Thoughts by New Jersey Presbyterians on the 221st General Assembly

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Hope for Cuba

As someone who’s traveled – legally – to Cuba twice, to meet with and support our fellow Presbyterians in that land, I was much encouraged to witness the Assembly vote to recommend that the U.S. government lift all restrictions on travel to Cuba.

The real surprise was that the vote was unanimously recommended by the Peacemaking and International Relations Committee and approved by the whole Assembly by a simple voice vote, with not a single person rising to speak against it.

The Assembly went on, after some cursory debate, to vote overwhelmingly to recommend that the U.S. government remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

We’ve come a very long way in the dozen years since I last traveled to Cuba. I think most Americans are well aware that our government’s barriers to travel to Cuba, and trade with it, are meaningless remnants of a Cold War long since ended.

Before the Cuban revolution and for a few years after, Cuban Presbyterian churches were part of the old Synod of New Jersey. Cuban Presbyterians were just as much members of our denomination as Puerto Rican Presbyterians now are. Although Cuba now has a national Presbyterian church whose members would never want to return to their former status of being organically related to us, both these votes make me hopeful that the day will soon come when we will both be free to enjoy close ties once again.

The Limits of Roberts’ Rules

It may sound strange for a stated clerk to say this, but there are some situations in which Roberts’ Rules of Order don’t help us very much.

The General Assembly has just voted, 51% to 49% – a difference of a mere 7 votes – to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, because they have profited from selling equipment Israeli security forces routinely use to deny Palestinian civil rights.

Presbyterian investments in these companies are nowhere near large enough for their withdrawal to create any pain for these huge corporations. Everyone knows divestment actions like these are all about witness. Whatever clout such actions have arises from the fact that the General Assembly can be said to represent the views of 1.8 million Presbyterians.

When only 51% of the commissioners vote in favor of such divestment, that claim is hard to justify.

There’s no question that a majority vote – even by the slimmest of margins – is enough to accomplish the action, under Roberts’ Rules. No doubt, Presbyterian investment managers under the authority of the Assembly will duly comply with the Assembly’s instruction.

With respect to what could be called the meta-action – the symbolic witness this divestment decision represents – it’s hard to see that this vote will accomplish very much. I grieve that, personally, because I would very much like to hear the church’s voice ring out resolutely to urge the Israeli government to honor the Palestinian civil rights it has long suppressed in the name of national security.

When the vote totals flashed on the screen here in Detroit, a collective gasp escaped from the assembled commissioners and advisory delegates. Everyone here knows, I think, that such a close vote is not much of a victory for anyone, least of all the long-suffering Palestinians. Sure, there are some evil, violent people living in the Palestinian territories. The heartbreaking reality, though, is that the vast majority of Palestinians, whose fondest desire is simply to live in the land of their ancestors and raise their families in peace, continue to suffer privation with no end in sight.

At the end of the day, passing motions is not going to accomplish much. A far more significant action would be for Presbyterians, in large numbers, to travel to Palestine and Israel, not to fulfill a romantic vision of “walking where Jesus walked,” but rather to listen, learn and advocate for peace and justice – as, indeed, Jesus did in the days when he did walk the earth.

Though the Earth Should Change

I have a very personal take on the action of the General Assembly to advocate divestment from fossil-fuel companies.

“We will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.” So says the psalmist (Psalm 46:2).

I have seen the earth change – literally. A year ago last October, the Atlantic Ocean cut my parish in half. The site of Hurricane Sandy’s breach of New Jersey’s Barnegat Peninsula, portrayed in news media around the world, is just three miles from my home.

Roughly a quarter of the members of the church I serve, Point Pleasant Presbyterian in Point Pleasant Beach, were displaced from their homes. Some still are.

Before the Army Corps of Engineers mended the ocean breach – through a Herculean, round-the-clock effort involving over 3,400 dump-truck loads of fill – the homes of some of our members were cut off from their church by an impassable body of water.

Those members were not in their homes at the time, because the entire barrier-beach area had been evacuated, just hours before Sandy struck. It was many weeks before those members were even able to survey the damage, due to ruptured natural-gas lines, sinkholes and other hazards.

A tremendous preponderance of scientific evidence demonstrates that extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy are heightened by global warming, which is in turn advanced by over-reliance on fossil fuels.

There was a time when we viewed tobacco companies are benign. I’m convinced future generations will regard fossil-fuel companies as equally culpable in profiting from pain and suffering in human lives. Those future generations, looking back on our historical era from circumstances that are unimaginably more difficult than our own, will wonder why it took us so long to awaken from our complacent slumber and begin the long and arduous task of saving the earth.

The Assembly vigorously debated proposals calling for divestment from fossil-fuel companies – some demanding immediate divestment, others advocating a more measured approach. In the end, the Assembly voted to refer the matter of fossil-fuel divestment to our Mission Responsibility Through Investment office (MRTI), for report back to the next Assembly in 2016.

That action represents progress: not such rapid progress as some want to see, but progress all the same. I know the people of my storm-wracked community of Point Pleasant Beach will be heartened to know that we Presbyterians are making an unmistakable witness in favor of freeing our nation from our deadly addiction to fossil fuels, and seeking more earth-friendly energy sources.

An Affirmation of Interreligious Commitment

Amidst all the sound and fury of some of the General Assembly’s other actions, a significant statement on interfaith dialogue has not received all the attention it deserves. We’re living in a world in which interfaith understanding is becoming more important every day, so I share it here in the hope that it may be useful in our churches:

An Affirmation of Interreligious Commitment

We believe the Bible proclaims God’s love for all people, that Christ’s Great Commandment sets the standard for all of our relationships: “… ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,’” and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, “… ‘love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mt. 22:37, 39).

We confess

that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has sought to live up to its commitment to

love people of other religious traditions, but many times we have not;

with God’s help we resolve to do better;

that self-serving theologies and goals and triumphalistic attitudes pull us apart;

with God’s help we resolve to do better;

that some of our confessions and the dated perspectives of our religious

heritage have resulted in patterns of unhealthy relationships with people of other religions;

with God’s help we resolve to do better.

We resolve to do better and not perpetuate divisive relationships among our neighbors and ourselves.

God calls us to have loving relationships with people of other religions.

God calls us to approach others in a spirit of openness and trust as we follow Jesus Christ

in respecting and affirming the freedom of others.

God calls us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to work with people of other religions

for peace, justice, and the sustainability of creation.

Guided on our way by the Holy Spirit, we will

meet human needs,

work for social justice,

participate in mission and evangelism,

pursue peace,

strengthen families,

educate for greater understanding,

nurture diverse communities,

value hospitality in our congregations, and

respect one another in our workplaces.

We follow Christ’s call to work for God’s kingdom; we believe that God will complete what we leave incomplete. To God be the glory!

Tracing the Arc

Moments ago, the General Assembly voted to change the definition of marriage in the Directory for Worship as being “between two people,” rather than “between a man and a woman.” A parenthetical gloss was added by amendment from the floor: “(traditionally understood as between a man and a woman).”

A majority of the presbyteries will have to concur, of course. Yet, even if the amendment is not ratified, an authoritative interpretation issued by the Assembly earlier this afternoon preserves the right of individual ministers to perform same-sex marriages in states where that is legally permitted, regardless of whether the old or the new language ultimately prevails.

It is a landmark decision, one of those moments in history those of us here in Detroit will recall the rest of our lives, saying, “I was there.”

I expect we will say this whether or not we agree with the particular decision, and whether or not a majority of the presbyteries concur during the coming year. Nearly everyone realizes, I think, that this is part of a vast and dizzyingly rapid change that will eventually prevail in nearly all of American society and most Protestant churches.

It won’t happen overnight, in other words. Yet, if there is a moment when the tide turned for Presbyterians, this is it.

A well-known quotation of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes to mind: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The word “justice” is not the first one that will come to mind for every person, I’m well aware. Nor will everyone agree that this change is more moral than the traditional practice which preceded it. What I’m most interested in is the image of an arc.

Today’s vote is like the highest point in the arc’s trajectory. Because the arc is long, full acceptance of the practice of same-sex marriage in many local congregations will be long in coming. We are entering into a season in which skills of empathy and patient listening will be of great value to our congregations and presbyteries. We will all be grateful for a full measure of divine grace, as together we live into this change.

The words of a hymn the Assembly sang just after taking the vote will be our prayer: “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.”

Teaching a Child to Walk

One of the marvelous things about a General Assembly is the rich variety of things that happen around the edges of the legislative work. Presbyterian organizations of all stripes sponsor meetings, often over a hurried meal, that provide education and encouragement.

I’ve been thinking a lot about a couple of talks I’ve heard, by two men who have been on the faculty of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, where I used to serve as Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions. Neither was at the seminary during my time on the staff, but I’ve been pleased to get to know them both, mainly through their scholarship.

Both find themselves on opposite sides of the difficult debate we Presbyterians are having on the subject of same-sex marriage.

Mark Achtemeier, a former professor at Dubuque, spoke to the luncheon of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, an organization that has long worked for full inclusion of gay and lesbian Presbyterians in the life and leadership of the church. Mark used to be an opponent of the ordination of gays and lesbians, but has changed his mind on that subject, and on the subject of same-sex marriage. He’s written a book, The Bible’s yes to Same-Sex Marriage, just published by Westminster John Knox Press.

As hundreds of listeners noshed on chicken salad, Mark told us a very personal story of how his mind has changed on this issue, because of both his biblical scholarship and his experience counseling people – including some ministers and seminarians – who were struggling with their sexuality. He became convinced that homosexuality is not a choice, but is simply the way God has created some people. This insight drove him back to the scriptures, where he discovered indications he’d never noticed before of a broader, more affirming view of the full variety of intimate relationships.

I’ve picked up his book, and am reading it, in the few odd moments I can catch between meetings. It’s a deeply honest and humble exploration of the biblical references he’s found so influential in his own unfolding theology.

The very next day, I attended the Presbyterian Historical Society luncheon, where the current Dean of Dubuque Seminary, Bradley Longfield, was the speaker. He offered a Power Point presentation profiling leading figures in Presbyterian history, a method of approaching history at which he has proven adept over the years.

In viewing Brad’s bullet lists, highlighting the contributions of each of these historical figures, I began to discern a common theme. Brad is vigilant about ways the larger culture influences the church. As he sketched each historical personage in turn, he was clearly raising concerns about those who advocated not only to listening to the culture, but allowing their views to be formed by it.

To him, this is not a good thing. The task of the church, in his view, is to declare – based on biblical principles – what the culture ought to be and do. When the culture evolves in ways that vary from historic church teachings, the church must work to call the culture back to a Godly way. Should some of these evangelical invitations prove unsuccessful, the church can only look on with disapproval.

For this General Assembly, of course, the most striking example of church-and-culture interchange is the debate about same-sex marriage.

Reflecting on this fraught debate, I’ve been wondering to what extent we in the church truly realize we are no longer in the position of controlling the culture’s values through our preaching and teaching. The days of “Christendom” – the establishment, official or unofficial, of Christianity (and particularly mainline Protestantism) as the lighthouse of American democracy – are over. While it was certainly true in past generations that mainline Protestantism formed the culture, we all know this is no longer the case.

Yet, even though the hordes of Eisenhower-era nuclear families no longer fill our pews, Christian values are still reflected in the predominant values of the culture, for the most part. A great many of those who have distanced themselves from the church honor at least the cultural memory of Christian faith. (How those values will continue to be transmitted to future generations is a whole other question.)

When ethical shifts occur in the culture, we can choose to view the church’s historic witness as something like a parent teaching a child to walk. It may be difficult for us to step back and let our child stumble, even fall, but that freedom is something both of us need to foster in order to fulfill our roles.

We look on that child of ours and see the family resemblance, even as he or she grows and ventures into places we never dreamed of exploring. Our task as parent is to continue to stand back, to offer the occasional word of sage advice, and to marvel at the person our child is becoming.

In this new stage of our relationship, we may even realize – to our surprise – that we are actually learning something from our offspring.

Mark Achtemeier has come to understand, through a long process of immersion in Bible study and evolution of his opinions, that this can be a good thing. Brad Longfield disagrees.

In my own convictions, I stand with Mark, for similar reasons. This is a new role for the church, with respect to the culture. It’s one of the hardest things in the world for a parent to stand back and let a child take those first, hesitant steps – and it is certainly no shame for a parent to do so. On the contrary, it is a mark of good parenting to step back in this way. It is by no means an abandonment of our responsibilities to nurture and guide; rather, it marks a new stage in the mutual relationship.

Could it be that God sometimes uses the culture to send a message to the church, just as Cyrus of Persia was the agent of God’s will in setting the captive Israelites on a new course?

The Voice of Youth

It’s often been observed that, despite the preponderance of gray hair at the commissioners’ tables in the Assembly, youth have a voice at the General Assembly that is more influential than in many local churches. Young Adult Advisory Delegates (YAADs), one from each presbytery, have voice and vote in committees. Although those same YAADs only have an advisory vote in the plenary (all-Assembly) debate, their contributions at the microphones are often so eloquent that they give the voting commissioners something to think about, even though they can’t directly sway the outcome.

In my wanderings through the Exhibit Hall and elsewhere, talking to all sorts of people, I’m hearing a consensus that three of the four most difficult issues being debated at this Assembly are ones of great concern to the Millennial generation. Those four issues are:

1) Marriage equality
2) Divestment from fossil-fuel companies
3) Divestment from companies enabling the Israeli occupation of Palestine
4) Structural reform of the PCUSA’s system of “mid-councils” (presbyteries and synods)

Of those four issues, you can probably guess which one is of minimal concern to the Millennials. It’s the fourth. Many of them couldn’t care less about this quintessential Presbyterian insider issue.

When it comes to the first three, though, the voice of youth is already being heard in very significant ways. As concerned as church leaders are with winning and keeping the younger generations, they can’t help but pay attention when large numbers of young adults are extremely passionate about promoting these issues.

With respect to marriage equality, for most young adults today this is a done deal. They’re just waiting for their elders (and by that I mean elders in age, not in ecclesiastical leadership) to wake up and realize that our world has already changed. A phrase I’ve heard a lot these past few days is “tipping point – as in, we’ve already passed it. Many here are observing that the marriage equality issue just isn’t generating the heat it once did. Lots of commissioners seem to be assuming that critical mass has already been achieved for a very big change of some sort.

As for the fossil-fuel issue, there seems to be an extraordinary amount of youthful energy (no pun intended) coalescing around a series of overtures calling for complete divestment from all fossil fuel companies. This is, of course, because of nearly incontrovertible scientific evidence declaring that the products of these industries have already severely altered global climate. The world the Millennials are going to inherit from Baby Boomers like me is almost certainly going to be poorer, hungrier and more dangerous than the world we’ve come to know, and fossil fuels are the principal culprit. Young adults don’t like it one bit, and are demanding change – not tomorrow, but today.

Finally, there are overtures calling for divestment from several companies who have been supplying the heavyhanded Israeli occupation forces with essential supplies for years, and who have shown no willingness to change their business model in response to human-rights concerns. Many of my generation seem unwilling to take such a drastic step all at once. For the large numbers of Millennial activists who are here, however, it’s apparent that this is a very, very important issue for them and their fellows.

It’s hard for commissioners, whatever opinions they’ve brought with them to the Assembly, to ignore such testimony. We’ll see in a few days whether or not that concern for the younger generations will be embodied in the actual voting.

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