(Go to JAT-Action Home Page or Presbyterian Section)

Presbyterians for Renewal on the Actions of the Presbyterian Church USA

[This explication of the mechanisms for reversing the "dunderheaded" divestment decision comes from Presbyterians for Renewal, an important organization within the Presbyterian Church USA. It was posted on the Berkley Blog by "Jim" on Wednesday, August 04, 2004, and could be viewed at the following link.]

A fine kettle of fish

The PCUSA decision to enter into a process for phased, selective divestment from multinational corporations doing business with Israel has produced a firestorm of reaction worldwide. There are a lot of people mad at Presbyterians and decrying our General Assembly's poorly thought-out decision. PCUSA staff members are scrambling to answer angry messages, clarify what was decided, and defend the actions.

It's not as if groups like Presbyterians For Renewal haven't been saying for years that our socio-political decrees are a mess, that decisions are made from ignorance and propaganda, and that this particular issue demands caution.

So what can be done about this fine kettle of fish?

National commentator Alan Dershowitz wrote a commentary in the Los Angeles Times that calls the PCUSA action "such a ludicrous, wrongheaded position" that "bursts with bigotry and ignorance." He concludes: "Unless the church rescinds this immoral, sinful and bigoted denigration of the Jewish state, it will be 'participating in' and 'contributing to' anti-Jewish bigotry and the encouragement of terrorism."

If only it were that easy! We're stuck with the resolution for the next two years, thanks to the beginning of our experiment with biennial assemblies. So now what happens?

Let's suppose that upon further consideration, level heads in the denomination begin to realize that the General Assembly decision actually WAS a ludicrous, wrongheaded mistake. Can General Assembly Council rescind the General Assembly action?

Not constitutionally. GAC is supposed to act to carry out GA actions. The lower body cannot tell the upper body that it was all wet. GAC cannot undo what GA has done. Only GA can undo what GA has done, and it doesn't meet again until June 2006.

GAC might kind of fudge a little and drag its feet in carrying out the General Assembly mandate. They could so narrow the divestment criteria that nothing fits. They could delay producing and approving the criteria. This would not be a tactic unknown in the Presbyterian offices. A similar tactic was used to keep the still-flawed sexuality curriculum available even though General Assembly had given the order to revise it in 1999 (it's still not done). But that's a sly tactic that does through deviousness what is not allowed in fact. GAC shouldn't venture there.

Can national staff just decide that they won't follow the GA orders, or that they will change them to suit their new understanding, thinking in retrospect that GA made a mistake that they need to correct? Again, they can't do this legally. They do not "know better than GA," although they've been known at times to think they do. Theirs is to follow GA directives, not alter them.

But, again, there is no end of ways that staff COULD redirect its efforts to in effect undo the mess that GA made. While it might be nice to get out from under the legitimate criticism that GA brought on, again, such staff action would be improper. Delaying tactics, reframing what was once clear (although wrongheaded) so that it would be more palatable, simply ignoring the GA directive to do what they decide is better--none of these is a legitimate staff prerogative. Theirs is to carry out the will of GA, even when it wasn't a very sterling example of expressing its will.

Already Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick has just slightly rewritten what GA approved. In a statement hoping to clarify matters, Kirkpatrick wrote that divestment would be considered for "those companies whose business in Israel is found to be directly or indirectly causing harm or suffering to innocent people, Palestinian or Israeli."

That's not exactly what the resolution says. It talks about "divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel, in accordance to General Assembly policy on social investing." Nothing here about causing harm or suffering to Palestinian or Israeli people. Language similar to that is somewhere else in the resolution. The divestment part speaks only about companies "operating in Israel."

This is a test of our polity. General Assembly has made a dunderheaded decision. It's two years until General Assembly will meet again and can revise or rescind such a decision, which only it can do, not a lower body or national staff members.

Keep an eye on what DOES happen, however. There's no polity-approved relief in sight. But that probably doesn't mean nothing will be done. Watch what IS done. It will tell you about how our system actually works, instead of how it ought to work.

And who said biennial General Assemblies were a good idea?

(Go to JAT-Action Home Page or Presbyterian Section)

Valid HTML 4.01!