Divesting in Israel? Not Before We Confess Our Own Sin

Last week the Presbyterian Church (USA), of which I am a member, did two things of note. First, it gave me and my colleagues permission to perform same gender weddings. I would have done them anyway if I’d been asked, but it’s nice to know that now I won’t be tried for heresy or whatever if I do.

The second thing we did, (and God how I wish I didn’t have to say “we” in this context), was vote (303 to 310) to join the divestment campaign against Israel. To quote the Jerusalem Post: “The Presbyterian Church made the decision [to join the campaign] with the vote to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Motorola Solutions due to what the church said are business dealings with settlements in the West Bank. ‘We as a church cannot profit from the destruction of homes and lives,’ said Reverend Gradye Parsons in a statement about the decision at its meeting in Detroit. ‘We continue to invest in many businesses involved in peaceful pursuits in Israel.’

I am more than a little sorry, and I am most certainly ashamed that we did this. Here is my reason: after century, upon century, upon century of persecution suffered by the Jewish people at the hands of ostensibly Christian people – and without having made substantive confession of that horrifying corporate sin, (a sin that, if such things can be quantified, dwarfs what Israel stands accused of at this moment in history) – after that, we have no moral standing, no ground from which to say anything to Israel about what they should or should not do in the West Bank. We all respond to the world around us from our own perspective, our own sense of meaning, our own history. Israel is no different. But since Christians have played no small part in the formation of their perspective, we have neither clear eyes to see nor a clear heart from which speak.

With this in mind I make several observations:

1. I told my congregation how I felt about the church’s two actions during worship this morning. By the time services were over I had received a (very reasonable) e-mail from an Elder in my congregation. She says, among other things I’ll discuss later in the post, “I know because you’ve mentioned it many times, how very important your Jewish friends are to you and how much you want to be on their side.” By way of disclosure I have indeed mentioned how important my Jewish friends are to me. I’m playing a significant role in the raising of, (an incredibly wonderful), Jewish boy, my surrogate grandson, who calls me “Saba,” (Hebrew of Grandpa). I love him and his parents dearly; it is true. But at no point today, or in this post, did I suggest that I am “on their side” concerning this issue. I have not said that I am “pro-Israel,” neither have I carved out a position that is “pro-Palestinian.” I am saying that Christians have no moral standing to speak on the issue – at least not until we have confessed our corporate sin against the Jewish people.

2. Suppose we were to do such a thing? Suppose we were to confess that sin and then speak as our heart calls us to do? I do not know whether we would have taken the same action or not last week, but I do know that we would have communicated our perspective very differently. We would not carve out a position morally superior to “those who destroy homes and lives.” I know those that support divestiture do not believe that America is “sinless” in its foreign policy. I know that they do not believe themselves to be, in point of fact, morally superior to Israel or anyone else for that matter. (We’re all good Calvinists after all.) But the action we took last week did not speak with that in mind. We did not speak with an awareness of our own culpability in this situation, our own guilt in creating this set of perspectives.

3. My church Elder went on to make a good point saying, “YOU may very well know exactly where you stand, but I would like (and I hope) that the FPCSR community will take the time to learn, discuss, and discern, and I hope you will help guide in the process.” She wisely adds, “I think that part of the problem with the Israeli-Palestinian issue is automatically taking sides, committing without education, discussion, and discernment.” I agree; we do better to study an issue before commenting. The Elder suggests two classes, one from a somewhat pro-Palestinian point of view and the other from a somewhat pro-Israel point of view. I don’t know if I’ll have time to organize and lead such a class before I go on sabbatical, (though I’m open to after sabbatical). In principle though I’d be happy to guide such a process as long as we start and finish with a class concerning our own actions in regard to the Jewish people lo these last 2000 years, and let that inform our discussion as well.

4. I note that as a denomination we say we “don’t want to profit from the destruction of homes and lives” and yet there is no call in the overture to scrutinize all of our investments to see if any company in which we hold stock is participating in the “destruction of homes and lives.” If that had been the overture, I’d feel much differently about it.

5. The vote was 303-310 in favor of divestiture. I would simply ask if the church should be taking such a provocative and public stand by such a slim margin.

6. Which leads me to my last observation, the PCUSA is, as the Jerusalem Post pointed out, one of the largest mainline Christian denominations in the U.S., but that’s not saying much. We are dwindling, and I mean fast. We are now less than half the size we were 25 years ago. That to say, I’m actually surprised that what we did last week made it into the papers at all … and Meet the Press? I’m surprised and discouraged that this statement, a statement made with a vote of 303-310, is what caught the public eye and defined “Presbyterian” for them. Those who take a pro-divestiture stance would say that this is a good thing; it identifies us with justice. I get that, really I do, but even that is not the heart of what we believe. It’s a consequence of what we believe to be sure, but our passion for justice stems from our beliefs about the nature of God. We are people who long to be in relationship to a God literally defined by “love,” and we know that as relationship, or call it connection, to God’s love forms us, it overflows into the world, moving us to act with love for all. Somehow that’s gotten lost in the shuffle. Just sayin’ …

I’ve attached a link to a sermon I preached last year entitled, “Confessing our corporate sin against the Jews.”

Grace and peace,

Rev. Samuel G. Alexander

About Sam Alexander

Sam Alexander is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael and also serves as Adjunct Instructor in Homiletics at San Francisco Theological Seminary.


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