The Will to Wage War

Commenting on the precarious state of relations between the Unionists and the IRA in Northern Ireland, commentator Andrew Sullivan of The New Republic recently stated in his weekly TRB column:

"You cannot negotiate peace with people [the Irish Republican Party] whose power is entirely dependent on the will to wage war.

This is anathema to many Americans steeped in the banality that peace talks are always better than no talks, that ancient conflicts can always be solved by the right facilitator. . . . Why should a group that has gained everything it has through violence and murder, and whose raison d’etre is implacable hostility to any British presence, ever decide that politics is a useful alternative? It’s like asking turkeys to vote for Thanksgiving. They can’t. They won’t. And real peace won’t break out until they do.”

The latest round of Presbyterian wars — and there have been many in the past — now more than three decades old, bears some resemblance to the ancient conflicts in Northern Ireland and elsewhere that seem to defy resolution. We are thankful there are no bullets, as in some ecclesiastical conflicts in former centuries.

Up until now the moderate elements — left and right — have not mustered the courage or the will to face up to their colleagues farther out. We need to demand that faithful, reasonable solutions to our troubles be worked out by people of good will who refuse to be cowed by those for whom the end justifies the means, who show no mercy to their ecclesiastical enemies and who will take no prisoners in the drive to win control.

Such groups’ disproportionate power in denominational decision making is dependent on their willingness to wage ecclesiastical war indefinitely, hoping that sooner or later the other side will give up and leave — and leave them with title to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Amendment A, passed by the 213th General Assembly (2001), which would delete G-6.0106b from the Book of Order (the “fidelity-chastity” requirement for ministers and church officers), was perceived as an act of war by opponents of the change. And coupled with the Assembly’s failure, in the opinion of some, to approve an adequate statement of Christology, the response has been predictable.

Presbyterians who desire that neither side win and, conversely, that neither side lose continue to attempt to speak and to be heard above the din without much success.

Somehow, garden variety Presbyterian ministers and elders, as they gather in their presbyteries in this year of decision, need to demand some accountability from those who seem hellbent on destroying this denomination. How? By standing up on the floor of presbytery and having the courage to say we’ve had enough of this destructive behavior on both sides and by sending overtures to the next General Assembly incorporating that sentiment.

It’s time for the main body of Presbyterians to protect the interests of their church against the steady encroachment of the warring parties. Who else will? A decisive word needs to be spoken in the midst of this controversy that in time threatens to engulf every pastor and congregation in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The alternative is a split into two or more denominations in which many of us would be mostly out of place.


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