By Barton Gingerich
Special to The Layman
At this year’s Wild Goose Festival, participants heard from several nonviolent church activists. One of the more intriguing cases was that of Dylan Rooke, a young Presbyterian Church (USA) ruling elder involved with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF) and a Peace Discernment Organizer for the denomination.
The Wild Goose Festival — named after the Celtic imagery for the Holy Spirit — met Aug. 8-10 at a campground in the resort town of Hot Springs, N.C. Purporting to be an “intersection of music, justice, spirituality and art,” the event drew in aging Protestant mainliners and disenchanted ex-evangelicals. The festival highlights what its apologists call “emergence Christianity,” but Wild Goose does not shy away from liberal politics. Built around 20th century deconstructionism and other strands of postmodernism, the conference puts a premium on both relativistic theology and partisan social stances.
In his presentation at a Hot Springs, N.C., pub, Rooke discussed his conversion to pacifism and the PCUSA’s current Peace Discernment process.
He revealed that he used to be an avid firearms fan. He proudly owned a 9mm assault rifle. Around the time of the presidential election of Barack Obama, he looked into buying a pistol “while I still could. That was the paranoia at the time.” His pastor gently questioned this decision, asking Rooke to pray about such a purchase. Rooke could not justify his initial plan. Moreover, his local small group studied Neo-Anabaptist Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution, which began to turn his mind to pacifism. His nonviolence sympathies were strengthened by a study of Walter Wink’s hefty Engaging the Powers.
Reminiscing on his journey to pacifism, Rooke claimed, “I’ve had Christianity all wrong … I had assumed violence was justified at the hands of all that consider themselves good.” The elder turned his back on more than the just war ethical tradition. The child of missionaries, he regretted that he “saw mission done colonially.”
Nevertheless, Rooke stays within the PCUSA structure since he enjoys a large tent for believers and a structure to help out fellow Christians in other parts of the world. “I finally found strength in a denomination,” he said.
On the other hand, the Presbyterian heritage offers a stumbling block to pacifists. “Presbyterians from their formation have been kind of OK with violence, depending on the context,” the Pittsburgh resident admitted, “I find myself drawn to the pacifist [Anabaptist] camp … But I don’t have a choice — I’m Presbyterian.”
He remains optimistic: the PCUSA’s consideration of the Belhar Confession and the PPF’s lengthy history buoy his hopes. Since Wild Goose attracts aging oldiners and youthful emergents alike, Rooke’s assessment of PPF’s appeal reveals much: “[PPF] is so old, it seems new.” Of course, this particular workshop was dominated by older Mainline Protestants, many of which sported PPF T-shirts and gray hair.
When asked about opposition to PPF’s nonviolent agenda, the speaker immediately leafed through a copy of The Layman and cited Alan Wisdom’s article on the Peace Discernment study. Pressed to identify the sources and authorities for the just war side, Rooke identified the Apostle Paul and the Reformed confessions. In a perplexed tone, he retorted, “They’re using them all in a pretty fundamentalist-legalist way, so I guess they’re … proof-texting?”
Rooke worries more about practical ministry ramifications. First, he desires to find a compassionate way to relate to military families and soldiers. He mused, “People who serve are doing so for a country to give their life for a country … With my Kingdom of God stuff, I don’t feel drawn to that.”
“They serve, and they have valor. But I’m just not that way,” he observed. Rooke believes that “the peace a nation gives” and “the peace God gives” are fundamentally “at war with each other.”
“Our veteran brothers and sisters believe war is bad,” he declared, “We need to make room for our veteran brothers and sisters … We need to walk with them and not turn them out as they walk through the door.”
All this ties into the ruling elder’s second concern: relating charitably to other members of the PCUSA while providing practical social teaching alternatives. In the face of international aggression and calls for national defense, what should the PCUSA teach as social doctrine? Will it encourage the State Department to use all diplomatic options to acquire peace at any price? Will the denomination demand the military to disband or not inflict violence? “We’re going to turn blue in the face with nonviolence,” Rooke promised. To his fellow Presbyterian Peace Fellows, he inquired, “How do we create the alternatives?”
Even with his young spirit and energetic attitude, Pittsburgh Presbyterian has some doubts regarding the future of Presbyterian social teaching. The long-standing Reformed heritage and Biblical hermeneutic used by Presbyterians for centuries seem to militate against a full-on embrace of Anabaptist ethics.
“I don’t know or think it’s possible for the Presbyterian church to actually be pacifist,” Rooke confessed.
Barton Gingerich is a research assistant with the Institute on Religion and Democracy.