June. The Assembly heard reports from the church’s national and international program and mission agencies, elected a new Moderator, Elder Heath Rada from North Carolina, to preside over the week long meeting and represent the church to its members and partners for the next two years. The General Assembly took on some particularly difficult and controversial issues. The first had to do with sexual orientation, an issue Presbyterians have been studying, discussing and arguing about for 36 years.

Just two years ago the Assembly approved the ordination of LGBT persons to the offices of minister, Elder and Deacon, subject to each congregation and Presbytery’s vote. That action precipitated the exodus of several hundred of the denomination’s 11,000 congregations to more conservative and restrictive denominations. This year’s Assembly voted to allow Presbyterian clergy to preside at same-sex weddings in states where same-sex marriage is legal. In addition the Assembly approved an amendment to the church’s constitution that would change the definition of marriage from “between a man and a woman” to “between two persons, traditionally a man and a woman.” For the next two years the church’s 173 local Presbyteries will debate and vote on the change.

That is a huge step in the long struggle for full equality for the Gay and Lesbian community in the church and society. The changes were approved by substantial pluralities, reflecting both the way minds have changed and are changed, but also the absence of many normally conservative voters at the Assembly.

The other issue that dominated the General Assembly, the church’s 221st, and received national and international press attention was the Middle East and the ongoing tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  By the narrowest of margins the Assembly voted to divest Presbyterian funds from three companies whose products are deemed harmful to the Palestian people and the prospects for peace:  Caterpillar, Hewlitt Packard and Motorola. The economic impact on the corporations will be minimal. In fact, in an ironic twist, corporate executives may be relieved that no more Presbyterians show up at corporate headquarters asking for high level meetings and offering stockholder resolutions. The vote sent shock waves through other mainline denominations who also have been agonizing for years over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people. The decision will also be applauded by the international BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) whose supporters argue for the abandonment of the “two state solution” – an independent and secure Palestine and Israel living together in peace- for a “one state solution” in which Jews would be outnumbered and Israel, as a Jewish state would eventually disappear.

The decision also reverberated among the American Jewish community which overwhelmingly sees it as anti-Israel if not anti-Semitic, and, interestingly, internationally, all the way to the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu who sharply criticized the Presbyterian decision on CNN.

Divestment did play a role in bringing down apartheid in South Africa and the government that enforced it. And yet I have never been comfortable with the analogy between South Africa and Israel for a number of reasons. For one thing, South Africa made no pretense of being a democracy, denying the vote and equal judicial process to the majority of its population. Israel at least has a constitution that guarantees rights to all its citizens. Nor have I been persuaded that divestment is effective, not only because of its seriously negative impact on interfaith relations – Presbyterian pastors and people are already trying to explain to Jewish friends and neighbors what the decision means and does not mean. It also alienates a community of interfaith partners which does have the potential to influence public opinion and Israeli policy. A significant by-product is further division within the Presbyterian family. I am not the only one to observe that this issue seems to divide people more deeply than any other. I am a veteran of Presbyterian struggles about race, gender and sexual orientation, but this conflict somehow seems more profound. Old and trusted friends are not only not listening to one another but barely speaking.

In the meantime the situation on the ground is messier and more tragic than ever. Israel continues to make it difficult for its sympathizers by expanding settlements in territory needed for a contiguous Palestinian state, overreacting to Palestinian violence and deliberately torpedoing peace negotiations. The Palestinians, meanwhile, are stuggling with attempts at unity between Fatah, a secular government in the West Bank, and Hamas which governs Gaza and which includes the destruction of Israel in its charter, is either unwilling or unable to stop random acts of violence against Israel and Israelis, and shows signs of moving toward an Islamist state.

At the Assembly, the committee assigned to deal with Middle East issues, (primarily divestment), was comprised of 50 or so randomly chosen commissioners or delegates. Resourcing the committee were national Presbyterian Church staff persons who made no attempt at neutrality, but advocated for divestment at every opportunity. In addition there were literally hundreds of people inside the committee room and immediately outside lobbying for divestment. Among them were representatives of Jewish Voice for Peace, a small but vocal group which is critical of Israeli policy and in favor of divestment. Green T-shirts with pastel stoles identified them. Also present was a large contingent of people in black T-shirts announcing, “Another Jew for Divestment.” Presbyterian young people who had visited Palestine and Israel on a recent church sponsored tour were a presence in their T-shirts with the words “Ask Me About My Trip to Israel/Palestine.” The committee leadership made no attempt at neutrality. At one point, in a devotional, the Vice Moderator of the committee said “Jesus was not afraid to criticize Jews. Why should we be?” My assessment, after watching decades of General Assemblies, is that the committee and Assembly were leaning toward approving divestment, but the presence of vocal pressure groups was persuasive to some and overwhelming to others.

When the matter came to the floor of the Assembly, with the committee’s recommendation for approval, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, by far the largest Jewish denomination, asked the Assembly not to approve divestment, relating how a positive vote would be experienced by the overwhelming majority of American and Israeli Jews. Jacobs declared his outspoken opposition to expanding settlements and Israeli intransigence, and invited Presbyterians to partner with Jews to find a way toward peace and justice.

In light of these developments Presbyterian leaders and people need now to be urgent in reaching out to Jewish neighbors, reminding them that 49% of the General Assembly commissioners voted against divestment, and the sense of many of us that a strong majority of Presbyterians, clergy and laity, are dismayed by this decision and opposed to divestment. We must also explain that the Presbyterian Church, as it always has, affirms Israel’s right to exist, and is committed to positive investment in both Israel and Palestine, and continues its commitment to a two-state solution. There also need to be conversations between supporters and opponents of divestment within all the churches toward the goal of restoring civility and respect for one another, and for Israelis and Palestinians, working together for the elusive goal of the peace with justice that everyone so desperately wants.


  1. Ted Davis says:

    As always, so well said, John. I have forwarded this to the Adult Ed committee with the suggestion we create an opportunity for Fourth to learn more about the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

  2. LLANI OCONNOR says:



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