Over the past four years, the PC(USA) has oftentimes veered away from prophetic to partisan, increasingly taking a one-sided approach to injustices in the region. Too often it labeled Israel as the underlying cause of injustice in the troubled region, ignoring the complex, convoluted nature of injustice in the Middle East.
The 2008 GA gently but firmly pushed us away from a one-sided approach to the problems of the Middle East and back toward a prophetic stance. With a consensus, voice-vote, the GA approved overture 11-06, which calls on the PC(USA) to “become non-partisan advocates for peace.” The overture states, “We will not over-identify with the realities of the Israelis or Palestinians. Instead, we will identify with the need for peacemaking voices in the midst of horrific acts of violence and terror.” Furthermore, “We will avoid taking broad stands that simplify a very complex situation into a caricature of reality where one side clearly is at fault and the other side is clearly the victim.” The GA voted for 11-06 despite the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and partisan advocates of the Palestinian cause opposing the overture.
In another sign the GA wanted to return to a more even-handed approach, the GA rejected overtures that 1) would have resurrected the divestment issue in its most egregious form and 2) called on the U.S. government to suspend military aid to Israel.
Of course, the GA approved 11-01, which endorses the World Council of Church’s Amman Call. The highly partisan Amman Call is a litany of the things Israel is accused of doing wrong with nary a mention of terrorist attacks against Israel, rockets from Gaza, or the actions of Hezbollah destabilizing Lebanon and the region. Overture 11-01 reflects the very lack of balance and partisanship that the GA rejected by adopting 11-06.
Overture 11-01 will, no doubt, be used by those who continue to argue for a partisan PC(USA) approach in which Israel is clearly at fault and the Palestinians are clearly the victims. I could argue with the Amman Call regarding its affirmation of “the right of return,” which would effectively end Israel as a Jewish state; its lack of consideration of the impact of terrorism on Israelis; or its failure to recognize Israel’s peaceful relations with former foes Egypt and Jordan. However, the devil is in the details or, better put, the devil uses the details to divide all of us who are interested in peace and justice in the Middle East. So I will refrain from point-by-point argumentation.
Indeed, the more the PC(USA) has allowed itself to be swallowed up in the arguments about the details of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the less effective we have become as peacemakers. Viewing ourselves as advocates for the Palestinians or Israelis, we have recreated within the PC(USA) the same entrenched positions that cripple the prospects for peace in the Middle East.
The PC(USA) is most effective not when we are pretending to know exactly where the “wall” should go, how Jerusalem should be shared, or which settlements need to be deconstructed (actually, we are so naïve in our approach to the Middle East we don’t realize that many of these issues have already been decided in private by the disputing parties.). No, our role is not to resolve the detailed issues that will make for peace. We are most effective when we support voices for peace on both sides of this conflict.
This is the model the PC(USA) used so successfully as peacemakers in Northern Ireland. We didn’t attempt to micromanage the terms of peace in that seemingly unsolvable situation. We didn’t propose boycotts. We didn’t say that one side or the other was the absolute cause of the problem. Rather, we identified and supported reasonable people on both sides of the divide.
We can also support peacemakers in Palestine and Israel by helping to create hopeful options for economic growth in the future. People behave differently when they see positive prospects in their future. The most powerful thing the PC(USA) can say to people in Palestine and Israel is: “If YOU can find a way to live together peacefully, we can help you create a positive economic future for yourselves and your children. We will help you build schools and hospitals. We will encourage businesses to locate in your region and employ the talents of your people.”
It is argued by some that to be prophetic, one must take sides. I agree. We take the side of every single person who advocates and works for peace and justice.
However, prophetic is not synonymous with partisan. Indeed, I would argue that they are antithetical. Jesus was criticized for refusing to become a Zealot partisan in the effort to end Rome’s oppression of Israel and Palestine. However, he knew that by linking himself to a particular political agenda, he would diminish his prophetic message. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used the same approach when he refused to link his civil rights agenda to the Democratic or Republican parties, despite many who urged him to do so.
When we are prophetic, we criticize ALL parties, not just some. This is what the PC(USA) was doing prior to 2004. We criticized both Israel and Palestinians when their actions caused injustice or were roadblocks to peace. When we are prophetic, we support ALL voices for peace, not just those on one side or the other.
By passing Overture 11-06, the 2008 GA has sent an unequivocal message to the denomination and world. We are not partisans in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. We are prophets who will encourage all peacemakers and workers for justice.
John Wimberly is pastor of Western Church in Washington, D.C.