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Speaking Humility to Complexity
A briefing paper on SOCIAL AND POLITICAL ISSUES by Presbyterian Action
While an overriding desire to say and do God’s will infuses the work of so many Presbyterians, just what ought to be said and done remains up for grabs. For instance, people want to help the poor. That is a given for Presbyterians of all persuasions. But the best means to give that help is a matter of prudential judgment, and it is greatly disputed.
One often hears the motto of “speaking truth to power” trumpeted by social activists. But what is the “truth” being spoken? Is it God’s Word? Not often, at least not Scripture in context. Most often the “truth” is a partisan political plan or a controversial social action.
How does one determine that particular truth? What makes one segment of the church certain that its favored social methods are the truth, while the methods of perhaps a far larger segment of the church must then be untrue? What gives church voices the unique wisdom, expertise, and standing to tell “power” what to do in complex situations that are ripe for novice error? And why does the “truth” spoken so often appear amazingly similar to a party platform?
The PCUSA has become overburdened with quirky pronouncements on top of controversial manifestos. Far too many statements on far too many topics that are far too political and far too misapprehended gum up rather than enhance Presbyterian social witness. Fewer, rarer, humbler, more focused, more representative, and definitely more biblical statements should be our goal.
This General Assembly, a particularly ambitious and overreaching set of political and social statements awaits commissioners. Opportunities for well-intentioned but misinformed and even harmful decisions loom large. Here are some recommendations.
Items to Consider:
- Item 09-07,Homelessness: Although utopian in expecting to house everyone at society’s expense, the resolution offers a number of policy suggestions and other means to further the shelter of people forced into homelessness, a ministry a majority of churches embrace.
- Item 09-08,Pay Equity: This resolution calls for equality in pay between genders and among races. It asks for tools to assess pay equity in the church, and calls for actions to further equity in society. Seeking universal health care and family wages for all jobs goes a little far.
- Item 10-05,Serious Mental Illness:With more than 65 recommendations, this report could keep every session and presbytery totally occupied with mental-illness matters. However, the paper provides many helpful suggestions for better ministry to the seriously mentally ill.
Items with Major Flaws:
- Item 11-24, Iraq War: This is a report the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy simply decided to produce, apart from any authority to do so. ACSWP chose to press its opinion on the General Assembly—a largely political opinion—reading like a highly partisan critique of the Bush administration. It is one-sided, narrowly scornful of all U.S. intentions and actions, and silent about arguments for any other viewpoint. Such a critique would be expected from a political party, but this is a denomination whose members seek from it Christian rather than political counsel. The report terms the U.S. an “occupation force.” It blames the U.S. for massive killings perpetrated by insurgents. It accuses the U.S. of seeking “dominance.” It naively presumes to rework U.S. diplomacy entirely. It accuses our nation of being “stampeded through fear of terror.” It pontificates about security alliances and police powers. It largely denigrates and disregards members of the U.S. armed forces, who serve sacrificially. It expects to set the General Assembly against the consciences of individual Presbyterians. It would set up Presbyterian college and seminary professors to dispense political policy advice. It would encourage joint worship with Muslims. It would fund an ecumenical group to promote this politicized form of peacemaking. And that is only a taste of the problems. This is a political diatribe begging for swift disapproval, along with a call for no more ACSWP self-driven adventures in politics.
- Item 09-10, Energy:This paper even had trouble gaining ACSWP approval, being delayed repeatedly for rewriting. It seeks to make the PCUSA the kind of zealous preacher and teacher of the green “gospel” that the church cannot seem to muster for the Good News of Jesus Christ. It assumes human-caused global warming, setting into motion calls for draconian economic and lifestyle changes that could cripple developed nations and consign undeveloped nations to squalid poverty forever. New church development would be judged by energy efficiency, camps would focus on ecology, presbytery resource centers would bristle with energy brochures, seminaries would indoctrinate future ministers on environmentalism, and “Stewardship of Creation Enablers” would itinerate to push carbon neutrality. The paper and its recommendations are one-sided in handling climate change, giving insufficient consideration to the possibilities that (a) global warming is no more than a normal climate fluctuation, (b) human-caused carbon dioxide is not necessarily the culprit for possible warming, and (c) even economically devastating measures would probably have little to no discernable effect on stopping any warming. No one can argue with the need to be responsible stewards of the environment, but the assumptions made in this paper lead to actions that many would deem extreme, unnecessary, and ill-conceived. This is a political hobbyhorse set to engulf the church in distracting and actually harmful practices.
- Item 09-13,Women of Color: In an attempt to end racism and sexism, which is commendable, this resolution could actually exacerbate both racism and sexism by dwelling on differences rather than forging unity. A culture of victimhood seems pervasive.
- Item 09-14,Voter Rights:While good in part, this resolution delves into multiple political solutions that would not necessarily produce fairer elections. General Assembly has no expert knowledgeable to give advice here, and thus could refrain from vain dabbling.
- Item 09-15,Katrina Relief:There is obviously a lot to learn from the fog of disaster following Hurricane Katrina. However, one wonders if G.A. commissioners are the best experts to tell everyone exactly what they must do, after only a few minutes’ consideration of the matter.
Presbyterian Action advises prudent reluctance toward approving any social-witness item one has not fully examined, one does not fully understand, or one cannot fully commend. We are better stewards of our efforts by refusing to make profuse and profligate Presbyterian pronouncements that end up either ignored or scorned.