Presbyterian relations with Jews, already stressed and battered, have taken another blow after a Presbyterian delegation to the Middle East met in Lebanon with representatives of Hezbollah, an Islamic group that the U.S. State Department has placed on a list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Top leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) quickly criticized the meeting, saying they’d tried to prevent the Oct. 17 meeting, describing it as “misguided, at best,” and calling the remarks of members of the Presbyterian delegation “reprehensible.”
But the incident won’t be just wiped away. Jewish groups, already unhappy with the PC(USA), spoke out hotly and quickly. And some Presbyterians say they’re also confused about what message their denomination is trying to send — and concerned that whatever moral authority the church is trying to bring to bear on the Israel-Palestine crisis may have been weakened.
“There are few things that are black-and-white in the Middle East,” said John W. Wimberly Jr., pastor of Western church in Washington D.C. “This is black-and-white.”
The State Department has linked Hezbollah with the 1983 truck bombing in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. Marines. “This is a nasty group,” Wimberly said. “This is an Al-Maida-type group . . . It was an awful mistake to meet with them.”
The meeting, at the Khiam Detention Center in southern Lebanon, involved Hezbollah leaders and the PC(USA)’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, which was on a two-week fact-finding tour of the Middle East. Particularly upsetting to many were comments made by one committee member, Ronald Stone, an elder and a retired professor from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, during a news conference following the meeting that was broadcast on Arabic television.
According to a partial transcript posted on the website of the Middle East Media Research Institute, Hezbollah leader Sheik Nabil Quaq said: “The American policy today is similar to an owl bringing bad tidings. All we hear from (President) Bush are words of war, evil, destruction, killing, siege and threat. This aggressive inclination is a real danger to all monotheistic religions and it harms Christianity.”
And Stone responded, according to the transcript: “We treasure the precious words of Hezbollah and your expression of goodwill towards the American people. Also we praise your initiative for dialogue and mutual understanding. We cherish these statements that bring us closer to you. As an elder of our church, I’d like to say that according to my recent experience, relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogue with Jewish leaders.”
Stone’s remarks served to undercut whatever tentative rapprochement may have resulted from a meeting in late September in New York between Presbyterian and Jewish leaders — a meeting called to address anger over the Presbyterian General Assembly’s decision last summer to call for a phased, selected divestment of some companies doing business in Israel. The PC(USA)’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee will meet in New York in early November to begin discussing the criteria for what companies might be considered — presumably, those that can be linked to construction of the security barrier on the West Bank, to the destruction of Palestinian homes or agriculture, or in some clear way to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people.
But the PC(USA) also is trying to move decisively in new and uncertain territory.
One line of criticism of the General Assembly’s divestiture vote has been that the PC(USA) hasn’t taken similar action involving other countries with documented human rights abuses — among them, China and Sudan. And some Jewish leaders were furious that the Presbyterians did not say more about the impact of Palestinian terrorism and suicide bombings on the people of Israel — that there was not more balance.
So Presbyterian leaders have spent countless hours in recent months trying to convince Jews that they weren’t being unfair or anti-Semitic or anti-Israel and that they weren’t condoning the deadly actions of Palestinian terrorists, although they do strongly support human rights for the Palestinian people.
And now an official PC(USA) delegation has met with Hezbollah.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Susan Andrews, a pastor from Bethesda, Maryland and former General Assembly moderator. Andrews said she has told the denominational leadership, “You have asked those of us out here in the trenches to engage in sensitive, serious dialogue with our Jewish brothers and sisters. We are trying hard to do this. But this is like throwing oil on a hot fire.”
Andrews also stresses that the PC(USA) has “two cherished commitments” — advocating for human rights for the Palestinian people, and also supporting the right of Israel to exist and to be free of terrorism — “and we are not backing off on either one of them.”
As the PC(USA) condemns the oppression of the Palestinian people, it also needs to decry terrorism against Israeli citizens, Andrews said. With the divestiture vote, “we haven’t done anything to show that outrage at the violence within the Arab community,” she said. “That’s what we need to do” — not to meet with Hezbollah.
After the news about the Hezbollah meeting broke, Presbyterian leaders quickly sent a letter to Jewish representatives who attended the Sept. 28 gathering in New York. That letter — signed by Clifton Kirkpatrick, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk; Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the 216th General Assembly, and John Detterick, executive director of the General Assembly Council — said that when the three learned of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy’s plans to meet with Hezbollah, “we asked the group to drop this visit from their plans.”
The letter states: “As a church, and as individuals, we know at the core of our souls that terrorism, especially terrorism against civilians, is one clear source of the lack of peace in the Middle East. Even when we identify and condemn the occupation as another key source of violence and lack of peace, we in no way condone the terrorism of groups such as Hezbollah, or of individuals or other actors in the region. Terrorism in all of its forms is morally abhorrent and completely inexcusable in our eyes.”
Kirkpatrick, Detterick and Ufford-Chase also issued an earlier statement in which they said, “the visit to Hezbollah and the comments on that occasion by members of this Presbyterian group do not reflect the official position of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on peace in the Middle East.”
Within the PC(USA), the denomination’s actions involving Israel are drawing criticism from both the right and the left — a rare alliance, although perhaps for different reasons.
Some contend that the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy isn’t theologically balanced.
Robert Dooling, a Colorado pastor who’s moderator of the Presbyterian Forum, an evangelical group, wrote a letter raising questions about who authorized the delegation and how much money the “junket” — 24 people made the trip — will cost.
Bob Davis, the Forum’s executive director and a pastor in San Diego, said local people have asked him to explain what the PC(USA) has done — and he’s not finding the job easy. Davis said he knows of at least six people in the last three months who’ve declined to join his church because of the controversy involving Israel.
The divestiture vote “was perceived as aggressive,” Davis said. “We are not actively trying to distance ourselves from Jewish friends. We are not trying to vilify Jews . . . It has made ministry at the local level more difficult.”
Wimberly, the pastor from Washington, said he’s heard that Presbyterian church partners in the region may have supported the meeting — but that’s not, for him, a good enough reason to meet with Hezbollah. “Why are we letting them direct our actions?” he asked.
Wimberly’s involved with a group of Washington-area Presbyterians who’ve been meeting with local Jewish leaders to discuss Presbyterian-Jewish relations, and said, “I think we’re sending very confused and very confusing responses about what we believe. We had a very clear and very consistent message — we were for the rights of Palestinians and for the state of Israel.”
But now Wimberly fears the PC(USA) will be seen as taking sides, rather than being an “honest broker” in the discussion, kind of like taking sides with either the Protestants or Catholics in northern Ireland rather than calling for an end to the violence.
“There has been a lack of clarity about what we stand for, and it is really hurting us,” Wimberly said.
The PC(USA) call for selective, phased divestment also has begun to gather some attention in the ecumenical world — for example, the Socially Responsible Investment committee of the Episcopal Church is recommending to that denomination’s Executive Council that the committee spend the next year educating itself on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and investigating possible actions to see what might be appropriate involving companies involved with the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.
How the Hezbollah meeting might affect support for those endeavors — or even willingness within the PC(USA) to pursue some level of divestment on behalf of the Presbyterian church — remains to be seen.