LOUISVILLE- Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the 216th General Assembly, is challenging the General Assembly Council to do some hard thinking and praying over the next two months about divestment - warning that to approach the next General Assembly without a clear message about divestment would be a mistake.
Already, Ufford-Chase said, the overtures about divestiture are pouring in - many in direct response to the action of the 2004 assembly, which voted to have the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pursue a policy of selective, phased divestment in some companies doing business in Israel. That assembly wanted to take a stand regarding Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people, the building of the security barrier and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
But the response was strong and largely unanticipated - the assembly’s divestment vote proved hugely controversial.
Some of the overtures say “divestment was a disaster - we should rescind it immediately,” Ufford said. Others say, “It was exactly the right thing to do.” And some aim for the middle, saying “we understand the intent of divestment,” and perhaps in some way we can shift it more towards positive investment in the Middle East, he said.
Knowing all that’s coming, if the General Assembly Council doesn’t speak a clear word about divestment, “I fear the worst,” Ufford-Chase said. “The worst is that we approach the next assembly with a fairly non-nuanced debate, which comes down to, `I like divestment” or “I hate divestment.’ ”
In that environment, no matter what happens, “half the church goes away deeply hurt and angry,” he said.
He also said that as he’s traveled to the Middle East, talking about divestment with Jewish peacemakers who raised “grave concerns” and Christians in Palestine who felt supported by what the assembly had done, he found that some of the best conversations took place informally, outside of the rooms where the official conversations were taking place.
Ufford-Chase called for empathetic listening - listening so carefully that “I can tell your story as well as I can tell my own,” so those with strong feelings about divestment can really hear the stories of both Jews and Palestinians.
The moderator also said he will ask for “serious time” for this issue at the council’s next meeting in April. He asked council members to join with him in a time of deep, intentional discernment about divestment. And, Ufford-Chase said, “I would ask for your prayers.”