Guest commentary by Ed Koster
Our Presbyterian Church is in turmoil. The director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency has resigned. The stated clerk of the General Assembly will not stand for election for a new term. As of this writing, more than 20 overtures have been submitted to the General Assembly, and well over half propose changes to processes and procedures of the GA itself, or the means for amending the Book of Order. Four seek to rescind or amend recent past actions. For better or worse, it would appear that some kind of transition is in motion.
There is a perceptible air of excitement and anticipation. Various dialogues, studies and pollings are in process, seeking advice outside the orbit of Louisville and its environs. Moderator Heath Rada has issued an extensive “Call to the Church” to engage the wider denomination in the deliberations and challenges we face. I attended the annual polity conference in October, and there was a different feel from any I had attended before, one less focused on problems and more on what to do next.
Notwithstanding the skepticism voiced by many — we are, after all, Presbyterians — there is reason to be encouraged about what is happening. For it appears change is afoot. No one knows what that will mean, but we are trying very hard to make some core changes.
For a generation we have been engaged in a series of conflicts that have risen almost to the level of mortal combat. We have seriously wounded ourselves in ways that make healing very difficult. It is like Luke 7 (and Matthew 11) where there was disagreement about who John was, and consequently Jesus. Jesus said:
“To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.’ For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”
What to do about these hurts and wounds we have inflicted on each other? It is clear we must do something, for unless we can begin the process of healing those inflicted hurts, moving forward with the changes we must necessarily make will be very difficult indeed.
I believe we must enter a time of repentance. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) needs to stand before God and seek forgiveness for the hurts we have caused. Over the years, we all have seen and read and heard allegations and conclusions about perceived opponents that are simply egregious, sometimes said with a viciousness that goes beyond the pale for Christians. These inflictions have always been in the support of one principle or another, and were always justified because it was for the right reason, for the just cause, for the sake of Christ. All too frequently they have been said without thinking, uttered casually rather than with specific intention to hurt. In the course of these last years, many have departed our midst (and perhaps many more will); there have been some who even express satisfaction that they have left. The obverse of that coin is that many of those who have departed are persuaded that they have migrated to a more “scriptural” church.
We need to declare a time of repentance for things said and done in the pursuit of those causes that have been at the core of the conflicts over the years.
A general declaration of repentance, without more, is not enough, however. Each of us should seek out those whom we have hurt, confess the hurt we have caused that individual and ask for forgiveness. For those familiar with 12-step recovery programs, this involves steps four through nine.
To be sure, in nearly every case where we have inflicted hurt, we are absolutely persuaded we did it for good reason. But in the Christian context, it makes no difference. There is nowhere to be found a justification for causing injury to another. We are instead called to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, pray for them and walk the second mile — all powerful gospel values. Refusing to ask for or grant forgiveness seems to be a very serious thing.
Indeed, seeking amends because we have done the “right” thing is very difficult. We will nearly always say to ourselves (or the world), “Well yes, but… (insert one or more: they deserved it… they started it… this is what God wants… this is what Scripture says… this is what Scripture means… etc, etc, etc, ad nauseum). And for these reasons and more we will justify our infliction of hurt on others. We Christians have this horrible tendency to baptize our wars and conflicts: Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, don’t you know.
This is a really insidious trap. In 99.44 percent of cases, the rightness or wrongness of an act has some degree of ambiguity. It is almost impossible to find a choice made that was 100 percent right, so the best we can do in life is to seek and find the lesser of evils. It is how most choices are made. Though we declare something scripturally or theologically or morally or legally right, rarely are such “right” choices made without bad consequences to someone, somewhere —to a person, to the church, to the cause of Christ, etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum. The effect of justifying such actions is to assert God’s blessing on an evil we have committed, albeit a lesser one.
We are advised, “To everything there is a season, and a time for every matter or purpose under heaven: . . .
a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up; . . .
a time to rend and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.” (Ecclesiastes 3)
We have been willing to kill, to rend, to break down, to keep silence, to hate and make war in this generation, all among ourselves, against ourselves. It is now a time to heal, to build up, to sew, to love, a time for peace, a time to speak. This healing can begin with each one of us, even when, especially when, we are quite sure we have done nothing needing forgiveness. Have we stood by without raising our voices in protest when there have been allegations of heresy, or declarations that a person or a group is not worthy of being among us, or assertions of our purity that excludes others, or statements that others are somehow flawed Christians, or expressions of satisfaction that some have chosen to leave us, or even that we are now better off because those people have departed? Have we not all said or done or allowed such things? We truly have injured ourselves.
It is time to repent. To repent from our “triumphs,” our “successes,” our “victories,” our “righteousness,” our “accomplishments,” and all those things that we have done or allowed to be done in the name of Christ or the church or for this cause or for that one. For only when we can start anew, start from confession and requests for forgiveness, start anew with repentance and grace in our hearts, only then can the renewals we all seek and pray for begin.
ED KOSTER is the stated clerk of the Presbytery of Detroit.