Peacemaking committee approves continued discernment despite calls for more definitive action

Peace activists challenged two proposals under consideration Monday by the 221st General Assembly (2014)’s Committee on Peacemaking and International Issues, not because the proposals did not advance peace, but because they did not go far enough.

Both proposals come from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy. The first asks the Assembly to initiate a second stage of peace discernment, inviting presbyteries to consider five “affirmations” related to the church’s commitment to peacemaking and nonviolence in the world. The second proposal asks the church to engage in a public conversation about the moral use of drones in national security, urge the United States Congress to pass legislation governing their use and condemn targeted killing without due process and oversight.

Over and over again self-identified peace advocates, many of them members of Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, stood up against these two proposals. Their objection was not to peace discernment or restrictions on drone warfare. Rather, for them, the resolutions did not go far enough. Libby Shannon, teaching elder and co-chair of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, said it was not enough to call for alternatives to “unjustified force.”

Justified force,” she said, “killed Trayvon Martin.”

Marilyn White from Austin, Texas, added that it’s not drone restriction that is needed but drone elimination.

In fact, only one objection (to another peacemaking overture from the Presbytery of Baltimore) came from a just-war advocate – military chaplain concerned about the place of military personnel and veterans in the church. All other objections came from peace advocates, who urged the committee to vote against the resolutions in their entirety unless amended or substituted for another resolution, saying, “If we have nothing stronger to say, say nothing.”

Whereas the resolutions commend to the church a continued process of discernment and study, many of these advocates say the time for study is over. They want strong commitments and action right now because, they say, people are dying right now.

For two years, Presbyterian congregations have discussed questions of peace, war and nonviolence, using the study and reporting materials prepared by the Peace Discernment Steering Team, as authorized by the 220th General Assembly (2012). The goal was to invite congregations directly into the process of reviewing and strengthening the church’s peace commitments. More than 45 congregations and 18 presbyteries participated. While successful, with one participant calling it a “very holy process,” Steering Team member Craig Hunter acknowledged that it had been difficult to get Presbyterians to participate. Hence the need, they said, for continued discernment and input before the PC(USA) establishes firm policy.

However J. Mark Davidson, teaching elder and chair of the steering team, said ACSWP and his team would be amenable to some of the proposed amendments even while concerned about placing too great emphasis on nonviolence without more input from members of the church. Davidson reminded the committee that they were not writing “final church policy.”

And that is exactly what many of the opponents to ACSWP’s resolutions seemed to want: a policy backed by action. Throwing their support behind the overture from the Presbytery of Baltimore, they called on the church to “embrace nonviolence as its fundamental response to the challenges of violence, terror and war.”

“I aspire for my daughter to live in a world that is more nonviolent,” said Andrea Morgan, a lifelong Presbyterian and school psychologist who expressed concern for the rampant school shootings sweeping the nation.

The committee, however, did not agree that the time for discernment was over. They voted to approve the discernment recommendation, but amended it to strengthen the language about nonviolence and to include a commitment to support military personnel, veterans, and their families. Those affirmations will go to presbyteries for discussion.

Likewise, the committee voted to approve each section of the drone resolution and its qualified restrictions on drones as an answer to the Presbytery of Genesee Valley’s overture and its unequivocal disavowal of drones.

by Patrick Heery