By Alan F.H. Wisdom, The Layman
Perhaps the most significant action of the 2016 Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly was final approval of the Belhar Confession for inclusion in the denomination’s Book of Confessions. The 1980s liberation theology manifesto exercised an influence that was already apparent in the Portland assembly’s other business—especially its discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Belhar was cited repeatedly by advocates of a PCUSA report blaming Israel alone for stalled peace talks with the Palestinians. Belhar’s binary mode of social analysis—dividing the world between “the oppressed” and “the oppressors” and demanding that the church always support the former against the latter—prevailed as the report passed by an overwhelming majority.
We can expect to see this mode of analysis multiply as the denomination lives into its new confession and applies it to other issues. Belhar’s binary thinking fits well in a church and society where groups strive to assert a claim to victim status. Once secured, that victim status then becomes a trump card to be used against political opponents, as the pro-Palestinian advocates at the assembly used it to win their case against Israel.
One-Sided Criticism, Theologically Justified
The report at issue in Portland, entitled “Israel-Palestine: For Human Values in the Absence of a Just Peace,” came from the denomination’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP). The 36-page report was ACSWP’s response to the 2014 assembly’s request for “a recommendation about whether the General Assembly should continue to call for a two-state solution in Israel Palestine, or take a neutral stance.” A “two-state solution” would involve Israel co-existing with a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. A “neutral stance” would have opened the PCUSA to the possibility, favored by many Palestinian activists, of a single Arab-majority state ruling over the entire land, including its Jewish communities.
The ACSWP report concludes pessimistically that “the door to a viable Palestinian state is closing rapidly.” It cites Israelis and Palestinians who doubt that any peace agreement is possible under current conditions. Nevertheless, ACSWP wishes “[t]o keep open the option of a two-state solution” in the absence of better alternatives.
For this impasse, the report casts blame upon Israel. It laments: “Israel’s policy trajectory of continued [Jewish] settlements and brutal occupation [in the Palestinian-majority West Bank] is deeply troubling. Not only does it make a two-state solution increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, but the emerging, de facto single state’s systematic violation of Palestinian rights and democratic values is eroding Israel’s moral legitimacy.” By contrast, ACSWP finds little fault with the other party to the conflict: the Palestinian Authority leadership.
The final vote approving the report was 429-129. Attempts to soften the report’s harsh criticisms of Israel were largely unsuccessful. The ACSWP report was the most prominent of several anti-Israel measures passed by the assembly.
Doug Tilton, a member of the ACSWP writing team, presented its report to the assembly. “The report is deeply rooted in Reformed theology,” Tilton said at the start. He then turned to attacking Israel: “The Netanyahu administration has presided over one of the most rapid periods of illegal settlement expansion in Israeli history…. Israeli, Palestinian, and international experts have long held that settlement expansion diminishes the possibility of two states. The report makes concrete recommendations designed to help stem the expansion of illegal settlements and the loss of Palestinian territory.” Tilton voiced no reservations about Palestinian policies.
“Friends,” Tilton addressed the commissioners, “our newest confession [Belhar] affirms our belief that God is ‘in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged.’” He commended the ACSWP report, with its pro-Palestinian slant, as an expression of that theological conviction.
Dissenters Appeal for Reconciliation, ‘Regardless of Who Threw the First Stone’
A minority report from the assembly’s Middle East Committee challenged the ACSWP proposal as “a pugnaciously flawed document.” The committee minority asked the Presbyterian Mission Agency to revise ACSWP’s document to “remove rhetorical structure” that may “harm interreligious dialogue” with the Jewish community. The minority also wanted the mission agency to “add content that acknowledges and offers a corrective to the ways anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism complicate global discourse about the Israeli Palestinian conflict.”
Speaking for the minority, Teaching Elder Commissioner Brian Paulson from Chicago Presbytery argued: “For this crucial work we need to keep and expand our circle of allies in Israel-Palestine and around the world. Unfortunately, the tone of this document—even more than any one specific flaw …—is repeatedly dismissive and often acerbic and as such does not rise to the level of discourse required in a document that is being offered in the name of the whole church.” Neither Paulson nor any of his allies cited specific passages to substantiate their general critique of the ACSWP report.
Young Adult Advisory Delegate Nivin Lee from Southern Kansas Presbytery made a passionate appeal on behalf of the minority. Lee drew from New Testament passages about reconciliation to sketch a theological vision at odds with Belhar’s partisan approach. “We are called to tear down this wall of division and hostility,” Lee said. “It’s high time we raise our voices and bring peace, justice, unity, and reconciliation to all—regardless of political identity, nationality, or language, regardless of who threw the first stone, who threw the last stone, or who threw the most stones—and most importantly, regardless of which side of the wall they are on.”
Ruling Elder Karen Beshears from Great Rivers Presbytery in Illinois urged her fellow commissioners to “look very seriously at the Confession of 1967.” She quoted that confession as teaching that “the members of the church are emissaries of peace and seek the good of all in cooperation with powers and authorities in politics, culture, and economics.” (9.25) Beshears added, “I would like us to do that by approving the minority report.” But C-67, now almost a half-century old, was not the confession that gained the ear of this year’s commissioners.
Critics of the ACSWP report won minor changes in the document. A comment was inserted stating, “As disciples of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, of the people of Abraham and the lineage of David, we stand with the people of Israel, affirming their right to exist as a sovereign nation, and we stand with the Palestinian people, affirming their right to exist as a sovereign nation.” The comment also stressed the assembly’s “preference for a two-state solution.” The dissidents, however, were unable to alter the overall anti-Israel tenor of the document. Their minority report was defeated on a 140-405 vote.
Belhar as ‘the Foundation of Our Actions’
Sam Jones of the ACSWP writing team was the strongest advocate for its proposal. Jones defended the one-sided criticism of Israel. “The balance in suffering and power of Palestinians and Israelis … simply does not exist,” Jones told the commissioners. “The number of deaths, acres of land taken, demolitions of houses and infrastructure, children arrested, and other human rights violations are disproportionately Palestinian…. And there is no balance of power between an occupying power with one of the world’s strongest militaries and the occupied population.”
Commissioners favoring the ACSWP report applied the logic of Belhar: Israel is more powerful and the Palestinians weaker. Therefore, Israel must be the oppressor while Palestinians are the oppressed. Consequently, the church should side with the Palestinians against the Jewish state. It should always blame the Israeli government, never the Palestinian Authority.
Ruling Elder Bill Plitt from National Capital Presbytery explained his thinking: “I borrow from our new Belhar Confession as the foundation of our actions” in approving the ACSWP report. He pointed to passages in Belhar declaring that “the church as a possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice, with the wronged,” and that “in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.” Plitt clearly judged Israelis to be among “the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests.”
Ruling Elder Guy Moody from Baltimore Presbytery also turned to Belhar. Moody quoted from the confession: “Therefore, we reject any ideology which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the Gospel.” The commissioner closed by stating that “Israel is occupying Palestinian territory,” which for him was an injustice compelling him to resist any motions that might convey sympathy or understanding for Israel’s position.
Teaching Elder Matt Drumheller from Charlotte Presbytery did not refer specifically to Belhar, but he spoke its language. “We are called by God to be a prophetic people,” he insisted. “Being prophetic means speaking truth to power. Speaking truth to power means saying some difficult things. When that power is oppressing another people, God calls us to speak out on behalf of the oppressed.” Drumheller opposed any delay in issuing the ACSWP report, because “Palestinians are being oppressed and killed now.”
‘Very Insulting’ to Speak of Jesus as Jewish
The debate took an odd turn when two speakers objected to a phrase in the comment added to the ACSWP report. The comment is “fundamentally flawed,” charged Teaching Elder Brian Camara of Prospect Hill Presbytery in Iowa/Nebraska, “because it identifies Jesus as ‘of the lineage of David,’ which implicitly identifies him with the Jewish people.” Camara contended: “Jesus was also a member of an oppressed religious minority in an occupied territory. He also is a Palestinian in that sense.”
Ruling Elder Michael Gizzi of Great Rivers replied quickly: “I’m sorry, but Jesus was Jewish. He was a Jew. I don’t understand the argument.”
Yet Camarra’s grievance resurfaced later. Rafaat Zaki, the Arab-American executive of the Synod of the Covenant and chair of the denomination’s Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns, intervened in the debate. “[O]ne of the amendments has language that says, ‘As disciples of Jesus Christ, people of Abraham and lineage of David,’” Zaki complained. “I don’t know whom we are referring to. I do not come from the lineage of David and I do not belong to the people of Abraham.” He characterized the passing reference to Jesus’ Jewish ethnicity as “a very insulting statement.”
Zaki apparently forgot the apostle Paul’s proclamation, in the letter to the Galatians, that “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (3:29). Just as all—Jew and non-Jew alike—are “imprisoned under sin” and unable to justify themselves by their own righteousness, so “the promise by faith in Jesus Christ” is available to all “those who believe” (3:22). Biblically and according to classic Reformed confessions, all persons and groups stand on level ground before God. All are accountable to God’s commandments, all must admit they violate those commandments, and all find forgiveness and reconciliation and hope only in the grace of Christ Jesus.
But this was not the perspective that dominated the Portland assembly’s discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead it was the Belhar template was applied: There are groups like the Palestinians, identified as “the oppressed,” who stand in a position of social righteousness, immune from criticism for any wrongdoing. On the other hand, there are groups like the Israeli Jews, identified as “the oppressors,” who by their social position among “the powerful and privileged” merit relentless condemnation for all their actions.
A Wider Application of Belhar?
Some may question whether Belhar, as the PCUSA’s twelfth confession, would have any more influence than the denomination’s previous eleven confessions. In 2012 and 2014 the General Assembly upheld its moderator in ruling that the Book of Confessions is not “a rule book” that determines the denomination’s practices. The assemblies in those years felt free to consider (and ultimately adopt) Book of Order amendments that contradicted confessional teaching on marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Similarly, a 2012 Permanent Judicial Commission decision affirmed that the existence of “thoughtful disagreement among reasonable and faithful Presbyterians” regarding sexuality vitiated the authority of the confessions to determine ordination decisions.
Yet these considerations do not lessen the impact of Belhar, as demonstrated in Portland. Commissioners at the assembly turned to Belhar more as an inspiration than as a rule book. They found it inspirational because it was the PCUSA’s latest word, summoning and validating the spirit of the times among denominational leaders. Earlier confessions, viewed as fossilized remnants of earlier times, could never have the same force or application to today’s issues. Moreover, in matters of social justice such as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, commissioners are not restrained by the same “hermeneutic of suspicion” that has largely silenced confessional (and biblical) texts regarding sexuality. Regarding putative causes of the oppressed, on the contrary, there is an eagerness to claim confessional and biblical inspiration.
Of course, there is much oppression in the world outside the narrow confines of Israel-Palestine. There are many groups besides the Palestinians that can be numbered among the oppressed. At the 2016 General Assembly, the application of the Belhar Confession was focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There was no similar binary analysis of any other conflict, even in the war-torn Middle East. Perhaps we shall see the new confession applied more broadly in the coming years.