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ACSWP continues work on reports to GA 221

Topics include peace, tax reform, use of drones, end of life issues

November 14, 2013

GHOST RANCH, N.M.

As it continues to ready General Assembly-mandated reports to the 221st meeting of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s highest governing body next summer in Detroit, the denomination’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) met here recently to review and refine several documents that are still in process.

They include reports on peace discernment, tax reform, the escalating use of drones by the U.S. government, sexual violence in the military and end of life issues.

The ACSWP will finalize reports at its Jan. 16-18 meeting in Louisville for submission to the Assembly, which convenes June 14.

Peace discernment

The Rev. Mark Davidson, pastor of the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, N.C., and chair of ACSWP’s Peace Discernment Team, reviewed the team’s draft report, “Risking Peace in a Broken and Fearful World.”

The report has grown out of a churchwide peace discernment process launched by the 2010 General Assembly on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the seminal document “Peacemaking: the Believers’ Calling.” The Assembly expressed its hope that the process would “seek clarity on God’s call to the church concerning violence and to develop policy directions on terrorism and war.”

Davidson said the 49 congregations and 19 presbyteries to date have submitted responses to the team’s study materials.

“Risking Peace” is built on five “declarations”:

  • “Celebrate our identity as a church committed to peacemaking”
  • “Claim the nonviolent witness of Jesus Christ and the early church as a neglected resource that can breathe new life into the ministry and public witness of the PC(USA)”
  • “Confess our complicity in an unjust and violent world”
  • “Commit to reducing violence and injustice of all kinds by learning and practicing the things that make for peace”
  • “Challenge the idolatrous reliance on military supremacy as the chief attribute of U.S. identity in the world.”

“We didn’t come to these randomly,” Davidson told the committee. “They rose to the surface again and again in our deliberations and the church’s process.”  

Noting that some Presbyterians have wondered whether the PC(USA) should join the ranks of the “peace churches” ― such as the Quakers and Mennonites, who are openly pacifist ― the Rev. Ray Roberts, an ACSWP member from Westfield, N.J., said, “Peacemaking is not in conflict with ‘just war’ principles. We are not pacifists, but we are peacemakers.”

ACSWP Coordinator Christian Iosso noted that Just War Theory ― a set of principles by which war can be considered morally acceptable ― “is not mentioned in ‘Peacemaking: The Believers’ Calling.’ We still don’t want to set up an either/or choice between pacifism and just war.”

The five declarations in “Risking Peace,” he added, “seek only to get Presbyterians thinking about peacemaking, nonviolence and conflict resolution.”

Tax reform

A report on tax reform “is not even in final rough draft, said the Rev. Ken Grant of Boston, chair of that drafting team. The report is being written by James S. Henry of the Tax Justice Network, with a biblical/theological section by Roberts.

Grant outlined five “core principles” around which the report will be structured:

  • Progressivity in taxation
  • Promotion of sustainability over generations
  • Transparency of the taxation system “to see that all are being treated fairly.”
  • Solidarity, with broad-based participation in the taxation system to demonstrate that “we’re all in this together.”
  • Simplification and effectiveness, with the closing of loopholes and “accreted” gimmicks that have turned taxation into a game “that stops bearing any resemblance to reality.”

Noting “the irony that this report will come to GA221 in Detroit, which is being plundered under the guise of bankruptcy,” Grant said the tax reform report “will conclude that in the U.S. we are not over-taxed relative to the rest of the world, we are probably under-taxed.”

ACSWP member Raafat Zaki from Columbus, Ohio, said that in the current political climate in the U.S. “This report will be cross we will have to carry. We cannot be naïve about the impact of this report, moreso maybe than marriage and ordination.”

Grant also noted that the solution to tax injustice “requires a global response ― the PC(USA) must collaborate with brothers and sisters worldwide.” To that end Grant and Iosso began preparing a letter to ecumenical partners around the world.

End of life issues

Iosso said the idea for an updated statement on end of life issues ― which was last addressed by the General Assembly in 1985 ― came out of a conversation with Abigail Rian Evans of Princeton Theological Seminary and after a more limited paper by the late Lewis Mudge was rejected by the 2010 Assembly.

“The church has said nothing since physician-assisted suicide was legalized by several states and countries,” Iosso said, adding that Evans ― author of Is God Still at the Bedside?― agreed to work on a paper on the subject.  

ACSWP member Gloria Albrecht of Detroit, said the drafting team “is looking for a pastoral, not academic, paper because pastors and families are dealing with this every day. Our goal is to give counsel about what’s at stake and to help people faced with these excruciating personal issues make informed decisions based on their values systems.”

Drones

Work to date has focused on the military use of drones by the U.S. government, but recent revelations about the use of drones for various kinds of surveillance has complicated the issue for the committee.

“We are even seeing positive uses for drones, like finding lost children and finding leaks in pipelines,” noted the Rev. Vernon Broyles, liaison to ACSWP from the Office of the General Assembly.

Albrecht said she feared “that the preponderance of domestic drones will leave us without safe places to have honest conversations.”

The committee voted to continue work on a resolution on the use of drones, to focus on the military uses of drones and “to test a surveillance component with ecumenical partners, possibly proposing more work on this area.”

Sexual violence in the military

The committee decided to scale back the resolution, keeping it tightly focused on sexual violence in the military. Committee member Marsha Fowler of Altadena, Calif., had proposed expanding the paper’s focus to include sexual violence in the migrant farm worker community and women in church structures.

In other business, the ACSWP:

  • Met with Dean Lewis, chair of the Cuba Connection, and Cuban Presbyterian leader Ofelia Ortega Suarez, about current developments in Cuba and the possibility of updating the PC(USA)’s Cuba policy. The Cuba Connection is working on a possible overture to the Detroit Assembly that would urge the U.S. government to remove Cuba from its “state sponsors of terrorism” list. Ortega invited the committee to hold a future meeting in Cuba.
  • Met with the Rev. Trey Hammond, the PC(USA)’s consultant on community organizing to talk about the current state of church-based community organizing, of which the PC(USA) has historically and continues to be a leader, and the implications of  more and better community organizing in Detroit, the site of the 2014 General Assembly.
  • Discussed the possibility of formally joining the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program’s “Mosaic of Peace” conference in Israel/Palestine, which is scheduled for April 28-May 10, 2014

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