Early this month, the Mennonite Church USA succeeded overwhelmingly in passing a resolution in support of peace and justice in Israel/Palestine — and it was no easy feat. As an eyewitness and active participant to the activities leading up to this landslide vote, I can tell you the road there was tough, agonizing, and expensive.
While speaking at the 2015 convention in Kansas City, Mo., I learned that the delegates had agreed to postpone a vote on a resolution that condemned the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and that called on Mennonites to be discerning regarding their investments in companies that support the occupation. The decision to table the resolution was painful for Mennonites who yearned to see an end of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I later understood that the vote was postponed because many delegates had not engaged deeply with the resolution and there had been some procedural missteps.
A new resolution was quickly drafted calling on Mennonites (USA) to prayerfully study these issues in the next two years to prepare them for a vote in summer 2017. I was one among others that The Mennonite Church USA and the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) called on to travel to Mennonite districts, churches, and colleges to teach and interpret the situation in Israel/Palestine.
For the 2017 convention in Orlando, Fla., I was asked to attend 48 hours before the delegates voted on the new resolution. During the two days, Rabbi Brant Rosen from Chicago, Palestinian attorney Jonathan Kuttab, and I lead several workshops. There were other Mennonites and guests who also became involved in the education process.
Before the final vote was cast, Rabbi Rosen and I were given the opportunity to each give a final address to the delegates. After about an hour of panel deliberations on the new resolution, Dr. Patty Shelly, the moderator, asked all those in favor of the resolution to stand up. The sight was amazing, as all the but about a dozen delegates stood up. Shelly announced that “the vote was not unanimous but overwhelming.” Ninety-eight percent voted in favor of the new resolution — the highest favorable vote to date by any denomination in support of a similar resolution.
What lessons can denominational leaders and heads of peace and justice organizations learn from this vote?
1. Consensus takes a committed leadership involving as many partners as possible.
Mennonite Church USA leadership, committed leaders from Everence, Mennonite Mission Network, and MCC, and other networks, including the Peace and Justice Support Network (PJSN) and MennoPin (Mennonite Palestine and Israel Network), all worked in in accord for two years to see that the resolution pass. The effort would not have succeeded without broad leadership support. This leadership was and continues to be committed to peace and peace education in their denomination. That commitment is what caused them to table a resolution that they feared might not generate a winning vote. That commitment is what caused them to steer toward a resolution that aimed at educating their constituents. That commitment caused them to call on me and others to travel throughout the U.S. to educate their people. Without that commitment from the leadership, I doubt that the resolution would have passed with such a high score.
Leaders of Christian denominations and peace and justice organizations that desire to see their institutions make a difference need a similar committed leadership. In many Christian bodies, the greatest frustration of the peace advocate is that his or her leaders do not share their commitment.
2. Leaders must be willing to pay the bills.
Once the Mennonite leadership was committed to educate Mennonites throughout the U.S., they were willing to support the project financially. They hired Jonathan Brenneman to direct the educational endeavor, they invited Jonathan Kuttab and me to visit and teach in as many Mennonite gatherings as possible, and they called on Jewish rabbis and leaders who support peace and justice to address the Mennonite grassroots constituencies. That adds up to salaries, honorariums, travel, and lodging expenses. They were willing to foot the bills. Over $100,000 was spent by a small denomination to educate and prepare their folks for the vote.
Regrettably, some Christian denominations are fast to make sympathetic resolutions in support of a just peace in the Middle East but are slow to invest in these resolutions with dollars and cents. The Apostle Paul taught us the concept of planting and harvesting when he wrote to the Galatians.
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man (a church) reaps what he (the church) sows. And … Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Galatians 6:7 and 9. (NIV). (Emphasis mine).
3. Efforts must address genuine concerns and accompany a commitment to educate.
One reason that the initial resolution in 2015 was tabled is that many Mennonites (USA) were concerned that it didn’t adequately address the experiences of the Jewish people. The leaders decided not to brush these concerns aside but to face them head on.
The writing team, with a larger reference group, decided to include a section on anti-Semitism, and they adopted a restorative justice frame, highlighting ways Mennonites participated in harms against Palestinians and Jews, naming concrete steps to address them. This significantly changed the tone of the resolution.
A lot went into drafting the changes to the resolution: Part of the strategy was to sponsor more than 100 Mennonite delegates to visit Israel and Palestine — to be eye-witnesses to the situation on the ground and interact with both Israelis and Palestinians. Participants committed to make at least two public presentations when they returned, a process that brought mid-level leadership and structures into the conversation.
Mennonites also engaged in an education campaign, printing articles and booklets to explain that voting against the occupation is neither anti-Semitic nor anti-biblical. The 98 percent to two percent vote is a reflection that they succeeded in addressing the political and theological concerns of the majorities of Mennonites.
4. Seek support from financial institutions.
The Mennonite Church USA and the other Mennonite agencies did not only support the educational efforts financially, but Everence, the Mennonite’s financial investment organization, fully supported the resolution. In fact, after extended discussions, Everence leadership helped shape the resolution and offered strong support. The Mennonite Mission Network, MCC, and Everence leaning in together with denominational staff, Jonathan and Andre Stoner, as well as MennoPIN and grassroots advocates, made the difference.
Currently, the situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is worse than critical, and the Christian leadership in Palestine is openly calling on their brothers and sisters in the United States and in Canada to commit to nonviolent actions that end the mayhem. Christians from all denominations should not only celebrate this landmark resolution, but also consider emulating the strategies Mennonites used to reach such a refreshing achievement.