It might have been one of the shortest assignments in the history of the Presbyterian Church. On April 1, the Office of the General Assembly issued a press release announcing committee leadership for this summer’s assembly, including my nomination to serve as moderator of the Committee on Middle East Issues. Had I been smarter, I might have realized that I was setting off on a fool’s errand, given the date of the press release! Just six days later, Moderator Neal Presa phoned and asked me to resign my position. He said that my nomination had been met with strong opposition from persons in the Presbyterian Church who questioned my ability to moderate with impartiality since I had traveled to Israel on two interfaith trips. It didn’t really matter that those trips were intended to foster better relations between Christians and Jews. The problem, according to some people, was that the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, Virginia, had organized those trips and underwritten the travel costs for the rabbi and me.
I agreed to resign to help preserve “the peace, unity and purity of the church,” a promise all church officers make when ordained. But my email resignation to the moderator also stated, “It is a sad day for the Presbyterian Church when there exists such distrust among brothers and sisters in Christ, especially among those who do not even know me or my commitments to reconciliation and peace.”
In the brief week I served as moderator, I began to wonder how to handle my leadership burden. And a real burden it would have been, since the Jewish-Palestinian struggle has been one of the most contentious and polarizing issues at recent General Assemblies. What could I say to the commissioners assigned to the committee, most of whom would come to Detroit filled with energy and hope, but were not as yet lobbied to death or poisoned by Presbyterian politicking? How could I earn their trust? How could I transform them from strangers brought together by random selection into true friends in Christ, who could listen to one another with the kind of loving respect that the Apostle Paul wrote about to the contentious Corinthians, a love that is “patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, a love that does not insist on its own way”? I began to pray that the Holy Spirit would bless these commissioners with grace and wisdom so that they would stake out some common ground to help the church move forward.
But first things first, I said to myself. I would need to earn their trust. So I planned to tell them about myself, my 34 years as a pastor and the numerous times I’ve been asked to mediate controversial situations. I would have told them of my four trips to the Holy Land, the two recent interfaith trips when I got to experience the Middle East through Jewish eyes, as well as two earlier trips when I saw the Middle East through Palestinian eyes.
I would have told them about the day we met Father Elias Chacour, a true blessing, and how he told us the terrible story of the day in the late 1940s when an Israeli tank commander rolled into the little town of Biram in Galilee and said to Chacour’s father:
“We are here to protect the village. You have no business here anymore.”
“Protect our village?” said Chacour’s father. “You are here to destroy it.”
“This land is ours now,” said the soldier pointing his gun at them, “so get out.”
“No,” said the Palestinian, “This land is ours. My family has farmed this land for almost 500 years.” But the soldiers would not listen. They arrested Chacour’s father and dragged him away.
I would have told the commissioners about my trip to a Palestinian refugee camp in the Kingdom of Jordan where we met children as well as parents who claimed with pride their Palestinian heritage but who had never set foot in Palestine. Instead, they were born in Jordan and had lived there for two generations as refugees.
Unfortunately, those who Googled me and then raised questions about my ability to moderate fairly judged me hastily without knowing this part of my past.
Additionally, I would have told the commissioners about my two trips to Israel with Jewish groups and how those trips helped me better understand Israel’s claim of sovereign statehood and its desire to protect its borders and live in relative peace without the daily threat of suicide bombings on busses or in crowded marketplaces. I would have shared what I had learned – that Israel responds to terrorist force with force of its own, just as we do in the United States. I would have told them about our conversation with a Palestinian Muslim news reporter, a citizen of Israel, who chooses to live in Israel rather than Palestine because Israel, like America, grants him true freedom of the press, while everything he writes for Palestinian publications must pass through the censorship of Hamas. And I would have urged the commissioners to realize that any unilateral demonizing of Israel for human rights violations that ignores ongoing Palestinian terrorist activity, or any denial of Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation, seriously threatens long-standing relationships between Presbyterians and American Jews.
In short, I would have suggested that my varied experiences in the Middle East help me to hear all sides of this complex conflict and then assist others to work for reconciliation and compromise.
Next, I would have turned to the committee members themselves, typically most of whom would be first-time commissioners to a General Assembly, and said this:
We Presbyterians believe that God speaks to the church through discussion and debate and ultimately through majority vote. So you have a sacred responsibility to listen to those on one extreme of this polarizing debate… but you do not need to agree with them. In the same way, you have a sacred responsibility to listen to those on the other extreme… but you do not need to agree with them either.
Then I would have told them about seminary professor Jack Rogers and his important book, “Claiming the Center.” More than likely, I would have had copies of the book available for the commissioners to read.
When researching his book, Rogers studied the history of American Presbyterian decision-making. He claims that in almost every major issue Presbyterians have ever considered some 10 percent of the people at one end of the spectrum and 15 percent at the other end monopolize the debate. But in almost every case, the large, mostly silent theological center of the church works for compromise and ultimately decides the issue.
To illustrate, I would have told my committee about the 1992 General Assembly in Milwaukee where I served as a commissioner. That year the hot button issue was abortion and problem pregnancy. We commissioners listened carefully to some speakers who said, “Abortion is always murder; there are no exceptions.” Others said, “Abortion is always a woman’s choice; there are no exceptions.” After listening to the voices from the far right and the far left, we created and approved a moderate policy, which deplored the huge number of abortions performed for the sake of convenience or gender selection but which maintained the woman’s right to choose, especially is cases of rape, incest or fetal deformity. In other words, the Milwaukee Assembly embodied the truth of Jack Roger’s thesis—the large, mostly silent center of the church stood up, spoke its will and led the church into the future.
This is what I would have worked for with the Committee on Middle East Issues, had the commissioners been so inclined and had my appointment as Moderator not been challenged by those who are filled with fear rather than trust. To be sure, those on the extremes will oppose any moderate strategy, preferring an “I’m right and everyone else is wrong” approach. But that, in my judgment, is the antithesis of the ministry of reconciliation to which the Apostle Paul calls the church in 2 Corinthians and which is such a central theme in The Confession of 1967 from our Book of Confessions.
Albert G. Butzer III is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and is a commissioner to this summer’s General Assembly in Detroit.