Letter to U.S. Congress generates controversy

A few weeks ago, a controversial letter was sent to members of the U.S. Congress from a group of American church officials, including the Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian General Assembly. 

This letter has generated widespread criticism among many Presbyterians, members of other Christian denominations, and Jews.

The letter accused Israel of undermining the peace process through a systematic policy of human rights violations, and requested Congress to conduct an “immediate investigation” of Israeli conduct and to consider withholding military aid to Israel.  The letter asserted that U.S. military assistance to Israel has contributed to “deteriorating conditions . . . which threaten to lead the region further away from a just peace”.

The Rev. Parsons has the right, as all Americans do, to express his personal opinions and viewpoints to Congress or anyone else, as long as there is clear and appropriate disclosure that the opinions expressed are his personal opinions, and that he is not acting as a spokesman for the Presbyterian Church.  The position of Stated Clerk of the General Assembly is an important position within the PC(USA), with responsibility for all administrative and clerical functions of the General Assembly.  The Stated Clerk, however, is not allowed to take public positions that are not firmly rooted in PC(USA) policy. He has no authority to create church policy or to make judgments on behalf of the denomination regarding American foreign policy, nor authority to personally investigate and make judgments upon the practices or conduct of any country.

Unfortunately, much of the general public has little understanding of Presbyterian polity.  GA commissioners spend countless hours debating public statements and carefully wording them. When statements by officials such as Rev. Parsons are perceived as statements of the PC(USA), they undermine the hard work and thoughtful statements of the GA.

The letter that the Rev. Parsons signed contradicts and diminishes carefully worded GA policy.  In 2008, the General Assembly explicitly disavowed a one-sided approach to peacemaking in the Middle East, stating, “We ask PC(USA) members, congregations, committees, and other entities to become nonpartisan advocates for peace. As such, we will not over-identify with the realities of the Israelis or Palestinians. Instead we will identify with the need for peacemaking voices in the midst of horrific acts of violence and terror.”

The letter signed by the Rev. Parsons concludes that Israel alone should be investigated because of human rights abuses cited in the U.S. State Departments 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011. The letter does not include the following text from the same report regarding human rights violations by Palestinians: “The three most egregious human rights violations across the occupied territories were arbitrary arrest and associated torture and abuse, often with impunity and particularly against security or political prisoners, by multiple actors in the region; restrictions on civil liberties; and the inability of residents of the Gaza Strip under Hamas to choose or hold to account their own government. Other human rights problems under the PA in the West Bank included at least one reported unlawful killing. Some detainees faced abuse and mistreatment, overcrowded detention facilities, arbitrary arrest, and in some cases prolonged detention. Corruption, although reduced from previous years, remained a problem. Societal discrimination and abuse against women, discrimination against persons with disabilities, and child labor remained serious problems.”   Ironically, the State Department Country Reports has exactly the kind of balanced approach to issues the General Assembly instructed our staff and committees to take.

General Assembly after General Assembly has made it clear that the GA wants the PC(USA) to be a peacemaker and not a party to conflict in the Middle East.  However, in between General Assemblies, we continue to see statements by paid staff and various committee members that exceed their authority and create a distorted perception of the Presbyterian Church. 

We encourage diverse viewpoints and debate.  We encourage all Americans to write letters to Congress on issues they are passionate about.  Our objection to the Stated Clerk signing this letter is not about his viewpoint, per se, although we disagree with it. The key issue is that he has misrepresented PC(USA) policy on this important issue.  Contrary to General Assembly instructions, we have become a partisan player in the conflict. Our entire denomination is under attack for something it has never adopted as policy. It is unjust and disrespectful to the many GA commissioners who worked so hard to serve the church at past assemblies to see their work undermined and misrepresented by church officials and staff with no authority to make policy.  We ask that, going forward, all staff members and officials of the PC(USA) provide clear disclosure that their viewpoints and opinions are their own and not of the PC(USA) when they make the kind of public statements contained in the letter to Congress.  This will help avoid confusion, and put the PC(USA) in a stronger position to make a positive difference in the world.