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Churches: Wrestling With Divesting

November 10, 2005 By:
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As rifts start to expand among mainline Protestant churches over the question of divestment from Israel, cracks are appearing in the very denomination that brought the divestment debate to the fore.
As rifts start to expand among mainline Protestant churches over the question of divestment from Israel, cracks are appearing in the very denomination that brought the divestment debate to the fore.

Aided by the Jewish community, pro-Israel members of the Presbyterian Church USA - which last year castigated Israel, and endorsed a policy of divestment over the Jewish state's policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and in August targeted the Caterpillar company for selling equipment to the Israeli Defense Forces used to raze Palestinian property - say they are beginning to see the fruits of their lobbying efforts.

Predictions indicate a possible rejection of divestment by the church body at next year's general assembly in Birmingham, Ala.

Some Presbyterians are even linking divestment with the contentious issue of ordaining practicing homosexuals; they are speaking of a constitutional crisis within the church - with some 2.5 million members, the largest Presbyterian denomination - and the possible secession of some regional church bodies beginning next year.

"There is a disconnect between the national church and the local governments," said Rev. Robert Davis, associate pastor of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in San Diego. "Nationally, the church tends to think of itself as a theological big tent, so that any belief is fair game. If we see ourselves as simply a social-justice-based church, then you get these things like divestment.

"We would like the world to be without conflict. We would like scripture to read differently [regarding Israel and homosexuality], therefore we act differently," he added.

Davis - who at last year's general assembly in Richmond, Va., lost to Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick in his bid to be elected to the top position within the Presbyterian Church - said that instead of unifying the church, the divestment policy and the ordination of practicing homosexuals has driven people from the Presbyterian fold.

"I think it's fair to criticize Israel; we have some valid criticisms," he said. "At the same time, divestment and the way it was done was pretty high-handed, and doesn't speak for my church or many of the churches, certainly within the San Diego presbytery."

Rev. William Harter, the Chambersburg, Pa.-based co-chair of Presbyterians Concerned for Jewish-Christian Relations, agreed that divestment has driven a wedge between church leadership and the rank and file. Harter, a self-described liberal, took issue though with Davis' reading of a conservative/liberal divide within the church.

The Presbyterian response to practicing homosexuals may in fact split along traditional political lines, he explained, but divestment has its opponents in every ideological camp.

"It's my belief that the more people learn about divestment, the more antipathy they will have toward it," said Harter, pointing to recent decisions by the Episcopalian Church USA, the United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America either to reject divestment altogether or hold the Palestinians just as culpable as Israel.

"There are already two overtures that have been passed [at local presbyteries] that would repeal divestment" at the Birmingham meeting next year, he continued.

Harter's co-chair at Presbyterians Concerned, Rev. John Wimberly, used a poll of Presbyterian members last year to back up his point that as time goes on, the Presbyterian Church will slowly back away from divestment.

"This time last year, some 60 percent of those surveyed didn't know anything about divestment," he said. "Right know, you've got knowledgeable people talking about it, but the people voting on it next summer will be average people coming from places like Duluth, Minn., and Kansas City."

That's all the more reason, he said, to invest heavily in public-relations battles on behalf of the Jewish state.

Irvin J. Borowsky, the founder of Philadelphia's National Liberty Museum and chairman of the American Interfaith Institute, couldn't agree more. Beginning in February, and spurred on by his own survey, which this spring found that 64 percent of Presbyterian ministers are against divestment, the philanthropist has been distributing information aimed at defeating divestment and replacing Kirkpatrick.

A Different Result
The initial survey results were based on a questionnaire mailed by Borowsky staffers to ministers in Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, New York and Michigan; about 90 of them responded. The institute has since launched a Web site, www. faithsforfairness.org, for its Presbyterian informational effort, and culls responses from an interactive survey of visitors to the site.

Borowsky said that the newest survey, conducted last week, showed disapproval of divestment at an all-time high of 80 percent.

"We're getting information from Presbyterians who are furious about what their leadership is doing," said Borowsky. "The biggest factor that upsets the bulk of the ministers is that with all the trips taken by the leadership to Israel, never have they met with Israelis."

An alliance between the Jewish community and a Presbyterian faction aimed at a new leadership is not without its detractors, including the board of Presbyterians Concerned. Harter said that he doesn't blame Kirkpatrick, and instead focuses his criticism on the Presbyterian bureaucracy based in Louisville, Ky.

Offices in Louisville that shape church policy "are in a position to have great influence on the information that is passed out to presbyteries and local churches," said Harter. "My view of Clifton Kirkpatrick is that he has tried very hard to balance out the conflicting currents in the church."

But for Borowsky, change must come from the top.

Not only did he predict a reversal of the divestment policy at the Presbyterian meeting next year, he said that Kirkpatrick would "definitely" be defeated in 2008, when his term is up.

Sounding a different chord, Burt Siegel, director of community relations for the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, prefers to not get involved with internal Presbyterian power struggles. If next year's assembly voted divestment down, he pointed out, Kirkpatrick would follow suit.

"It is pretty much their business" who leads the church, said Siegel, who has worked with Harter's group at a handful of dialogues with local Presbyterian congregations. "It's not for for us to encourage dissent. We are willing to work with any segment of the Presbyterian Church."

 

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