A new process for resolutions has been used for the first time at this year's Assembly. In the past, Resolutions that were often very divisive were treated like all Resolutions. There would be a presentation of the Resolution and a usually short period of discussion would be the prelude for a vote. In recent Assemblies, these votes were often far from a solid majority. People would often leave upset that neither enough time was given to the discussion nor was the vote a satisfactory way to deal with issues that often left some feeling like winners and others as losers. This year a new plan has thus far proved to be very popular. The issue on the docket for discussion was a dealing with the Christian response to war.
According to a press release from the General Church, a recognition that "the planning for this conversation was a belief that taking a “yes/no” vote on a complex topic before the church after 12 minutes of debate at the Assembly has often contributed to the tendency for church members and congregations to be polarized on volatile topics. The design proposed by the Council on Christian Unity, working in partnership with the Disciples Peace Fellowship...hopes to provide a “safe space” for honest and tough dialogue, but without moving to a vote – and without creating division and a sense of “winners and losers” within the family of the church. Beginning with “from the heart” sharing in a business plenary, a diverse group of Assembly Disciples will lift up the difficult issues of war and peace, while still laying claim to unity in Christ. “Somehow, somewhere, we need to model honest, genuine disagreement as Christians and still claim each other as one in Christ,” said Robert Welsh, Council on Christian Unity president in describing the intention of the conversation he and the CCU Board have developed. With an approach that involves story telling from a variety of perspectives, the design invites Assembly participants to engage in further reflection in one of three Monday afternoon sessions on July 11. These “Faithful Conversations” will explore the issues of:
• Christian Perspectives on War and Peace
• Pastoral and Theological Perspectives on War, Peace, and Unity
• New Developments Regarding War and Peace in the Ecumenical Movement
In preparing for these conversations, major attention has been given to offering diverse perspectives from Disciples throughout the presentations on issues of war and peace -- from congregational pastors who minister to families that have members in the military; from young adults who are uncertain as to what their faith and their church teaches about war; and from military chaplains, and pacifists, and just-war advocates."
The early church struggled with how to receive many new Christians who were in service to Rome as military officers and soldiers. Many of the early bishops required these new converts to leave military service, especially since much of the empire's military might was used against Christians specifically. Early Christians were not permitted to make a living in the army, on the stage as performers and in many cases, government service itself was prohibited.
In the years that followed, the Church grew to become the official religion of the Roman/Byzantine Empire and in subsequent years, European nations. By the end of the first 1000 years, ministers of the church transformed from outspoken critics of war to those who blessed soldiers before going into battle. It was common for priests and ministers to bless the troops of their respective nations as two "Christian" armies lined up to do battle.
As the complexity of war and politics dealt with not just empire building, but the defense of nations that found themselves the target of attack or the effort to protect innocent citizens who might be the victims of totalitarian regimes, many great theologians like Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas argued for a just war theory. That is, there were certain cases that Christians not only should engage in armed conflict, but must engage in war for the greater good. During the rise of Protestantism in the last half of the past thousand years, many Protestant groups were founded and grew as pacifist Christian movements. Scholars of Disciples of Christ history debate the predominant trend among our movement. Some of our founders like Alexander Campbell argued that war was an affront to God, while others argued that, although war is a sin, it is an inescapable part of the human experience. They argued that peace should never be at the expense of justice and if a people were suffering under persecution, and all other attempts failed, armed conflict was a necessary evil.
I would guess that most all of us at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Ashland deplore war but at the same time the patriots and servicemen and women of our congregation have and still answer the call of our nation to defend the rights and freedom that we believe are given to all people by our Creator. How should we respond to war? What word does Christ have on the subject and how can we maintain the integrity of our Lord's title as Prince of Peace and still value the responsibility to defend the weak and support nations in their efforts for justice for all? Could our military have prevented the genocide in Rwanda? Was not an armed response the only thing that could have stopped Hitler's genocide of six million Jews? What is our role in the civil wars in the Congo and Libya? Why have we not heard of the Christians' plea in Afghanistan who are fearful that a US withdrawal will open the doors to further persecution? Although the death of martyrs throughout history have made an indelible mark of faithfulness on the world, at what point do governments of the world have a responsibility to protect the lives of Christians, Jews and Muslims alike?
Most soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen alike will be the first to testify to the horrible plight of war. My father, a veteran himself, often told me of the horrors of war. What would be my response if my own family were threatened by a foreign government? During the Revolutionary War, many clergymen enlisted in the Continental Army and local militia. When asked why they would put down their Bibles to bear arms, they would respond that 'sometimes the shepherd must protect the sheep from the wolves.' Do our present day wars always defend the weak or do they protect "a way of life" and the supply of natural resources upon which we are so dependent, like oil and free trade? The opinions are diverse at this Assembly. However, the unifying themes among all involved in the conversations is a desire to be faithful to Christ, kind to our brothers and sisters with different opinions and the desire to live into the prophetic vision when "swords will be beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks." Pray for us as we try to faithfully deal with a mark of the human condition and the futility of violence. Peace is always our goal. However, is refusing to take up arms pragmatic? Are we willing to suffer the consequences at the hands of another whose view and understanding of God and the integrity of every human being may not be similar to our own? Like most here, I see the point of both sides. I am also grateful for our brothers and sisters who insist on the call to be peacemakers at all costs. Although I may be willing to suffer the cost, I am not sure I am so willing to risk the cost that might be paid by my own son's life. Perhaps the reality of a sinful world means that no one wins when it comes to war, but when forced to choose, I must confess that I will not allow my family to be taken to the coliseum without a fight. May God have mercy on me. May God have mercy on us all.