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Hoping the world will listen

Where it all leads is another question, but no one can accuse Presbyterians of not caring or being afraid to speak. Late into the night, the commissioners at the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) parsed and amended and substitute-motioned their way to crafting position statements on social justice issues — speaking out, hoping the world will listen.

Here’s some of what commissioners chose to say:

Drones. The assembly approved a resolution — an amended version of a measure brought by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy — calling on all countries to halt the use of drones as weapons of war. That resolution states in part: “The goal is to ensure that in any justification of targeting human beings that the fundamental rights of all humans are protected, international law upheld, noncombatants safeguarded, and the larger goal of peace and justice advanced.”

The sensitivity regarding the debate was evident from one commissioner’s request that votes on the issue be conducted by clicker — not a hand vote. After much discussion, the assembly approved the amended resolution by a vote of 436-132.

The resolution criticizes the secret nature of the way the U.S. military uses drones, and says the assembly “grieves the deaths these weapons facilitate.” It calls for legislation governing military drones and urges the U.S. government to publicize its rules for their use.

Ed Fedor, a teaching elder from the Presbytery of Sacramento and a former Air Force military chaplain, advised the assembly that releasing a statement declaring the U.S. should abandon use of drones would be naïve at best. Fedor noted that drones are very inexpensive when compared with planes and pilots, and predicted the military will increasingly favor them over manned aircraft.

“For the church to say ‘no’ to drones shows that civilians don’t understand how the military works,” Fedor said.

Gun violence. By a vote of 484-87, the assembly approved an overture from Hudson River Presbytery calling Presbyterians to public advocacy to reduce gun violence — including pushing for background checks; legislation to close the gun show loophole in federal law; and a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles.

“Gun violence is a public health crisis that is not being adequately addressed,” said Wally Fletcher, a teaching elder from the Presbytery of Philadelphia. “Each year 30,000 people die from gun violence, and 3,000 of those are children.”

Since the school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, “there have been 74 school shootings, and we as a nation have done nothing about it,” said Tad Hopp, a theological student advisory delegate from San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Death penalty. Using the consent calendar (where 132 items receiving at least 75 percent approval from an assembly committee were approved en masse, by an assembly vote of 565-45), the assembly approved an overture from the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta proposing a national moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty.

The overture calls for an immediate moratorium on executions in all jurisdictions which impose capital punishment, and directs the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, Gradye Parsons, to communicate this action to President Obama, Congress and governors and legislators of the 34 states that have persons incarcerated while awaiting execution.

For-profit prisons. The assembly voted 472- 112 to recommend that publicly traded corporations which directly manage or operate for-profit prisons, jails or detention centers be added to the list of companies from which the PC(USA) urges divestment or prohibits future investment.

Bill Somplatsky-Jarman, the staff resource person to the Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI), explained that the 2003 General Assembly considered a comprehensive study on abolishing for-profit prisons. He told the assembly’s Mission Coordination Committee “the for-profit system leads to a perverse incentive to incarcerate more persons.” When any for-profit prison drops below a predetermined number of inmates, “the state is on the hook” to pay for the empty beds, he said.

Somplatsky-Jarman said that two corporations could potentially be impacted by this action: Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, Inc., a private corrections detention and mental health treatment provider.

Ben Keller, a teaching elder from the Presbytery of Great Rivers, reminded the assembly of a shameful chapter of our national history. “The idea that we are profiting over human misery, profiting over someone’s incarceration: we’ve done that before. We call it slavery.”

Cuba. The U.S. includes four countries on its list of state sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria. After debate, the assembly approved by a vote of 481-63 an overture asking the Obama administration to remove Cuba from that list. It also passed a measure urging the U.S. government to lift all restrictions on travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens.

James Acquaah, a ruling elder from Chicago Presbytery, pointed out that “Cuba today is not Cuba of 1958.”

Food Sovereignty. Via the consent calendar, the assembly approved an overture from the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta regarding food sovereignty. The overture asks Presbyterians to pray for those affected by food production issues — from “producers devoting their lives to feeding people but who are often undercompensated and lacking respect, to workers throughout the food chain, and to consumers lacking access to affordable fresh, healthy food.”

It also urges the church to study issues of food justice regarding fairness and sustainability through a biblical and Christian lens.

The overture urges support for food sovereignty initiatives such as “sponsoring community gardens, hosting farmers markets, community kitchens, market gardens” and promoting purchase of locally and sustainably grown food. It also asks Presbyterians to join with those working to “end large-scale land grabs.”

Ruth Farrell of the Presbyterian Hunger Program explained the need for such support, particularly in Africa.

“In the past two years, land the size of France has come under a 99-year lease to other countries to ship food back to their own countries,” she explained. “Countries are also doing this for palm oil or bio fuel — and in so doing, this is moving a lot of small farmers off their land.”

Tax justice. The assembly voted 425-170 to approve “Tax Justice: A Christian Response to a New Gilded Age,” a long paper from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy which offers recommendations on ways to make the U.S. tax system more fair.

Congo. Recognizing the results of lawlessness, the vulnerability of women and children in the eastern area of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the gang-related abduction of young girls used as sex slaves, this overture asks Presbyterians to advocate for the rights of people in the Congo.

Immigration. Via the consent calendar, and after considerable discussion in committee, the assembly approved an overture from the Presbytery of Central Florida asking that the PC(USA) recognize the newly-formed Immigrant Defense Initiative as a campaign to mobilize Presbyterians to work for immigration reform. In committee, overture advocates spoke passionately about their experiences regarding immigration, ministry in contexts where immigration is a defining issue and the church’s call to respond to the human needs with compassion in the midst of areas of social complexity.

The overture also calls on the PC(USA) to immediately fill the vacant position for the PC(USA)’s coordinator of immigration issues with someone who is multilingual, has both theological and legal training and displays a “passion for justice.”