Christmas and the Better Angels of our Nature

The following letter comes from the December 2011 Salt & Light e-newsletter of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, speaking to violence in Palestine, the recent Human Rights Day issue of “Unbound,” an upcoming Convocation on Criminal—and Restorative—Justice, the work of ACSWP, and an upcoming course called “Presbyterianism: Principles, Practice, and Social Teaching.”
photo of a cross overlooking bethlehem
Photo of Bethlehem by Gary Richardson

Imagine the headline: Christmas angels interrupt the droning of war and keep Herod from capturing Bethlehem entirely.

The phrase, “better angels of our nature,” comes from Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, and has been recently used to title the massive book by Steven Pinker, the evolutionary psychologist, who contends that violence is actually decreasing over time. From a believer’s standpoint, the image of angelic nature connects us to God’s nature; the angelic messengers that we sometimes entertain unawares reveal unexpected depths and sources of love. Pinker makes no religious claims for the decrease in neighbor-to-neighbor violence and genocidal warfare, and critics suggest that environmental crises could reverse his trends, as in Somalia’s famine and war. Without claiming inevitability for progress toward peace, it is good to see a sweeping case made against the inevitability of war. Go, Angels, Go!

As for the line about Bethlehem and Herod, we can only encourage prayer and action to defend the rights and survival of the Palestinians, including the Christian Palestinians, hammered by the increasing pace of land stealing and settler violence, including the burning of mosques. Even as tourism increases again around Christmas, the plight of the Christian community is grim—the wall splitting Bethlehem and the West Bank from Jerusalem is prison-like and the settlement growth clearly designed to make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible. For those who do care for peace, we encourage reading the witness of the Kairos Palestine Document and Unbound’s Christmas editorial, “Bethlehem—More Besieged than Ever” by ACSWP Coordinator, Chris Iosso.

This Salt & Light, in fact, is partly an update on the work of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP), and partly a notice of articles posted on that cyber journal, Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice.

photo of Hawaiian girl
Photo by William Alanson Bryan

Check out Unbound’s most recent issue:Occupy Human Rights, Not Us: Indigenous Rights for Human Rights Day”, featuring resources and articles for indigenous land rights, indigenous voices at the United Nations, Native American Congregational Support, the Red Hands campaign to end the use of child soldiers, the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Register for free to receive updates when Unbound publishes new issues. Follow Unbound on Facebook and Twitter.

Speaking of new electronic media, read in Unbound about the launch of a new website for Presbyterian Voices for Justice, and be sure to check out PHEWA’s new online resource center.

The Advisory Committee is particularly happy to publicize the expansion of the General Assembly course taught by theologian and former Moderator, Jack Rogers, and Dave Tomlinson of San Francisco Theological Seminary, on Presbyterianism in action. This has been a popular way for seminary students and observers to analyze the General Assembly process. For this coming Assembly, former Stated Clerk Cliff Kirkpatrick and social ethicist Teresa Chavez Sauceda will join the course and add “Social Teaching” to its title and subject matter. ACSWP is a new co-sponsor of this course with the Committee on Theological Education (COTE), San Francisco Theological Seminary, and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (where Kirkpatrick is also on the faculty).

When calculating the cost of enrollment to “Presbyterianism: Principles, Practice, & Social Teaching,” please know that lower cost housing options in Pittsburgh are being developed. Also, we note that this course could be very helpful for persons newly elected to boards and agencies of our church.

In terms of the on-going work of social teaching, in social witness policy formation, ACSWP has been working through its members on study teams to present an approach to Peace Discernment at the coming Assembly, a report on the economic crisis, a resolution on the impacts and lessons of the Arab Awakening, and its usual Human Rights Report.

photo of a leaf caught in prison wire
Photo by Andras Kovacs

Another exciting development is the Conference on Criminal Justice—restorative justice if we want more “better angels”—that is taking place at Stony Point on February 17-19, 2012. This is a working consultation, designed by the Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association (PHEWA) to help build a new network for prison ministry and advocacy for inmates to be fewer in number, better treated, and with less recidivism. As we send this to press, a stunning article notes that as many as one third of Americans are arrested by age 23. While the disproportionate and frankly racist focus on young black men has long been known—creating a “New Jim Crow” caste system in Michelle Alexander’s book title—this article underlines the numbers of young whites and Hispanics dragged into a voracious system.

Please alert your prison ministry and justice advocate friends of this opportunity. The speakers, who include New York’s Commissioner of Corrections, Brian Fisher, and T. Richard Snyder, author of The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Punishment, and leaders of restorative justice advocacy from the Methodist and UCC churches, are an impressive line-up. But the struggle is daunting: while some states try not to incarcerate non-violent offenders (including youth), others push privatized prisons and contract labor. Some Texas prisons are reducing weekend meals to twice a day. And observers are increasingly concerned at the return of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with military tactics and mentality, seen in some of the responses to Occupy protesters.

ecumenical advocacy days logo
Ecumenical Advocacy Days

Please also keep your calendars tuned to the Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, DC, which are preceded by a Presbyterian Training Day. ACSWP is working with the Office of Public Witness to develop a short DVD resource on voting rights and the enormous role of private money and lobbies in our political system. In other countries this rule of special interests is called, “corruption,” though here it is a legalized self-gaming system. We note the work of Common Cause and other groups in seeking constitutional amendments to undo the damage of allowing the wealthiest and most powerful to dominate a supposedly democratic system. A longer Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment has also been advocated by Rabbi Michael Lerner and the “Network of Spiritual Progressives.”

To return to Christmas, but before you chug more glug, or volunteer at the crowded soup kitchen, it may be wise to remember Iran, the country from which the possibly Zoroastrian Magi from “the East” may have come. Many of the same groups and interests who brought us the Iraq war are trying again to whip up hysteria against a nuclear threat that is marginal to non-existent. Political scientist Stephen Walt casts a realist’s eye on these developments, which already include elements of covert warfare in conjunction with Israel. But let us rejoice that most of our troops are coming home from Iraq, even as we grieve the devastation and imperial hubris that brought that unnecessary war to a people already suffering under a dictator.

And this brings us more truly back to a Christmas where drones jostle angels in the sky. The words of Howard Thurman still apply: “When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among others, To make music in the heart.”

With Blessings on the Eve of Christmas,
Staff of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy

Though currently being renovated, the ACSWP website offers both electronic and hard copies of General Assembly policy and study papers. You can locate these here. For example, you may wish to refer to the “Resolution Calling for the Abolition of For-Profit Private Prisons,” approved by the 2003 General Assembly.
Banner photo by Marcelo Gerpe; Learn more about ACSWP
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