Order In The Globe—Enlarging Our Moral Horizons

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Endorsing the ACSWP Resolution on Global Order and National Purpose

Editor’s Note: Unbound is affiliated with the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, with both current editors assisting in the process of bringing ACSWP resolutions before the General Assembly. We welcome contradicting opinions, in the hope that Unbound may be a forum for critical and constructive policy development. 

Author Duncan Hanson

On the basis of perspectives gathered from many years of working on four continents with committed Christians of every tradition, as well as devout believers in many other faiths, I commend the ACSWP resolution on global order and our nation’s purpose to the 223rd General Assembly.

This resolution’s essential aim is important. Indeed, it couldn’t be more important: this resolution asks our church to consider how it can reclaim the prophetic voice that it has contributed to public discussion at crucial times of need in the past.

We live in the midst of profound spiritual brokenness. Many of us are no longer surprised or even disturbed when people in high positions lie. Some of us see truth disappearing from our public discussions and believe that the only difference between a public person who has been caught lying and other public figures is that the dishonesties of the latter are still waiting to be exposed. However, when public statements are suspect, we have fewer data points for making ethically valid political choices. As a result, we could find ourselves arriving at political conclusions merely on the basis of self-interest or prejudice. It is no wonder that a society in which public policy is formed by materialism and the celebration of power is fundamentally impoverished.

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This resolution offers a roadmap for rediscovering how our public witness should be shaped and for determining which subjects it needs to address in an international framework.
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The cynicism of many about statements of purported fact by public figures is mirrored by their indifference to scientific judgments. If politicians and journalists tell untruths, then perhaps scientists do as well. The result is that scientific or even public health findings are not respected in public discussions until they are confirmed in individual experience.

Against this backdrop, the church’s public witness cannot be based on just our best hunches. Other people, in and out of the church, have their own hunches which are equally deserving of respect. Instead, the underlying themes in our public witness have to be informed by our theology, and the specific content of that witness must be shaped by profound study and genuine scholarship.

This resolution offers a roadmap for rediscovering how our public witness should be shaped and for determining which subjects it needs to address in an international framework.

Let’s look at how this resolution says our public witness should be formed:

First, it leads us to examine our confessional standards. In urging us to turn to our Confessions to interpret the Scripture and what the Gospel of Matthew calls the ‘signs of the times’, this resolution explicitly references not just our Presbyterian confessions but also those of other “families of churches and traditions.” This resolution is ecumenical in its content and purpose. However, this resolution does not ask us to be open to all voices and thereby, as the Letter to the Ephesians says, “to be tossed here and there and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human deceits and cunning.” Rather, this resolution urges us to look in depth at “the ecumenical church’s long history of serious reflection on human nature, political power, and international relations.”

That commitment to serious reflection is mirrored in our Confessions but, as the resolution says, it has also been refined in the last century by Christian Realism, as represented in the thinking of Reinhold Niebuhr, as well as by Liberation Theology’s expositions of the Exodus from Egypt, the Sermon on the Mount and other key passages of Scripture. While these two theological emphases have not always in been in harmony, they are two of the main perspectives in international ecumenical thinking.

Second, the resolution draws on some of the best work from previous generations. The resolution mentions the decade-long study by the Federal Council of Churches in the United States and others on The Bases for a Just and Durable Peace and well as The Six Pillars of Peace adopted by the Federal Council of Churches at the beginning of World War II, which the authors of the resolution correctly note helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the drafting and adoption of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). After citing this direction-setting ecumenical and international work in the last century, the resolution states:

“It is our hope that the prophetic voice of our ecumenical partners today will join us in helping shape a vision for the changing role of the United States in service of a stable, just, and peaceful international order.”

The goals and the process outlined in this resolution cannot be faulted for being too parochial or limited in perspective.

Third, the wide range of specific subjects that the resolution asks the church to address are all relevant to current public discussions and vital to the planet’s survival. The Advocacy Committee on Racial Ethnic Concerns asks whether the selection might be narrowed. That is a valid question that should be addressed as part of the study process this resolution lays out.

The resolution addresses issues situated all along an imagined spectrum, at one end of which are dangers that affect all living beings; at the other end are issues limited in their impact to certain population groups in specific countries. On the biosphere’s end of the spectrum, the resolution directs attention to the rise of sea levels and the warming of large swaths of the earth’s surface resulting in the phenomenon of climate refugees, an increasingly destructive daily reality in the island nations of the South Pacific and elsewhere. The resolution further lists “extreme weather, crop devastation, [and] mass extinction of species as subjects deserving public health-related cooperation to reduce and reverse.”

Closer to the political end of that spectrum, the resolution points out something that might be uncomfortable to many, but must be said: namely that, since September 11, 2001, one country, the United States, has engaged in numerous “open and covert military actions … without any gain in democratic practice or growth in effective human freedom.” The resolution also points to the objective, statistically significant increase in economic inequality and poverty in the United States as well as in many other countries, despite growth in employment and stock prices from the Obama years forward. This is partly due to the equally statistically significant trend in the United States toward increasing “… vocational insecurity, and isolation of individuals and the decline of communities, institutions, and marriage and childrearing rates”. These trends lead to the conclusion that “the weakening of the common good and erosion of personal character reinforce each other.”

The resolution also points to broader problems: “the reversal of progress toward nuclear disarmament; massive arms sales regardless of democracy, human rights, or even ongoing hostilities; religious discrimination and persecution; weakening of international peacemaking or policing forces; continued disadvantaging of women, girls, and sexual minorities; forced labor, human trafficking, and transnational efforts to weaken labor rights and organizations.” While my previous paragraph noted the ways the authors want our nation to “get its house in order,” I believe local and national issues cannot be properly addressed without taking their global context into account.

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Our country, our world, and our church urgently need a Christian social witness that is biblically grounded, theologically deliberate, and intellectually informed if we are successfully to address the current challenges to global order.
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This resolution’s importance is not that it makes judgments or recommendations about each issue it mentions. Rather, the resolution lists a wide range of issues which the church might address using the study and action process this resolution proposes. In other words, the primary purpose of this resolution is to mandate a comprehensive, ecumenically-enriched study process that could help shape future Presbyterian social witness policy.

That process is perhaps this recommendation’s greatest strength. It directs the Advisory Committee for Social Witness Policy to “engage in a series of public forums with our ecumenical partners on the key matters of international priorities … [and] the role of religion and morality in foreign policy.” It establishes a study committee of Presbyterian and ecumenical leaders including at least twelve persons with “appropriate diplomatic, military, academic, and theological-ethical experience and/or expertise.” With support from existing denominational staff, the study committee would “prepare an initial study guide or interim report for the 224th General Assembly (2020) that is ecumenically useable.” After receiving and incorporating responses to the initial study guide or interim report, the study committee would “produce its final report in a marketable … book form.”

Our country, our world, and our church urgently need a Christian social witness that is biblically grounded, theologically deliberate, and intellectually informed if we are successfully to address the current challenges to global order. At past moments of crisis in our national and global life, our church has offered this kind of witness. This resolution gives our church a fresh new chance to offer a Christian social witness that addresses the specific issues of our time.

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Author Bio: Duncan Hanson has served the church internationally for 25 years, following three pastorates in the United States. He served as Europe and Central Asia Coordinator for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in which he is ordained, and as supervisor for Reformed Church in America mission in Europe, the Middle East, and India. He has been involved with the Waldensian Church in Italy and in a wide range of ecumenical and human rights projects.

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