Thoughts by New Jersey Presbyterians on the 221st General Assembly

It may sound strange for a stated clerk to say this, but there are some situations in which Roberts’ Rules of Order don’t help us very much.

The General Assembly has just voted, 51% to 49% – a difference of a mere 7 votes – to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, because they have profited from selling equipment Israeli security forces routinely use to deny Palestinian civil rights.

Presbyterian investments in these companies are nowhere near large enough for their withdrawal to create any pain for these huge corporations. Everyone knows divestment actions like these are all about witness. Whatever clout such actions have arises from the fact that the General Assembly can be said to represent the views of 1.8 million Presbyterians.

When only 51% of the commissioners vote in favor of such divestment, that claim is hard to justify.

There’s no question that a majority vote – even by the slimmest of margins – is enough to accomplish the action, under Roberts’ Rules. No doubt, Presbyterian investment managers under the authority of the Assembly will duly comply with the Assembly’s instruction.

With respect to what could be called the meta-action – the symbolic witness this divestment decision represents – it’s hard to see that this vote will accomplish very much. I grieve that, personally, because I would very much like to hear the church’s voice ring out resolutely to urge the Israeli government to honor the Palestinian civil rights it has long suppressed in the name of national security.

When the vote totals flashed on the screen here in Detroit, a collective gasp escaped from the assembled commissioners and advisory delegates. Everyone here knows, I think, that such a close vote is not much of a victory for anyone, least of all the long-suffering Palestinians. Sure, there are some evil, violent people living in the Palestinian territories. The heartbreaking reality, though, is that the vast majority of Palestinians, whose fondest desire is simply to live in the land of their ancestors and raise their families in peace, continue to suffer privation with no end in sight.

At the end of the day, passing motions is not going to accomplish much. A far more significant action would be for Presbyterians, in large numbers, to travel to Palestine and Israel, not to fulfill a romantic vision of “walking where Jesus walked,” but rather to listen, learn and advocate for peace and justice – as, indeed, Jesus did in the days when he did walk the earth.

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