General News · July 19, 2022

Israel, Palestine and the Presbyterian Church

A Message from Senior Pastor Scott Black Johnston

July 19, 2022

Dear Members and Friends,

Amy and I send you greetings and affection from northern Minnesota.

Even here, where most mornings we are greeted by the call of the white-throated sparrow, and not by pressing ecclesiastical news, I have  received word regarding a recent decision passed by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

On July 8, the General Assembly voted 266-116 to approve INT-02, a resolution declaring that, “Israel’s laws, policies, and practices constitute apartheid against the Palestinian people.” The full resolution can be found here. This decision has been covered by major media outlets including the Washington Post and Business Insider. 

For those of you unfamiliar with Presbyterian polity, the General Assembly meets once every two years. Its membership changes every two years as well. Most of the 400 or so American Presbyterians who participated in this year’s General Assembly will attend only once in their lifetimes. The Stated Clerk of the denomination, J. Herbert Nelson, has released a statement defending the General Assembly’s decision.

Meanwhile, groups like Presbyterians for Middle East Peace and the Reform Jewish Movement (with which our friends at Temple Emanu-El and Central Synagogue are affiliated) have offered strong dissent. The Session of First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta has also issued a clear dissent, and I expect other Presbyterian congregations across the country will follow suit.

I concur with those who dissent.

My friends, I do not intend, in this message, to set down my own, imperfect perspective on this complicated geopolitical matter. If you would like to entertain that conversation, let’s do it in person. Buy me a cup of coffee in September, and I promise we can dig into this multi-layered issue face to face.

Today, I simply want to share two facts related to this resolution, and highlight the questions and consequences I believe these facts raise for American Presbyterians. Then I will outline our next steps.

Fact #1
Good, thoughtful, faithful people disagree (often quite passionately) on this topic. Some of my best friends and colleagues do not share my perspectives on Israel and the occupied territories. And yes, there are many more than two perspectives on this topic. Add to all this the fact that history is being written every day in the Middle East, further complicating an already complicated conversation. So it is really no surprise that there is broad disagreement within our denomination about what to say and do.

Is it smart for a deeply divided body to issue such a controversial political statement? Such statements convey that this part of the church is right, and this part is wrong—this part of the Body of Christ is compassionate, and this part is addicted to the wrong sort of power. It is politically tempting to draw such distinctions, to angle for a “win” for your side on the floor of General Assembly—but is it faithful, intellectually honest and helpful in addressing the issues at hand? Don’t we have better tools for addressing matters on which informed people of faith, in good conscience, disagree? Have we given up on prayerful study and thoughtful interfaith dialogue? In the name of doing something prophetic, has the General Assembly abandoned humble, balanced, ethically-nuanced conversation?

Fact #2
Respected Jewish organizations and dear friends of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church are calling the General Assembly’s use of the incendiary label “apartheid” an instance of antisemitic rhetoric. I personally know a number of the Jewish and Christian leaders who have made this accusation. These individuals are smart, level-headed, faithful and trustworthy. None of them views the situation in Israel and the occupied territories as morally adequate. All are committed to working for a better, more just, and safer world for all of God’s children. I take the charge of antisemitism leveled by these dedicated and thoughtful folk with utmost seriousness.

Why did this year’s General Assembly not make room on its docket to hear from voices in the Reform Jewish Movement before voting on this measure? Why is it that the churches and pastors most opposed to this resolution are from urban areas with sizable Jewish populations? Is it because we feel pressure from our Jewish neighbors? Or is it because, through repeated interactions with our Jewish neighbors, we have learned to listen to each other better, with ears and hearts shaped by faithful aspirations for what Israel and the occupied territories might be? Finally, do we really think that the “apartheid” label helps matters? When in the history of American politics and religious disputes has inflammatory rhetoric changed people’s hearts and minds?

My friends, General Assembly Resolution INT-02 will not move the needle. It will not make things better. Not for the Palestinians. Not for the Israelis. Not for the prospects of Middle East peace. Not for American Jews in dialogue with American Christians about all sorts of important matters.

What should Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church do?

I propose three concrete actions.

First, Fifth Avenue’s leadership will immediately go to work developing an adult education forum to be held this fall that will address this decision. We will talk about how Presbyterian government works, whose voices were represented in discussions leading up to this decision, and (most importantly) we will strategize about what Presbyterians can do to work for justice, peace and security for all who live within Israel and the occupied territories.

Second, I intend to form a working group that will be charged with drafting an official response to the General Assembly resolution—a response to be discussed and (I hope) adopted by the joint boards of our church. If you are interested in participating in this working group, please let me know.

Third, I am going to begin (even now, from the woods of northern Minnesota) to reach out to our friends in New York’s Jewish communities. I will listen to their reactions to this resolution. I will do my best to explain the ways of Presbyterian governance. I will assure them that this resolution does not represent what the majority of American Presbyterians believe. And then, my friends, I intend to double down on dialogue between our community and Jewish religious communities in New York City.

What can you do? I recommend that you study the documents linked above, commit to being involved in dialogue this fall, and pray. Pray for our Jewish neighbors who are confused and hurt by this action. Pray for all who are caught in the tendrils of this long-standing and ever-evolving conflict. Pray for those with no power. Pray for those with great power. Pray that all concerned might conform their actions to the will of God. And finally, please pray for this congregation, its elected leaders and its pastors. Pray that we will follow the way of Jesus Christ in responding to this conflict with intelligence, humility and tangible compassion.

I look forward to seeing you and to further conversations about all of this on my return. Until then, I think I hear the white-throated sparrow singing.

With gratitude for your faithfulness,