For eight days, I lived in a Birmingham, Ala., hotel and immersed myself in the great Presbyterian family reunion — our ’17th General Assembly.
As a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church USA and as a committed peacemaker, I simply did not want to be anywhere else. The main focus of my week was to work for reconciliation between Jews and Presbyterians, reinforcing the historic partnership we have shared as passionate advocates for justice and shalom, peace.
Presbyterians have struggled over the past two years to reconcile two deep commitments that we hold dear. The first is our commitment to respectful and affectionate interfaith relationships with our Jewish brothers and sisters, a commitment built upon the biblical understanding that we share a covenantal relationship with the one God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.
The second commitment we Presbyterians have is our solidarity and love for our Arab brothers and sisters in the Middle East, a solidarity and love based on 150 years of mission and engaged ministry with Christians in the region.
The sufferings and injustice caused by the occupation of Palestinian lands has greatly diminished the Christian presence in the west bank and Gaza Strip. We grieve just as much with remaining members of our Christian family whose lives have become intolerable, as we grieve with our Jewish brothers and sisters who live in the fearful shadow of suicide bombers.
For the past two years, these two deep commitments have been in deep conflict as a result of the actions taken at the ‘004 General Assembly in Richmond. The decision at that assembly to "initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations investing in Israel" caused great pain and dismay among our Jewish partners, even as it gave great hope to our Palestinian partners — and left Presbyterians divided as a denomination.
At our General Assembly last week, we worked hard to break this impasse and move forward in our witness for peace and reconciliation. In consultation with our Jewish and Palestinian partners, and in humility before God, the assembly overwhelmingly adopted a new statement about positive social investing for peaceful purposes in the Middle East. I believe this statement moves us forward in three ways:
• Reaffirmation: As Presbyterians, we reaffirmed our commitment to work with both our Jewish partners and our Palestinian partners to pursue peace and justice in the Middle East. We reaffirmed our historic commitment to the vision of a two-state solution for Palestine and Israel — two sovereign and secure nations, living respectfully and peacefully as neighbors.
We reaffirmed the moral responsibility [we Presbyterians have claimed — to be socially responsible in investing our resources through positive engagement with the corporations who handle our funds — a long and careful process of research, dialogue, and action, with divestment as a rare final step only after every other engagement strategy has been exhausted.
And we reaffirmed our commitment to work with our Muslim, Jewish, and Christian partners to end the occupation.
• Refocus: For two full years, thousands of Presbyterian congregations have been in dialogue with Jewish friends and partners, listening to the expressions of concern prompted by the actions of the ‘004 General Assembly. We also have heard the gratitude and hope that our actions gave to our Palestinian Christian partners who have often felt abandoned and sidelined by the wider Christian world.
We came to the Birmingham assembly truly committed to honor both of these commitments. The statement passed by this year’s assembly refocuses, rephrases, and reinterprets the actions we made in ‘004, but it does not repudiate those actions.
The ‘004 decision to "initiate a process of phased selective divestment" has now been more accurately described this way: "To have those financial investments of the Presbyterian Church USA as they pertain to Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the west bank, be invested in only peaceful pursuits, and affirm that the customary corporate engagement process of our denomination — in conjunction with appropriate reinvestment of funds where necessary — is the proper vehicle for achieving this goal."
• Renewal: The new Presbyterian statement begins with important words: "We acknowledge that the actions of the ’17th General Assembly caused hurt and misunderstanding among many members of the Jewish community and within our Presbyterian communion. We are grieved by the pain, accept responsibility for the flaws in our process, and ask for a new season of mutual understating and dialogue."
It is our passionate hope that Presbyterian and Jewish congregations across the country will re-engage with one another in worship, dialogue and action for peace. And that we will renew our commitments to be partners in covenant love, pursuing together God’s vision of shalom.
May it be so.