Presbyterian Stances On Messianic Sect, Divestiture Criticized
Local Jewish leaders have joined a national protest against the Presbyterian Church (USA), charging the Protestant denomination with endangering a long-standing relationship between the two faith groups when it passed measures regarding Judaism and Israel at its recent convention in Richmond.
Presbyterian officials plan to meet Sept. 28 in New York with leaders of the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements in an effort to restore cordial relations and assuage fears of Jews that anti-Semitism is growing among mainline Protestants. Local Presbyterian clergy and Jewish leaders met Aug. 5, and representatives who attended said they were “heartened” by the frank dialogue. They hope to meet again next month.
Jews said they were most surprised when delegates to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) overwhelmingly approved a resolution, 431 to 62, to divest itself of financial interests in selected international corporations that do business in Israel — a reflection, church leaders said, of the church’s opposition to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and construction of a security fence around much of the Palestinian territory.
They said they were also dismayed by a more closely contested vote, 260 to 233, to reject restrictions on funding additional messianic Jewish congregations. Last fall’s opening of Avodat Yisrael, a Presbyterian-supported messianic congregation near Philadelphia, sparked protests from Jewish leaders, who demanded that the church withdraw financial support.
Either vote would have provoked a reaction, Jewish leaders said, but together they reflect unusual insensitivity toward groups with whom Presbyterians had partnered on numerous social justice issues, including the campaign two decades ago to end apartheid in South Africa.
“It was shocking to us that in one meeting the Presbyterian Church had both voted to support the deceptive proselytizing practice [of messianic Judaism] and to de-legitimize Israel through the divestment process,” said David L. Bernstein, director of the Washington chapter of the American Jewish Committee.
The Presbyterian actions at the eight-day national convention of the 2.4 million-member denomination, which ended July 3, had added significance for the Washington area’s 216,000 Jews. They were keenly aware that a major evangelistic effort would be launched this month to convert Jews to Christianity.
Jews for Jesus, a San Francisco-based organization, was scheduled today to begin a $200,000 local effort that is part of the nationwide campaign “Operation Behold Your God,” continuing until Sept. 18, during High Holy Days.
More than 600 local volunteers, many from McLean Bible Church — whose pastor, Lon Solomon, is a Jew who became a born-again Christian — will hand out religious leaflets at Metro stops and “lovingly confront our people with the claims of Jesus to be our Messiah,” said Washington’s Jews for Jesus director Stephen Katz.
Some Presbyterian leaders shared the concerns about their denomination’s actions, particularly regarding Avodat Yisrael.
The Rev. Susan Andrews, pastor of Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda and outgoing moderator of the denomination, called on the General Assembly to “take a deep breath” before funding additional messianic congregations. Under last year’s agreement, Avodat Yisrael will receive $260,000 in start-up assistance from local and national Presbyterian sources over a five-year period.
“There’s some criticism in the Presbyterian Church that [Avodat Yisrael] is somewhat deceptive in the way they advertised who they are,” Andrews said in an interview this week.
Although funded by a committee that provides grants for new churches, the congregation has a Hebrew name with no reference to “church” or “Presbyterian” and follows an order of service with trappings more identifiable as Jewish than Christian. Its minister wears a yarmulke and prayer shawl, refers to himself as “spiritual leader” rather than “pastor” and handles the Torah — a privilege typically afforded only to Jews.
Messianic Jews often describe themselves as Jews who accept Jesus as the Messiah — not as converts to Christianity.
Andrews, whose church has shared worship space with Bethesda Jewish Congregation for 40 years, said she also shared the concern of Jewish leaders that messianic congregations such as Avodat Yisrael lure non-practicing or unsuspecting Jews with familiar symbols and rites of worship, then subtly convert them with a Christian message woven through their liturgy.
“There’s a difference between evangelism and proselytizing,” Andrews said.
The leader of the congregation, Andrew Sparks, 34, who said he attended an Orthodox synagogue as a child and was ordained in the Presbyterian Church three years ago, maintained that Avodat Yisrael does not proselytize and instead offers a welcoming place for other Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah foretold in the Hebrew Bible.
Sparks said he believes a person can remain Jewish — and dress and worship like a Jew — and believe in Jesus. He said many Jews have done so while believing in other messiah figures: Bar Kochba, in the second century; Shabbetai Zvi, in the 17th century; and Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, leader of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, in the 20th century.
But his congregation, he said, does not belong to Jews for Jesus or subscribe to its methods of evangelism. “We don’t engage in proselytization,” he said. “We welcome people to come and worship with us, but we don’t go on the streets or door-to-door or send out mailings to the Jewish community.”
Last week, Sparks sided with Jewish leaders in condemning the divestment resolution.
“As the only Messianic Jewish community in relationship with the Presbyterian Church (USA), Congregation Avodat Yisrael urges the denomination to pursue justice for both Palestinians and Jews and to abandon policies that target one party in the conflict,” Sparks wrote in a lengthy statement on the congregation’s Web site.
Avodat Yisrael is “saddened by the implications for Jewish-Christian relations,” he wrote, adding that the use of economic sanctions “invites comparison between Israel and South Africa,” despite the assurance of Clifton Kirkpatrick, the Presbyterians’ top official, in an online statement July 20 that “the assembly has not asserted any moral equivalency” between the two countries.
But William Somplatsky-Jarman, a national Presbyterian Church (USA) staff member who works with a committee that monitors corporate behavior, said the church is following the same procedure it has used on numerous occasions to bring pressure to bear on corporations involved in activities of which it disapproves.
When instructed to investigate a particular situation, he said, such as the General Assembly’s call for divestment in Israel, the 12-person Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee goes through a list of hundreds of corporations in its $7 billion investment portfolio to determine whether any might be involved.
Those companies most involved are asked to change their policies and, if they do not or cannot, the name goes on a potential divestment list that must be approved by the General Assembly, he said.
The church helped spearhead the anti-apartheid effort, which spread to other denominations and which included some Jewish groups. The Presbyterian Church divested itself of interests in Chevron, Texaco, Mobil, General Motors, Ford and Control Data Corp., among other companies, Somplatsky-Jarman said. The church has ongoing policies against purchasing tobacco and alcohol stock, along with certain military products, such as land mines and nuclear armaments.
Its last divestment resolution came four years ago when it unloaded stock of an oil company operating in Sudan, he said.
Regarding Israel, he said, the committee plans to look at U.S. companies most directly involved in supporting Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza and supplying military and security support for Israeli forces.
Caterpillar Corp., of Peoria, Ill., is an obvious example, Somplatsky-Jarman said, because the company’s bulldozers have been used to clear paths for the security fences and to raze buildings during military operations.
The denomination has $2.7 million in Caterpillar stock.
He said other companies on the list for potential divestment might include military contractors, manufacturers of computer parts or software used by the Israeli Defense Forces, and financial underwriters of military operations.
“Selected divestment” means the committee generally will not target corporations that own fast-food restaurants; sell clothing, pharmaceuticals and other staples; or support tourism, he said. “These are not boycotts.”
The divestment process is lengthy and can be approved and implemented only by action of the General Assembly, which meets every two years; the next assembly will be in 2006 in Birmingham.
Nevertheless, the potential of such a move makes Jewish leaders nervous, and it doesn’t help to be told that divestment will be directed only at selected companies.
“We find any divestment unacceptable,” said Ronald Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington, an umbrella organization for more than 200 synagogues and Jewish organizations. Any divestment strategy will weaken Israel economically and put the country “in a more compromising position against the Palestinians,” he said.
Halber worries that such influential denominations as the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Methodist Church will follow the Presbyterians’ lead and establish divestment policies of their own. They, like the Presbyterian Church (USA), advocate a two-state peace plan for the region, establishing separate countries for the Israelis and the Palestinians.
“We don’t want other mainline churches to adopt this type of effort,” he said.