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By Alan Wisdom (@AFHWisdom)

A study process under way in the Presbyterian Church (USA) asks church members to “[s]eek clarity as to God’s call to the church to embrace nonviolence as its fundamental response to the challenges of violence, terror, and war.” The process, initiated by the 2010 PCUSA General Assembly, is expected to yield policy changes proposed by the 2014 assembly and approved by the 2016 assembly. Study materials released so far suggest that the intended result is to move the denomination in the direction of pacifism.

Historically, Presbyterians have not been pacifists. The Westminster Confession of Faith, the doctrinal standard until 1967, states that “[i]t is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate,” and in that office “they may lawfully, now under the New Testament, wage war upon just and necessary occasions” (6.128).

The Second Helvetic Confession, incorporated into the PCUSA Book of Confessions since 1967,  advises that “if it is necessary to preserve the safety of the people by war, let him [the magistrate] wage war in the name of God; provided he has first sought peace by all means possible, and  cannot save his people in any other way except by war” (5.256). The confession explicitly condemns the pacifist “Anabaptists, who, when they deny that a Christian may hold the office of a magistrate, deny also that a man may be justly put to death by the magistrate, or that the magistrate may wage war” (5.257). Both Westminster and the Second Helvetic base this teaching on Biblical passages such as the Apostle Paul’s affirmation that “the authority does not bear the sword in vain” because it is “the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).

Presbyterians were notable for their willingness to fight in the American Revolution and subsequent U.S. wars. A November 2012 survey conducted by the PCUSA Research Office shows 90 percent of today’s Presbyterians believe war is justified “to protect our country after attack by another country.” Large majorities also support taking up arms to “protect one of our allies,” to “live up to treaties we’ve ratified,” or to “punish known backers of terrorism.” Nevertheless, the denominational structures are now weighing whether to join the Quakers, Mennonites and others who refuse to fight under any circumstances.

Leading questions

The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program has published a “Facilitator’s Guide” for congregations undertaking the new “Peace Discernment Process.” The guide asserts, “[I]f discernment is to be genuine, it cannot have predetermined outcomes; it must be truly open-ended.” Yet that same guide poses leading questions that point study participants toward particular outcomes. For example:

  • “Should the PCUSA continue to rely on the ‘just war’ tradition as its basis for restraining war, or have the conditions of modern warfare and the politics and economics of war rendered our historic stance obsolete? Are there new emphases and different Biblical alternatives to consider?” The implications are: that the main purpose of the just war tradition is to “restrain war” (rather than to seek both peace and justice), that modern conditions have rendered it “obsolete,” and that the Bible puts forward a different approach.
  • “In what ways does the church today practice (or fail to practice) Jesus’ message of nonviolence?” The implication is that Jesus preached a “message of nonviolence.”
  • “How do we respond to the example of Jesus and the nonviolent church of the first three centuries after 17 centuries of trying to restrain violence through just war categories?” The implications are that Jesus and the early Christians were all pacifists, and that acceptance of “just war categories” came only after 300 A.D.
  • “Do you, in your own life, see signs of a ‘military-industrial-congressional’ complex supporting our tendency to use force or threat of force?” The implication is that the United States uses force as a result of pressure from a venal “military-industrial-congressional complex”—not because it faces genuine security threats.
  • “Is the PCUSA now being called to become a ‘peace church,’ not simply opposing particular wars but affirming nonviolence as a basic orientation toward conflict in our daily lives, in our communities, and in our world?” The implication is that the PCUSA is indeed being called to ascend the putatively higher moral ground of pacifism.
  • “How can the PCUSA hasten the day when war and violence are no longer considered acceptable or inevitable means for resolving conflicts?” The implication is that the day to beat all swords into plowshares is fast upon us, and the church has the means to “hasten that day.”

Slanted reflections and prayers

The “Facilitator’s Guide” offers 16 “peace reflections” and nine prayers to direct participants’ thoughts. The authors of these selections — Union Seminary (New York) theologians James Cone and Walter Wink, Yale chaplain and Riverside Church pastor William Sloane Coffin, union leader Cesar Chavez, radical feminist author Mary E. Hunt, “urban monastic” Shane Claiborne — are almost uniformly heroes of the pacifist left. Hunt, for instance, is cited as saying that peace “means thinking the unthinkable, that we might just call a halt, yesterday, to war.”

To balance all the pacifists, there is one “peace reflection” from a presumed supporter of just wars, General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. But Eisenhower is not quoted explaining why it was necessary to resist Hitler in World War II or Stalin during the Cold War. Instead this is the selection drawn from the supreme allied commander: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” One is left with the (false) impression that the general regretted D-Day.

The guide would have study participants recite a “Litany for Peace” that asks God to deliver them from “national vanity that poses as patriotism,” “trusting in the weapons of war and mistrusting the councils of peace,” and “groundless suspicions and fear that stand in the way of reconciliation.” There are no prayers of thanksgiving or intercession for soldiers, sailors and airmen who risk their lives to defend their country.

The recommended “Resources for Further Study” tilt in the same direction. Several dozen champion nonviolence in theory or practice; only one comes from a scholar (James Turner Johnson of Rutgers University) who forthrightly maintains that today’s America can fight and has fought just wars.

Some recalcitrant Presbyterians might still be tempted to answer “no” to the question about whether the PCUSA is “now being called to become a ‘peace church.’” But they would find little information to undergird their position. The just war passages from the Westminster and Second Helvetic Confessions, for example, are not mentioned anywhere in the study materials.

‘Nonviolence’ as ‘central theme of Jesus’ ministry’

The main resource provided to help study participants answer the questions is a “Peace Discernment Interim Report” received by the 2012 General Assembly. “Matters of social and economic justice hold a central place in the Bible,” the report asserts (p. 19). It portrays the abstract, negative concept of “nonviolence” — a 20th century term that Jesus never used — as “a central theme of Jesus’ public ministry” (19). Jesus lived “a prophetic and nonviolent life that threatened both the Roman and temple authorities,” according to the report (10). Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God with power to forgive sins and grant eternal life go unmentioned.

The “Peace Discernment” report reduces Christ to an exponent of a “third way strategy that—rather than fight evil or flee it—resists evil through nonviolent means, an approach that outflanks and reverses aggression, sometimes by choosing to suffer” (16). It downplays the “violent imagery” in Jesus’ parables and other New Testament passages that show God’s anger and determination to destroy sin. The report excuses Jesus’ attack on the moneychangers in the temple, remarking that “he stopped short of violence against persons” (10). Old Testament instances in which God commanded Israel to wage war are products of a superficial and primitive mentality, it suggests. The report rejects “the myth of redemptive violence” (23). It notably refrains from characterizing Jesus’ death as an atonement for sin.

“The first Christians lived according to a nonviolent code,” the interim report claims. “Indeed, there is no affirmation of killing or war anywhere in the writings of the early church” (11). The document challenges “Christians today who interpret the apostle Paul as giving divine sanction to violence and war” (12) in Romans 13. In the report’s version of history, it was only after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine that “Christians began to take up arms on behalf of the Roman Empire, sometimes with inducements of money, property and power” (12).

This simplistic portrait of early Christians as Gandhian pacifists ignores the work of scholars such as Peter Leithart. In his book Defending Constantine (InterVarsity Press, 2010), Leithart explores the complexity of early Christian attitudes toward war. Long before Constantine, going back to the centurion Cornelius in Acts 10, there were Christians who served in the Roman army and were accepted in the Church. Leithart concludes, “The church was never united in an absolute opposition to Christian participation in war; the opposition that existed was in some measure circumstantial, based on the fact that the Roman army demanded sharing in religious liturgies that Christians refused; and once [after Constantine] military service could be pursued without participating in idolatry, many Christians found military service a legitimate life for a Christian disciple” [emphasis in original].

A key to early Christian attitudes was the distinction between authorized and unauthorized uses of force. Individual Christians were to renounce the right of self-defense, in obedience to Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon on the Mount. Rulers, by contrast, were ordained by God to wield the sword to protect their subjects. But the PCUSA’s “Peace Discernment” study takes no notice of any such distinctions between individual and ruler, Church and State. It lumps all “violence” together. This conflation of categories becomes evident when the interim report asks rhetorically: “As a church and as a society, should we learn to move from violence to nonviolence, from war-making to peacemaking, from a permanent war economy to a sustainable peace economy, from being citizens of an empire to members of God’s peaceable kingdom?” (23) It does not contemplate the possibility that U.S. Presbyterians might simultaneously be devoted members of God’s kingdom and good citizens of the nation in which God placed them.

America as ‘violent and unjust,’ driven by fear of imagined enemies

The report casts doubt upon whether there might be legitimate reasons for war. It refers to “those we call our enemies” (2) — as if the hostility were merely a figment of our imagination. (When Jesus commanded us to “love your enemies,” by contrast, he was assuming that we would have real enemies who mean us ill — as he had real enemies who plotted his death.) The report puts “war on terror” in quotes (15), as if to question the threat from terrorist movements. It speaks of “the fear that drives our [U.S.] military policy.”

The interim report portrays U.S. defense efforts as a base conspiracy of the “congressional-military-industrial complex” (14) bent on preserving profits and power. America’s wealth comes out of the barrel of a gun, in this dark vision: “We maintain our privileged economic position in the world through U.S. military might, as well as through military aid and weapons sales to governments around the world…. Militarization makes corporate-led globalization possible.” (18) The report describes the U.S. as “a national security state” in “an almost permanent state of war” (15). “Without credible threats to the United States itself,” it asks insinuatingly, “have we come to value military power for its own sake?” (14)

This jaundiced view of U.S. military policy fits into a larger leftist critique of America. The authors of the interim report insist, “We thus believe there is an urgent need today for U.S. Presbyterians to question the extent to which violence and injustice pervade our society and dominate our relations with one another and with other nations” (4). They offer a half-dozen anecdotal bits of evidence to prove that “[v]iolence pervades American culture” (17).

There is also the “structural violence” that includes “the patterns of inequality and exclusion called the ‘isms’ of racism, sexism, classism, ethnocentrism, and nationalism, as well as homophobia” (18). The report complains that a “myopic focus” on individual prejudice “stymies people’s understanding of the more insidious institutional and cultural forms of the isms that crush the human spirit and deny people access to adequate food, water, shelter, education, health care and self-determination” (18). It warns: “We are also doing violence to the earth and its creatures, depleting precious natural resources, and causing a massive extinction of species.” (19)

The report fails to note any evidence to that might contradict its grim image. There is no acknowledgment that U.S. violent crime rates have plummeted over the last 20 years, that race relations and environmental conditions have improved markedly over the past half-century, that the U.S. military is shrinking as a proportion of the federal budget and the nation’s economy, or that women and gays have made tremendous gains.

Military force ‘impotent,’ nonviolence ‘successful’ against worst dictatorships

The “Peace Discernment” report affirms “an increasing sense of the impotence of military might” (3). “At the same time,” it boasts, “there is growing recognition that nonviolent direct action can be a powerful, alternative means of responding to conflict, as it has proven successful in struggles for justice, human rights, and self-determination around the world — even overthrowing some of the most brutal dictatorships the world has seen” (3). The report cites several examples to show that “[n]onviolent  people power movements have shown themselves capable of overthrowing dictators, thwarting coups d’etat, defending against invasions and occupations, challenging unjust systems, promoting human rights, and resisting genocide” (22). In this telling, “nonviolent action” is all upside — it’s “Jesus’ third way” (22), it’s the moral high ground, and it’s supposedly the most successful approach — and there is no downside.

The report pays no attention to counter-examples: that nonviolence was not successful in Tienanmen Square in 1989, that it was not successful in Iran in 2009, that it has not been successful against dictatorships such as the Castros in Cuba and the generals in Burma. It was military force that defeated the Axis powers in World War II, that ended genocide in Rwanda and the Balkans, that toppled tyrants in places like Iraq and Libya. In general, nonviolence does not work against “the most brutal dictatorships the world has seen.” It works better against more moderate regimes that have a conscience that restrains them from shedding too much innocent blood.

The interim report presents the current “peace discernment process” as a follow-up to earlier General Assembly statements on war-peace issues. “Peacemaking: The Believer’s Calling” and other statements from the 1980s were sharply critical of the U.S. stance in the Cold War. Resolutions in the last decade condemned the Iraq war as “unwise, illegal, and immoral” and urged withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Summarizing this record of opposition to almost every U.S. military involvement since Vietnam, the report states, “The current position of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), then, tilts strongly toward peace” (9). The new study process appears designed to tilt that position all the way over into pacifism. It remains to be seen whether Presbyterians are willing to take that last step away from the mainstream Christian “just war” tradition that has been their historic heritage.

Originally published at Layman.org.