Will Mainline Churches Divest From China? Ha!

I’m really looking forward to all the China-related resolutions that mainline churches in the United States will be voting on at their national assemblies over the next few years. The COVID-19 crisis has underscored the problems with how the Chinese Communist Party governs a country of more than 1 billion people. These problems need to be spoke about publicly. They demand a churchly word – maybe even shareholder activism on the part of mainline churches in the U.S.

A boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign maybe?

The problems with “wet markets” aside, it’s well understood that the Chinese government badly mistreats its own citizens. It stands credibly accused of imprisoning dissidents, sentencing them to death, executing them, and transplanting their organs into people who pay good money for the service.

Then there’s the regime’s treatment of its minorities, and I’m not talking about the ethnic cleansing of Tibet (although I should). I’m talking about the Uighurs whose plight has been ignored.

And more recently, the CCP appears to have hidden the threat COVID-19 posed to the rest of humanity until it was too late to stop the virus from becoming a pandemic. And it seems to have enlisted the World Health Organization in its efforts to deflect responsibility for the disaster. The fact that China is governed by an authoritarian and unaccountable government helped make the COVID-19 crisis so much worse than it needed to be.

Surely, mainline churches will have something to say about China’s misdeeds in the years ahead, particularly in light of their campaign to hold Israel accountable!

Excuse me while I buckle over in laughter.

Some Background

Since 2005 I have felt like Harry Potter trying to convince people that Voldemort was back and gathering his forces for another attack on civilization . I kept trying to convince people, particularly folks in the mainline Protestant community, that they were facilitating a resurgence of Jew-hatred in the United States with their irresponsible peace activism in the Holy Land.

So-called peace and justice activists ignored antisemitic incitement in Palestinian society, tolerated the use of antisemitic polemics against Israel by Palestinian Christians like Naim Ateek, and responded to Jewish self-defense with greater outrage than they did to murderous attacks on Jewish Israelis during the Second Intifada.

They expressed more horror at Israel building a security barrier in disputed territory than they did to Jewish children being murdered on buses and restaurants before the barrier’s construction. And they excused these murders by complaining about Jews living in the West Bank and Gaza, as if their presence in these areas were the cause of Palestinian violence. They didn’t change their story one iota when Israel pulled 8,000 Jews from the Gaza Strip only to see Hamas take control of that territory and subsequently launch tens of thousands of rockets at Jewish civilians.  This would seem to give the lie to the “end the occupation and the violence will end” narrative put forth by Christian peacemakers, but this bit of history didn’t slow them down, not one bit.

Christian peacemakers weren’t just manufacturing a lethal narrative about Israel, they were producing a generation of bystanders who excused demagogues in the West Bank and Gaza who used Jew-hatred as a unifying political agenda to keep themselves in power.

But these virtue-signaling bystanders didn’t just watch, they kibitzed, telling the Palestinians that while they shouldn’t attack Israel (for mostly practical and tactical reasons), they understood why they did.

And they told Israelis what they would and wouldn’t do if they were in in charge of things in the Jewish state. They wouldn’t have built the security barrier and they would have made peace with the Palestinians by giving them land they deserved, never mind that every time the Israelis agreed to a land-for-peace deal, the Palestinians said no. If these folks were alive during the 1930s, they would have talked about what Jews in Germany did to invite the hostility directed at them by the Brownshirts.

These peacemakers dealt with the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict with all the rigor you’d find at a séance, where every bump under the table means what guilt-ridden attendees needed it to mean – a message from the great beyond that Aunt Alice is doing just fine in the afterlife and that she’s forgiven you for stealing money from her purse all those years ago and that you really were her favorite.

The Ouija-board story told by mainline peace activists in the U.S. and their allies in the ecumenical movement was that peace was possible if only Israeli and American Jews would come to their senses, while the relative powerlessness of the Palestinians made them innocent victims who could do no wrong. The notion that the Palestinians had behaved in a way that made peace impossible was simply impossible for them to consider.

Christian “peacemakers” were always telling the Israelis and their supporters that the “window of opportunity for a two-state solution” was closing. Ironically enough, when U.S. President Donald Trump issued a peace plan that told the Palestinians what they needed to do to stop that window from closing, these peacemakers freaked out. That “window of opportunity” rhetoric was meant to frighten Israelis, not the Palestinians.

The story mainline peacemakers told about conflict in the Holy Land was really a story about their own moral and intellectual superiority. The story went like this: If they were the ones (rather than those screwed-up and frightened Jews) who were in charge of Israel, peace would have arrived in the Holy Land years ago. The underlying message of the séance narrative was that mainline peacemakers had the magic wands and spells necessary to bring peace to the Holy Land. The folks who couldn’t keep their own churches (and in some instances, their own marriages) from falling apart had the wisdom to bring peace to the Middle East. They knew nothing, or pretty close to it.

In 2006, just a year after I had started in my current line of work, I spoke at a conference in New York about the evils of the anti-Israel divestment movement. Somebody from the UCC’s Pension Board attended the conference and called me out for mischaracterizing the economic pressure resolution that was passed by the UCC’s General Synod in 2005. I said it didn’t mention Palestinian violence, when in fact it did present a brief condemnation of Palestinian suicide attacks.

She was right.

I was wrong.

Afterwards, I “dialogued” (read: “argued”) with her about how the UCC had gotten the conflict wrong by not taking into account the peace offers that the Palestinians had rejected half a decade before. My dialogue partner was kind enough to say I had an “encyclopedic” knowledge of the conflict. This was basic stuff that anyone who wanted to be a peacemaker in the Holy Land should have known.

The funny thing was that these peace and justice folks were never called to offer a churchly word about human rights abuses that couldn’t be pinned on Jews. It was a sensitive topic for these activists. If you confronted them about their silence in the face of Bashar Al Assad’s murder of huge numbers of people in Syria, or China’s abuse of the Uighurs, they accused you of “Whataboutism,” of trying to change the subject away from Israel’s misdeeds.

It was like confronting a junkie about his habit. It still is.

Jews Not At Fault? No Problem!

Mainline peacemakers are victims of what Philip K. Dick called, in his book The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, an “over valence.” An over valence, according to Dick, is an “idea that once it comes into the human mind [. . .] it not only never goes away, it also consumes everything else in the mind so that, finally, the person is gone, the mind as such is gone, and only the over-valent idea remains.” Citing Jung, Dick writes that once such an idea comes into someone’s head, it never goes away and “nothing new ever happens to that mind or in that mind; time stops for the mind and it is dead.”

For Christians, the evil of the Jew has been the over-valent idea that has far too often driven the sacrificial and redemptive love of Christ from their hearts and minds. Too many people who are called to give their lives over to Jesus have allowed their minds to be captured by the idea of the Jew as a source of all that is wrong with the world. They’ll deny it, but they end up telling a story about the world in which the evil Jews are more powerful than the God they worship and the churches to which they belong. They can all quote Matthew 16, which includes a verse about the “gates of hell” not prevailing against the church, but they keep telling a story in which the Jews are the singular obstacle to God’s purposes for humanity.

Because Jew-hatred became such an odious and disreputable ideology after World War II and the Holocaust, Israel, the Jewish state, became the palatable or acceptable manifestation of this over-valence. But the over-valence is still there. Once they adopted notion that Israel was the singular source of suffering in the Middle East and a serviceable emblem for all the ills of the world, folks in the mainline Christian peacemaking community lost their ability to respond correctly to suffering anywhere else in the world.

This obsession with Israel was an over-valence that devoured the intellectual bandwidth of its victims. The churches that got caught up in peacemaking in the Holy Land really couldn’t get outraged over violence against Christians in Muslim-majority violence because the only suffering these folks could get excited about was suffering that could be pinned on the Jews.

The suffering of Christians in the Middle East, North Africa, or Asia didn’t rate, nor did the murder of civilians by the Assad regime in Syria.

Human rights abuses in Iran, Israel’s arch enemy in the region?

You must be joking. The last thing anyone in the mainline “peace-making” community wanted to do was to direct peoples’ attention toward anything that might cause them to think even obliquely of the threats Israel faces. Remember, for these folks, Jewish self-defense – not attacks on Jews – is the problem.

Silence Over China

For one reason or another, the so-called human rights activists never started a campaign to boycott goods from China, where elites are clearly violating the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide with their mistreatment of the Uighurs.

Divestment was unlikely as well. Like most other investors, mainline churches own a lot of stock in companies that do business with China, most notably Alphabet (which owns Google) and Apple. Divesting  from these companies is simply not something they want to even talk about, despite the role they play in helping the Chinese government surveil its citizens. The logic used to justify boycotting or divesting from Israel somehow does not apply to China. I think it has something to do with the cost of giving up their iPhones and Gmail accounts. People target Israel – and Jews – because they can.

There’s no real cost.

But the cost of boycotting and divesting from China? Well, that’s simply too much of a burden. Mainnliners need their iPhones to post their selfies on Instagram during their national assemblies!

Rev. John Dorhauer, President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ. (UCC publicity photo.)

It’s a hugely sensitive topic. Last October, I wrote a letter to Rev. John Dorhauer, President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ, asking him when the UCC was going to consider boycotting and divesting from China. Here’s what I wrote:

Rev. Dorhauer:

This is Dexter Van Zile.

As you know, I’ve been particularly critical of the UCC for its obsession with Israel.

I’ve also been critical of the denomination’s 2015 General Synod for passing a faux divestment resolution targeting Israel. As it turns out, the denomination’s investments still include stock in companies that were specifically listed in the resolution as being “bad” in that they contribute to the conflict.

There was a chance for the denomination to respond explicitly to the charges I leveled and prove me wrong at the most recent General Synod, but to the best of my knowledge the denomination said nothing publicly in response to my writings, which seems to confirm that I got that aspect of the story right: The General Synod voted to divest but divestment never happened.

The church has also declared itself a just peace church and listed a number of practices that the denomination found contrary to the cause of peace. The 1985 “just peace” resolution declares that the church is “a real countervailing power to those forces that divide, that perpetuate human enmity and injustice, and that destroy.” It also calls on local churches to stand “against social structures comfortable with violence and injustice.”

Which brings me to the attachment to this email, which is a .pdf of an article published in the Washington Post about the mistreatment of Kazahks by the Chinese government. It’s quite similar to what we have heard about the mistreatment of the Uighurs by the Chinese. It’s horrific. As you know, the UCC’s investment funds – PBUCC and UC Funds – own stock in companies that do business in China. Two of the biggest companies are Apple and Alphabet, which owns Google. I’ve mentioned this in the past. There are other stocks and companies as well.

Here is what I think is going on: The so-called peace activists went to Israel, where the restaurants are good, the hotels nice and the streets safe. They engaged in self-aggrandizing and attention seeking activism in an ostensible effort to promote Palestinian welfare, but really, it was narcissistic grand-standing mixed with tourism.

This may sound harsh, but even the low-cost divestment from the companies proved to be too much of a sacrifice for the church to make – after years of agitation about Israel.

I tell you these things just to give you a sense of what my macro-narrative is. My macro-narrative is that the so-called human rights activism of the UCC and other mainline churches had little to do with the issues at hand, but were an attempt to draw attention to the UCC and create drama at General Synods.

My question is: Is there any move afoot within the denomination to engage in divestment activity, or even shareholder activism, in reference to what is happening in China? The country is building a surveillance state and doing terrible things to ethnic and religious minorities.

How will the UCC respond?

President Dorhauer’s response was evasive and dismissive. He declared that “we all have our theories,” that he doesn’t much “place a great deal of stock” in mine, and that he had lots of “personal experience” that contradicted the claims I was making. He also said that he didn’t feel “any great need” to respond further. “If you choose to entertain yourself by creating these missives, that’s ok. I just won’t waste too much more of my time reading them or responding to them,” he wrote. (I thanked him for his “frank, but fact-free” response.)

Manufacturing Two Generations Worth of Bystanders

So there it is. After helping to manufacture a generation’s worth of bystanders who had nothing to say about Jew-hatred in the Middle East, it looks like at least one church in the American mainline is going to diversify its business model and train another group of bystanders who are indifferent to the misdeeds of the Chinese Communist Party!

It’s almost too bad that China isn’t controlled by Jews!

Then maybe these churches would speak up!

About the Author
Dexter Van Zile is Shillman Research Fellow at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.