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Union Theological Seminary, from Wikimedia Commons

Union Theological Seminary, from Wikimedia Commons

This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Before the uproar begins and emails accuse me of betraying the side of justice or for not cheerleading loud enough, let me assure the reader: I support the BDS resolution at the Presbyterian General Assembly that will be offered in the coming days.

However, even in the heat of battle, I propose we also think out loud. It’s possible to do both.

Presbyterians are considering divestment actions regarding Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. The stakes are said to be high. Some pundits offer the opinion that the vote could be a tipping point in the BDS movement. Whichever way the Presbyterians fall is important for the future.

Perhaps.

The forces on both sides are mobilized. Attending the assembly are Jewish voices to persuade the Presbyterians to vote yes or no. It’s a fascinating spectacle – a Christian assembly courting Jewish allies for their positive input. Revolutionary in many ways.

Maybe.

You see the underreported aspect of this ferocious battle is that whereas there is much at stake symbolically, there is little at stake financially. In fact, as the administration of Union Theological Seminary emphasized in its much-heralded recent decision to divest their endowment stock from companies related to fossil fuels – while for decades cowardly refusing to confront their Jewish neighbors across the street at Jewish Theological Seminary on Israel-Palestine – the stewards of the churches’ financial future assure their constituencies that any divestment avoids financial risk.

Meaning? In no way will divestment endanger the churches’ successful and crucial dependence on global capitalism.

Union’s endowment is relatively small – 108 million dollars. Here’s how Union describes its historic decision in terms of risk:

This was not an easy decision for us. We depend on our endowment to support Union’s educational mission, and are committed to ensuring that our endowment can continue to support needed scholarships and faculty positions.

Fortunately, we can do this and remain fiscally responsible to our students, staff, faculty, and members of the Union community. We were heartened to learn that over the past two decades, a portfolio that had left out fossil fuel companies would have returned, on average, only six tenths of one percent less. This is a small financial loss when compared to the importance of our moral statement.

We realize that our endowment alone will hardly cause the fossil fuel giants to miss even half a heartbeat. That said it is on moral grounds that we pursue divestment, and on theological grounds that we trust it matters. The Christian term for this reckless hope in the power of God to use our decisions of conscience to transform the world is resurrection, and I have faith in the power of resurrection.

One has to wonder about a seminary that declares its courage on the global scene and shrinks from confronting its neighboring institution. Union is stuck in the decades-old interfaith dialogue. In fact, they’ve made a deal: Speak boldly internationally except on the oppression of the Palestinian people.

The Presbyterian endowment is much larger – an astounding 9.2 billion dollars. The stocks they seek to divest from Israel’s occupation-related businesses – a paltry 17 million dollars. Nonetheless, like Union, supporters of divestment among Presbyterians point out that the money divested will not be lost. Their investment will be transferred to other stocks that earn similar profits.

No pain, no loss.

Despite the emotion on both sides, part of the divestment war being waged these days is a little too much like the recent Vatican “prayer summit.” No one believed there was anything to be gained in the gathering. However, the participants were assured that nothing could be lost. Why not travel to Rome and enjoy the food?

Praying with nothing at stake seems to be the coin of the realm. This is part of the problem. The question remains if and when the churches might actually put their symbolic and invested real capital to the task at hand. This would involve financial risk. Would the churches thus regain their soul?

Of course on the Israel-Palestine front much else is at risk – the interfaith ecumenical dialogue with Jews that Presbyterians have painstakingly built over the years. The perennial question is how to speak for justice for Palestinians without offending the churches Jewish partners in faith.

As they know well, it isn’t easy to speak honestly on Israel-Palestine without controversy. With Constantinian Jews it can’t be done. So why not take off their church gloves and go the final rounds?

Of course, if the churches hadn’t systematically offended Jews for 1500 years we wouldn’t be in this incredible situation, would we?

So let the voting begin and may the Christian and Jewish supporters of BDS emerge victorious. But after the victory, let’s ask where we actually are. A victory may be a tipping point of some symbolic sort and perhaps that’s all we can hope for. But if this is not the time to ask the churches to put up or shut up, when will that time come around?

Perhaps as the motion is debated, one or more Presbyterians might take the floor and make a truly radical proposal: divest from Israel’s occupation-related companies and – up the ante. With an endowment of over 9 billion dollars, there must be something more radical that can be wagered.

“We realize that our endowment alone will hardly cause the fossil fuel giants to miss even half a heartbeat” – that’s Union. But half of the Presbyterian’s endowment – if they are seriously committed to the future of Palestinian and Jewish life – might make a corporate giant or two miss more than that.

Instead of running scared, always assuring church members that nothing will be sacrificed, play it the other way. At least think about the prospect of real risk – out loud. Then when the votes are tallied more will be at stake than winning or losing a symbolic BDS vote.

Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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8 Responses

  1. pabelmont on June 13, 2014, 10:17 am

    The churches are, among other things, political teaching institutions. Catholic churches, for instance, have not hesitated to teach parishoners to vote against birth control and abortion. One who knows no history (me!) imagines that the churches were active teaching in regard to USA’s civil rights in 1960s and anti-apartheid later.

    So teaching seems to me far more important than the odd symbolic (and cost-free) actions of divestment, no matter how loudly discussed and announced.

    Let’s hear church leaders (and synagogue leaders) speak out politically against Israel’s occupation and discrimination, etc.

    Let the churches not hide their moral voices under a bushel.

    • edwin on June 13, 2014, 11:37 am

      In all fairness, the “symbolic” acts that are now being discussed is political speech against Israel’s occupation. Sure, a lot more, and a lot more specific can and should be done. We know what the political risks are of daring to challenge Zionism. Lets recognize that there is a certain amount of courage and significance in these rather tepid squeaks that first meets the eye.

    • ritzl on June 13, 2014, 12:00 pm

      Well said, pabelmont. Very well said.

  2. W.Jones on June 13, 2014, 11:59 am

    I support the BDS resolution at the Presbyterian General Assembly that will be offered in the coming days.
    That’s nice, because Palestinians are asking for it.

    part of the divestment war being waged these days is a little too much like the recent Vatican “prayer summit.” No one believed there was anything to be gained in the gathering.

    A small moral gain is still a gain.

    The question remains if and when the churches might actually put their symbolic and invested real capital to the task at hand. This would involve financial risk.
    OK, I sympathize with you here.

    With Constantinian Jews it can’t be done.
    There’s that word again. Constantine did not make Rome a “Christian state”. That happened later. There are major differences between Israeli nationalism and Constantine’s imperialism. Israeli religious nationalism existed long before and after Constantine. Take the Zealots and Bar Kochba, for example.

    So what is the point of calling them “Constantinian”?

    Of course, if the churches hadn’t systematically offended Jews for 1500 years we wouldn’t be in this incredible situation, would we?

    Why not? The Zealots and Bar Kochba had the aims of Israeli nationalism. I like Moses, but look what he and Joshua did to the native Canaanites? Look at Mamilla. What about the appealing slogan of “Next Year in Jerusalem”?

    Let’s suppose though that the churches had had no offense in those centuries. Why would this not have become a situation like the Balfour Declaration, where those western countries would back a nationalist state in the Holy land for their allies, like Balfour did? And having established such a state for their allies, why would those allies not choose to create an unequal system like they have done, in order to keep power? They would still be faced with the “demographic problem”, which Netanyahu is.

  3. libra on June 13, 2014, 12:40 pm

    “After persecuting Jews for 1500 hundred years you would have thought the Presbyterians could have done more to help the Palestinians.” says Professor Ellis. “After all, it’s their fault.”

  4. seafoid on June 13, 2014, 2:29 pm

    Losing the Presbyterian vote won’t be Zionism’s Stalingrad but it’ll be an important village along the way.

  5. Sycamores on June 13, 2014, 3:14 pm

    However, even in the heat of battle, I propose we also think out loud. It’s possible to do both.

    absolutely, without reexamining and thinking out loud we will be prone to making the same mistakes.

    equally we must be careful not to get bog down in every wrong that was perpetrated in the past for us to make a start towards reconciliation. however at some stage they will have to be atone for, as it is needed to continue the forward movement towards peaceful reconciliation between the victim and the perpetrater. that’s a risk worth taking.

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