A Missed Opportunity: A Response to the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson

As we all continue to grapple with the aftermath of the massacre at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, a new reality is dawning on many of us, that the dark and sinister power of anti-Semitism is alive and ominous in the United States. This is seen both on the left, as progressive activists cozy up to Louis Farrakhan and his anti-Semitic agenda, and on the right, where alt-right leaders such as Richard Spencer unleash the ugly rhetoric of hate in places like Charlottesville. While anti-Semitism settles into a new secular powerbase, we, as Christians, must never forget that we are complicit in the origins of this evil, and therefore we can never rest on our laurels.

I believe that in St. Louis we failed again. Some of us have watched the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States over the last decade, and we have been concerned. We have been equally bothered by the silence of the PCUSA to address this darkness. More so, we are dismayed that the denomination has sought to whitewash our own actions that the Jewish community has considered anti-Semitic. A statement made by the Office of Interfaith Relations of the PCUSA in 2008 called into question the anti-Jewish behavior of the PCUSA in previous GA’s. You may search the PCUSA website, but you will not find the statement; it has been removed. If you wish to read it, you need to go to the Center for Jewish-Christian Relations which has created an archive of denominational statements. You can find the statement here.

While it is commendable that the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly has expressed his grief and solidarity with the Jewish community following the violence committed against the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, we and Dr. Nelson need to be reminded that our words do not match our actions. At the 223rd General Assembly in St. Louis, we had a perfect opportunity to condemn anti-Semitic behaviors and language. The Presbytery of Carlisle submitted overture 07-01, On America’s Interfaith Context and the Church’s Challenge. This overture specifically asked the General Assembly to “condemn all religiously inspired and motivated violence, prejudice, discrimination, and hate speech, in particular, those actions based upon anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim behaviors and language.” As the overture advocate for 07-01, I was dismayed when the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee amended the original language of the motion to delete the bolded portion above: “in particular those actions based upon anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim behaviors and language.” The rationale made clear that the primary motivation for the overture was rampant anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim behaviors and speech evident in our society and clearly documented in the rationale. What resulted from the committee’s and General Assembly’s action was a flaccid and weakened statement.

Following the murder of 12 Jews in Pittsburgh, many took to social media to attempt to stand in solidarity with the victims. However, many Presbyterians within our denomination boldly spoke and voted in opposition to ‘political statements’ with which they disagree, failing to take a courageous and constructive stance against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Sadly, this is the palpable harbinger of apathetic do-nothingness that silence begets. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. prophesied in a jail cell in Birmingham that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

The Stated Clerk and the denomination missed an opportunity to be a leader in the battle against hate and bigotry in our nation. Had the General Assembly adopted the original language, our denomination would have had an opportunity to mend some of the differences with the Jewish community to which the Stated Clerk refers in his statement. I assume the differences that Dr. Nelson mentions in his statement are related to the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but why must these differences keep us from condemning anti-Semitism? The Jewish community, for years now, has felt increasingly alienated by the rhetoric that is emerging on both the left and the right. Time and again, we in the PCUSA have turned our backs on real engagement with the Jewish community and have stuck our heads in the sand whenever the phrase “anti-Semitism” is voiced. Once again in St. Louis we acted like anti-Semitism was not a threat to the Jewish community and failed to take a stand.

The original overture had teeth and was a clarion and prophetic call to condemn the anti-Semitic violence that now permeates the American scene. Words matter. Strong words shape action. Weak words lead to ineffectiveness and aren’t heard. Our tepid words this summer weakened our ability to be a positive force in draining the swamp of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim behavior and language. Unfortunately, Dr. Nelson’s words follow suit. It’s a pity that his words didn’t have the strong foundation of the overture in its original form. It’s a pity that our General Assembly, faced with the gathering storm of anti-Semitism, failed the Jewish people and the church once again in a critical moment that called for a powerful witness.