The reaction was always the same. Each time I was asked, “Which committee are you moderating?” and I answered, “Middle East Peacemaking Issues,” the questioner’s eyes would widen. A comforting pat on the shoulder would follow, and then — in the best pastoral tone the questioner could muster — the reply: “You poor man; I’ll pray for you!”
Some questioned my sanity.
We faced tough issues. Should we divest from certain companies whose products are used in Israel in ways that ostensibly hurt Palestinians? Should we label Israel’s policies regarding Palestinians as apartheid? Should we call for the United States and Israel to declare they will not engage in a military “first strike” against Iran?
The General Assembly’s actions are historical record. I’ll let the reader decide about their wisdom. I will hazard a few comments about things I learned that may help the church and others engaged in the broader world of civic life and politics.
Good process is an invaluable aid when engaging difficult topics. Though open to improvement, we Presbyterians have developed a system of helping people who don’t know each other and who come together only once to address important issues. We encourage respectful conversation, careful listening, thorough working-through of myriad points, and final expression of the will of the majority (hopefully reflecting the will of God). In both church and world, wherever we curb disrespectful conversation, prejudicial attitudes and oversimplification of complex issues, we will do well.
It is possible to disagree without engendering anger, fear or disengagement. Sometimes our votes were close. Always our debate was passionate, because we addressed human suffering on all sides. People “won” and “lost” on specific points. Some were disappointed and others encouraged. But no one stormed out of the room in anger and — to the best of my knowledge — all felt connected, including those with whom they had disagreed. Everyone is smiling in the group picture we took at the end. Church work done well can set a model for the larger community. It is not a law of the universe that politics must always divide us.
Compromise is both possible and good. We worked to find language and positioning that accounted for various views and desired outcomes. Rarely did any one side get all it wanted, but what we achieved was all the stronger for having been touched by many perspectives. Life is complex and often ambiguous. Extreme positions don’t allow for this reality. When the church finds ways to compromise and allow room for a variety of “positions” it teaches the larger political world a valuable lesson.
People who disagree about some things don’t have to disagree about all things. On the question of divestment a broad coalition of people who identified as liberals, conservatives and moderates worked the same side of the question. In Congress this is called “crossing the aisle.” Some call it “collaborating with the enemy.” I experienced it as a good and even holy thing. What might the larger world of civic discourse look like if the church did a better job of demonstrating the beauty of people willing to risk working with other folks with whom they disagree about some things?
Political and civic engagement is a holy thing because it is important to God’s people and therefore important to God. No one can argue that our committee’s subject matter was mundane or unimportant. Some would argue, however, that its political context puts it out of bounds for the church. I am proud of the Presbyterian tradition that teaches the sanctity of our involvement in the world God made, redeemed and is still redeeming. Some argue over worship styles. I’d rather argue about why people are killing each other and then try to stop it.
So what can we do about strife in the Middle East? My reply: We should do whatever we can to help people repent of their past wrongs, forgive others for the wrong done to them, share and compromise and respect others who are different, and then work toward goals over which no one can disagree. We who follow Jesus are always learning those same lessons, and it is our sacred task to teach them in our nation and in the rest of the world.
JACK W. BACA is pastor of The Village Community Presbyterian Church in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.