April 3, 2003
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you!
We live in turbulent times and passions run high. As well they should. We are struggling with issues that may well determine the future form of our world community. For this reason I have felt the necessity to write a series of pastoral letters that will help us in our reflection on the war in Iraq and related issues. These are not easy times, but they are extremely important times. Important for our country, and perhaps even more important for the future of our church. Many issues have been presented to me that I feel would not be appropriate for Sunday morning but which need to be addressed. Therefore the format of a pastoral letter seems most appropriate. Some of the issues revolve around the questions: What is “Just War” theory? Do Presbyterians accept war in general? Why have Presbyterian leaders insisted that any initiation of war be approved by U.N. resolution? These and other issues we will try to think through in the coming days and weeks.
Perhaps the first issue to be addressed is the issue of disagreement among Presbyterians. One of the principles virtues of being Presbyterian is that we do not agree on issues. We never have and never will. We do not see this as a weakness, but rather as a strength. We believe in democratic process where consensus is created through dialogue, debate and the political work of elected leadership acting in governing bodies. This is a slow process, but it is one that we believe is fair to all concerned.
There are two sides to this process. One side has to do with our unity in Jesus Christ. Our unity is not based on political or theological agreement. One of the basic characteristics of reality is that it can be interpreted in limitless ways. This means that unity in thought is inherently impossible. At best we achieve a tentative consensus. Our examination of history and of our own experience confirms this. From a theological perspective, we would say that this is part of the richness of God’s created order. Life is full of possibility and variation. There is no “one” way to see things. Therefore, unity is not based on ideas but rather on a relationship. Unity is based on this relationship with mystery, love and grace that we experience concerning God in Jesus Christ. It is not something we can finally define in rational terms. The mystery of God in Jesus Christ remains a mystery in the sense that Jesus Christ is not an object of study, but a living person. Therefore our unity is one of dependency on the One who embodies the freedom of the Divine Spirit. Like the early Christians, our unity is expressed in the simple confession that “Jesus is Lord!”. This is not a confession of ideas, but rather of a relationship in which we are called and claimed by God. We have unity because we do not belong to ourselves, but we belong to God. Our unity is based in who God is and what God has done for us.
The other side of this issue has to do with sin. Not only are we basically limited in our knowledge of the world, but our ideas are never independent of who we are. We can never separate our emotions, our history, or our experiences from our ideas or beliefs. They are part and parcel of who we are. This is why we are so passionate about our beliefs. Unfortunately, strong feelings do not guarantee that we are right. Many times we have found that our feelings and emotional needs have led us to self-deception. Many times our personal or collective needs have determined our beliefs. How many times have Presbyterians found that they were wrong in a belief once the personal and collective needs changed? In spite of our political process of consensus building leading to a majority opinion, we have many times found ourselves to be wrong. The beliefs concerning the institution of slavery and the ordination of women come to mind. The reality is that folk of faith will hold different convictions concerning how they interpret issues. We will not agree. And to make this disagreement more complex is the reality that many times the differing parties will all hold a part of the truth. This is certainly true concerning the issue of the war in Iraq. Some hold the conviction that there comes a time when violence is needed to end or limit the evil and sin of political tyranny. Others agree that tyranny has to be resisted, but that methods other than war will achieve the same results given time and patience. Still others hold the conviction that war is too dangerous and destabilizing given the nature of our interconnected world community. The problem is that all these positions hold some truth.
This leads us to the conclusion that disagreement is to be valued. We need folk who will challenge our beliefs and keep us honest concerning our own self-deception. But this disagreement has to occur within a spirituality where Jesus is Lord and we are conscious of our own tendency to sin. Otherwise a challenge to our beliefs becomes a challenge to our personhood. The result of this is hurt feelings, alienation, and the disruption of our communion in Christ. For this reason, disagreement has to be realized within a sense of humility and mutual respect. We have to love one another more than we love our beliefs. This does not mean that we are to be passive concerning our convictions. We have to follow our conscience and take moral action. But this action is to be taken in humility and respect for those who pursue different moral actions. In the back of our mind has to reside the nagging question that perhaps we are wrong in our belief and moral action. This puts a brake on our tendency to emotional excess and keeps us humble.
Living with disagreement is not easy. But no one ever said that love is easy.
George M. Wortham