Analysis of Overture 26 on Political Violence

It has been my intention for since returning from this year’s PCA General Assembly to do a more in-depth analysis of Overture 26, which was on the issue of political violence.  Even though GA voted it down, I think that given the levels of polarization in the United States at the moment this issue is one that we increasingly will face in the coming months and years.  For that reason alone, it merits more discussion and reflection.

Christian Symbols at the January 6, 2021 Riot

In the interest of full disclosure, this Overture was sent up by my presbytery, Potomac Presbytery, but I neither contributed to it as it was being drafted, nor voted for it in either Presbytery or in General Assembly.  The head of the Presbytery’s Mission to North America (MNA) committee invited thoughts and contributions from anyone in the Presbytery back in February when it was being drafted, and even after it had passed Presbytery in March he still invited feedback for ways that it could be improved, ways that could be proposed as amendments in the Overtures Committee at GA.  So, I will not complain that there were not opportunities for providing input; there most certainly were multiple opportunities.  I had two reasons, however, for not contributing.  First, in February and March, I was going through a period at work where I was consistently having to work very long days and what free time I had was consumed with other church-related duties, so I literally just did not have the bandwidth at the time to give this any considered thought.  Second, my intuitive feeling early on was that there were some more fundamental issues at stake I did not think it would be collegial or helpful to provide just minor wordsmithing that did not really get at the core of my concerns or to make vague suggestions for more fundamental revisions that would have been tantamount to “start over.”  So, I listened to the debate in Presbytery, I listened at GA, and with more time to think about things, here are my misgivings about the Overture.

As I noted in my earlier post, my concerns were basically twofold: first, I felt we missed an opportunity to make a more definitive and necessary restatement of the Spirituality Doctrine given the circumstances we currently face regarding political violence, and second, there were issues in the way this was written which I think undercut its effectiveness.  Let me address each of these concerns in turn.

First, the key challenge for this Overture was in defining what political violence is, succinctly, in the current political context.  Political violence can include such things as mob intimidation, assassinations, bombings, excessive or unauthorized use of force by government officials, riots, terrorism, and even outright war.  Overture 26 did not provide a definition of this up front regarding the focal point of the authors’ concerns, although they did try to capture some nuances in the “Whereas” clauses, mostly to differentiate the lawful use of force from unlawful uses.  This lack of specificity—which, in fairness, may have been driven by a legitimate desire to avoid the appearance of favoring one political side or the other—gave the Overture an overly abstract and disconnected quality.  This disconnect was reinforced by how limited the asks were in the resolves proper.  Basically, these came down to saying political violence is bad, we should follow Jesus, and pray for our country.  None of these asks should have been objectionable to either those on the Left or the Right, but they are sufficiently anodyne that it begs the question as to why we even need a formal resolution at all.  This lack of precision contributed to a certain surreal quality I observed in the debates in both Presbytery and GA, where much discussion time was spent addressing the question as to whether such an Overture, had it existed in 1776, would have inhibited the Founding Fathers of the United States from supporting independence from Great Britain—a debate over a hypothetical possibility for an event over 200 years ago.

The drafters of this Overture almost certainly were not focused on that.  Rather, the heart of their concerns probably was in “Whereas” clauses 11-14.  These almost certainly should have been bolstered further.  One does not have to look too hard to see concrete the dangers of our toxic polarization.  Within the past couple years–indeed, on some matters, even within the last few months–we have had assassination threats against our Supreme Court justices; riots and threats of riots; the practice of operatives of both the political Right and Left to disclose the personal information of Federal, state, and local officials so that angry mobs could surround their homes and intimidate them; fire bombings and hate vandalism of crisis pregnancy centers; and the list goes on.  There also has been efforts, mostly by those on the political Right, to appropriate symbols of Christianity into their advocacy of political violence (this is less an issue for the political Left, since the Left is generally less interested in Christianity altogether).  There has also been a trend among some churches to give platforms to political activists whose rhetoric calls for some kind of “resistance,” often armed.  From what I have seen and heard, this typically has been outside the PCA; I do not know to what extent PCA churches have done this, if at all.  And, as “Whereas” clause #13 acknowledges, there has been the practice for Christians on both the Right and the Left to ignore the violence of their own side while condemning that of the other.  In short, there is no shortage of real reasons to be concerned.

In terms of how the Overture was written, my chief criticism beyond simply the lack of definition of political violence is the extensive use of “Whereas” clauses (there were 17 such clauses in the resolution).  To be sure, this Overture was written in a way that is consistent with the way overtures are typically formatted, but in this particular case, as a reader, I found myself getting lost in trying to follow the logic of the clauses.  Several of the clauses were trying to provide important, but ancillary distinctions, which obscured other clauses that were more pertinent justifications for why the overture was necessary.  It may have been more effective to have a fewer number of “whereas” clauses that were focused more directly on the premise for why the overture is necessary, reserving any important qualifications for a “rationale” statement to be appended to the overture after the “resolves.”  Such an approach would have allowed more flexibility for expressing nuance and have been clearer to the average reader.  The extensive number of clauses also created a higher expectation regarding the resolves, only to leave the reader feeling sold short given what was actually asked for.  A tighter, clearer, more focused Overture might have had a better chance of passage or at least raising the bar in terms of debate.

So, what could have been done differently with the advantage of hindsight?  For this kind of an Overture, we needed to have a clearer focus on who the target audience should be. Here, the target audience would best be the denomination as a whole, both pastors and churches.  They can take specific actions, whereas making a statement to society writ large is only an exercise in virtue signaling; to be honest, society writ large could care less about what the PCA thinks about political violence.  With this audience in mind, a few concrete actions could be suggested.

First, we need a tighter definition of what we mean by “political violence.”  This might well be hard to achieve, but without it, there will be endless debate about whether one thing or another actually constitutes political violence.  There has been a trend within the PCA over the years to refer such questions to denomination-wide Study Committees, but such an action would be expensive and there is real Study Committee fatigue within the denomination.  That said, I also think it might be more effective for Sessions and Presbyteries to give the question serious thought based on the circumstances they find themselves in locally.  Such definitions are likely to be more concrete and practical as opposed to abstract and academic.

Second, we need to have a re-articulation of the Spirituality Doctrine for our pastors and congregants.  Most of our congregants are not familiar with this part of our theological heritage, and if they have heard of it at all they may associate it with historical misuses (e.g., how it was used to defend slavery or oppose the Civil Rights movement) than with the proper use of safeguarding the integrity of the church amidst a highly politicized environment.  (I provided my own articulation in a previous post). Beyond such an articulation within an Overture, it probably would be worth identifying, providing, and as needed, producing resources to our congregations to explain what the Spirituality Doctrine is, what its purpose is, and the principles behind it.  Education will help bring home why this is important for the Church.

Lastly, following from this, we need to ask, what concrete things would help to safeguard the integrity of the church in our current situation?  One thing would be to encourage churches to refrain from allowing political organizations or activists who have called for or have endorsed political violence from using the church’s facilities or online platforms.  As has been repeatedly demonstrated with other issues, to give a platform to such organizations or speakers advocating or endorsing political violence is likely to be seen as tacitly or explicitly concurring with those views.  Taking this step would distance the PCA from the kinds of problems facing parts of evangelicalism right now.  Another thing that could be done is for church leaders to speak out against the appropriation of Christian symbols in political contexts where political violence is being advocated or practiced, regardless of who is doing the appropriating.  Finally, it may be worth encouraging Sessions and Presbyteries to articulate their own guidelines and principles on how the Church will engage on political issues and what the limits of such engagement might be.  That will help set expectations both of congregants and even community members.

In closing, let me just say this: my criticisms here are not intended to be criticisms of my brothers in Potomac Presbytery who drafted and proposed Overture 26.  This is a difficult issue, but an important one, and one that I think we will continue to face for the foreseeable future.  I wish that were not the case.  Nor is my intention is not to puff myself up by saying I could have done things better.  As I noted at the outset of this post, there were opportunities to provide input but I was not able to avail myself of them at the time.  Because this is an issue that we are likely to face in the near term, my intention here is to provide what I hope is constructive feedback and advance mutual dialogue insofar as we revisit these issues in the future.

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