A Gathering Voices post by Grayde Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly
Discerning the will of God is a humbling and mighty task. It requires prayer, dialogue, contemplation and even worship to understand the Holy One’s will.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) gathered to take up that task June 14-21, 2014, in Detroit, and when the work was complete the denomination had its set of marching orders for the next two years.
The 654 commissioners to the 221st General Assembly carefully examined and acted on a range of overtures (or recommendations) presented to it from the church’s 171 presbyteries. The overtures covered a broad range of issues, including questions of same-gender marriage, divestment from companies pursuing non-peaceful business practices in Israel-Palestine, adding a new confession to the church’s constitution (Belhar Confession), and reorganizing and revitalizing parts of its structure (i.e. synods).
More often than not the body of leaders said yes on the recommendations rather than no, and did so with a generous spirit and an eye toward reconciliation in the larger church body. The denomination – 10,038 congregations at the end of 2013 – must now unpack the Assembly’s decisions for itself, its communities, and the ecumenical and interfaith relationships it maintains.
Among the decisions which especially needs interpretation is the Assembly’s action on divestment.
Commissioners voted 310-303 to divest from three companies whose business practices the Assembly determined are contributing to non-peaceful pursuits in Israel-Palestine. The companies are Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions.
The Assembly emphasized that the vote was not a vote to divest from Israel and did not represent in any way endorsement of the more controversial BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) Movement.
Some are asking, why is the General Assembly focusing on these three corporations? The answer is that, in addition to a deep and historic connection with the peoples of Israel and Palestine, the church has long held policies on the types of investments it will hold. These criteria include those of corporations confining their business activities to peaceful pursuits and refraining from allowing their products or services to be used for facilitating or supporting violent acts against innocent civilians.
MRTI (Mission Responsibility Through Investment), the General Assembly committee that implements policies on socially responsible investing, found these three companies to be out of compliance with these criteria and resistant to change or further dialogue.
Caterpillar provides bulldozers used in the destruction of Palestinian homes and for clearing land of structures and fruit and olive tree groves in preparation for construction of the barrier wall.
Hewlett-Packard has extensive involvement with the Israeli army and provides electronic systems at checkpoints, logistics and communications systems to support the naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, as well as business relationships with illegal settlements in the West Bank.
Motorola Solutions provides military communications and surveillance systems in illegal Israeli settlements.
Resources and more information on the 221st General Assembly’s divestment action can be found here.
Clearly it was a full week of activity at the Detroit Assembly, and no doubt delegates, national office staff and other church leaders will be engaged in ongoing dialogue for many months to come.
Still, the process is what the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) believes in: discerning the will of God together in community. It is part of the denomination’s identity, even though it’s often difficult and sometimes messy.
To God be the glory!
About the Author:
Gradye Parsons is stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He has served as associate stated clerk and director of operations for the Office of the General Assembly (OGA), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He has also served as an executive presbyter/stated clerk of Holston Presbytery and as pastor of two Presbyterian churches in Tennessee.