PCUSA's Israel decision 'tragic'

DETROIT (BP) -- A diverse array of evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, have denounced the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s decision to divest church funds from three American companies that do business with the Israeli military and allegedly participate in the oppression of Palestinians.

Meeting in Detroit Friday (June 20), the PCUSA General Assembly voted 310-303 to withdraw investments at the Presbyterian Foundation and the denomination's Board of Pensions from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions. The companies manufacture construction equipment (Caterpillar), biometric scanners (Hewlett-Packard) and cell phones (Motorola) used to maintain Israel's military presence in the West Bank, the Presbyterian Lay Committee reported.

Many Palestinians and their allies argue that Israel's military presence in the West Bank is illegal and oppressive, but Israeli authorities claim legitimate political and security reasons for maintaining a presence in the Palestinian territory, including the curbing of terrorism against Israeli citizens.

A similar attempt to divest from companies doing business with Israel's military failed at the 2012 PCUSA General Assembly by two votes.

At this year's General Assembly, Stephen Choi, moderator of the Middle East Issues Committee, said of the divestment motion, "The committee did not want the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to be responsible for contributing to the devastating treatment of our [Palestinian] sisters and brothers. This is a matter of being good stewards of the gifts and money that God has entrusted to our care."

Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, addressed the General Assembly and offered to arrange a meeting between PCUSA leaders and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to express their concerns. But PCUSA commissioners rejected the offer.

Mitch Glaser, president of the Jewish evangelism and discipleship organization Chosen People Ministries, told Baptist Press the PCUSA's action dealt a serious blow to Jewish evangelism despite a series of amendments intended to soften its impact.

One amendment affirmed "Israel's right to exist as a sovereign nation within secure and internationally recognized borders." Another amendment stated, "This action of divestment is not to be construed or represented by any organization of the PCUSA as divestment from the State of Israel, or an alignment with or endorsement of the global BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions) movement" that attempts to influence Israel with economic and political pressure. Following the vote, PCUSA moderator Heath Rada said, "In no way is this a reflection of our lack of love for Jewish sisters and brothers."

Still, Glaser believes attempts to soften the PCUSA's action didn't go far enough.

"We've spent years and years trying to tell the Jewish people that Christians were the best friends of Israel and of the Jewish people ... What [the PCUSA] felt was compassionate and sensitive to the Palestinian population actually sets us back decades in Jewish evangelism," Glaser said in an interview.

Glaser said PCUSA commissioners likely were well intentioned in their vote but accepted Palestinian views uncritically. Palestinians claim that Israeli checkpoints and security walls are unethical and even criminal, but Israel employed such measures to protect itself against Palestinian terrorist attacks, Glaser said, adding that the measures were largely successful.

"The PCUSA has been fed an unfiltered Palestinian propaganda produced by the propaganda machine," Glaser said. "They've been fed information and made decisions based on that, and herein lies the problem."

Glaser linked the divestment decision to the PCUSA's June 19 decisions to allow its pastors to perform same-sex weddings and to approve a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between "two people" rather than "a man and a woman." Click here for BP's report.

"Viewing these decisions by the PCUSA General Assembly as aspects of one agenda will sober evangelicals who may have unwittingly embraced the divestment decision without understanding the underlying values moving the PCUSA leadership in this direction," Glaser wrote in a blog post. "The PCUSA seems to be leaving its biblical moorings. Instead of allowing Holy Scripture to judge the trends and philosophies of our day, the opposite is happening -- today's trends and values are beginning to determine the ethical, moral and political decisions of the church."

PCUSA-Jewish relationships have been strained recently, especially since publication in January by the PCUSA's Israel/Palestine Network of "Zionism Unsettled," a booklet arguing that it is bad theology to claim Israel has a God-given right to exist in the Holy Land, Religion News Service reported.

Among the booklet's claims, according to the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America: Jews were treated well in Muslim countries until the 19th century; Israel alone is responsible for the suffering of Palestinians; and the nation of Israel has been shielded from debate and criticism among mainline U.S. denominations.

The General Assembly declared that "Zionism Unsettled" "does not represent the views of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)."

Jim Sibley, former director of the Pasche Institute for Jewish Studies at Criswell College in Dallas, told BP that in Romans 11 Paul "warns with a threefold warning against having an arrogant attitude toward the Jewish people, the majority of whom are in unbelief." The PCUSA's divestment decision "is the outgrowth of a total disregard of what Paul is teaching and warning against in Romans 11," he said.

Sibley said the PCUSA's "anti-Israel view" stems from an unbiblical combination of liberation theology (which regards Christianity as providing liberation from political and economic oppression rather than salvation from sin) and replacement theology (which regards the church as the only people of God under the new covenant, replacing Israel as His chosen people). Although the modern state of Israel is not perfect, it is a bastion of freedom and democracy and deserves the friendship of Christians, Sibley said.

"It's tragic to see a major denomination taking actions like these," Sibley, an adjunct professor at Criswell College and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said. "Israel is dear to the heart of God."

Nathan Finn, associate professor of historical theology and Baptist studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said that even Christians who do not believe the modern state of Israel "represents a specific fulfillment of biblical prophecy" should oppose the PCUSA's action.

"I was grieved to hear that the PCUSA has voted to divest itself of companies that profit from the alleged 'oppression' of Palestinians. The political situation in Palestine is both sad and complicated. It is perfectly acceptable for foreign policy experts to raise questions about some of Israel's policies in the region. It seems far less appropriate for a Christian denomination to issue a blanket criticism of Israel and side with the Palestinians," Finn wrote in a statement for BP.

"Even Christians who doubt that the modern nation of Israel represents a specific fulfillment of biblical prophecy can appreciate that Israel is the only major nation in the region that champions democracy and promotes the freedom of worship. Rather than simplistically criticizing Israel, no matter how politically correct that action may be at this moment in our own nation's history, when Christian denominations gather, it would be a more biblically faithful stance to 'pray for the peace of Jerusalem' (Psalm 122:6)," Finn wrote. "We should pray that wise diplomacy and just policies would prevail in the Middle East. However, we must also remember that there will be no permanent peace in Jerusalem -- or anywhere else -- until that day when every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:10)."


David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).