Category Archives: miscellaneous

The Hypocrisy of neutrality

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This has been on my mind for a long time, and it is time that I say something.

For the last three years I have been extremely active in a coexistence program that brings Israeli teens (Jewish and Arab) to the U.S. for a two week intensive immersion in shared society, living together, working together, doing service projects, public speaking. I have found it to be a very valuable experience, for them and for those they interact with, and I think it is a key element to an eventual resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It isn’t the only part of the solution, it is one important part.

This year’s delegation has been in the U.S. (in Bloomington-Normal) the past ten days, and those who follow me on social media will notice that I have not made a single post about it. Why? Well, because I am no longer part of the local advisory board. Why would I leave the board of a group that I think is so important? Well, it wasn’t exactly by choice.

In January I learned that the parent organization had created a series of new rules, one of which was particularly unacceptable.  All local volunteers could neither speak, write, nor take any positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Complete neutrality was required. Hmmm… I understand that for an employee of the organization, it is important for there to be no pre-conceived biases, but for volunteers? This struck me as authoritarian and over-the-top. As most people who know me know, I do a lot of advocacy work on Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution. I am a vocal supporter of a two state solution — two states, two peoples, one peace. I do this through my work with Presbyterians for Middle East Peace. I have spent fifty days in Israel and Palestine meeting organizations and people, doing fact-finding, and studying the issues at play. I also do similar work promoting a two state solution with various Jewish Federations. At ISU, I advise Hillel, the Jewish Student Union, and have worked hard not just to better understand Jewish culture and religious beliefs, but have done my best to expose the students to the same work I do on two states for two peoples. And, I write on the topic – here in my personal blog, and in my occasional column in the Times of Israel, a Jerusalem-based online newspaper.

So when told I could either stop writing and speaking out on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or continuing to work in the co-existence project, my choice was simple. I am not going to remain silent,or neutral. I have many Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian friends. I advocate for ALL of them. Everything I write, even with criticizing the Boycott Divest Sanctions Movement, focuses on self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians. Everything I write is intended to promote that one goal: two states, two peoples, and one peace. The idea that volunteers need to be completely neutral on the peacemaking issues that so much time, energy, and talent is invested is nonsensical. While it makes sense that paid staff need to remain neutral and not speak out on issues, to impose that on volunteers — volunteers whose professional work is focused on justice and conflict resolution is incredibly short-sighted. There is a hypocrisy in thinking that one can advocate for peace while remaining completely neutral.  Yes, an organization can create whatever rules it wants. I accept that.  I can also decide how to focus my energies.

I am not going to suggest that I don’t have biases. If there is one thing you learn in studying narratives, it is that we all have our own narrative. So, yes, I work with Jewish organizations; yes, I write a column for an Israeli newspaper. And yes, I work to promote the two state solution while opposing efforts to delegitimize Israel. I am also a public intellectual. I do research on the shared society efforts and the efficacy of “co-existence” programs, while also engaging in public advocacy. Will some view me as being a “Zionist” or pro-Israel because of my work, and the time I have spent in Israel? Sure. I am Pro-Israel. I am also Pro-Palestine, and Pro-Peace.

It makes me sad that I can not interact with the current group, or be a part of the program anymore, but I remain committed to the participants and teachers I have worked with in the past three years. My friends in Haifa, Nazareth, Rama, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Eilat are why this work is so important. It is more important than any one program’s short-sighted policy edicts.

Highs & Lows of General Assembly

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It is  now 11:40 pm on Friday night, the last night of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  We are still in plenary session.   Tomorrow by noon the assembly will be done. This has been a week unlike any other. It has been a remarkable experience, both in the prayerful discernment process of the church, the work we have done, and the very democratic nature of a church polity.  Something I have dreamed of my entire adult life.

In thinking of this week’s experience I will say there have been the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. Yesterday, June 19, 2014, was one of my very best days.  The action Thursday to authoritatively interpret the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to permit pastors to perform same sex marriages in states where it is legal, and to face no disciplinary actions; and the amendment sent to the presbyteries to redefine marriage as being between two people was one of my proudest moments.  Our church has declared that all are welcome, all are equal, and as I saw yesterday on twitter,  #loveWins. This was incredibly special, it was an issue dear to my heart.   And I will forever know I was a part of that process.  

It is only today that I fully understood the pain that those on the other side of the issue felt, and how important our prayerful discernment is.  As I have written before, I have been dedicated, wholeheartedly to the opposition of divestment from three corporations (Caterpillar, HP, and Motorola) due to their use by the Israeli government in the Palestinian conflict.  My focus initially was on what I saw as a divisive, one-sided, and biased “study guide” called Zionism Unsettled.   I authored a commissioner’s resolution, to which five other commissioner’s joined, declaring that it does not represent the views of the church.  That resolution was approved by the Middle East Committee 55-8, and approved on the consent agenda on Wednesday.  This was another incredible high.   But I was equally committed to approving a resolution calling for continued positive investment in Palestine, and against divestment.

I was fully aware of the impact the decade long effort to divest has had on my presbytery, the pain it has caused, the churches which have left – since Caterpillar is headquartered in Peoria and smack-dab in the middle of the presbytery.   I aligned myself with a group called Presbyterians for Middle East Peace.  We worked in solidarity, we strategized, we developed speaking points, messages,  we raised objections, and engaged in what is certainly a political process, but one that was both thoughtful, prayerful, and conscientious.     

Today, after a 3 1/2 hour debate, we lost.   By a margin of 7 votes, the Assembly decided to divest from these three companies.   I spoke early about the damage this would do to our interfaith relations, and how hurtful it would be viewed to American jews. I spoke about the symbolic way this would be viewed by the outside world, as affiliating ourselves with the BDS – or Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement (even though that isn’t officially true).  One of my colleagues spoke passionately about his community of Washington, IL, and how this decision would be viewed.  We fought the good-fight.  It was even harder to lose by such a close margin.    7 votes.  I saw the pain in the eyes of my fellow commissioners and the concern of how our local churches would react.  I saw calls for prayer.   Not everyone in our presbytery – or even in my congregation – is opposed to divestment – but many are.  Five of us opted to sign an official dissent from the vote, so our names will appear n the minutes of the meeting.      

But in the end, I realize that this is what happens in a democracy.  In a representative polity.  We make hard decisions, not everyone is happy, but we have spoken.   I will have more to say, when my brain is less cloudy.  But  in the end, more than fifteen hours after starting today, I think I am out of ideas, and might revisit this entire post tomorrow afternoon at the airport.  

A Very Good Day at GA

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Today was the fourth day of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  It was the day we finished our work in committees, in preparation for the return to plenary session on Wednesday afternoon. It was also the day I knew I would present my overture on Zionism Unsettled before the Committee on Middle East Issues.

I had prepared what I thought was a 3 minute presentation, but before heading over to the COBO Center I tested it out.  I was 40 seconds too long.  I spent the next 30 minutes cutting it down, and getting it to a 2:52 second talk.  After testing it multiple times, I decided it was good.   

Committees met, and we heard recommendations from the Biennial Assembly Committee Recommendations.  Oh, how very presbyterian.   This was ok, though because we were led by Carol McDonald and she helped guide us through the issues.   I was pleased that a fellow commissioner moved, at 11:30am for us to vote on the entire package of 16 recommendations as an omnibus package, and just pull out the items we wanted to discuss separately.  This saved a huge amount of time.

After lunch, things started to bog down, as multiple people began proposing amendments, and amendments to amendments.   It tested my patience, and the skills of the moderator.  I found a solution.  Voting down the original amendment, I then called for us to suspend the rules, and work as a committee of the whole, for 3 or 4 minutes, to talk out what amendments we wanted to make, and then make ONE motion.  That seemed to work.   Roberts Rules can be messy, but if you work it, it can be efficient too.

About that time, I got a text from a colleague on the Middle East Committee saying “Come now!”   I grabbed my iPad, and headed to the other end of COBO.   Alas, it was clear that they had more business to do.  I came back, grabbed my bag, and laptop, and headed back to ME Issues to wait.   I knew I could do the presentation, I watched the tenor of the committee — it was not as contentious as I expected, but they were worn down.   There were about 250 people in the room.  65 commissioners, and 200 observers.    Around 4:10 it was my time.  

I gave my talk, and it seemed to be well received. Given the time constraints I could not engage my audience, but merely stuck to my script.  I knew they would cut me off if I went over. So, I made sure I told a story, explaining why I was opposing Zionism Unsettled; and felt like it was effective.  There were no questions, so I sat back and waited to watch the debate.  To my surprise there was much support. My statement that as a political scientist, I understood the use of political propaganda, seemed to resonate with one commissioner.  Others did feel that calling for its removal from the  web store was censoring it (which wasn’t really my intent), and a motion was made to strike everything involving ceasing distribution of the document.  In that case, it would have read:  

The 221st General Assembly (2014) declares that Zionism Unsettled does not represent the views of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

I was actually ok with that.  But committee members thought it didn’t go far enough, and the end result was to further amend it to say 

The 221st General Assembly (2014) declares that Zionism Unsettled does not represent the views of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A. and directs all Presbyterian Church (USA) entities to express this statement in all future catalogs, print or online resources. 

The resolution then passed by a vote of 54-8.   I was ecstatic.  Hell, I was doing a happy dance.  In many ways I was shocked.  This was as good as I could have hoped.  The Middle East Committee was willing to overwhelmingly support a resolution that I considered a long-shot.   Commissioner’s Resolutions in general are considered last. 

Technically, a vote of 54-8 qualifies for the consent agenda, with 88% of the committee approving it, but as of now, no Middle East issues resolutions appear on the consent agenda, so I am unsure if it will have to get full approval on the floor.  We’ll see tomorrow.  

In the end, I felt that I had accomplished what I had come to do at General Assembly.   I was really bothered when I saw this document, and felt like it was not just offensive to my Jewish Friends, but really hurtful.   I experienced that an hour later, when I encountered a Jewish Friend who is here working on other Middle East Issues with my friends from Presbyterians for Middle East Peace.  He was disappointed we did not fully succeed in removing the document.  And I truly saw pain in his eyes, when he talked about the sense of being under attack he felt by the Pro BDS / Pro Palestinian proponents.  We are not done with these issues, not by a long shot, but I knew, with the Zionism Unsettled resolution, I had done the right thing.  

I’ll end this by including the comments I gave before the committee today.

Overture Advocacy – CR 04-10

Mr. Moderator.  My name is Michael Gizzi, I am a ruling elder from the Presbytery of Great Rivers.  I am the advocate for CR04-10, on declaring that Zionism Unsettled does not represent the view of the PCUSA, and seeking it to be removed from the church web store.   Let me explain why I bring this.  For the last two years I coordinated adult christian education at First Church, in Normal, Illinois.  In my daily life, I am a university professor. In that latter role, I also serve as the advisor to Hillel, the Jewish Student Union.  I work hard to develop relationships with my Jewish neighbors. I have had a rabbi teach a class at First Pres on “a taste of judaism.” 

Zionism Unsettled is marketed as a congregational study guide on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict issued by the IPMN. A study guide should examine multiple sides of issues; provide a fair and balanced approach, asking people to think, discern, and pray about issues in a meaningful way.   After reading Zionism Unsettled, it became very clear that it is not a study guide, but rather a one-sided piece of political propaganda — a polemic – that demonizes Israel, describes it as being  “towards a single Jewish, apartheid state.”  It presents a one-sided view of the conflict, distorts issues rather than educates.  I was horrified by what I read in its tone and content.

To the outside world, to the press, to anyone who reads this, Zionism Unsettled appears to speak for the Presbyterian Church (USA).  It does not matter if there is a FAQ on the website, saying it does not speak for the Church;  Symbolism is compelling.  And this document is more than symbolic.  It is being sold and distributed by the church.  And to our Jewish neighbors, across America, it is an attack on not only the political state of Israel, but an attack on them which threatens to polarize our community, betray our relationships, and undermines our role as peace-makers. 

As a political scientist, I understand political propaganda. I understand why it is used.   As a Christian Educator, I know that a study guide should provide participants the opportunity to consider multiple viewpoints.  Zionism Unsettled does not do that.  As Christians we are to seek justice.  My heart breaks over the suffering of our Palestinian brothers and sisters, but this document is destructive, and not only goes against stated General Assembly policy for a two state solution, but damages legitimate efforts at peacemaking.   

CR 04-10 calls for the GA to declare that Zionism Unsettled does not speak for the PCUSA and to cease distribution of it. This action would go a long way to avoid creating further animus with our Jewish friends.  The Israel Palestine Mission Network is just that, a mission network, an advocacy group.  It does not speak for the GA, it does not speak for the church as a whole.   Zionism Unsettled has done damage to us already. We can and must do the right thing to say this piece of propaganda does NOT speak for us.  

Thank you for your time.

This was a good day.  

General Assembly from the Trenches

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It is 9:57pm, The GA Procedures Committee recessed for the evening at 9:30, current with its work, but 12 hours after first meeting.  The day was a whirlwind.  Committee sessions from 9:30 – 12:00,  1:30- 5:00pm, and 7:30 – 9:30.   We got through 15 items.  I also was able to get to know some of my fellow commissioners, having lunch and dinner with them.  It was good times in spite of the hours. 

The morning was kind of a rough start, the committee moderator was learning the ropes of moderation;  committee members felt compelled to speak on everything, and to repeat what other’s had said; the committee parliamentarian was also learning the ropes.   The afternoon and evening went much more smoothly.  We did some important business.  I was able to move the approval of new associate stated clerks, including my friend and former Executive Presbyter Sue Krummel.  I worked hard to kill a set of new proposed ethical standards for commissioners that I thought was fundamentally flawed, had biases in it, and needed much refinement.  

In something my Academic Senate friends would expect, I made a substitutionary motion to amend an amendment, and strike a whole part of the overture.  After much confusion in the committee, this ultimately failed.  But I then suggested we could strike the entire motion and refer it back to COGA — presby-speak for “Committee on the General Assembly” to refine and clean up several of the issues for the next GA in 2016.    Ultimately however, I realized that 1) I have only so much political capital in the committee, and were I to speak again, and propose ANOTHER substitutionary amendment, I might get physically hurt.  🙂   So, I opted to let the amended resolution pass, and I will issue THAT new motion from the floor of plenary, after pulling it from the consent agenda on Wednesday.   

We also debated giving Young Adult Advisory Delegates, short for YAADs, the right to vote as full commissioners.   This was interesting as a YAAD moved to disapprove the motion, and then another commissioner moved to disapprove with comments.  We went on with this for a long time.  But it passed 53-2, with all but 2 YAADs voting for the motion.   

We debated other issues tonight, but I am so brain dead, I can hardly remember what they were.   GA is hard work.   Oh yeah, I remember.  I moved to refer a commissioner’s resolution to provide child care at General Assembly to COGA, and thus let the NEXT GA Procedures committee deal with it!   Snark happens after 9pm. 

My day was also made exciting by attaining a level of #PresbyGeek status by being mentioned by name in two Presbyterian News sources.  The Presbyterian Outlook published a story mentioning my resolution opposing the so-called study guide Zionism Unsettled.   A longer story appeared both in the daily print Genera Assembly News, and in a press release on the PCUSA Website.   If, the Layman picks up the story tomorrow, I will have hit the Presby Trifecta, but this was still pretty cool.

Somehow during committee time, I also found time to write a 3 minute overture presentation for CR 04-10, which I will present to the Middle East Committee tomorrow at some point, hopefully during the day, and not late at night.  

So, today was a good day.   This commissioner is in recess until 9:30am tomorrow.   

“Zionism Unsettled” must go – A Commissioner’s Resolution

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I lead and teach Adult Christian Education classes at First Presbyterian Church of Normal.  In January, I asked a my friend Rabbi Lynn to come teach a four week class for our congregation, titled “A Taste of Judaism.”  I had met the rabbi  after I had become the advisor for Hillel at Illinois State University.  A student asked if I would serve as the faculty advisor for Hillel, the Jewish Student Union.  I was reluctant at first, since, I am not Jewish, and I knew I had Jewish colleagues who might be more suited to advise these students.  But ultimately I agreed, and the experience has been a very positive for one.   I have learned a lot about my Jewish students, their beliefs, their faith, their culture.  I realized our congregation would value from having the rabbi lead a class.     

The rabbi’s class was incredibly well received. Over 70 people attended each week (in a church of 450 members!).  I saw it as going a long way towards developing stronger ties between our church and our Jewish friends and neighbors.  About the time this class ended, I became aware of a new congregational study guide issued by the Israel-Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), called Zionism Unsettled.    It was supposed to be used by congregations to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.   I found it on the PCUSA Website, and was initially frustrated — but now thankful — that I could not download it, but had to buy it for $10.   But I bought it.  And started reading.

I quickly realized that this was in no way a study guide.  It was instead a piece of political propaganda.  It was a one-sided polemic that used inflammatory language, demonizes Israel, and comes close to questioning the very notion of a Jewish homeland.   As I read, I saw language that described Israel as being “towards a single Jewish, Apartheid state.”  The “study guide” was a one-sided view of the Palestinian conflict, adapted from a forthcoming book put forward by a radical secular movement called “Boycott, Divest, Sanction” (or BDS) calling for divestment from companies that do business with Israel.    The document includes deceptive graphics, presents a one-sided view of the conflict and is not a study guide, but instead, a polemic that distorts issues rather than educates.  As such, it is in direct opposition to established General Assembly policy calling for the legitimate rights of both Palestinians and Israelis to be recognized. The study guide reveals a desire by some in our denomination to deny the right of the Jewish people to a homeland in Israel.

The more I looked, the more I realized that this publication of a mission network, which was for sale on the web site of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was being viewed by the outside world as speaking for the Presbyterian Church.  While the IPMN says it is not a report, the reality is the very use of the words “Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on it results in the document appearing to represent the church.  The Press did not distinguish the Mission Network from the Church itself.  The document did not and does not have the approval of the General Assembly. 

Had the document been issued three months earlier, I would have sought an overture in my presbytery to call for its removal, and for the General Assembly to state that Zionism Unsettled does not speak for the church.   But it was too late for that, so I opted to write a commissioner’s resolution – the privilege of any commissioner to the General Assembly.  Over the past few months I worked with several friends to develop a resolution that calls for the General Assembly to declare that Zionism Unsettled does not represent the views of the Church, and directs the staff of the Presbyterian Mission Agency to stop distributing it, and to remove it from the church web store.  

Ultimately five other commissioners, from 4 presbyteries across the country signed the resolution. I submitted that resolution to the ”tracking office” of the General Assembly yesterday.   The resolution was referred to the Bills and Overtures Committee, and was referred to the Committee on Middle East Issues as Commissioner’s Resolution 04-10.  I will be called to be a overture advocate for the resolution on Tuesday. 

I am embarrassed by Zionism Unsettled.  It damages our relationships with our Jewish friends.  It is biased, and one-sided.  As a political scientist, I understand political propaganda. I understand why propaganda is used.  This is a tool to promote the BDS Movement.   As a Christian Educator, I know what a study guide is.  I know that a study guide should provide participants the opportunity to consider multiple viewpoints.  Zionism Unsettled does not do that.  As Christians we are to seek justice.  The Palestinians have legitimate claims, but this document is destructive, and not only goes against stated General Assembly policy, it damages legitimate efforts as peacemaking. It questions Israel’s very right to exist.  Do we really mean that? 

We need to step back from the brink. Making it clear that Zionism Unsettled does not speak for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is an important first step.  

General Assembly Day 1 Reflections

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Today was the first day of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  The day started for me with a breakfast offered by Presbyterians for Middle East Peace at 6:45am. The breakfast was educational and enjoyable.  After that, I spent some time at the exhibit hall, got to meet a “virtual” friend from Instagram who I “met” after last year’s Big Tent Conference in Louisville.  It was cool to finally meet Staci, and her two twin teenagers.  

Opening worship was at 11, and it was very nice.   Perhaps not as contemporary as worship at Big Tent, but quite impressive.  After lunch I went to a strategy session for Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, the advocacy group of presbyterians who I have aligned with, to find ways to have the General Assembly pass resolutions supporting a two state solution and positive investment in Israel and Palestine.   This session, led by staff from a Presbyterian Theological Seminary was very valuable, and will play a role in an issue I am working on.  

After lunch I submitted to the Tracking Office what is known as “Commissioner Resolution -06” — a commissioner’s resolution is an overture, a resolution to be considered by the assembly.    Our business comes in three forms.  Overtures approved by regional presbyteries (with a concurrence from a second presbytery); business from Church committees, and resolutions from commissioners, signed by at least 2 commissioners from different presbyteries.  The resolution I submitted is one I started working on in March.  In January, the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the PCUSA issued what was called a “congregational study guide” called Zionism Unsettled.   This 78 page four-color book and DVD presents a one-sided look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.   It uses inflammatory language, half-truths, refers to Israel as “towards a jewish Apartheid state,” and even seems to question Israel’s right to exist.   I read this “study guide” after a wonderful four week class taught in our congregation by the local Jewish rabbi.  And I was mortified by what I read; the polemic nature of it, and the fact that it appeared to speak for the Presbyterian Church.  As someone who teaches adult christian education, I knew this was in no way a study guide.  

I worked with several people, across the country, and refined the resolution, to call for the Presbyterian Mission Agency to cease distribution of the document and to remove it from the PCUSA web store immediately.    The resolution was signed by six commissioners from four presbyteries and is now before the Bill and Overtures Committee.  I expect to advocate for it on Tuesday.  In writing this, I have put myself on the side of a debate that some of my friends, both at home, and in the Presby-world disagree with, but I feel strongly about building strong relations between Christians and Jews.  Zionism Unsettled does much to harm that relationship.   I am excited about what is to come with this resolution, and will write separately about it later on. 

Since 2pm, I have been in plenary session (with a 90 minute break for a convention center dinner with bad coffee, but good desserts).   Eight hundred commissioners and advisory delegates each have ethernet cables at our desk.   We are supposed to use computers for our business, and to vote.   Well,  a simple rule is that if 800 people – plus probably another 1,000 on wi-fi, are trying to access stuff at the same time, you better have a BIG bandwidth pipe.  Yeah… well, that obviously did not happen.   We had computer voting problems, the PC-Biz.org website kept going down.  It was frustrating.   Needless to say, after dinner we switched to “clicker” keypads.  And guess what?   They took about six tries to work.  We think they are fixed.  Soon we will vote for moderator.   Yes, we are still in session.  It is 10pm.   

That leads me to the final task of the day.  We are listening to Q&A from three moderator candidates. They gave five minute speeches, and there has been 45 minutes of questions.  And then we vote.   And then we go home.   I am still hopeful that my favorite candidate will 

This has been a long day.  Rewarding in some ways, frustrating in others,  tiring, given that the 5:45am wakeup was really 4:45am, but I would no be anywhere else right now.  And am pretty darn happy to have the opportunity to be a ruling elder commissioner, and to be serving with my friends from Great Rivers Presbytery.  

Ok, time to vote for a moderator…   more tomorrow.  

General Assembly Arrival Day

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I arrived in Detroit early today, on a nice direct flight from Bloomington.   Was in the city by 10:30, and started my general assembly experience by checking in, seeing some friends, and starting to get the lay of the land.   Had a nice lunch in Greektown with some commissioners from home, then treated myself to a couple hours at the Detroit Institute of the Arts.    No, they have not sold the art, and I pray they never have to. It is a great museum, not quite the Art Institute of Chicago, but close.    I was excited to see Van Gogh, George Caleb Bingham, and even a Roy Lichtenstein!   

In getting to DIA, I took a cab, as it is about 3 miles north of downtown.   (I think it is 3 miles). Detroit is the motor city, yet strangely, there are not a lot of cabs, and certainly not much mass transit.  When I left, I was a bit concerned I’d struggle to get a cab back to the RenCenter.   I lucked out, and after about 10 minutes flagged down a cab.   The ride back was eye-opening.  On one side of the street there were new condos.  On the other side, there were acres and acres of vacant lots, and abandoned buildings. See, e.g., this photo from the Washington Post, from last Sunday.  It wasn’t quite as post-apocalytic, as some of the photos I have seen, but it told me the tale of a city in distress, but trying to find a new resurgence.  

After spending some time visiting with some friends in the exhibit hall, I got some important information from Gradye Parsons, the Stated Clerk of the church (which is Presby Talk for the chief administrator of the Church’s offices in Louisville, and who in effect is the executive director for the Church in between General Assemblies), about what I had to do to submit a  commissioner’s resolution tomorrow.  YES!  I went straight to the top!   And why not?  🙂   I wrote my resolution (which I will talk about in tomorrow’s blog post) and have five additional co-signers from 3 additional presbyteries, but I actually have to have real signatures on it.  So, that is tomorrow morning’s task.

Tonight, I spent 90 minutes in a strategy session with a group of people I have chosen to align myself on some key issues coming this week.  It was a very positive and really quite valuable experience.  People shared stories, and we talked about approaches to issues.  I know I am being vague right now, but this will become clear in my next post.

It is now 9:38pm, and after not a lot of sleep last night, and a long day, I am pretty tired.  So no real major insights.   Tomorrow morning I go to a breakfast to listen to speakers on Middle East peacemaking issues, then there are informal roundtable discussions on several issues coming before GA.  At 11, we have Opening Worship, and then the first two plenary sessions occur in the afternoon and evening.  The main task, beyond orienting commissioners, is the election of a moderator.   I am very hopeful that a man named John Wilkinson wins the election tomorrow night.   I was quite impressed by his candidacy as presented in various newsletters and interviews.  The Church needs a strong moderator for the work to come this week, and I think he would be effective.   We will see what happens.

Signing off, from Detroit.  Day 1.  Peace out.

Pre-General Assembly Musings, Part I

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I grew up Roman Catholic.  I remember as a young adult being really frustrated by church doctrine, and the non-democratic nature of ecclesiastical authority.  There were so many times I recall arguing that the Church should be responsive to the people, there should be democratic aspects to it. Sure, I served on a church council, but we had no real authority.  I was particularly troubled by the very notion of the power of the hierarchy, of the Bishops, and Vatican.  Ultimately, I chose to leave the Roman Catholic church over questions of equality, over the subjugation of women, and what I saw as obsessive focus on a few social issues at the expense of the bigger picture. 

Four years later, I am about to embark on something I could hardly imagine for most of my adult life.  I am an elected ruling elder commissioner to the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).   The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, for those not familiar with protestant church governance, meets every other year for one week, with representatives from the entire church (in the United States).  645 ordained commissioners (divided evenly between clergy (teaching elders) and “ruling elders” (those non-ministers entrusted with responsibility to guide and lead the church), 172 Young Adult Advisory Delegates, and several thousand observers come together for a week, to shape the policy, theological doctrine, and  focus of the church.   Commissioners are elected by regional bodies (known as presbyteries), which in turn consist of elected representatives (elders and ministers) from each congregation.  

The issues faced by the General Assembly range from questions of governance, to theology, to social justice.  This year, the Church will, for the third time in 6 years, consider the question of marriage equality.  Four years ago, the GA ruled that gay and lesbian ministers could be ordained — and then a majority of the nation’s presbyteries ratified the decision.   This year, we will consider for the second time, whether gay marriage will be recognized and celebrated in the church.  The GA could issue an authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order, or it could pass an amendment, calling for ratification by the presbyteries in the next year.  We will also deal with hot-button political issues such as divestment from three companies doing business with Israel, as protest to the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories.   The GA will also consider whether the Confession of Belhar, approved by the United Reformed Church in Southern Africa,  should be added to the Presbyterian Church’s Book of Confessions.   These are just a small smattering of issues.  Big and small.  

As I prepare to embark for Detroit, I am mindful of the fact that this coming week I will experience church democracy – in all its flavor, the good, the bad, the ugly.   I know that there will be a lot of emotions at play.   Some of the work of GA will be exhilarating; some will be infuriating; some of it will probably be boring.  There will be extensive lobbying on a few issues; there will be efforts to build a community as a whole; sometimes in various caucuses.  Yet the process is one of discernment, worship, and prayer.  It is not the log-rolling and pork-barrel politics of Congress. (I hope not – but the lobbying will be there, particularly on a few issues!)   Of course there will be extensive parliamentary maneuvering.  Yet we will also worship together, we will work together, and provide witness for the Church in future years.   

I am honored to have this opportunity. I am excited to experience something that I really couldn’t even imagine just a few years ago.  As time permits, I will continue to blog my experiences over the ten days to come.  But right now, I have to make sure I have packed enough socks. 

Words matter. Christian scripture, anti-semitism, and its consequences.

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The Christian New Testament includes some language that quite frankly, irritates me to no end.  Take today’s lectionary reading from John, the beginning of the “Doubting Thomas” story. Jn 20:19-29.  

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you”

The house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.

Wait a second.   All the disciples were Jews.  Jesus was a Jew.   Yet, “the Jews” are portrayed as the outsiders, as people to be feared; as those who killed Jesus.  But time out.  It was the Roman Empire that executed Jesus.  It was the Roman empire and its temple collaborators that pushed for his execution, for challenging the Roman power structure.  It wasn’t “the Jews.” But as early as the late first century, when the Gospels were bring written, the religion that became Christianity, was already separating and distinguishing itself from “the Jews.”  

Yet, this language — and it is sprinkled heavily in John, and in Matthew, Luke, and Acts as well, (but not Mark), really sows the seeds of two thousand years of anti-semitism.   I was particularly struck by this language when I realized that today is the day that Jewish synagogues, and the Jewish people around the world commemorate Yom HaShoah,  or Holocaust Memorial Day.  

I wonder, if words were chosen differently, almost two millennia ago, if there would not be the need for such a memorial remembrance.  

And if we are going to read these words, it is incumbent to acknowledge that words have consequences. We need to be aware of the words used.   It is not ok to simply perpetuate such language, no matter if there is no conscious effort to promote hatred or anti-semitism.   

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