The 2006 General Assembly has, hopefully, put the divestment argument to rest. It replaced the controversial divestment instructions passed by the 2004 General Assembly with instructions to our committees and staff to pursue a strategy of investing in those who work for peace in the Middle East. The GA affirmed the Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) process, which has been so successful for decades, as one appropriate means to this end. Given that the Middle East has witnessed a new round of death and destruction in Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine, the GA resolution seems even more prophetic today than it did at the end of June.
I think the GA was able to reach a consensus resolution on divestment for a variety of reasons. First, both pro- and anti- divestment advocates have spent the past two years discussing/debating/dialoguing about the best strategy for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the Middle East. As a result, we were a much more informed denomination in 2006 than we were in 2004. Second, the GA acted with remarkable independence. Anyone who thinks that lobbyists for one party or another prevailed in Birmingham wasn’t there. Third, the table for a balanced outcome in Birmingham was set by an excellent forum held on Israel/Palestine the day prior to the GA convening. The speakers were reasoned and reasonable. Denominational staff and committee members who created the forum deserve praise.
As I listened to the forum’s speakers, one speaker in particular, Joe Stork, of Human Rights Watch, sounded like the voice of God to me. He didn’t want to dwell on who was right and who was wrong in this intense struggle. He refused to take a side in the pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian argument. Instead, he focused on civilian casualties.
I didn’t write down Mr. Stork’s words exactly but, in essence, he said: “Don’t let Palestinians tell you that, because they lack Israel’s military capabilities, they have no choice but to use tactics such as suicide bombers against Israel. Suicide bombs kill lots of innocent people. And don’t let Israel tell you that they didn’t mean to hit the second car full of innocent people when they were trying to destroy the first car filled with terrorists. The second car was filled with innocent people, period.”
As I listened to Mr. Stork, I thought, “Shouldn’t innocents be the church’s primary concern in this conflict?” Instead of being pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, pro-divestment or anti-divestment, shouldn’t we, like Human Rights Watch, be demanding that both sides respect the life and property of innocent women, men and children?
In an article posted on the Outlook’s Web site, Chris Iosso, staff person for the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, questioned the link between U.S. and Israeli policy and asked, “What will it mean for U.S. Christians to be linked to a power (the United States) that no longer pretends to be ‘an honest broker’ for peace?” It is a good question, one that should be asked of the PC(USA) as well.
Honest brokers cannot afford to have their objectivity questioned. Neither the Jewish nor Palestinian communities had a problem when the PC(USA) took stances that criticized some of the actions of both sides and affirmed the aspirations of both sides. But when we investigated divesting from one side and not the other, we were no longer viewed as “an honest broker.”
We need to be very careful in the months and years ahead not to repeat mistakes made between 2004 and 2006. For example, some groups in our denomination continue to insist that the occupation of Palestinian land is the “root cause” of the conflict in the Middle East without mentioning the failure of many Arab and Palestinian groups to recognize Israel as an equally important root cause of the conflict.
The United Church of Canada recently authorized non-investment in companies that help to perpetuate what the UCC views as “Israel’s occupation.” At the same time, their denominational president noted that “all other issues in the Middle East conflict would disappear with everyone’s genuine recognition of a sovereign Jewish state in the Middle East.” Such recognition of the positions of both parties in the Middle East produces credibility as a peacemaker.
The recent actions by PC(USA) staff to confront the president of Iran at the United Nations increased our credibility as a peacemaker. Our folks asked Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad why he rejects the existence of Israel and questions the reality of the holocaust. Such an action makes it clear that we will challenge barriers to peacemaking no matter what form they may take.
To build our peacemaking credibility, the PC(USA) must remain focused on our goal: We are working for the existence of two states, Palestine and Israel, living side by side in peace and prosperity. We must be equally clear about what we oppose: the use of violence against innocent civilians. Let the PC(USA) begin our own human rights watch–one that is as balanced and objective as that presented by Mr. Stork.
With clarity about our policy regarding Israel/Palestine, perhaps we can begin to discuss the great moral crisis the 2006 GA failed to address: the Iraq war. As the GA met in Birmingham, an average of 100 Iraqis were dying each day, numbers even greater than those produced by the recent and tragic Israel/Lebanon/Palestine war. In addition, in Iraq, members of our military were dying and suffering crippling wounds. And yet, at the GA, the PC(USA) did not speak a new, illuminating Word about our moral responsibilities vis-Ã -vis the war in Iraq.
As the debate over divestment subsides, may our credibility increase as an “honest broker” in the conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere. As it does, we will be true peacemakers in a war-torn world.
John W. Wimberly Jr. is pastor of Western Church in Washington, D.C.