What I learned when I did chair the Committee on Middle East Concerns: A response to recent articles in the Outlook

As moderator of the 220th (2012) General Assembly’s Middle East Peacemaking Issues Committee I took special interest in the May 12 issue of Outlook that focused on the topic of Presbyterians and Israel-Palestine. I appreciate the balanced and informed approach evidenced in the various articles and I feel compelled to comment further on issues related to the process and context of the Assembly’s and the Committee’s work.

At the outset, let me say that I experienced something of a “deja-vu all over again” feeling (with thanks to Yogi Berra, if he’s the one who first used that redundant expression). The issues are the same, as well as the overtures, the main players in the debates and the controversies surrounding the work of the committee.

Two years ago and again this year there has been great concern about the fact that groups who support “one side or the other” in the Israel-Palestine questions actively sponsor trips in order to involve and educate persons on the admittedly complex and tragic problems of the Middle East. The fear, of course, is that persons are exposed to only one side of the questions. While I have no direct knowledge of the controversy surrounding the resignation/removal of the person originally chosen to lead this year’s committee, it strikes me that the only fair way to conduct the business of the committee is for every single member and every single speaker before the committee to reveal with whom they have been to Israel and with whom they have been in any significant contact, whether they went on a trip or not. Everyone has a bias of some sort, whether Jew or Palestinian, inside the denomination or outside, leader/promoter of trips or attendee or not. Whether that bias colors the comment and position of any committee member or speaker before the committee is something only the committee itself can decide.

Two years ago (and, frankly, in the 25+ years I have attended General Assemblies as an observer, and the two other years I was a commissioner, one of which saw me moderating the Committee on Theological Education and Institutions) and this year again there has been great concern about the fairness of the process followed by the committee as it does its work. Let me speak about that in more detail.

First of all, let me say that two years ago the committee spent approximately 2.5 hours listening to members of General Assembly standing committees, task forces, and overture advocates, 2 hours listening to all comers in open hearings, and at least 14 hours in discussion and deliberation. (I went back and reviewed our agenda to derive these numbers.) It is not true that the committee “spent almost all of its time listening to advocates for divestment.” It is true, however, that for the most part the various official advocates who came before the committee spoke in favor of divestment. As with any session, the assembly committee listened to reports from its own official entities, and those entities (MRTI in particular) favored divestment. Further, because of the rules of the assembly, those presbyteries and other groups who had put forth overtures were given voice before the committee to present their case. Most spoke in favor of divestment. Had more overtures come forth from the church as a whole against divestment those voices would have been heard. The committee and its leaders do not control what business comes before it (and therefore who speaks).

With this said, I agree that on some matters of great controversy (such as BDS or labeling Israeli policy “apartheid”) the assembly needs committees to hear from as broad and as deep a cross-section of the church as possible. Advocacy groups on both sides of the BDS questions exist and expend great energy developing their case. Their voices should be heard. It is a truism that assembly committees are a microcosm and representative sample of the whole assembly, meaning that, “What happens in committee will happen in plenary.” This was not the case two years ago with the BDS questions. Clearly, someone was listening to wisdom outside that of the standing committees of the assembly and of most of the overture advocates.

How one would go about deciding who – other than the denomination’s own groups – is given voice before the committee would be complex, but doable. When it comes to any of the major issues there are well-known advocacy groups on all sides of those issues. Leaders of those groups could work with folks from the Stated Clerk’s office, perhaps, to negotiate “air time” with committees.

Within the rules of the assembly the committees do have certain leeway in determining their own agendas and process. The committee leadership team begins that process well before the assembly begins. Two years ago we seriously limited the amount of time requested by MRTI and other official groups in order to give more time for the committee itself to deliberate. And there is nothing to prevent a committee, once it is in session, to change its agenda and invite other individuals or groups to speak who it (the committee) deems to be of help in presenting alternative viewpoints to those expressed by the “official” folks.

I’ve thought long and hard about how an assembly might give more time for its large and unwieldy committees to do the work they are called to do. The brief sequence of Sunday evening, Monday and most of a Tuesday is hardly enough to engage the most pressing and controversial issues. Here are some random ideas:

  • Rather than hearing from overture advocates, whose “case” has already been presented in the overtures themselves, why not create panel discussions (dare we say “debates?”) among folks who have had long and deep involvement with the main issues?
  • Rather than hear from a parade of folks at the “open mic” times, when the time limits are such as to make sustained thought and presentation difficult, why not invite folks who sign up for those times to caucus together and select spokespersons to present their various views?
  • Well north of 80% of commissioners to a given assembly are first time attenders. The work and wisdom of prior assemblies (and commissioners) is perhaps lost. Why not invite two members of the prior assembly’s “Committee on X Issue” to present brief summaries on the major items they engaged, one pro and one con?

A final word: every commissioner needs to realize that a “great cloud of witnesses” is surrounding them, but they—and only they—are “the General Assembly” for this year. Sometimes the cloud of both official and unofficial folks brings welcome moisture and shade. Other times the cloud simply, well, clouds the issues. May the Spirit bring the clarity of wisdom, truth and love.


Jack Baca is pastor of The Village Church (PC(USA)), in Rancho Santa Fe, California.