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Wednesday, July 28, 2004 PARIS (UPI) — The Presbyterian Church USA had 4.2 million members back in 1967. Now there are 2.4 million left. What happened? Is Calvinism on the wane in the United States?
Not really, judging by the success of other, more confessional denominations of the Reformed tradition. The conservative Presbyterian Church in America now counts 350,000 faithful, up from some 60,000 when it broke away from the PCUSA in 1972. And it grows at a rate of 2 percent to 3 percent every year.
Another breakaway body, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, now stands at 100,000 members as compared with around 15,000 when it began in 1982.
So it's not that Americans don't wish to be Presbyterians; it is because the PCUSA has been systematically divesting itself of its staunchest members for the past 37 years. And it has done so with faddish decisions such as the one taken by its General Assembly in Richmond, Va., recently.
It was a divestment decision—a 431 to 62 vote—to end investments in Israel.
It is hard to argue with the outburst by talk show host Dennis Prager: "It takes a particularly virulent strain of moral idiocy and meanness to single out Israel, not (Yasser) Arafat's Palestinian Authority, or terror-supporting, death-fatwa-issuing Iran, or women-subjugating Saudi Arabia, for condemnation and economic ruin."
Of course, the PCUSA is by no means the first organization to apply to Israel a measure that seemed questionable even when directed against the apartheid regime in South Africa and against pre-Mugabe Zimbabwe, never mind the human costs. Secular institutions, such as universities, have shown the Presbyterians the way in this respect.
But unlike universities, the PCUSA is the first church to raise such a one-sided act to the level of official doctrine, disregarding the horror of suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism against which Israel is trying to protect itself.
This is not to approve of the means by which Israel does this; that would go beyond the scope of a religion column. The issue here is rather: Is it Christian and theologically acceptable for a church body to meddle in international politics in which clerics have woefully little expertise?
Since the 16th-century Reformation, church history is littered with catastrophic examples of ministers arrogating upon themselves the right to interfere in the secular realm.
It appears the lesson of the bloody Peasants War (1525–1526) lead by reformer Thomas Muentzer, Luther's antagonist, has never been learned. With Muentzer's folly in mind, Luther admonished preachers to "grab into a prince's snout but never mess with his craft." In other words, proclaim the Gospel to the ruler but not presume to do his job.
Here, then, runs the fault line between good Biblical theology and blind activist clericalism of the kind that marks the PCUSA's latest decision.
The Vatican, though clearly no admirer of Ariel Sharon's wall, nonetheless exercised theological sanity last week by officially equating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. The PCUSA's divestment vote, on the other hand, was none other than a fashionable anti-Zionist move.
It's not that the PCUSA—or any church, for that matter—does not possess the tools to interfere in the Middle East peace process in a valid way. The most legitimate of these tools would be prayer, the Church's first and foremost task. This would require faith, of course; erratic activism doesn't.
Another tool would be the proclamation of the Christian message of forgiveness, which the antagonists in the Holy Land would be well advised to open their ears to. This, too, presupposes the kind of faith that seemed to have been absent at the General Convention in Richmond last week.
What makes activist church people look so pathetic is that, for all their good intentions, they have an infinite ability to make fools of themselves. Think of the "blindness in the left eye" by well-meaning U.S. theologians such as Sherwood Eddy (1873–1963), who in the 1920s organized tours to the Soviet Union to show Christians from the United States how "progressive" the Stalinist regime was. He completely overlooked the liquidation of millions of kulaks (land-owning farmers) at that time.
Think of German theologian Dorothee Soelle's "epiphany" during a visit to Hanoi at the height of the Vietnam War. Think of the enthusiasm of leading French Protestant theologians for Pol Pot's victory in Cambodia. Think of the pilgrimage of pastors, priests and rabbis to Nicaragua during the Sandinista dictatorship.
Now the PCUSA, in earlier days one of the most respected Protestant denominations in North America, endeavors to strangle Israel, a country whose policies certainly court criticism, but still the only democratic country in the region—and more: As one Christian writer phrased it, "After all, its people, the Jews, are the root from which we all spring."
Dennis Prager is right: "The most grievous evil is that which is committed in the name of God. For not only do religious evils harm their victims, they also do lasting harm to God-based morality."
Prager went on, "Incredibly, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) joins the list of religious groups committing evil. In the name of Jesus, it has called for the strangulation of Israel."
The decline of this denomination to the size of a sect in the past 37 years has shown where this kind of folly will lead. If the PCUSA goes on like that its future will be assured—total divestment of itself.
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