As a nation, we grieve the violence of last Saturday, January 8th, in Tuscan, Arizona. By now you know the names and the story lines. We pray for comfort for the loved ones who grieve deeper than we grieve, and for healing for the survivors! We also pray for justice and God’s mercy on the soul of the gunman. Prayers of confession and repentance also seem appropriate! We have heard and read commentary viewpoints ad nausea on the cause. Why did this happen? Who is responsible? A lone, deranged gunman is suspected to have pulled the trigger. But anyone who was paying attention thought immediately of all the violently charged rhetoric of the past election. It was not the media who first made the connection, but tens of thousands of Americans who sent tweets and text messages. It has opened a national conversation again about gun control, civility in our public discourse, and hopefully will open a discourse of public policy on treatment for mental illness. Words do matter! It seems to me, gun ownership aside, guns and politics don’t mix in America. We work out our differences through engagement in discourse, not shows of force. It is the American way. It’s who we are.
I also ponder the role of religion and religious passion in our public discourse. Many are turned away from religion because of religiously motivated differences and violence. In this context, I think we Presbyterians have a lot to offer the nation and world. We are a passionate people, who do not agree on all matters. This is part of our heritage and witness. We were split twice in the 1700’s and out of that struggle was forged an historic principle, the acceptance that “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” that the church cannot bind the conscience of an individual in matters of salvation. We debate matters on which we disagree, but we are governed by the majority and protect the rights of the minority. Living faithfully and peacefully in disagreement is our Presbyterian way. This is our story as well.
My beginning sense of call to serving at the presbytery level was first awakened in 2006 when the Peace, Unity, and Purity Task Force reported at the 217th GA in Birmingham. The P.U.P. task force, made up of members representing the theological breadth of our diverse church, surprisingly produced a unanimous report. They did not change each others’ positions, but they did change their stance toward each other from disdain to respect, and from anger to love. By engaging each other in Bible Study, getting to know each others' personal stories and motivations, they came to respect each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. They modeled for the rest of us how to disagree faithfully and called upon us to engage each other in similar ways. They gave witness that love and unity are not the same things as agreement and unanimity. Their report and witness changed my life. I believe the P.U.P Task Force will be remembered in church history as a major witness of this time. In this era of incivility, we Presbyterians have a witness to give.
As a resource, I commend to you Frances Taylor Gench’s book “Faithful Disagreement: Wrestling with Scripture in the Midst of Church Conflict,” published by Westminster/John Knox Press, ©2009. Frances is a New Testament Professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary and friend of mine, who served on the P.U.P. Task Force and was a major contributor and resource person in leading their Bible Study together. Frances also was the Bible Study leader for the Association of Executive Presbyters conference in in 2008 and 2009. Not surprising, the struggle to disagree faithfully is nothing new under the sun, but part of our human and sacred story in Scripture.
Many wonder these days what it means to be Presbyterian. I suggest that we claim the story of our heritage and give witness to faithful disagreement.
As one who once served the church in Cooperstown, NY, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and on this NFL playoff weekend, I conclude with the wisdom of the late George Carlin on the difference between football and baseball. In football, a battle is fought in the trenches, a smash mouth brawl, while quarterbacks fire missiles to receivers penetrating enemy lines, and where winning requires infiltrating the enemy’s home goal which they defend at all cost. Whereas in baseball, which is just as competitive, and which was once called our national past time, the only goal is to go home. Spring training is just around the corner!