A Report from the 28th General Synod of the UCC


Branwen L. Cook

8/15/2011

by Branwen L. Cook with assistance from the Massachusetts Conference Israel-Palestine Task Team (Mission and Justice Commission) 

 BACKGROUND
 
The million-member United Church of Christ (made up of Congregational, Christian, Evangelical and Reformed churches) is known for its progressive stands on issues of social justice, from suffrage and racial equality to equal rights for gay-lesbian-bi and transgendered individuals. The UCC has spoken out repeatedly against war, including the current US wars, and for justice and peace in the Holy Land.
 
In 2006 UCC General Synod passed a resolution, “Concerning the Use of Economic Leverage in Promoting Peace in the Middle East,” which called on the United Church Foundation, the Pension Boards and other ministries of the church to engage with corporations to end profit-making from the Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian Territories. Since that time the investment instrumentality of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has taken steps to divest from a number of the major companies which profit from the Occupation of Palestine. (See endnote 1 for details)
 
In 2009 Palestinian Christian leaders published a document known as Kairos Palestine 2009: a moment of truth. In it they address world leaders, both religious and secular. They especially sought support from other Christians in facing the suffering of the Palestinian people under occupation. The document is a deeply prayerful plea from people who have almost no political power whatsoever. Among the many considerations of this document is the request to consider whether economic sanctions, including divestment and boycott, may be appropriate in order to bring pressure against the strong position of Israel compared to the Palestinians. In 2009 UCC leaders publicly endorsed the Kairos Document and commended it for study by Conferences, Associations, and local churches. (See www.globalministries.org/mee/kairos)
 
In that same year, at the 27th UCC General Synod, Palestinian partners and Jewish colleagues presented their review on a wide range of UCC policies and practices, and it was recommended that as a denomination we encourage one another to further study of the situation, including considerations brought to our attention by Kairos Palestine. Therefore it seemed out of keeping to many when a Resolution entitled “In Support of Effective and Constructive Peacemaking between Palestinians and Israelis through Positive Investment in Palestine” was scheduled to come before the national body at the 29th General Synod (June 30-July 6, 2011). Not only did a Resolution on this topic seem redundant so soon after the passage of the 2009 Resolution cited above, but this one proposed a prohibition against the UCC as a body from considering or taking action such as boycott, divestment and sanctions.
 
We in the Massachusetts Conference Israel-Palestine Task Team (a part of the Mission and Justice Commission of MA-Conference) set to work to alert Synod delegates to our concerns. Through the Mission and Justice Commission we sent a cover letter describing our position, and recommending a letter -- also addressed to Synod Delegates --by members of First Church Cambridge, Congregational. First Church had spent time studying the issues over the past several years, and their letter was signed by 48 church members. Through the efforts of others, these documents were also put into the hands of Delegates of the Connecticut and Florida Conferences prior to Synod. Also Christians for Justice Action, a newsletter that is published during the week of the Synod, carried an article we wrote on the subject.
 
A few excerpts from the Task Team’s cover letter are as follows:
“… if passed in its present form, this resolution would make it UCC policy to disregard the address to Christians from Palestinian Christian leadership…. [and] have us dismiss that possibility. We respectfully but urgently request you consider with great care before you ask the body of the United Church of Christ to foreclose on a step which must be considered in the light of all other great movements for self-determination of oppressed groups – from the Civil Rights events in the United States to the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. This is a point of view shared by many American Jewish and Israeli groups, including Jewish Voice for Peace and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Contrary to the statement in the resolution that ‘these campaigns are based in the misconception that one side holds all the blame,’ the Kairos document and campaigns of peaceful resistance are a positive step toward a future which will create hope, make economic change possible, and stand with people who have no power whatsoever.”
 
And from the letter of First Church Cambridge, which accompanied the Task Team cover letter:
 
“We believe that, while positive incentives are valuable for promoting peace in this area, actions that put financial pressure on Israel would help correct the current lack of balance in US policies. There were those who called for restraint in South Africa under the apartheid system, arguing that divestment and boycotts would only infuriate the government and further impoverish black South Africans. While many other factors contributed to the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, economic sanctions definitely played a role. We believe they can play a similar role in this situation.
 
In summary, we do not believe that the implementation of this Resolution will correct years of imbalance in US policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. To facilitate the peace process, Israel should change its policy of land expropriation and settlement. It seems unlikely to do so in the absence of external pressure. The US government is unable or unwilling to exert this pressure. Therefore, we believe that private groups seeking to promote peace in the Middle East are justified in calling for economic sanctions on Israel.” 
 
WHAT TOOK PLACE AT SYNOD
 
Each delegate to General Synod is randomly assigned to a committee which will study, discuss and prayerfully determine its recommendation to the whole body. The recommendation is subsequently brought to a vote during one of the plenary sessions.
 
Each committee holds hearings which include background on the issue they will deliberate, and then a very conscientious discussion and voting by those delegates, approximately 40 persons from across the country. These are public meetings.
 
For the Resolution in question, several people were called on by the chair to speak, among them Rev. Michael Small from Minnesota, one of the framers of this resolution. His chief point was to stress the idea that economic sanctions are a form of “violence.” It was clear by this time that the Resolution’s authors, as acknowledged by Rev. Small, had based a good deal on information from a travel and education group that provides free trips to the Holy Land. This organization, Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East, does not see the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and its strangle-hold on Palestinian civic and economic institutions as a primary issue. They state on their web site that they “advocate among mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics in North America for fairness in the churches’ witness on issues related to the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors.” With offices at 475 Riverside Drive and the apparent ability to give a large number of people free trips that generally cost at least $3000 per person, the question of funding sources and connections arose. During the deliberations such a question was addressed to the director of the organization,  Sister Ruth Lautt, O.P., Esq. who was present at the committee hearings. From the point of view of one listening, her response was vague and less than forthcoming.
 
Others who spoke included Dr. Peter E. Makari, Ph.D, Executive. Middle East and Europe Global Ministries, United Church of Christ and Christian Church (DOC). He explained that Global Ministries had sent the proposed Resolution to both Jewish and Palestinian partners for reaction in advance of Synod. He then read from a number of their responses: our Jewish counterparts expressed no critique; our Palestinian counterparts were disappointed, shocked and dismayed. The excerpts from their letters were powerful to hear. One said that this Resolution would mean Palestinians could no longer rely on our good will toward them; another said it would be the end of their hope.
 
Several other people spoke, including the Rev Dr. John Deckenback, Central Atlantic Conference Minister, who stated he thought the purpose of the resolution was to overturn and make to appear foolish the UCC’s previous positions and resolutions.
 
Deliberations lasted between two and three hours. It was clear from the beginning that no one questioned the idea of support for the Palestinian economy, but the prohibition on boycott, divestment and sanctions was a big problem for some. Questions were raised:  one delegate said he’d heard there had been interventions (though he did not know by whom) into the national meetings of Christian denominations that had considered divesting from Israeli companies. Many questions were asked and the votes were carefully put so that all possible viewpoints could be heard, discussed and counted. The final recommendation that was to be taken to the Plenary was for “No Action.” This was recommended partly because the delegates did not want to possibly give the impression that they were against the ideas for positive investment in the Palestinian economy. Effectively, this would vote down the Resolution in question.
 
At the Plenary – the gathered body of 3500 persons, including all the voting delegates -- there was, of course, the possibility that some other decision could have been taken, including that the resolution could have been amended. This did not happen. In fact, the framer of the resolution, Rev. Small, seemed to have experienced a change of heart. He got up after the presentation of the committee’s recommendation to say he agreed with the recommendation to take no action, and while he regretted that the resolution had foundered due to the BDS portion, he now thought the denomination ought to devote further study to the questions around that issue. This was a stunning turn-around and invoked for some the visit from the head of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers who had come as a guest to the gathered body the previous day. The head of CIW brought a message of thanks and praise to the UCC, which was the first institution to sign on to the boycott of Taco Bell a few years ago, resulting in an increased price per pound for tomatoes picked by incredibly underpaid and often abused farm workers in Florida. Did the reiteration of UCC historic solidarity in issues of social justice, and discussion of the effectiveness of, and justification for boycotts (including the 9th General Synod when Caesar Chavez was a surprise guest), have an effect on Rev. Small’s opinion that such means are “economic violence” and not to be utilized by people of faith?
 
Having been there and spent a great deal of energy on this topic it is clear to this writer that – once again – education is key as we work to influence the actions of conscience and prophetic witness on behalf of just peace.
 
Recommended is a short (24 pp) and very accessible ($2 ea) 3-week congregational study put out by the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church(USA). Many other fine resources are available including Mark Braverman’s Fatal Embrace, Anna Baltzer’s Witness for Palestine, the website www.ihsholyland.org for travel and resources, as well as Jewish Voice for Peace and many others.
 
                                                     
NOTES
 
1)  FROM UC Focus; Spring 2009, A PUBLICATION OF UNITED CHURCH FUNDS ,THE UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST
 
The General Synod 2006 resolution, “Concerning the Use of Economic Leverage in Promoting Peace in the Middle East,” called on the United Church Foundation, the Pension Boards and other ministries of the church to engage with corporations to end profit-making from the Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian Territories. The United Church Foundation has taken seriously that call, helping to charter the Ecumenical Action Group for a Just Peace in Israel-Palestine in 2007, a task force comprising more than 20 Christian denominations and religious orders. Together, this group has participated in several shareholder resolutions and corporate engagements with, among others —
  • Caterpillar whose equipment is used to tear down Palestinian homes, rip out ancient Palestinian olive groves, and build the Wall across Palestinian land
  • Motorola whose equipment is used at checkpoints that prevent Palestinians from moving freely, whose cell towers are erected in Israel settlements built in Occupied land to both bypass Palestinian cell systems and enhance Israeli Defense Force communications in Palestine, and whose components have been used in bombs
  • Hewlett-Packard whose supply chain includes manufacturing facilities in the illegal settlements

Corporate engagement takes a long time — and a lot of patience. The anti-apartheid movement needed 20 years before seeing change in South Africa. But good things have begun to happen in Israel-Palestine: Motorola has sold the division that made the bomb components mentioned above. And Caterpillar has begun to talk about its expectation that Caterpillar equipment be used in compliance with international law. Small steps, but the Ecumenical Action Group continues to seek dialogue with corporate management, and is organizing a trip in early 2010 to help educate managers who are often surprisingly unfamiliar with the situation on the ground. As long as investors like the Foundation own shares of companies profiting from the Occupation, we can continue to participate in activities that can bring about an end to corporate misbehavior. While a more dramatic step, divestment eliminates the possibility of engagement. So with our ecumenical partners, we are continuing to present and pursue the values of the UCC to promote peace in the Middle East.

 
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