In the Opening Eucharist of the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry called the worshippers present to remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bishop Curry invoked the German theologian as exemplar of the cost of discipleship, of the sometimes near insuperable difficulty of living into the words of Jesus, not just reciting them. Bishop Curry invited the Convention to act boldly and courageously in walking in the footsteps of Jesus. As the convention unfolded, both the deputies to the convention and bishops, who make up the bicameral legislative structure of the Episcopal Church, appeared to have heeded that message.
How heartened we were as the legislative committees, House of Deputies, and House of Bishops each in turn spoke out and supported actions that will significantly advance the Church’s position on Palestine and Israel and the longstanding injustices in the region.
For the first time, the Episcopal Church will implement a human rights investment screen according to resolution B016, “Adopt ELCA Action on Israel/Palestine”, which states in part, “… the Convention directs our Executive Council’s Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility to develop criteria for Israel and Palestine based on a human rights’ investment screen and the actions of General Convention and Executive Council over the past seventy years…” With this action, the Episcopal Church now joins nine other ecumenical partner churches in so doing.
Although the investment screen is a new approach for the Church on this issue, addressing human rights concerns through economic means is not new. The Church has engaged in corporate engagement through shareholder action since 2005. B016, which builds on nearly 70 years of Church policy on Palestine and Israel enacted through multiple General Convention and Executive Council resolutions, represents an extension of the use of economic pressure. Once the investment screen criteria are developed and implemented the Church will have the opportunity to create a No Buy list, divest from companies that do not meet the criteria, or further engage companies regarding their actions.
Debate on the resolutions was lively, eloquent, and serious. In the end, it appeared that the majority of deputies and bishops concurred that the longstanding military occupation of the West Bank, blockade of Gaza and annexation of East Jerusalem have resulted in a measure of deprivation, suffering, and violence that demands a stepped-up response.
Besides concurring on B016, the Convention continued its long history of addressing human rights concerns with other resolutions, including
- Calling upon the church’s Office of Government Relations to request assurance from Israeli and Palestinian governmental authorities that international agreements are followed in treatment of children; and to prohibit use of coercive measures and methods of military justice with children;
- Affirming Jerusalem as an international city that must be kept available to all worshippers and that moving the capital of Israel to Jerusalem is an obstacle to peace;
- Urging the US government to restore full funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for the benefit of Palestinian refugees, and lift the freeze on projects of USAID to benefit Palestinians;
- Urging the President and Congress to cooperate with calls to investigate incidences of use of lethal force against unarmed civilians by Israeli and Palestinian forces and stressing the obligation of the US to enforce the Leahy Amendment if instances of human rights violations are confirmed;
- Recognizing the rights of self-determination of both Israeli and Palestinian peoples living as sovereign peoples in their homeland, with full human and civil rights and with democratic rule of one person, one vote; and affirming that no political solution must abrogate those rights.
Although the 79th General Convention marked a notable change in the church’s approach to Palestine/Israel, members of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship Palestine Israel Network note that much work remains to be done. Most deputies and bishops have never visited the region to witness the facts on the ground, many deputies and bishops are unaware of most of the human rights violations that accompany the occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza, and many deputies and bishops are eager for more information not available from most western media outlets.
During debates in the House of Deputies and House of Bishops, some wondered why the Episcopal Church should concern itself with affairs in another part of the world and intrude into a diocese outside its authority. Some members of the Church saw the answer to that in two particular events that took place during Convention. On Sunday, July 7, a vigil with Bishops Against Gun Violence witnessed for protection from gun violence. Then later, hundreds of deputies and bishops traveled to Taylor, Texas, and stood vigil at the Hutto Detention Center where mothers and children from the US-Mexico border are detained.
In those public witnesses, many realized that injustices cross national and jurisdictional boundaries and our responses must do the same. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Standing Rock, and the children of Parkland High School remind us that the struggle for Palestinian rights belongs, that it is properly encompassed in the baptismal covenant to seek justice for all people.