Opponents of divestment from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola by the Presbyterian Church (USA) have couched their position in the language of balance and parity. A Washington Post column hopes “that churches will not embrace one-sided approaches.” A petition by pro-Israel groups similarly accuses the PCUSA of “a one-sided approach.” A Huffington Post blogger faults divestment proponents for “blam[ing] the Jewish State entirely for the failure to reach peace, and singl[ing] it out.” On Saturday, a speaker from the Presbyterians’ own Israel lobby, Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, claimed that if the church divested, “We give up hope to being bridge-builders but become partisans within the conflict.”
These lofty words reflect the exact opposite of reality. The three companies are military and settlement contractors, directly complicit in Israel’s demolitions of Palestinian homes, its seizure and colonization of occupied land, and its military rule over a captive population. Arming an aggressive power engaged in daily abuses of human rights, while compensating its civilian victims with thoughtful resolutions, is a textbook example of “a one-sided approach,” and perhaps the surest way to “become partisans.” And the church’s investments in the enablers of occupation have built fewer bridges than they have bombed.
Of course this does not mean the PCUSA’s 220th General Assembly this week in Pittsburgh should aim for neutrality. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” South African anti-apartheid leader, divestment supporter, and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu said. “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Tutu’s words echoed those of another saint of the modern church. “I’ve chosen to preach about the war in Vietnam because I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said. “There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.”
Nevertheless, PCUSA commissioners should consider that their current position is not one of “washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless,” in Paulo Freire’s words, but of actively supporting the displacement, imprisonment, isolation, and killing of their fellow human beings. “If he shall go into eternal fire to whom Christ will say, ‘When naked you did not clothe me,'” St. Augustine of Hippo asked, “what place in eternal fire is reserved for him to whom Christ shall say, ‘I was clothed and you stripped me bare?'”
Bizarrely, the anti-divestment petition even claims that denying PCUSA funding to occupation profiteers would “justify the violence perpetrated against Israeli civilians — including children.” Its authors forget – or omit – that the church has profited from bombs used to slaughter hundreds of Palestinian children, and currently funds the abuse of thousands and impoverishment of hundreds of thousands more.
After watching decades of such complicity in their collective torment, Palestinian Christians have drawn a line in the sand. “We ask our sister Churches not to offer a theological cover-up for the injustice we suffer, for the sin of the occupation imposed upon us,” over a dozen leaders of the Holy Land’s largest churches said in the 2009 Kairos Palestine document. “Our question to our brothers and sisters in the Churches today is: Are you able to help us get our freedom back, for this is the only way you can help the two peoples attain justice, peace, security and love?”
And thousands of Palestinians are watching the General Assembly vote and similar developments in the United States closely. “With the latest TIAA-CREF divestment from CAT, the BDS movement and its inspiring partners in the US have scored a particularly significant victory, by demonstrating that complicity in Israel’s occupation and apartheid is not just unethical; it is becoming quite costly as well,” Palestinian human rights activist and founding member of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement Omar Barghouti told me last week. “As we’ve learned from the fight against apartheid South Africa, corporations will only end their collusion in violations of international law when civil society and the solidarity movement compel them to pay a heavy price for it.”
The PCUSA, like every other Christian denomination (and, indeed, each institution, whether spiritual or secular, that claims to uphold the basic values of human dignity) can and should take a side: for freedom, self-determination, and equality, and against occupation, colonialism, and apartheid. The votes its commissioners will cast this week offer it a chance to step from the wrong side of history, where its current investments place it, onto the right one.