The Presbyterian Church, USA has always been known for its strenuous debates of controversial issues. It has never been known for ideological purges. That changed a few weeks ago.
On April 1, 2014, after a thorough vetting of his abilities to be moderator of the GA committee on Middle East Issues, GA Moderator Neal Presa announced that Rev. Al Butzer, the widely respected senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Virginia Beach, VA, was appointed as the committee’s moderator. The appointment was hailed by centrists in the church who seek a more reasonable debate of the issues. Throughout his long career, Rev. Butzer has been found standing on the center ground in the church’s controversies, searching for consensus viewpoints between the extremes. He is also known for his ability to moderate a meeting in a fair and ethical manner, making sure that all voices are heard and all sides of a debate are treated equally.
However, advocates of the Israel-targeted Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement did not share the widespread approval of Rev. Butzer’s appointment. Instead, they questioned Rev. Butzer’s personal integrity by saying that he was incapable of leading a fair hearing on Middle East issues and demanded that he be replaced as moderator of the committee. Less than a week after his nomination, Rev. Butzer was forced to step aside when the GA’s Moderator and Stated Clerk succumbed to the lobbying from the BDS proponents.
During the week of April 1-6, BDS leaders told Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons and General Assembly Moderator Neal Presa that Rev. Butzer should be disqualified because he and Jewish clergy led two trips to Israel with congregants from Christian and Jewish congregations in Virginia. The trips were not political. They had the goal of helping participants discuss the places where Judaism and Christianity are similar and where they are different. As is not unusual in trips in which clergy act as leaders, none of the three clergy paid their own expenses. Clergy expenses were paid by the Jewish Federation of Richmond, VA.
Friends of Rev. Butzer are dismayed that the BDS movement’s unfair criticism of his ability to moderate the Committee on Middle East Issues failed to mention that he also took two subsidized trips to the Middle East in which most of his time was spent talking with Palestinian leaders, including Archbishop Elias Chacour, and visited Palestinian refugee camps. His friends were also in disbelief that Rev. Butzer was attacked by the BDS camp for attending a Virginia interfaith Passover Seder in which not only Jews but Muslims were present.
To leaders of the PCUSA’s divestment movement, it is irrelevant that Rev. Butzer:
has visited and listened to all sides in the Middle East, including Palestinian-led trips to refugee camps in the West Bank;
has established a reputation for fairness on controversial issues and polity expertise that spans his career in Chicago Presbytery, National Capital Presbytery and the Presbytery of Eastern Virginia;
was nominated to be a committee moderator by numerous Presbytery executives who have worked with him over the years;
stands in the center of the church on issues, not in alliance with interest groups lobbying for a particular outcome on issues.
The only thing that matters to our denomination’s BDS leadership is that Rev. Butzer traveled to Israel with a group of Christians and Jews and attended an interfaith Passover Seder service in his hometown. Peacemaking apparently does not include traveling with Jews, visiting Palestinians such as Archbishop Chacour or breaking bread with interfaith partners in one’s own hometown.
It is puzzling that neither the Stated Clerk nor the Moderator of the General Assembly reached out to anyone who nominated Rev. Butzer or had experience with him as a leader in a Presbytery or Synod to hear if there was another side to the distorted image of Rev. Butzer that was spread by the BDS leaders. His colleagues in ministry are stunned that they were not given a chance to explain just how preposterous the charges against Rev. Butzer’s integrity and professionalism are.
Thanks to the actions of the BDS leaders, we now have some new litmus tests for being a moderator of committees at General Assemblies. They are:
Clergy should not lead trips to the Middle East in which they travel with Jews from their own communities;
Clergy should not accept subsidies for leading trips with their congregations; and
Clergy should avoid interfaith celebrations such as shared Seder services.
Our denomination’s BDS leadership may feel as though it was a great victory to force the General Assembly’s Moderator to change his mind about the nomination of a widely respected centrist in the church. In fact, it was a defeat for the church we love. The church always loses when honorable servants are subjected to ideological attacks intended to smear their reputations. Will the application of ideological litmus tests be applied to other moderators of General Assembly committees who will be dealing with controversial issues? We pray not.