U-C: What I See

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Responding to torture, a different way of being church

Sisters and Brothers,

There is now clear and compelling evidence that the U.S. government has routinely turned to torture as an appropriate tool in the “War on Terror.” As I have traveled this year, I have asked Presbyterians to think carefully about the growing level of violence (torture, militarized borders, security checkpoints, and the War against Iraq) that our government has employed on our behalf in its earnest quest for security in a time of violence. I have insisted, and continue to insist, that this is a deeply theological challenge. As Christians, we know that genuine security is found only in Jesus Christ, whom we discover as we read and re-read scripture while we seek to live Christ’s example in the world around us.

Each week, sometimes every day, Presbyterians pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The question is, do we believe that we are tasked with creating that beloved community – the authentic reign of God that God so desires for us – here on earth, or do we just mouth the words?

Last week, Ed Brogan, the Director of the Association of Presbyterian Military Chaplains, and I issued a joint invitation to all Presbyterians to study, pray and act to respond to our government’s growing dependence on torture in the “War on Terror.” You can find that invitation, along with a Biblically grounded study guide from the reformed perspective, online at www.no2torture.org. We’ve issued a particular call to those churches that have signed the Presbyterian Commitment to Peacemaking, and you can find that letter, and many related resources, at http://www.pcusa.org/peacemaking/torturestatement.

We hope that concerned Presbyterians will form study groups to reflect on the use of torture, where our security comes from, and how we who profess the Christian faith might act to help our country live up to its highest ideals as we respond to the legitimate and growing crisis of security that exists around the world today.

On Epiphany, January 6 and 7, 2006, we are inviting concerned people of faith to gather with me in Miami for a time of spiritual renewal in an age of violence, a public witness and worship on the beach that will call on our leaders to live up to the most noble of our country’s ideals, and a strategy session about how we might encourage a grass-roots movement of Presbyterians to stand unequivocally against the use of torture by our government and to name the ideals that might lead us to authentic security.

To me, the way in which this effort developed is almost as important as the call to stop torture itself.

Last summer, Rev. Carol Wickersham approached me during the Peacemaking conference at Ghost Ranch to express her grave concern about our government’s use of torture, and to ask whether I thought our denomination could respond. I answered, as I am wont to do, with an invitation. “If you can begin to create a genuinely grass-roots response,” I suggested, “I will do all I can to lend the weight of the office of the Moderator to that effort.”

We decided to extend an invitation to all conferees who were concerned about this matter to have breakfast together, and two mornings later, thirty people showed up. Everyone present agreed that they wanted “the church” to do something to stop torture.

Here’s a rough summary of my challenge to the group.

It is true that the General Assembly has affirmed its strong opposition to the use of torture by our government. Technically, as Moderator of the General Assembly, I would be on solid ground if I chose to make a public statement on this matter, and my judgment is that our national staff would be on equally solid ground if they chose to create programmatic responses to torture and encourage the use of those resources in churches throughout the denomination.

Here’s the problem. My sixteen months as moderator have left me deeply dissatisfied with that way of doing business. Many, many Presbyterians are extremely mistrustful of anything that the General Assembly does “in their name.” When we do choose to speak out on issues like this in this way, there is little confidence that we have the support of a genuine plurality of our members.

Further, too many Presbyterians who care deeply about difficult matters (we’ll continue to use the issue of torture, though there are many others we could discuss) have become complacent. Instead of doing the difficult work of building a solid, scripturally and prayerfully grounded consensus in our own churches and among our own friends, we sit back to wait for our national staff to do the work for us. Over several generations, we’ve come to believe that the most effective way to organize in the church around matters of conscience is to write an overture seeking an action by our General Assembly. Instead, I believe we should be doing the hard work of educating ourselves to create a grassroots consensus across the church, and then organizing the church as a movement to take action on what we say we believe.

I’m not suggesting that there is no role for a General Assembly that seeks to understand God’s will for the church and proclaim Christ’s Good News to the world on behalf of all of us. However, that cannot replace the work that we must do to build a genuine consensus across the church and to encourage our members to take action on the things that matter to us the most.

So back to the question of how to respond to torture.

At Ghost Ranch, I suggested that if the group assembled were willing to do the hard work of crafting a strong consensus throughout our churches on this issue, they would have my strong support. This does, in fact, seem to me to be one of those areas where there is strong agreement across a diverse spectrum of theology and political opinion. As I’ve traveled this year, I’ve heard concern about the use of torture as a tool in the “War on Terror” from several military chaplains and from Presbyterian military leaders who are now retired. I’ve spoken with diplomats retired from our State Department who are gravely concerned. I’ve heard from long-time peace activists in the church that this issue is of paramount importance to them. Presbyterians in large and small churches have approached me on this issue, and many who have spoken with me have led with the words, “I’m a Republican, but . . .”.

Here’s what has happened since we had that conversation on the porch at Ghost Ranch last summer.

A group of volunteers went to work on a curriculum to help Presbyterians study the question of torture from a scriptural, spiritual, reformed perspective. They sent it to several theological professors who made improvements. The entire curriculum was created by Presbyterians who care desperately about this matter – not by staff for the denomination. However, when asked for feedback and support, our staff in Louisville was responsive, effective, and helpful in encouraging this grassroots effort (pay attention, because I’m pretty sure this is a model for the future.)

Another group of volunteers created a yahoo group and a simple website to nurture this grassroots effort. You can sign up for the yahoo group on the website at www.no2torture.org.

As part of the overall effort, several of us began working on the statement on torture that was eventually released this week by Ed Brogan and myself. I can’t express enough appreciation to Ed for his willingness to work on this. Conventional wisdom would have it that Ed, (who has devoted much of his life to supporting our members who serve in the Armed Forces), and I (who have spent twenty years as a devotee of peacemaking and nonviolent response to conflict) would be unable to find common ground. However, it is my conviction that we are both deeply committed to seeking peace, and to encouraging our country to live up to the best of its convictions and ideals. While there are many ways in which we respectfully disagree, we have found significant areas of common ground. I am grateful for his willingness to take risks to seek common ground, and I would suggest that this, also, is a hopeful sign of the future church.

My own role has been to be as responsive as possible to the efforts being made by Presbyterians out there in the pews. I would ask you to do the same. If you have thought about this issue and you are disturbed, as I am, by the way in which the use of torture undercuts the most fundamental principles of our faith, then I would ask you to join us in educating others. Let’s insist that being followers of Jesus Christ means something real.

If you haven’t thought much about this issue, please take a look at this curriculum created by your sisters and brothers in this wonderful, connectional church. Ask for the opportunity to create an adult ed or youth program at your church, or invite your closest friends in your church and community to come to your home for a few weeks of study together. (If they’re not in the church – that’s called “evangelism.”)

And consider coming to Miami. Ask your community to help you buy a ticket. We’ll keep expenses as low as possible on our end. There is no budget for this project, but there is huge, untapped energy and an overwhelming desire to make a difference in the world. That’s where the power of the community of believers lies. We can change the world.

Believe it! The people of God, with God’s help, can change the world.

See you in Miami.