I was honored to be elected a Commissioner this summer to the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I mentioned before how I felt like this gathering was important for us as a church, a space for us to be church together, despite our differing ways of reading and approaching scripture. Its a vital exercise that can be frustrating, exhausting, and if not appreciated for the opportunity of being the diverse body of Christ together, we can leave these gatherings weakened. I am convinced that one of the things which ails us as a church is a lack of appreciation for people of different theological perspectives in our midst.
Though, even as I write this, and see the lure of entrenchment-among-like-minded-spirits on both sides of the aisle (so to speak), I don’t think its equally pervasive. A big-tent is predominantly a progressive value, and honestly I see many more of my liberal/progressive friends appear to want to be in conversation with their conservative counterparts than there appear to be conversation partners for them. One reason we seem to be falling apart as a church is that conservative positions on issues such as ordination standards and marriage are fading away, and some conservatives appear no longer to abide in our big-tent when their perspective on these matters isn’t the proscribed one. (This is not by any means the only reason we’re falling apart: crumbling of institutions generally may be taking a far greater toll.)
But as we continue to struggle together with what Christ is doing in our midst and what word we ought to be speaking in the world, I would argue that we still need to be appreciative of honest voices on all sides, each wanting to speak the truth in love, each seeking to be faithful as each understands God’s call in his or her life. (Please note the adjective “honest” there: there are, unfortunately, too many voices which are anything but). Disagreement is not necessarily a sign of unfaithfulness. And close votes aren’t necessarily a bad thing either. They tend to signify that we as a church are still discerning something (and are likely to revisit the matter down the road, because we need more time to chew on it).
This is most certainly the case when it comes to the question of responding to the report of the Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee (MRTI), our primary vehicle for reviewing and ensuring the ethical investment of the financial resources of the denomination. MRTI had engaged in a several year process, on our behalf and at our direction, to discuss the business practices of five companies who were profiting from “non-peaceful” activities in Israel and/or in Palestine. Our stated ethical principles of investment preclude us from profiting from non-peaceful pursuits generally, and over successive General Assemblies our church has been concerned about how to speak to issues of peace in the middle east specifically. This is a heated and emotional landscape for everyone who is involved: for Jews and Israelis, who seek justly deserved safe and secure borders free from terror and violence; for Palestinians, who justly deserve safe and secure lives in their own land with opportunities for a realistically vibrant and peaceful future; for Christians, who have an interest in speaking truth to Power and in declaring God’s shalom for all who dwell there, the Israeli and the Palestinian alike.
MRTI, after successfully resolving concerns with two of the five companies, found that the other three (Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and HP) were no longer willing or interested in seeking a mutually agreeable solution. They each plan to engage in business practices which, MRTI believes, lead to profit from non-peaceful activities (in all three instances, it happens to be profit from the activities of the Israeli Defense Forces). MRTI followed their standard process in engaging these companies, and because MRTI determined further conversation was unlikely to lead to change, they recommended that the General Assembly add them to our do-not-invest list. In other words, that we divest from these companies because they do not fit our ethical standards.
Of great concern and sadness to me, the recommended action and context for this was badly twisted by dishonest voices on both sides–some who strongly favor the actions of Israel and its military, and some who strongly favor the cause of the palestinians in the conflict. Charges of anti-semitism were bandied about. Claims that the action supported the broader Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement were propounded. None of which, factually, were true. But they added unnecessary stress and obfuscation to those of us assembled to consider and act on MRTI’s report. To be sure, there were many noble arguments from those who did not feel divestment was wise, but these unfortunately were obfuscated by the others in most circumstances.
You can read what the assembly decided to do in the PCUSA News story about that evening. To distill and oversimplify a complicated and nuanced evening of debate and its outcome, the General Assembly voted by the narrowest of margins (333-331) to reject the MRTI recommendation and to replace it with alternate language encouraging “positive” investment in the region. This language misses, in my judgment, the point that we already engage in positive investment there, that is, in hundreds of companies that engage in peaceful pursuits, both in Israel and in Palestine. And, more importantly, it carves out an exception to our ethical principles that I think has lasting, negative ramifications to our ability to speak a word of peace in the world.
I have had lengthly opportunities to talk with some of my Jewish brothers and sisters about their concerns regarding what divestment in these three companies would have meant to the overall debate about peace in the middle east. Up to our assembly, no major US Christian denomination had urged divestment of its resources because of the conflict there, and we would have been the first. There was concern that this action would have been misinterpreted as a call for divestment in all of Israel (despite repeated attempts to be clear that this was targeted to these three companies, and that the church has intentions to keep investing in many many others). In the end, because dishonest voices warp and manufacture what the church is saying on this issue is not a just reason to refrain from doing what we think we ought is right. There may be other reasons, but surely that one cannot be the principal one.
I have empathy for Israelis who are seeking safety and peace. I also have empathy for Palestinians who seek the same thing. I believe that the church ought to speak out loudly against violence on both sides, and to call upon Palestinians to negotiate without violence and for Israel to stop aggressive settlement building and military operations that end in bulldozing of palestinian homes or intrusive establishment of barriers. The church can (and does) do this while supporting the rights and the freedoms of both parties. And most importantly, it must apply its principles consistently. This includes our principles of ethical investment of our financial resources.
If Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and HP are unwilling to work with us to ensure that our resources aren’t complicating peaceful pursuits in Israel and Palestine, we ought not invest in these companies. It doesn’t matter if we barely have any money with these companies or not. What matters is whether we are willing to make an exception here, because of the emotionally and politically charged nature of the conflict.
I think that making such an exception is a mistake without a clear and plausible ethical rationale. And there has yet been one made, so far as I can tell. For this reason, I supported the MRTI recommendation. I think our willingness to consistently apply our ethical principles actually is important in this case, and it would give us greater credibility, a deeper statement that “we put our money where our mouth is.”
This was one debate I actually rose to speak on during plenary. There were ten microphones, however, and I was fifth in line at mine. Even if everyone before me got to speak for two minutes, that would have meant more than an hour and a half of debate first, and I didn’t get the chance. But I wanted to share what I would have said, had I been called upon to speak to the body (we only had two minutes, so I had to be concise):
Good evening, Mr. Moderator
I am Chad Herring, Teaching Elder from Heartland Presbytery.
I do not wish to repeat arguments already made on the floor about this motion.
There are heartfelt assertions about the ways in which this action will be interpreted. Honestly, our actions are often misinterpreted, many times intentionally, and I support efforts from those of all perspectives to accurately describe what we as Presbyterians have said about just peace and investment, including calls for a safe and secure Israel, the reality of Presbyterian investment in many peaceful companies in Israel and Palestine, and the way in which MRTI also engaged, fruitfully, companies profiting from Palestinian non-peaceful pursuits.
But for me, the question is this: shall we consistently apply our ethical principles to our entire investment portfolio? Shall we exempt these three companies, and thus affirmatively decide to receive profit from non-peaceful pursuits? Or is it the case that our integrity in consistently applying our ethical principles is itself a positive witness for peace in the middle east, along side our affirmation for a safe and secure Israel and peace among Palestinians. I argue that it is, and therefore support the report of MRTI
Clearly, the assembly was not ready to do this. There may have been many reasons for that. It might have been persuasive that our actions would have been so badly misconstrued and misunderstood that relationships with Israel would have been harmed. It may have been persuasive that it was not yet time to end our conversations with these three companies (though the assembly did not direct MRTI how to proceed under the substitute language). It may have simply been that three people were in the restroom when the vote was being taken. Regardless, the assembly decided to adopt alternate language, and we went on to other work.
For me, I would prefer it if we were consistent. I think it is time for us to divest from these three companies. I am all for positive investment in Israel, and in Palestine, and want my Jewish and Palestinian brothers and sisters to live in peace. I am tired and saddened by the way that MRTI’s recommendations were mischaracterized, and find some efforts at doing so distasteful and evil. But in the end, I respect where the church is on the matter for the time being, and offer my prayers that we continue to speak a word of Peace to that region, and that peace might quickly come for all who call that place home.
[Image: Found on Google Images and http://www.layoutsparks.com/1/243326/peace-green-red-pattern.html]