I appreciate Ed Long’s serious engagement with the interim report of the Peace Discernment Steering Team, and welcome the opportunity to respond to his critique.
According to Professor Long, “Encountering the Gospel of Peace Anew: An Invitation to Discernment and Witness” falls short in five areas:
1) just war thinking is given short shrift, while nonviolence is overplayed; 2) the report suggests that the PC(USA) “should become a peace church” in too simple a way; 3) the concept of peacemaking at work in the report is inadequate; 4) discernment is ill-suited to Presbyterian polity and experience; and 5) the report dilutes the “pedagogical model” found in our church’s previous academically credible social witness study documents, playing perhaps into anti-intellectual and anti-institutional currents in the culture.
First, I have great respect for the formative thinking Ed Long has given to the church in many excellent study teams, including “Peacemaking: The Believers’ Calling” and other major subsequent statements (Google his bibliography). At the same time, it seems to me he misreads the Peace Discernment interim report on all five points. Let me take them point by point:
1) Our principal charge from General Assembly was “to seek clarity as to God’s call to the church to embrace nonviolence as its fundamental response to the challenges of violence, terror, and war, and to identify, explore, and nurture new approaches to active peacemaking and nonviolence … with recommendations for policy and action.” In wrestling afresh with God’s call, if the PC(USA) is to do something other than simply reassert its previous thinking on war and peace, it must engage nonviolence as a serious contemporary option.
Nonviolence has been largely viewed within the Reformed tradition as the province of the “peace church” traditions (Quakers, Mennonites, Brethren, etc.). To the extent that nonviolence has been taken up within our church and other mainline denominations, it has taken the form of a minority voice expressed through small, energetic peace fellowships.
Therefore, we thought it important to make a compelling case for nonviolence as a viable alternative grounded in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and in early church history, and to challenge the church to give nonviolence a serious “second reading,” given the enormous costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the disappointing results of violence as a response to violence, and the surprising effectiveness of nonviolent revolutions. Clearly, the PC(USA) has produced several important study documents which make a strong case for limiting just war thinking toward “just peacemaking,” and these remain central in our church’s self-understanding.
The Peace Discernment process presupposes this background, while at the same time daring to break fresh ground and seek new clarity as to God’s call to the church in these current circumstances; “to meet the Prince of Peace again, as if for the first time.”
2) The interim report definitely does not call for the PC(USA) to become a “peace church.” However, we do repeatedly ask the question of whether or not God may be calling the church to “move from violence to nonviolence, from war-making to peacemaking, from a permanent war economy to a sustainable peace economy, from being citizens of an empire to being members of God’s peaceable kingdom.” We do ask how we can “hasten the day when humankind no longer considers violence and war acceptable or inevitable means of resolving conflicts.” We do seriously urge the adoption of “just peacemaking” methods which move us toward the abolition of war.
More profoundly, though, we take seriously the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which has the power to alter all our conceptions and all the futures we envision. What if the Spirit led the PC(USA) in a new direction that departed from its historic just war tradition? Are we willing to enter into a discernment process that includes that possibility as a live option?
We do not presume to know if a “peace church” identity is what God is calling the PC(USA) to, but we do know that if we are openly seeking God’s will, embracing nonviolence is most definitely “on the table.”
3) Ed Long describes peacemaking as “the common effort of both just war and pacifist Christians to eliminate the conditions that lead to conflict.” I would say, instead, that conflict is endemic to human existence, as the foundational story of Cain and Abel suggests.
Eliminating conflict sounds utopian to me. Even saints living closely in community over time develop conflict. Since conflict is a given in the human condition, the goal of peacemaking should be to keep conflict from becoming violent, or if a conflict has turned violent, to help the parties de-escalate and seek nonviolent solutions instead. These are exactly the types of strategies and practices used by active peacemakers and practitioners of “conflict transformation,” and show the relevance of alternatives to war and violence that are lifted up in our report.
On balance, the concept of peacemaking that underlies our report is the one bequeathed to us by the groundbreaking study in 1980, “Peacemaking: The Believers’ Calling,” and by over 30 years of work in and through the Peacemaking Program — namely, a holistic vision of shalom in our own hearts and minds, our interpersonal relationships, our families, neighborhoods and workplaces, and the whole mosaic of relationships in society, the world and the earth community. We build on this foundation, and seek to re-energize the church’s calling to peacemaking.
4) It is true that historically “discernment” is more often associated with Catholic spiritual disciplines and with Quaker practices than with Presbyterian ways. But viewing discernment as a poor fit for Presbyterians, a foreign model of decision-making that doesn’t suit us, is an unfortunate and unimaginative approach to a dynamic spiritual discipline that has much to recommend it. To begin with, discernment is something we Presbyterians do all the time; we just haven’t been used to calling it that. It involves turning to God in prayer, and seeking God’s will in matters about which we are unclear.
It involves communing with God’s Spirit, God’s Word and with God’s people in search of clarity. You could call it a kind of “values clarification,” only in this case it involves subjecting our personal, ecclesial and societal values to the critical, clarifying light of the “values” of the triune God. Discernment is fully compatible with Presbyterian polity.
Of course, we will study and consult those with special competence, and discuss, and ultimately we will vote — all more typically Presbyterian ways of deciding. But all of those time-honored Presbyterian ways work hand in hand with a discernment process, which seeks to combine a radical openness to God’s guidance with our characteristic ways of construing the world, which we cannot help but bring to the process, and which represent the distinctive legacy of the Potter’s hands shaping us over the years. Discernment is about the new shaping of the church.
5) We began our work keenly aware that the “pedagogical model” had produced some splendid documents. However, for all the crucial social witness policy and personal faith formation they had engendered, these documents too often stay on pastors’ shelves and not often enough enter the mainstream of congregational life and witness.
We opted for a more accessible style, less academic, with fewer footnotes, and hopefully more readable to rank-and-file Presbyterians. But it would be a mistake to conclude that our Peace Discernment Steering Team was somehow “anti-intellectual” or insufficiently respectful of the “grand tradition” of Presbyterian social witness that preceded us. We began our work with rich appreciation of our foundations, which, for example, support Presbyterian conscientious objectors, and affirmed a “nuclear pacifism” in Christian obedience in a nuclear age.
At the same time, we sought to be fully responsive to the new situation we faced. We have been intentional from the beginning about widening the circle and broadening the audience. The discernment process aims to include all voices and all perspectives within our church, and to invite all to encounter the Prince of Peace anew.
J. MARK DAVIDSON is chair of the Peace Discernment Steering Team and pastor of the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, N.C.