On Friday the 221st General Assembly (GA221) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted 310 to 303 in favor of divesting from three companies known to be profiting from occupation infrastructure in occupied Palestine: Hewlett-Packard, Motorola-Solutions, and Caterpillar Inc. This assembly was also historic for changing their definition of marriage to “between two people”. Youth, seminarians, and mission personnel had the privilege of voice and were polled prior to each vote; I liked that. Now, I am tasked with explaining why United Methodists of all stripes should be paying attention.
The main reason is to show support to our Presbyterian neighbors: they may experience a temporary, undeserved drop in popularity. Yet I should state that my opinions do not necessarily reflect those of MFSA or the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church; they do reflect my commitment to truth-telling.
As I wrote and rewrote this analysis I returned in my memories to a pizza-restaurant in a valley neighborhood best known as “al-balled” in Amman. Two years ago I was serving in the Levant (Palestine, Israel, waiting for a visa in Jordan), so I met a Presbyterian counterpart and mentor for lunch and to discuss GA220 (and UM General Conference 2012). At that time, the PCUSA missed divesting by merely two votes. He and I already knew it was time to divest, knew from the oppression and impunity we witnessed. Three years earlier, the Christian leadership of Palestine called for divestment in “Kairos Palestine: A Moment of Truth ”. Five years prior to that, Israel ignored a 14-1 ruling by the International Court of Justice (a United Nations judicial body) calling for the destruction of the West Bank separation barrier. Knowing the enormity of the contracts at stake for these companies and the investment of political will by the Likud Party and its ethnocentric coalition, missionaries already understood that “shareholder engagement” would be fruitless. To whom should the UMC listen?
If the UMC and PCUSA are listening to one another it is because they are determined to remain peers, which causes me mixed-feelings. Dissenters to the overture parroted our General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits. A gentleman stated that his Methodist contacts reported “success” in shareholder engagement, aptly demonstrating that GBPHB struggles to understand success outside of monetary terms. Saccharine company policies do not constitute "success" if companies still profit from systemic oppression. The Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI) of PCUSA testified at GA221 to the continual evasiveness of all three corporations, who were glad to dialogue about anything other than their illicit activity in the West Bank. That was taboo: to whom should the UMC listen?
Before 2012 was over, Friends Fiduciary Corporation (FFC) divested first from Caterpillar Inc and then from Hewlett-Packard and Veolia. Roughly six months later the board of directors of the Mennonite Central Committee US, in consultation with their sponsoring denominations, eschewed all companies on AFSC’s (American Friends’ Service Committee’s) screen-list. These so-called ‘Peace-churches’ are not structured similarly to the UMC and PCUSA, it’s true. They might be called peers to one another in that both have longer, deeper, wider connections to the region – the MCC Jerusalem office predates the state of Israel and the Friends School in Ramallah is respected by both Christians and Muslims throughout the West Bank. Two bodies with deep roots in the Levant and well-known commitments to nonviolence and humility both divested. To whom should the UMC listen?
Mark Tooley, of the (in)famous Institute on Religion & Democracy, said Friends’ divestment “reflects a long continuum of unwise political advocacy”. It takes a strong search-engine to find a deep, discolored cesspool of regression like the “Juicy Ecumenism” blog (cited with the help of donotlink.com to prevent traffic to their page). FFC representatives declined to comment to Tooley’s IRD, which libeled that Quakers have no interest in curbing violence against Israelis, but consider this: modern mainline denominations appear later on the justice adopters’ bell-curve. The “silly, little” peace-churches put principle before popularity and, thus, do not attract the bulk of the societies to which they witness yet in hindsight these very acts are often celebrated as quintessentially progressive.
Friend and Mennonite disengagement is hardly impetuous, more than ten years after the Oslo accords expired. There is a sort of spiritual “white-noise” that accompanies money; resources are not inherently evil but too much of them makes discernment difficult, sluggish. It is no wonder that Jesus challenged the rich young man to sell all his possessions and follow The Way with total abandon.
Yet the principle stumbling block of mainline denominations is self-aggrandizement, not greed. A wise Presbyterian wisely noted at GA221 that Prime Minister Netanyahu is not interested in PCUSA’s attempts to aid reconciliation and that churches were over-estimating their influence in the world. Rather than following Palestinian Christian leadership (via Kairos Palestine) or joining forces with deep-rooted peace-partners (the MCC or AFSC, for example), mainstream churches doubled-down on one-anothers' misconceptions, as well as delusions about “share-holder engagement”. Western institutions struggle to recognize that values alone do not make them appropriate partners: the Savior-Industrial-Complex, in essence.
In order to sustain this fantasy, they stage performances for an Israel that is not real – either because it’s an idea of Israel preserved from the Labor-Party-led government that died with PM Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in the mid-nineties or a fantasy taken from collective beliefs about what ‘Jews’ deserve. Not incidentally, Jewish groups of conscience like Jewish Voice for Peace recognize Israel’s drift away from democratic ideals and constantly call for divestment to ‘right the ship’ in Israel. To whom should the UMC listen?
Contrary to popular myths, the 21st Century Israel is a neo-colonial enterprise cloaked in religious over-tones with a manifest-destiny regime at the helm via the Likud-led coalition government. The words “Likud Party” never even entered the discussion at GA221. Neither the UMC nor the PCUSA, as collected bodies, possess the knowledge to be effective intermediaries but their investments are a powerful witness, indeed. Ultimately, I discourage Methodists from looking too deeply into PCUSA divestment because of BDS-phobic rhetoric in the overture. Some Presbyterians were spooked by the idea of the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement; again, this showed a lack of familiarity, not a moderate stance. At this point, BDS is THE moderate stance.
With the Palestinian Authority government hobbled by double-standards, disgraced, the BDS campaign creates a well-known movement offering a nonviolent hope for all Palestinians and an alternative to militant groups. Jewish Voice for Peace explicitly affirmed their place in the larger BDS movement, which speaks volumes. The UMC and PCUSA should join and percolate into Global BDS to achieve a high-level of engagement. As it stands, mainline churches are all generic “Evangelicals” in the mid-East. This is a case where two big denominations could do something right: explicitly join Global BDS and tip its mass Christ-ward, understanding BDS will tip Christians into ‘political advocacy’—a healthy challenge.
Yet if you want to keep pace with society, UMC, feel free to be just one step behind the PCUSA ~ especially concerning marriage equality but soon with divestment as well. Tip-toe slowly until the moment the Earth shifts beneath your feet then dash ahead and extol justice. When it is popular enough you will divest, UMC – just like South Africa. Famed South African religious leader Desmond Tutu has already condemned the infrastructure in Israel and joined the call for BDS on Palestine’s behalf. To whom will the UMC listen?
JD (John Daniel) Gore is a young adult missionary working through the General Board of Global ministries. JD serves Methodist Federation for Social Action as the 'Associate for Movement Building' and worked previously in Bethlehem for The Wi'am Center. He begins an MA in International Training & Education at American University this Autumn.