Our church is being asked to engage in a major reconsideration of its stance toward war and peace. A “Peace Discernment Interim Report,” prepared by a steering committee of six persons authorized by the 2010 General Assembly, is being distributed, along with a study guide, to facilitate local conversations about matters that have confronted Christians throughout most of their history. This could result in a momentous discussion of the role of Christians in the world, but it could also fizzle.
This process, set to run from August 2012 to April 2013, follows from several overtures timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of “Peacemaking: The Believers’ Calling.” Rather than taking a careful look at the strengths and weaknesses of that peacemaking program as it has unfolded over the past 25 years, the steering committee has initiated a new process — one it hopes will involve the whole church in what it calls discernment.
The report calls attention to ways the world has changed since the earlier study; to the difference between a pacifist and a just war approach to these issues; to the pacifist legacy bequeathed to us by the New Testament Church; and to challenges posed by contemporary forms of violence, such as terrorism and new modes of warfare. It asks us to think about how to live in a culture of violence and fear and to consider the importance of nonviolent action, conflict transformation and reconciliation.
This is undoubtedly an effort to spur wider discussion of an issue. It remains to be seen if participation is any more widespread or the results more widely accepted than has been the case with the many studies produced about war/peace issues in the past 25 years.
Despite the careful preparation that went into the discernment document, it appears inadequate in discussing several issues that need to be highlighted in any deliberations. The first of these is whether the document correctly defines the concept of peacemaking.
The peacemaking idea as generally understood leaves aside the issue of whether pacifism is the only form of legitimate Christian fidelity. With that general understanding in place, inquiry focuses on what both those who refuse to participate in war and those who feel that such participation can be legitimate in some circumstances can do in a common effort to eliminate the conditions that lead to conflict. This new document, however, tilts the discussion toward whether the Presbyterian Church should become a peace church in the pacifist sense.
The section of the discernment document that deals with the pacifist stance of the early church is well-written, but it needs supplementing with a section suggesting why across the years most Christians have moved to a different position as they have come to occupy more established roles in the social order. While to some the loss of the early church’s pacifist ethic looks like apostasy, those who shifted to just-war thinking did so in good faith, for moral reasons. Those reasons may no longer apply as we move toward what amounts to permanent warfare, initiated by executives who wield unilateral war-making power and can deploy technology of startling complexity. But making moral judgments about such developments is much more complex than reading a single moral view from the New Testament.
To suggest that the Presbyterian Church should become a peace church in the pacifist sense raises issues of great import: Does this mean embracing the heritage of the left-wing reformation? Are we to model ourselves as “resident aliens” rather than “responsible citizens?” Are we to read out of our fellowship those who are not ready to commit to one view? Answers to these and other issues may well emerge from the discernment process, but it is unlikely they will result in a completely unified understanding, or that we are somehow a failure as a Christian community if they don’t.
The discernment document also seems to argue that nonviolent strategies always have a clearer moral warrant than violent strategies. Is it adequate to imply that nonviolence is always preferable to violence in the exercise of power, or that it is free of moral difficulties? We need to probe very deeply into this distinction and not condemn one form of implementing power and give the other a too-easy pass. Legitimate forms and applications of nonviolence need to be delineated just as is true in the case of violence. This has consequences for how the church undertakes its social witness in such places as its office at the United Nations. If the church rejects violence categorically, does this mean it cannot endorse well-controlled and chaste international uses of police or military power to deal with such problems as ethnic cleansing?
In just-war thinking, considerations of feasibility and effectiveness are given weight. Is this concern merely opportunistic and therefore morally suspect, or does it have a legitimate role to play in determining policy? Are there situations in which the assessment of strategic possibilities deserves to play a critical role? Are there situations in which such assessment is so uncertain as to legitimize moral decision-making on the basis of ideals alone? A careful look at this issue would be a significant part of making any effort to render the moral reflection of the Christian community more impressive.
The proposal also raises by its very nature questions as to how social witness in the Reformed heritage should be undertaken. Social witness in the Presbyterian Church has generally been done on what can be called a pedagogical model. After identifying an issue to be explored, the church has assembled a group of especially qualified persons to prepare a careful and extended study of the issue, resulting in a background paper that substantiates the reasons for proceeding to policy recommendations and possible actions. These background papers go to the General Assembly for consideration. They do not always get the attention they deserve, but they nevertheless constitute a valuable and significant resource that could play a much greater role in the life of the church if both clergy and laity read them more widely and more carefully.
It seems that the discernment process being proposed rests on another model, starting where people find themselves and then moving to an agreed-upon position. This may involve a look at well thought-out options but it may revolve around only attitudes provided by the culture. This model being proposed is typical of an emerging repudiation of hierarchy — but it is one thing to reject hierarchical authority and another to discount the significance and value of special competence. The document says, without elaboration, that this approach stands in contrast to an academic one. That may be only a throwaway line pandering to a widespread tendency in contemporary American society to look at intellectuals with a bit of disdain, but it may also reveal a mindset that underlies the whole document
What constitutes the most faithful and helpful view of the church’s function? Should it be to read the moral implications of the Gospel in a uniform way and expect (or require) all of its members to accept that consensus? Or should it be to maintain a community of search and inquiry that supports the rights of all members to come to different and even opposing judgments about Christian obedience in a world of such complexity that all choices are difficult and filled with ambiguity? Should the idea of discernment be tied to the goal of consensus or to the goal of accepting differences and honoring all good-faith efforts to be faithful? Does the idea of reconciliation mean those who understand issues correctly should merely put up with those who don’t, or does it mean learning to form community in the face of persistent differences regarding faith and practice? Which view is most consistent with the idea of peacemaking and with a heritage that stresses the importance of grace and acknowledges the dangers of insisting on moral correctness?
EDWARD LEROY LONG JR. is an honorably retired minister from Eastern Virginia Presbytery. He lives in Oberlin, Ohio.