As the Moderator of the Peace Discernment Steering Team, I am writing to respond to the critique of the Peace Discernment process by Alan Wisdom. First, I would like to thank him for taking the time to read the Interim Report and the discernment materials and respond in writing. My colleagues and I on the Peace Discernment Steering Team welcome all persons and perspectives, and are listening attentively to all voices participating in peace discernment. From the outset, we have considered it essential that we hear from the full range of viewpoints on these vital issues, and that has absolutely been the case thus far.
Wisdom’s critique of the Peace Discernment process is that it is slanted toward pacifism. Further, he implies that it is the Peace Discernment process’ agenda to transform the Presbyterian Church from a church that allows justifiable war to one that does not. Let me state unequivocally that there is no such agenda. We have adopted a discernment model for this process precisely to avoid pre-determined outcomes. We have invited the whole church to participate in peace discernment in order “to seek clarity as to God’s call to the church.” Genuine discernment is dynamic and open-ended; it leads us away from “what we have always thought” to a radical openness to the leading of God’s Spirit in this particular historical situation. Discernment undercuts the usual left/right divide, and challenges all of us to be truly open before God and each other. I would also point out that our mandate from the General Assembly was to engage nonviolence as a serious option; to give it a fair hearing in light of current realities, as the church did in the 1930s.
Thus far, peace discernment is yielding very meaningful experiences for those who have participated across the church. People are telling personal stories from their lives, thinking new thoughts and sharing fresh insights. From what we have heard thus far, we believe God is indeed calling the Presbyterian Church (USA) to re-examine its historic position on war and peace, and re-think its response to rampant violence in society and in the world. Peace discernment is ongoing, so we can’t yet say where the Spirit is leading the church. But what the Peace Discernment Steering Team has discerned thus far is that a majority of voices in the Presbyterian Church (USA) are deeply concerned about the horrible consequences of war — the hundreds of thousands who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, the millions displaced because of the violence, the thousands of American soldiers who have died or been maimed and the lifelong burdens and costs of their care, the trillions of dollars spent and the damage to our economy. Similarly, there is a strong majority of Presbyterians deeply worried about the epidemic of violence in our culture — the recurring nightmare of school shootings, casual violence in media, sports and entertainment, and the underlying causes in embedded structural violence against women and minorities and against the Earth itself.
You might think there would be a lot of discussion about the old justifiable violence vs. pacifism debate. Not so much, though most assume that Jesus did not use violence. Instead, what we’re hearing in peace discernment is a growing consensus that the church needs to do much more than it’s now doing to work for “violence-reduction.” Certainly this applies to war, but also to patterns of violence in daily life. There is considerable interest in “just peacemaking,” a relatively recent development in Christian ethics that focuses on preventing war and recovering from it. There is new interest in exploring the power of nonviolence as a strategy for social change, an alternative to the myth of redemptive violence, and as a way of life. What is remarkable about peace discernment thus far is how Presbyterians are wrestling with the violence and war they see as unjustified and unjustifiable; what to do about that? Turns out the issue is much broader than whether the church will be pacifist or not. It’s worth remembering that the just war tradition and the tradition of pacifism share a presumption against the resort to violence. What peace discernment participants seem to be agreeing on is their shared desire to see the Presbyterian Church (USA) live more boldly into its calling to be a faithful and effective peacemaking church. For that calling, there’s room at the table for all of us.
Rev. J. Mark Davidson
Moderator of the Peace Discernment Steering Team
Pastor of the Church of Reconciliation, Chapel Hill, N.C.