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Last summer I moved from Wheaton, Illinois, to Ann Arbor, Michigan, from a city with no synagogues and a nearly invisible Jewish population to a city with several synagogues, a couple of active Jewish student ministries, and a vibrant Jewish community.
When I learned that I would be moving, I started looking forward to something that, sorry to say, had not been a part of my ministry previously–namely, interfaith dialogue. After several months in Ann Arbor, I’m thinking that I should be more careful about what I pray for. Right now I’ve got all of the interfaith dialogue I can handle. Over the summer the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. took several actions that significantly affected the dynamics of my welcome in this community.
First, by a nearly overwhelming vote (431 to 62), commissioners to the 216th General Assembly, meeting in Richmond, Virginia, voted to begin a “selective, phased divestment” of stock in corporations that profit by supporting violence in Israel and Palestine. Caterpillar, Inc. is one such company. Its heavy equipment business produces the bulldozers that are used by Israel Defense Forces to demolish Palestinian homes, orchards, and vineyards. According to denominational officials, the church controls $3 million worth of stock in the company– out of a total portfolio of several billion dollars.
Next, the General Assembly voted, by an even wider margin, to condemn Israel’s construction of a “security wall” across the West Bank, to disavow Christian Zionism as a legitimate theological stance, and to direct the denomination’s Middle East and Interfaith Relations offices to develop resources on the differences between fundamental Zionism and Reformed theology.
Finally, the General Assembly voted to form a committee–we can all breathe easier– to study the establishment of “messianic congregations” in four presbyteries (as regional governing bodies are known in the Presbyterian Church). The best-known messianic congregation is in Philadelphia.
I am well aware by now that my early hopes for interfaith dialogue were embarrassingly naïve. It’s called Avodat Yisrael. Its leaders, from what I’ve heard, invite Jewish people to explore Christian faith while maintaining traditional Jewish religious and cultural practices. The result, in practice, is an interesting hybrid of Jewish and Christian worship patterns that has managed to offend both Jews and Christians alike. An overture to ban funding for this effort and to decry proselytization of Jews was defeated.
At a General Assembly where few people expected anything truly interesting to happen– after all, the gay/lesbian issue had been deferred to a future meeting while yet another committee completes its work –these actions in some ways changed the entire landscape of interfaith dialogue for years to come. For generations Presbyterians have taken a considerable amount of pride in their commitment to interfaith dialogue, especially with American Jewish groups, but something rather dramatically and unexpectedly changed over the summer.
In late September, as a result of General Assembly actions in July, two top leaders of the Presbyterian Church–Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase and Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick– met with Jewish leaders in New York City for three hours of strained conversation before holding a news conference and announcing a five-part strategy to keep Jewish-Presbyterian dialogue alive at both national and congregational levels. One of the strategies calls for a joint trip to Israel/Palestine so that top-level Jewish and Presbyterian leaders are able to see the region “through each other’s eyes.”
My first response to all of this was to remind some anxious people here in my own congregation that news accounts of General Assembly actions seldom give the entire story. “Selective, phased divestment,” I announced, sounds like abrupt, decisive action, but the truth is, the church’s divestment activities over the years have always involved attempts to speak with management, shareholder resolutions, and a number of other steps designed to raise awareness and stimulate conversation. Actual sale of stock is always a last step.
Some Presbyterians, I reminded people in my church, rather proudly remember that similar actions in the 1970s and 1980s were successful in the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa. The “success” was achieved not by selling stock, but by compelling multinational corporations to address issues of justice.
Frankly, those words of explanation have helped a great deal with my own congregation, but they haven’t done much at all to ease the tension I sense between the rabbis I’ve met here in Ann Arbor and me. The Jewish community senses a profound change in our relationship, and I suppose they’re right. Something has changed. And there’s no going back. Perhaps unwittingly, the General Assembly has set the church on a brand-new course, and no one knows at this point what the result will be.
I am well aware by now that my early hopes for interfaith dialogue were embarrassingly naïve. I’m not even sure what I had in mind when I thought about interfaith dialogue. In my imagination, I suppose, I was going to go to lunch occasionally with the rabbi of the congregation that shares a parking lot with my own. We were going to talk about the remarkable similarities of doing ministry in a synagogue and a church. And if we got on really well with each other, we might even agree to share a Thanksgiving Eve service and encourage our congregations to come together. I would have been glad for all of that and would have congratulated myself on my open-mindedness and tolerant spirit.
Some of my fantasy may actually come to pass, but not all of it.
The first clue I had to the change in climate was when I received a phone call one day early in ministry here from the head of the local Jewish Federation. He called, I soon realized, not to welcome me to town, but to ask–rather sharply–how my church could agree to sponsor a talk by someone who was going to address herself to the suffering of the Palestinian people. Turns out, my church invited the speaker before I started my work here, but there I was defending my church anyway.
“We have every right,” I said, “to invite this person to speak to our congregation. I’ve been to Israel/Palestine,” I went on, “and I’ve seen the suffering for myself. People need to know how deplorable the situation is over there. We’re concerned about the suffering of all Palestinians, but especially the Christians who live in the land.”
“What about the other side of the issue?” he asked.
“What other side?” I wondered.
“You Presbyterians,” he said, “see only the suffering of the Palestinian people, whereas we in the Jewish community are focusing on terrorism. The killing has got to stop.”
And I thought, “So, this is Jewish-Christian dialogue.” My prayers have been answered.