BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- A growing number of Presbyterians are engaged in a battle for the future of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Over the past two years, this denomination -- my denomination -- has taken a turn toward radicalism that threatens to tarnish a once-proud institution. At issue is the Presbyterian Church's decision in 2004 "to initiate a process of phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel." The fallout was immediate, painful and damaging.
Not only are a handful of church leaders taking positions that are highly unpopular in the pews, they are doing so with heavy-handed, top-down measures, actions that run contrary to long-honored traditions. Not surprisingly, the church is experiencing problems with declining membership and dwindling financial support -- due in large part to widespread frustration over the direction the leadership has taken. Instead of developing policies to unite us, the leadership is sowing seeds for further defections by large numbers.
My denomination, once revered as an icon of socially progressive thinking, is now tainted by perceptions of anti-Semitism and naive support of Islamic terrorists. The Presbyterian bureaucracy seems unwilling to confront difficult problems in Africa and the Middle East that do not fit its hard-line, pro-Palestinian political viewpoint. Interfaith relations with Jewish friends are also in shambles after decades of efforts by Presbyterians to reach out and create healthy working relationships based on mutual respect.
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How did the church fall so far so fast? In June 2004, with scant attention and without fair debate, the leadership foisted a divestment resolution on an unsuspecting church. While the action was likened to similar divestment from South Africa under apartheid in the 1980s, attempts to draw analogies between that country then and Israel now are factually indefensible. Only a few months later in the fall of 2004, senior church leaders were among a contingent that met with Hezbollah in Lebanon and praised them -- the same international terrorist organization that has killed thousands, including Americans, without remorse over several decades, and that receives major funding from Iran.
The church also funds fiercely pro-Palestinian committees, sends representatives to Palestinian advocacy conferences, and has written obsequious congratulatory letters to the terrorist leaders of Hamas on their recent election victory. Simultaneously, the church remains remarkably docile on profoundly serious issues such as genocide in Darfur, the Iranian nuclear buildup and mistreatment of Christians in communist and Muslim countries.
Presbyterian delegates also take leadership roles in organizations that blame the U.S. and capitalism in general for most of the world's catastrophes. The 2004 manifesto of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, for instance, went on about America's "imperialism," "domination" and "massive threats to life." And the Presbyterian Church's 2004 Stony Point Declaration was a similar self-parody, noting that "our nation... pursues global empire, backed by unprecedented military supremacy. Its un-qualified commitment to economic growth through a global, capitalist economic system has not served God's purposes of justice, peace, community and the integrity of creation, but has enriched the corporate ruling class... [creating] monstrous inequality and massive suffering."
Instead of admitting in 2006 that the Middle East has changed dramatically since 2004 -- the rise of a land-for-peace consensus in Israel, the election of Hamas to the Palestinian government, and the equally (if not more) disastrous election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran -- the Presbyterian Church clings stubbornly to flawed policies that are now all the more embarrassing. Some leaders continued as late as a few months ago to attend world-wide church meetings to encourage divestment among other churches. This they attempt while simultaneously downplaying and trying to isolate a groundswell of objections within our own church. What the leadership now faces are nearly two dozen formal requests from regional Presbyteries across America to change or terminate our divestment policy. At the very least, a large majority agrees that we need to abandon divestment as a hostile action against Israel in favor of "investment" in Israeli and Palestinian groups that are working as bridge-builders for peace.
Most people also agree that, with Hamas now in power in the Palestinian territories, Presbyterians need to clearly and unequivocally denounce Hamas's longstanding call for the destruction of Israel in its charter, and to demand that Hamas stop its many hateful indoctrination practices against Jewish people.
Key Presbyterian church leaders, however, are balking at considering such necessary action. Many now have a huge personal and professional investment in the Palestinian political agenda and the cause of divestment from Israel. Some leaders seem to savor the global attention such advocacy has brought them. They cannot admit that they have politicized our church in ways that prevent healing and salvation.
Today, we Presbyterians begin our national General Assembly in Birmingham, Ala. The problem is that the leadership appears to be working overtime to come up with parliamentary and other maneuvers to stop the anti-divestment movement. At the 11th hour, for example, the worried leadership proposed that a new task force be created to "study" the divestment "option." The plan would populate the task force with supporters of divestment and would preserve divestment momentum while the task force works through the summer of 2008.
This helplessly transparent scheme, if adopted by General Assembly, would override the overtures from Presbyterians, putting them on hold and delaying a clear up-or-down vote on divestment for at least another two years. It would, however, allow other denominations to continue to cite the 2004 divestment resolution as justification for their own actions.
With such efforts, the church leadership hopes to preserve their stature -- along with their failed vision for the church. The vast majority of Presbyterians long for our church to return to its core purpose: to help nourish a closer relationship with our Savior. Instead, the leadership is forcing many of us to spend countless hours trying to rescue the church from those who hew to terrorist liberation politics.
Those of us who oppose divestment are not unqualified supporters of Israel nor insensitive to the plight of Palestinians. We believe that this country and our church need a wise and well-funded program to provide more aid to those suffering in the Palestinian territories, Darfur and elsewhere. However, the problems these societies are facing cannot be blamed on democracy, capitalism or even current Israeli policies. They suffer most from the excesses created by their own preachers of hate and generations of corrupt and dysfunctional leadership.
This year, Presbyterian commissioners voting at General Assembly can steer the Presbyterian ship back on a prudent path, which begins with reversing the divestment course charted two years ago.
Mr. Roberts is chairman of the Committee to End Divestment Now .