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Presbyterian Pastor Takes Issue With Church's Actions
by Doug Huneke

[This opinion article by the pastor of the Westminster Presbyterian Church (Tiburon, CA) appeared in the Jewish News Weekly and could be viewed originally at the following link.]

Friday September 17, 2004

Over the summer, the 216th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) held its annual session in Richmond, Va. The General Assembly (G.A.) is the highest judicatory of the denomination and understands its actions as the voice to and for the national church.

I am intensely aware of the anger and sense of betrayal felt within the Jewish communities of America because of a series of G.A. actions that dealt with Israel and Judaism. I confess to being caught off-guard by the resolutions and shocked by the final votes. I must publicly state that I, along with many of my lay friends and clergy colleagues, do not agree with the actions and views of this deliberative body. We are networking across the denomination to speak against these actions and to oppose their implementation.

In one action, delegates opposed Israel's security wall, reaffirmed support for the Geneva accord, expressed horror at both terrorist atrocities and actions by Israel's military that harmed innocent people, and then, stunningly, directed recommendations by 2005 for selective divestment of church funds in companies whose services directly or indirectly cause harm to innocent Palestinians and Israelis.

The debates, as the final vote, lacked clear, fair and balanced analysis. Delegates seemed to ignore the reality that the security fence was a regretted step of last resort that has halted terrorist acts against Israeli civilians. In the divestment debate, there was the usual rhetoric with familiar dangerous and inflammatory comparisons of Israel to apartheid South Africa. While the final action did not employ such language, the betrayal was cast. This action outrageously did not call for divestment from companies and nations serving Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and groups supported by Osama bin Laden that exist solely to annihilate Jews and Israel.

The G.A. actions continued the rather generous funding of a loosely Presbyterian "messianic" congregation (Avodat Yisrael) in Pennsylvania. The congregation exists primarily to proselytize Jews, deceptively using Jewish symbols and rituals to lure Jews away from Judaism into another faith. The continued support of this group is a betrayal of a firm, benchmark action by an earlier G.A. (1987) that promised in part to "never again participate in, or contribute to, or (insofar as we are able) to allow the persecution or denigration of Jews."

Curiously, among the actions supporting "messianic" congregations and opposing Christian Zionism was a call for re-examining and strengthening the relationship between Christians and Jews (the action apparently does not say, between Presbyterians and Jews). I endorse this understated portion of four otherwise unsupportable actions, but with a caveat. I urge Jewish and Christian (particularly Presbyterian) congregations to be in active, ongoing dialogue. When the topic of Israel and the Middle East is to be broached, groups should be guided by the late Robert McAfee Brown's essay "Speaking About Israel: Some Ground Rules" (The Christian Century, April 6, 1988).

Words create worlds or, as Gina Waldman, a Bay Area activist on behalf of Jews from Arab countries, said recently, "Words can be weapons of mass destruction." Arguably, by the wording of its actions and the animus behind them, the G.A. encouraged the enemies of Israel, perhaps even emboldened them.

Let us be in dialogue, but with the caveat that this time around Jews should welcome to the dialogue those who passed these actions and those who support them now with the same diplomatic reserve as a potential enemy whose weapon of choice is words, politically correct thinking, and conditional friendship and loyalty.

My denomination must again try to earn the trust and friendship of the Jewish community. The vast majority of Presbyterians are not anti-Semitic and most are either deeply troubled or confused by the G.A. actions. We are profoundly disturbed by our leaders and by the delegates who favored these anti-Israel, anti-Semitic actions. Be certain of this. We are also committed to challenging the actions of the denomination and working for meaningful sensitivity in the church and its congregations regarding Israel and the unquestionable spiritual integrity of Judaism. As I repent of and repudiate those actions, taken in my name, I commit myself to continuing efforts to bring a just peace (in governance and territory) to Israelis and Palestinians, and respectful understanding between Christians (particularly Presbyterians) and Jews in America.

Please join me in telling my denomination what it means to have acted in these ways: Write to the General Presbyter and State Clerk in each of the presbyteries: Presbytery of the Redwoods, 1226-A Salvador Ave., Napa, CA 94558; Presbytery of San Francisco, 2024 Durant St., Berkeley CA 94704; San Jose Presbytery, 888 North First St., Suite 320, San Jose, CA 95112; and to Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, 100 Witherspoon St., Louisville, KY 40202.

Rev. Doug Huneke is pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon. He was a founder of the Marin Interfaith Council, and served on the church relations committee of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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