decently and in order

In 2000 my family and I joined a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation.  The long path to that point was quite convoluted, mostly uphill and would likely require either psychoanalysis or an incredibly self-indulgent dissertation to explain.  This church, unlike my childhood church, preached a message centered on God's grace in a way that seemed practical, reasonable and accessible.  Hearing it helped me clear the final hurdle to be able to commit to a faith, a belief in something bigger than myself, that had been missing.  The committment was not given out of guilt or fear and it did not require me to suspend hard won ideas about spirituality, deny the truth that can be found in science or forfeit belief in human autonomy.  This community of faith was, in a small, unpretentious way, making the world a better place and I treasure being a part of it.

My membership in PC(USA) is almost exactly 10 years old now.  Over that time my involvement in church has grown from attending to participating, from learning to teaching, and from following to leading.  Recently I was elected to a Pastor Nominating Committee, charged to find a new pastor for our congregation.  It was hard work, but it was a spiritually rewarding experience.  If you have ever felt called to a task, have ever glimpsed God at work in your life or finished an assignment knowing that the lessons learned were greater than the conclusions delivered, then you understand my concept of spiritual reward.  It was an exhilirating experience, especially when we found our new pastor, someone we knew God was calling to serve our congregation.

The exhiliration, however, has passed for now.  Events outside our congregation, unfortunately, have generated serious questions for me.  The answer to these questions may affect my continued membership and participation, specifically in the PC(USA) but perhaps even generally, as a member of any church.  My church, or more exactly the denominational leadership of PC(USA), seems to be substituting the colloquial, institutional wisdom of local congregations with the opinions from 'high priests' with a political agenda.  My daily struggle is reconciling my heart, which says 'Stay, make it better', with my head which says 'to what purpose?'  I do not know how this will be resolved.

My differences with PC(USA) are mostly political, though occasionally about doctrine.  The issue of ordaining homosexuals has not been definitively resolved within the PC(USA).  The general wishy-washiness of their stance is troubling, but the idea that the final decision rests with the local congregation and its immediate Presbytery leadership is part of being Presbyterian.  I can forgive their gullibility on much hyped (and frighteningly religious) environmentalism because I believe that we are stewards of the earth. Though some of the whole "going green" enthusiasm often strays into believing that humans are gods in control of the earth, if the end goal is a cleaner world or respect for (not obedience to) nature, I can manage my own perceptions and endure "we are saving the earth" hyperbole.  And discussions about 'social justice' are only troublesome to me when people conflate opportunity and mandate ... equal opportunity is not equal outcome.

The PC(USA) Middle East Study Committee's report, however, undermines my ability as an individual member to reconcile the public position of PC(USA) with my private political beliefs.  This 172 page report gives the distinct impression that if you are not anti-Israel, then you are not a right-thinking Presbyterian.  Somewhere along the way, apparently, my faith has misinformed my politics, or vice-versa.  Either way, the implied question is 'are you sure you are in the right place?'

The MESC, in this report, has taken it upon themselves to write letters to constituencies outside of our denomination.  They have stepped beyond the role of speaking "to" the membership of PC(USA), and are now speaking "for" the PC(USA) to outside groups.  They are encouraging individual members to spread their message, and promote their opinions, as we, denominationally, undertake further study.  Like it or not, whether this report is officially accepted by the General Assembly this year or not, the MESC has pre-emptively spoken for me, as a member of PC(USA), about the issues in the Middle East.  If an individual member disagrees, what is their recourse?  Will they be heard?  Ironically, the report is titled "Breaking Down the Walls" while they are consciously building one inside the denomination.

Yes, I know the report categorically states that PC(USA) supports the right of Israel to exist as a sovereign nation.  In the conclusion, however, they write:

theocratic states in the Middle East that are “Islamic” or “Jewish” should be considered as anachronisms in the twenty-first century. Such states cannot exist without practicing discrimination against citizens who are of the other faiths than those of the state.

Doesn't that contradict the statement about the right for the Jewish state of Israel to exist?  Does that single statement provide enough balance to the obvious Palestinian bias in the rest of the document?  Where is the condemnation of the Islamic states in the region?  Does only Israel need to deny their faith?  Where is the charge that Egypt is 'inhuman' for not supporting Gaza through its non-blockaded southern border?  Palestinian violence is presented as understandable, but Israel's self-defense is presented as abuse of power.*

Over a year ago I wrote about the hand wringing over "disproportionate responses" regarding Israel's actions against mortar attacks from Gaza.  In that post I wrote "somebody has to kick somebody else's ass to settle this thing."  I still stand by that assessment.  The state of Israel has been "in negotiation" for borders, for water, for peace since it's inception.  It has also been under attack for that same period.  Saying that you support a two state solution and that Israel has a right to exist will not end the conflict, and laying the bulk of the blame at one party's feet, in large part because the committee believes they are the 'powerful' party, isn't speaking with truth for justice.  It is the language of a prosecuting attorney, not an impartial judge.

The committee writes:

It is also our prayer that the whole church will then engage in a thoughtful and prayerful study of this report with a view to taking significant actions toward fulfilling God’s vision of peace for all peoples.

Immediately above this plea for "thoughtful and prayerful study" they position themselves as the priests, prophets and pastors for our denomination.  This is no different than the stance the clergy took before the Reformation, only this time, instead of controlling the interpretation of scripture, they want to control secular political opinion.  My faith informs my politics.  By condemning my politics, they are condemning my faith, the one that has grown, and yes 're-formed', within this denomination.  Must I conform to their politics to be part of their denomination?  That seems to be the impression the PC(USA) priests and prophets want to make.

Yes, I pray for peace in the middle east, but no, I don't believe it can be obtained if Israel 'turns the other cheek' in submission to terrorists, or in shame from external 'tsk-tsking.'  Israel has turned the other cheek, many, many times expecting to be treated as equals but instead are hectored from all sides.  Neither side is guilt free, but I believe that peace will only be obtained in the middle east when one side imposes their will on the other.  The question then is, which side will be the most just in their victory?

The impression from the PC(USA) is that these kind of practical, political beliefs make me both a bad Christian and a bad Presbyterian.  If practical experience and thoughtful reflection on political situations cannot be reconciled with pronouncements from on high, do I stay and be presumed in agreement with those pronouncements, or do I leave and find a more personally truthful path?

Is it any wonder that PC(USA) is losing members at an alarming rate?

* the caption/explanation for the cartoon above
“Israel is attempting to achieve balance of power with the Arabs. The Arab reply: This will be the only balance.” Egyptian review, Roz-el-Yussef, February 14, 1966.

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