PCUSA to Middle East Christians: Not Even Lip Service
The Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly met this week in Portland. On Middle East issues, it was a tired recycling of old anti-Israel tropes, with some minor modifications. The “Middle East Issues Committee” dealt with eight resolutions, all of which were focused on some form of Israeli inadequacy, misdeed, or immorality. The Palestinians again had their failures, including support for terrorism and pouring forth of anti-Semitic propaganda, ignored. (Resolution 8-02, for instance, spends 335 words excoriating Israel for its violations of the rights of children, “balancing” that with a call “on the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and the government of Israel to denounce and cease the incitement of violence against children or at the hands of children.”) Same old pointless virtue-signaling, of which I’m sure the Presbys are very proud.
The real scandal is the almost complete silence on the subject of the genocide of Middle Eastern Christians and Yazidis being carried out by ISIS, as well as persecution by a variety of other state and terrorist entities. Here’s the closest they came to actually making a substantial statement, Resolution 8-03 (On Upholding Peoples and Partners in the Middle East and in the United States):
1. Recognize the importance of the continued presence of Christians and churches in the Middle East.
2. Affirm and encourage the Christian presence in the area through strengthened ties between the PC(USA) and the historic and reformed churches of the region.
3. Call for expanded partnership relationships between PC(USA) congregations and those of our partner churches in the Middle East.
4. Direct the Stated Clerk and other appropriate staff to foster consultation and joint action with partner churches of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to address ways of increasing the respect and protection of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East.
5. Direct the Stated Clerk and all appropriate staff to consult with our Christian partners in the Middle East to determine how religiously based radical thought and action in the region can best be thwarted. This should include seeking insights from our partners about appropriate and inappropriate policies and actions in the region of the United States and other governments.
6. Call upon the United States government, the United Nations, and other international organizations to support and fund activities of peace-building; institutions nurturing civil society; and promoting strategies for broadly inclusive economic development—all essential for long-term stability in the Middle East.
7. Call on agencies of the General Assembly, mid councils, church sessions, and pastors of the PC(USA) to seek ways for Muslims, Christians, Jews, and persons beyond the Abrahamic family to work collaboratively in resisting bigotry and extremist thought and actions in communities across the United States—and especially those groups and individuals cloaking themselves in religious language and ideology.
In case you’re thinking that this cotton-candy word salad is meant to actually address the plight of suffering brothers and sisters in the Middle East, here’s the rationale offered for this vague mishmash which makes clear what the real concern is:
The Christian church has been part of the Middle East fabric since Pentecost.
Christians, however, have been leaving the Middle East in growing numbers for decades. Some observers fear that soon there will be few Christians left in the area of Jesus’ historical presence among us. The witness of the gospel calls Christians to be engaged in the countries and cultures where they live. Creating incentives that encourage them to leave should be avoided. Likewise, even well-intentioned suggestions that Christians, for their own protection, be taken to safe zones within the region are unacceptable.
Two factors are preeminent in the diminished Christian presence in the Middle East: religious radicalism and economic pressures.
The departure of Christians from the Middle East is a deep concern not only for the church but for the region as a whole. The “Report of the Middle East Study Committee” to the 219th General Assembly (2010) (comprised of former assembly Moderators) noted: “This dwindling presence of Christians in the Middle East is a deep concern due to the role that Christians have played in being a mediating, reconciling presence. Without that presence, we fear a more religiously polarized Middle East, more prone to extremism” (Minutes, 2010. Part I, p. 1044).
While the Christian presence must be maintained in the Middle East, other religious minorities are also threatened by extremist groups that seek to dominate the area. Thus, side-by-side with Muslims and others, Middle East Christians desire to build civil societies that value human rights, respect international law, and model the vision that people of different historical, cultural, ethnic, and religious traditions can live together peacefully.
The United States has not been spared the trauma of radical extremism—sometimes in the guise of religion, often as naked racism, and increasingly as bigotry against Arabs and Muslims. A 2014 survey showed that only 36 percent of Americans viewed Arab Americans favorably and just 27 percent viewed Muslim Americans favorably, while more than half of Americans held a negative view of Islam. Indeed, a Pew Research Center study reported that Americans regard Muslims more negatively than atheists (Reported in Huffington Post, July 29, 2014, and April 10, 2015).
Since Muslims constitute less than one percent of the U.S. population, it seems likely that such views are fostered less by personal contact than by bias and misinformation. The way media and ordinary people use language has an effect on how people—and especially minorities—are perceived. Wrong and biased information about Syrians, Arabs, Muslims, refugees, migrants, people of color, and other vulnerable groups shapes public attitudes. This is especially true when it comes from politicians and lawmakers. In the United States, whether persons are characterized as illegal versus undocumented; as an “anchor baby” versus a citizen; or as a migrant versus refugee affects how they are perceived and even their legal rights.
But there is also power in the Christian language of the faith community—brother, sister, child of God, and neighbor—that nurtures a different relationship to people near at hand and far away whom we are beginning to know and understand and appreciate.
War has brought economic desperation to the people of Syria and Iraq, including Christians. Relief efforts of governments through the United Nations are supplemented by those of religious organizations like Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. However, long-term economic development strategies will be required to restore functioning societies in these countries.
The dramatically changing petroleum economy creates new opportunities to access and reorient western economic and political relationships with the Middle East. That could bode well or ill for ordinary people in the region. The biblical tradition of calling for economic equity should have a place in the debate that almost surely lies ahead in the face of clashing economic interests and crumbling political structures in the region. The 1978 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States declared, “… every society has the obligation to provide for all people the opportunity for meaningful work, adequate food, clothing, shelter, and health care … [and] a share in formulating and responsibly implementing economic policies” (Minutes, PCUS, 1978, p.204). Two years later, the General Assembly spoke specifically about its perspective on economic development: “On the basis of the concerns which Christians bring to political and economic life … we support the call for both a reordering of the international economic system and a major change in national development strategies …” (Minutes, PCUS, 1980, pp. 196–97.) Those are still sound principles for the church’s participation in both international and domestic arenas—for crafting just policies of trade, aid, and investment linking countries globally and for seeking a fair sharing of economic benefits within each country.
I could fisk that drivel, but what’s the point? In their actions this week, mainline Presbyterians made clear where their priorities lie. The want Israel to stop defending itself, they want the Palestinians to be given everything they can think of to demand, they want American Muslims treated as victims regardless of the degree of support for Islamic fundamentalism that they offer, and they want Middle Eastern Islamic barbarism to be unnamed, treated as though it has nothing to do with Islam and has no support among Muslims and, if possible, ignored. Oh, and they want to bring income equality to the kleptocratic, theocratic, and totalitarian states of the Middle East.
As for Assyrian and other Christians, they should stay where they are and work for peace with their Muslim neighbors–just like good mainline Presbyterians are doing from the safety of American shores.
After what I saw this week at the EPC General Assembly, this performance turns my stomach. How any person with a conscience can continue to have anything to do with this disgusting organization is beyond me.
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