Guest commentary by Maryjane Finne
Computer applications often provide default values to aid with data entry. Sometimes, however, adopting the default causes serious harm. For example, a child once received 38 times the correct dosage of medicine because of an incorrect default value in his electronic medical record. In working together in the church, we have the same issue. Too easily we adopt the world’s default values: expediency, efficiency, the end justifies the means, my cause is good so anyone against it is an enemy, that person is the problem. But we are the church. We can do better.
Serving as a commissioner to the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Portland, Oregon, several weeks ago was like moving to an alternative universe. My first two days took place in the committee that I was assigned, Church Polity and Ordered Ministries, where we worked together to consider and revise overtures to gain the greatest possible buy-in. We listened to one another’s concerns as well as the testimony of advocates. We were open and did at times change our minds because of what we heard. We did not divide into factions. I don’t even know the positions of other members of my committee on motions outside those our committee considered. A similar civility prevailed on the floor of the plenary sessions, with 594 commissioners and 183 advisory delegates participating. Speaking from the microphones five times during the plenary sessions, I always felt listened to and respected.
This GA dealt with some of the same contentious social issues as past assemblies such as the conflict in Israel/Palestine and climate change. In prior years, however, commissioners and the church as a whole tended to view the process of reaching decisions as factions winning or losing. In fact, a church leader from my presbytery last year told me the reason he wanted his congregation to exit our denomination was that his side always lost at GA.
Why was this year’s GA different? One significant action we took was to adopt the Belhar Confession as part of our Book of Confessions. Belhar, written by non-white Christians in South Africa in 1982 to challenge the theological support that undergirded Apartheid, focuses on reconciliation in the church (specifically racial reconciliation), but applicable wherever the church is divided for any reason. During daily worship at GA, we read portions of Belhar. Saying words from this confession in unison was a powerful force: “Unity [is] a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought” and “ this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another.” Saying these words changes how we regard those around us and our obligations to them as sisters and brothers in Christ. Words matter. Words recited jointly seep into our brains to change our actions. In a time when our public conversations on issues contain so many disrespectful words, may we as Christians continue to model this alternative universe. After all, the Bible calls us aliens: “aliens and exiles … conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds” (1 Peter 2:11-12).
I call on our sessions, presbyteries and synods to use Belhar to bring internal reconciliation to the church and thereby be an example for our nation and world.
MARYJANE FINNE was a ruling elder commissioner to the 222nd General Assembly from Elizabeth Presbytery. She lives in Fanwood, New Jersey.