Editor's note: To learn more about this issue, visit the Web site of the PC(USA) Interfaith Relations Office, www.pcusa.org/interfaith. There you will find information and links to the General Assembly documents discussed.
Statement from the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Concerning actions of the 216th General Assembly (2004) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) regarding Israel and Palestine and outreach to Jewish people
July 20, 2004—One of the deep and abiding commitments of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is to reconciliation and good relationships with people of all faith communities. In light of this, some people have raised concern about certain actions taken by the 216th General Assembly, held June 26-July 3 in Richmond, Virginia, related to both outreach to Jewish people and Israeli and Palestinian relations. Therefore, I am sending this message to both Presbyterian leaders and to ecumenical partners and colleagues from other faith communities with the hope that it will clarify the actions of this assembly and the ongoing commitments of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
As Christians, we experience the transforming power of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Therefore, we do not hesitate to make joyful witness to the hope that is in us, and to work and pray for the restored and reconciled creation to which we and all people are called. We make every effort to discern God’s presence in the world and to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24). It is out of this faith and commitment, and with careful reflection, that the commissioners to the 216th General Assembly took a number of actions concerning our relations with the Jewish community, as well as the situation of Israel and Palestine.
1. Presbyterians’ concerns about appropriate forms of Christian witness to Jewish people in general and to the new church development project, Avodat Yisrael, in Philadelphia in particular led to a two-part action.
2. The assembly declared that Christian Zionism is not consistent with the basic values of Reformed theology because it makes use of idiosyncratic interpretations of Scripture to undergird a certain reading of current events, and to generate support for specific political goals that do not bolster work toward peace and potentially endanger Palestinian and Israeli people.
3. The assembly called for an end to Israel’s construction of the “separation barrier.”
Presbyterians are calling for an end to this barrier in the belief “that the best hope for security for both Israelis and Palestinians may be found in laying down all forms of aggression on both sides, ending the Israeli occupation, and finding ways to build bridges of peace rather than walls of separation. Good neighborly relations, rather than mutual isolation and suspicion, are urgently needed between Israel and its neighbors in Palestine and the Middle East.”
4. The assembly authorized exploration of a selective divestment of church funds from those companies whose business in Israel is found to be directly or indirectly causing harm or suffering to innocent people, Palestinian or Israeli. It did not approve a blanket divestment from companies that do business in Israel, as is being reported in some places. This action was taken in response to an overture from the Presbytery of St. Augustine, representing the churches in northeast Florida.
5. These actions are rooted in a longstanding commitment to the secure existence of Israel and the Israeli people, in a similar commitment to the security and existence of Palestinians in their own state, and in a passionate vision of negotiated peace as the only viable way forward. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has consistently supported the existence of Israel within legitimate and secure borders, and prayed for its security and well-being. It is, however, the conviction of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that “the security of Israel and the Israeli people is inexorably dependent on making peace with their Palestinian neighbors, by negotiating and reaching a just and equitable solution to the conflict that respects international law, human rights, the sanctity of life, and dignity of persons, land, property, safety of home, freedom of movement, the rights of refugees to return to their homeland, the right of a people to determine their political future, and to live in peace and prosperity.”
6. It should be noted that this action was taken as part of a larger commitment of the PC(USA) to human rights and social justice all around the world. It should be further noted that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is not singling out Israel and Palestine alone for observation and critique. The PC(USA) regularly publishes an annual report regarding human rights around the world, and has spoken specifically about issues of justice related to North and South Korea, Rwanda, Taiwan, Central American states, and many others, including the United States. Assembly actions regularly make comment on issues of religious liberty in many countries, including other Middle Eastern countries. The PC(USA) believes that, through such actions, important perspectives and informed glimpses of difficult situations are made available to the church and the wider community to inform responsible engagement with the world.
7. All of these actions are consistent with the commitment of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) made in 1987 in A Theological Understanding of the Relationship between Christians and Jews, “never again to participate in, to contribute to, or (insofar as we are able) to allow the persecution or denigration of Jews.” That document also reminds us “both Christians and Jews are called to wait and to hope in God. While we wait, Jews and Christians are called to the service of God in the world.” This calling includes “ceaseless activity in the cause of justice and peace.”
As I made clear in a statement of May 28, 2002, “Palestinians are called, once and for all, to cease striking terror in the hearts of Israeli Jews by stopping attacks on noncombatants while they are carrying out the activities of their daily lives or the celebrations of their peoplehood. Israelis are called, once and for all, to cease striking terror in the hearts of Palestinians by stopping military operations that assault harmless people and disable Palestinian infrastructures. It is time to stop activities that increase hatred and mutual recrimination and that destroy hope, security and trust…. Acts of hate and terror inflicted on innocent children and youth, women and men of Israel and the larger Jewish community must be unequivocally condemned and vehemently abhorred. This is in no way inconsistent with speaking out about the political and military violence of the Israeli government or the militant activities of Israeli settlers.”
I encourage Presbyterians to maintain their relationships with people of other faiths, with sensitivity to the fragility of trust in the present climate of violence and terror. I also encourage all of us to seek opportunities for respectful conversation with Jewish neighbors about disagreements regarding Israeli policy and forms of public policy advocacy for Israeli-Palestinian peace.