I sit in the Detroit airport, waiting for a flight that is still several hours away. I should sleep, but I am still a bit wound up, and thinking about what to make about this most remarkable of weeks.
General Assembly was long. I arrived here on 6/13, it is now the 21st. I am sick of sleeping in hotel rooms, of eating fast food breakfasts, of having no more than six hours of sleep in a night. I am tired of banquet hall chicken dinners, and crappy hotel coffee. I am tired of sitting for hours on end, and work sessions starting at 8:30am and going until 10, 11, or even midnight (last night, we ended at 11:59pm, and they literally turned the lights out before we got out of the room!), and then I had a silly committee meeting to approve the final per capita figures and the budget at 12:15am.
General Assembly is without a doubt, the legislative body of the entire church. We did a lot of work. We approved probably 200 items of business; including some big things. We issued an authoritative interpretation of the Church Constitution declaring that presbyterian pastors could perform same sex marriages in states where it was legal, without fear of reprisal from church disciplinary commissions, and sent an amendment back to the regional presbyteries to redefine marriage as being “between two people.” This was probably the single biggest thing done, but ironically, not the biggest thing in the news.
On Friday, the General Assembly completed a contentious debate, and agreed to divest from three corporations who do business with Israel, and whose products are used for non-violent purposes by Israeli’s in the Palestinian conflict. This was an issue that demonstrated more than anything else, the role of interest groups; the influence that staff predisposition on one side of an issue can have, and the power of both persistence, and symbolism. Persistence, in that there have been overtures to divest from Caterpillar, HP, and Motorola, dating back more than a decade. And only this year, did the measure pass, by a mere 7 votes. Symbolism in that while the Church claimed that the decision was to divest against these three corporations, and not from Israel itself, the reality is the news has very clearly suggested – and Jewish groups have interpreted it – as the opposite. Four minutes after the vote, the New York Times had breaking news declaring that Presbyterians vote to divest from Israel, and within 2 paragraphs, linked the move to the radical secular BDS or Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement that questions Israel’s very right to exist. There was more symbolism in the presence of a small, but vocal (yet still respectful) group of Jewish students (all from California, and pretty much representing a group of Jews far from the mainstream) wearing shirts that said “Another Jew for Divestment,” to many commissioners, this said “oh, American jews support divestment?” This can’t be too bad. The absence, until Friday, of competing groups of mainstream jews to voice the opposite message, came too late. Symbolism matters and influences votes. This isn’t rocket science.
But hard as it is to believe, there was much more to General Assembly than gay marriage and Israel-Palestine. The Assembly voted to rearrange the Church’s mid-councils, or synods, calling for a reduction from 16 to 10 to 12 regional synods in two years. The Assembly voted to permit prior commissioners to serve as committee moderators in future assemblies without being elected as commissioners. We established ethics standards for commissioners, we took action on climate change, on gun violence, on other global peace issues (although Israel dominated international issues). We sent the Belhar Confession back to a vote in the presbyteries to decide whether to include it in our Book of Confessions. We established a new drug policy task force to look at issues surrounding the war on drugs. The list goes on and on.
General Assembly is long. I said that. Its meetings are intense; governed by strict parliamentary procedure; its committees grapple with lots of business. But through it all, most of us were able to remain “decent and orderly.” It also provides a voice to the youth, with 172 “Young Adult Advisory Delegates” – affectionally known as “YAADs.” These young people have full floor access, can speak, can vote in committee, can speak in plenary, and cast advisory votes.
Now many of our commissioners return to their homes and churches, and have to explain what we did. Many people will rejoice; some will be upset. In some communities, actions will cause people to question whether to stay in the denomination; for others, GA will be a brief blip on the news, and have little impact on their daily lives. I am pretty sure it will be with me for a long time. I have made new friends, rekindled other friendships, and have taken my responsibilities seriously. Some issues – like divestment – divided people who are usually on the same side. Yet, through it all, we remained gracious. After I spoke before the Middle East Committee to advocate for my resolution critical of the Israel Palestine Mission Network’s publication Zionism Unsettled, two members of the IPMN came up to me and told me that they agreed with my resolution, and were not offended by what I had proposed. We truly were decent and orderly.
I still have one more post in me, trying to dissect how the divestment vote happened, but that is still, 20 hours later, both too raw, and demands more time to process, but I walk away from the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) already thinking, how can I get back to the 222nd GA in two years, processing some overtures about process that I want to submit to presbytery for approval and consideration before the next GA. Yet, I am happy to return home, to my family, to focus on my book, and to get life back to Normal.