This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

PCUSA GA 223 + The Last Days.

This Assembly reminds me of the movie, Awakenings.  In that film we see a group of people so mentally ill as to be catatonic and unresponsive.  But due to some new medication, they all wake up and lead normal happy engaged lives… for a short time.  Eventually the medicine stops working and the sink back into their original vegetative state.
The debate on “The Way Forward” was mind-numbingly oppressive, in spite of attempts to make it seem like The Answer to Everything.  As if turning our money over to the purported adults in the room to administer wisely is going to renew and invigorate the whole denomination.  The Way Forward does little more than rearrange the corporate bureaucracy, adding another layer in the process, while taking toys away from the PMA and its board.  (They have still to explain their flushing $2M down the toilet of high priced lawyers for no apparent reason, in the “1001” debacle of 3 years ago, a circumstance which probably more than anything else brought them to this imposition of an ecclesiastical time-out.)
Had there been a real alternative the discussion might have been interesting.  But in a choice between the incompetent PMA and the “new idea” of giving them corporate overlords, the assembly went along with the latter, at least in part out of universal cluelessness and confusion over how this denomination really works.  Or not.

Just as the Lord Jesus says that we may not serve two masters, but must necessarily choose to follow either God or money, this General Assembly is trying to choose between two mutually exclusive “New Ways Forward.”  
One of these ways was in evidence on Tuesday, with the amazing and powerful movement of the Spirit in the march to the jail.  I really thought the new PCUSA was being born there and then.  
But there was always this other putative way “forward,” which is really backward.  That was the drag of gravity and inertia back into a constricted, constipated, complacent, and corporate institution, concerned mainly with nostalgia, quantitative gain, and self-preservation.  
On Thursday, we apparently turned the management of the denomination over to a corporate board of trustees.  This seemed like the only way to solve a protracted and debilitating mess at the top of the bureaucracy.  We are assured that they are only going to allocate resources more efficiently, and that this will set us free to do mission better.  We’ll see.  Fiduciaries tend to focus on profit, in my experience. 
On Friday, however, the Old Way Backward was resoundingly affirmed as the assembly kept a firm grip on its “seat at the table” by retaining its support of, and continuing to profit from, the worst industry on the planet.  Thus it remains the case that the thousands of deaths, the extensive degradation of land, air, and water, the acceleration of destructive climate change, and the radical inequalities, injustices, and disorder that is the essence of the fossil fuel industry’s business plan, remain on us.  
As glorious as it was to be a Presbyterian on Tuesday, it is shameful to be one on Friday.
When this denomination finally folds up and withers with a confused whimper and vanishes into an obscure footnote in church history, let it be known that its ignominious end was guaranteed at 2 pm on June 22, 2018.  For that is when we had the opportunity to turn and follow the Creator, and chose instead to give Jesus the finger and follow the money instead.  We chose the way of the Sadducees, selling our birthright for a seat at their table, and giving a lie to all the now mostly meaningless verbiage of the rest of the meeting.
A lot more ended today.  The once hopeful initiatives like the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and especially the group called Mission Responsibility Through Investment, have lost all credibility.  I remember when these groups were imaginative and radical efforts to bring silenced voices into the conversation.  But now their legacy is the craven and cowardly selling-out to power we saw today.  If it occurs to our new corporate leadership that “adaptive change” means terminating the expensive existence of these impotent entities, that will be fine with me.
In choosing a seat at the table soaked in blood, tears, glacier-melt, and petrochemicals, we have chosen the ideology of lies and scarcity, extraction and colonialism, inequality and extinction over the truth of the gospel.  We have embraced and invested in the Doctrine of Discovery with an enthusiastic vengeance.  
At this point, why should we stop here?  The same arguments we heard today about the fossil fuel industry could be — and indeed once were — made about the tobacco, firearms, and alcohol industries, and companies profiting from the oppression and murder of Palestinians and South Africans.  Why not get ourselves back at those tables while we’re at it?  Indeed, why not invest in pornography, which is apparently really profitable?  Imagine that table!  Since it’s all about the money, why not figure out a way to invest in illegal drug cartels?  
If MRTI et al deign to finally recommend divestment in 2020, it won’t matter.  Their gig is over.
This week we’re talking a lot about “Kindom.”  Apparently, it’s just talk.  In reality we’re with the Empire: Pharaoh, Caesar, and ExxonMobil.

One little but bright light at the General Assembly is that we are now firmly with the Palestinians.  Even something that could be controversial, like the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, was affirmed with such a large majority in committee that it was passed in plenary on the Consent Agenda.  When many on the committee departed for the march on Tuesday, the remaining members managed to insert words critical of Hamas in a resolution on Gaza.  On Friday the plenary resoundingly removed them and made it clear that the massacres of civilians in the permanent siege of Gaza are entirely Israel’s responsibility.  The pro-Israeli lobby doesn’t even bother with us anymore.  
Four short years ago in Detroit this was armageddon.  Today, it’s over.  It was not easy to get here.  MRTI stood in the way for years on this as well, defending the profitability of check-points and the torturing of children.  But we can, apparently, oppose colonialism and apartheid.  So there is that hope.  That we can on occasion follow Jesus, eventually.

Finally, after arguing and fighting over sex for half a century, this denomination has also reached a consensus on that.  Two years ago, when support for same-sex marriage blew through the plenary with a substantial majority, it was clear that we were in a new place.  Votes on these issues used to be hard-fought and razor-thin.
Of course, this happened because the right wing largely departed in many local property battles.  
The question is now what?  In Detroit and Portland it seemed like the next fault line was going to be Israel-Palestine, an issue that split the left.  This year, not so much.
We are a denomination in which most churches are small, but most members are in large churches.  Look for the corporate leadership to ally with bigger, richer congregations.  (Frank Spencer, the President of the Board of Pensions, referencing his preface to the new book by former Stated Clerk, Gradye Parsons, practically proclaimed this strategy as he channelled Steve Jobs in his talk early in the week, after we all dined on steak and salmon.)  
So, I anticipate a wave of small church closures, with the assets going to support the already rich ones.  Expect a wave of mergers, making churches and presbyteries large enough to support corporate staffing models and make hefty per capita payments.  The vision (I guess) is of vibrant large churches as regional hubs of mission.
My fear is that this vision is another manifestation of The Old Way Backward, as we try to resuscitate the corpse of the Christendom model.  For some of us this was exemplified by the Big Presbyterian Church on the Green we still see situated in many towns.  Spencer draws a broad swath from Washington DC to Dallas, insisting that this is the region we need to cultivate since it is growing and people there still go to church.  If this is anything more faithful than mindless and sterile nostalgia for the glory days of the PCUS I will be surprised.
  What this model will do to our diversity is anyone’s guess.  But there is no alternative vision right now.  And we have seen at this assembly what happens when only one solution is presented to a problem.
(But then perhaps there is hope in the multicultural stew that may be beginning to bubble in the Northeast….)              

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