Friday, June 29, 2007

How DARE you say the UCC was fair!

After being congratulated for being magnanimous and fair, key leaders of the United Church of Christ (UCC) are lashing out, in effect growling, “We most certainly were not!” The indignity expressed over the notion that perhaps UCC was being wise and evenhanded in a resolution approved at its recent General Synod meeting is a sight to behold.

In 2005, the UCC General Synod approved two resolutions aimed directly at reproving Israel: one about tearing down the protective separation barrier and one about divestment from Israel. Apparently in the intervening two years, some morally attuned UCC members have been following events on the ground and have had some second thoughts about singling out Israel alone from a whole cast of players for particular approbation.

Thus delegates to the General Synod developed a carefully worded resolution that supplied many sensible reasons to rethink the former policy and to ease back from one-sided advocacy. Parts of the resolution and its explanation imply that it is becoming clearer every day that the tragic situation in the Middle East isn't all that appropriate to pin only on Israel.

Read through the resolution, which was approved without amendment. You will see abundant indications in the wording that with this resolution, the UCC recognized its previous shortcomings and is turning over a new leaf. The resolution is clear and compelling in its argument. For instance, it states (emphasis added):

  • The UCC “passed two resolutions focusing on the actions of Israel … and has yet to fully address other forces contributing to the ongoing violence, oppression and suffering in the region.”
  • “In recent months violence has dramatically escalated between the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, especially in the Gaza Strip, in spite of the fact that Israel disengaged from Gaza in September 2005.”
  • “The escalating violence between Fatah and Hamas now calls us to consider whether we may have overlooked many aspects of an extraordinarily complicated situation."
  • The UCC “recognizes the need for ongoing balanced study, commentary and critique related to the conflict in the region.”
  • The study needs to look into “appropriate responses to the situation that may or may not lead to further support of economic leverage and removal of the security barrier.”
  • “[T]he possibility for a brighter future for Palestinians is diminished not only by actions of Israel but also by violent internal battles being waged between Palestinian political parties and militias."
  • “We cannot raise our voices only to point out the transgressions of one side.”

When a Jewish friend pointed me to this generous resolution, I realized that such fine work needed to be commended. All too often my organization, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), finds itself needing to blow the whistle on something going wrong. Thus, it was a joy to be able to actually commend the UCC, a group with whom we commonly have major disagreement.

The IRD press release was kind and generous. “I am impressed by the magnanimity of the United Church of Christ in this action,” I wrote. I said that “the IRD commends the UCC for its action.”

One might think that the UCC response would be in kind: “Well, thanks for the compliment. That’s good of you.” But that wasn’t the response at all. Instead, UCC President John Thomas “express[ed] outrage at how some outside groups are distorting a recent action on the Middle East by the United Church of Christ.”

What? The UCC gets complimented for being fair and generous, decent and noble--and it is outraged? People read and applaud the plain meaning of the resolution--and Thomas fumes about how the press releases “reveal an ignorance of General Synod parliamentary process as well as a distorted understanding the long history of engagement by our church related to the conflict in the Middle East.”

What is Thomas saying, that we should have known that the UCC would never be that reasonable? That the hierarchy would never allow such fine General Synod work to remain unmolested?

Although Thomas proclaimed alleged ignorance and distortion on our part, he didn’t bother to actually substantiate it. In fact he stumbled into confirming the interpretation the resolution itself made clear. “[T]he proponents of the resolution clearly believe that current UCC understandings of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are too one-sided and need to be broadened,” he admitted. Yes, indeed. The words in the resolution definitely say that., and that meaning got enacted by the General Synod. What was he reading?

But even though the resolution said it and the General Synod approved it and the public at large recognized it as right and good, Thomas is not about to let such technicalities ruin a perfectly good ideological prejudice. He plans to plow ahead with the firm concept that “General Synod policy related to Israel and Palestine remains today what it was before our Synod convened." Well, yes. Of course. But a task force will be taking a second look at factors that complicate the current policy and may recommend changes. That much was clearly set in motion by the General Synod.

The UCC leaders also seemed unwilling to pass up a perfectly good opportunity to say something spiteful about the IRD, even though the IRD had just commended them. In an article distributed by Ecumenical News International, J. Bennett Guess, a UCC spokesperson “criticised the IRD,” wrote author Chris Herlinger. Guess “said that the institute's ‘repeated and ruthless attempts to attack, distort and demean the work and witness of mainline Protestant churches, including the United Church of Christ, are not to be trusted.’” (It must remain to be seen if other groups’ “ruthless attempts” can be trusted, instead.)

Here in the press--but not communicated directly to me in person as the writer of the IRD press release, or to the IRD in general--UCC President John H. Thomas has called on those of us who publicly commended the UCC “to correct misleading statements.” Okay. I’d be pleased to do so.

After reading Thomas’s statement and rereading the resolution approved by the UCC General Synod, I have to admit that I did mislead readers in two ways.

First, I had written that “I am impressed by the magnanimity of the United Church of Christ in this action.” That is not entirely true. I remain impressed with the magnanimity of the General Synod, which diplomatically asked for a difficult reassessment of a perhaps ill-conceived policy. However, I have become appalled at the quarrelsome deception of leaders like John Thomas and J. Bennett Guess, who will not let a virtuous decision go untwisted, or a kind commendation go unpunished.

Second, I had written that “The IRD commends the UCC for its action.” That part remains true. It was a much-needed and well-worded resolution. But sadly, I need to remove from that commendation any accolades for Thomas or Guess, who have fallen all over themselves to re-imagine the plain wording of the resolution, to misguide the public about its meaning and import, and finally to bite the hand that commended them.

Where our Lord said to bless those who curse you, oddly, Thomas and Guess must have decided to curse those who blessed them.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Where Is the Staff Accountability?

Any large organization needs to operate not by idiosyncratic whim of the hired personnel, but rather by policy legitimately established to reflect the corporate purposes of the organization. Loose cannons and tinhorn radicals need to be lashed down or let go by those we have placed in leadership responsibility and hold accountable to manage the organization.

Right now in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Associate for Women’s Advocacy--Molly Casteel--needs to feel the weight of what Charles Wiley (Associate for Theology) has termed “ordinary discipline.”

Casteel is operating in direct defiance of a resolution approved by the 217th General Assembly a year ago.

Her supervisor (unit Director Rhashell Hunter), or her supervisor’s supervisor (Tom Taylor, Deputy Executive Director for Mission) needs to let her know that such defiance simply will not be countenanced, and steps need to be taken to undo the damage.

But to be fair to Casteel, her behavior is hardly unique within the Women’s Ministries unit. She may only be following the lead of her colleagues, or standing in as the spokesperson for a streak of defiance that far exceeds her own personal authority and permeates an entire department.

Quite simply, Casteel has published very regrettable papers that violate a General Assembly directive. When called on it, she has indicated in a recent letter to Voices of Orthodox Women (VOW) that faithfulness to biblical and confessional morality is but an opinion or a choice of some small group of Presbyterians, and she and her department disagree with that option and are thus not among those people who take the Bible and Book of Confessions very seriously.

Casteel paints herself and her work in glowing terms that are unattached to biblical realities. She evidences absolutely no recognition of the clearly stated violations of theology and practice that Viola Larson skillfully elucidated in a pair of letters. She doesn't even try.

Nor does Casteel admit any need to conform her work to the bounds of distinctively Christian morality practiced by the church over the centuries. Casteel’s obvious benchmarks for excellence are the latest decrees by secular or heterodox radical feminists. Those writings, apparently, form her canon.

Direct opposition to GA instructions
Even more disconcerting is that Casteel’s dismissive reply to VOW comes despite a clear and recent decree of the General Assembly, which directs “the General Assembly Council (Congregational Ministries Division) and all other PC(USA) entities to use the biblical and confessional teachings that sexual relationships belong only within the bond of marriage of a man and a woman as the standard for the development of any future materials or recommendations for materials in print or in its website.”

Note that the General Assembly directed “all … PC(USA) entities” to follow the directive. All entities are to produce materials that teach the standard that “sexual relationships belong only within the bond of marriage of a man and a woman.” And the standard is to be used for "any future materials” and for any “recommendations for materials in print or in its website.”

This General Assembly instruction definitely meant to prevent exactly the kind of articles Casteel produced and commended on the website to supposedly "stimulate discussion."

Why should it require the vigilant and insightful efforts of Viola Larson and a group like VOW to point out the gross errors of the Women’s Advocacy Office? Why can’t that office self-police its work, so that it is biblically derived, theologically defensible, and General Assembly compliant?

Groups like VOW ought to be rendered unnecessary by an office and ministry staff faithful and competent in what they do. But instead, VOW must play a vital role, and I thank them for doing so.

And why is it that when Larson makes a careful and well-documented case, asking distinct questions that deserve a prompt and thoughtful answer--and something like an apology and retraction--Casteel doesn’t praise her for an obviously needed corrective? Instead, Casteel repeatedly delays, she misses the point, she dodges key questions in her reply, and finally replies months later with patronizing, self-serving hogwash.

It certainly appears to be time for some supervisory correction. Our denomination cannot accommodate independent characters free-lancing policy in positions of influence and authority. When General Assembly makes a decision, staff members must comply. Plain and simple.

If staff members like Casteel can’t in good conscience comply, their supervisors need to make it clear that they are welcome to take their advocacy some place else where the organization authorizes such views. The PC(USA), however, isn’t such a place.

[And a final word about the inevitable complaint I expect to hear: “Don’t listen to him! He’s a privileged, middle-class, middle-aged, white male who is out to ‘put a woman in her place’! How dare he seek to assert his authority over the women of the church!” and so on.

The thing is that gender is irrelevant here. It’s just not salient. We’re talking about ideas, not power or intent, and ideas need to be able to stand or fall on their own merit. Being white, male, middle class, middle-aged, clergy--whatever--should neither discount my words nor protect me from legitimate correction in the Body of Christ. Nor should being female either privilege Casteel’s words or protect her from legitimate correction by the Body of Christ. We can and should talk about these things, gender aside.]