This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

PCUSA General Assembly - Day Five

The Ecumenical Breakfast this morning featured a discussion centered on the Accra Confession. This is a very "prophetic" document -- "prophetic" here meaning extremely critical of the status quo. It was written in 2004 at the World Alliance of Reformed Churches meeting in Accra, and is largely a meditation on the "slave castles" that remain as a monument to the slave trade that dominated that part of the world for several centuries. One of these horrible places has a chapel where slave owners and traders who happened to be Reformed Christians would worship. It apparently didn't occur to them at the time that there was anything at all incongruous about worshiping Jesus and selling other fellow humans into inhumane servitude.

The Accra Confession is a wall-to-wall critique of Capitalism and all it has done to wreck the lives of billions of people around the world.

It is also somewhat incongruous to analyze this document... while sitting comfortably in a luxury hotel in Minneapolis. We criticize the evil system, while at the same time casually enjoying its benefits. I don't know what to do about that, but it just doesn't feel right.

One of the speakers was a Rabbi named Barry Cytron. He made the cogent point that the document gives nothing for us to do in the way of resistance to the system it so profoundly criticizes. Then he brought up the elephant in the room, as it were, which is the suspicious connections between Calvinism, and by extension Presbyterianism, and Capitalism. Does the moral indignation of the Accra Confession lead to any kind of moral action? Or is it just talk?

For me this is the Phyllis Tickle Assembly, and she said something that may give an answer here, or at least reframe the question. She talks about the Great Reformation as something that was a vast cultural phenomenon/movement, which included many dimensions including the technological (the invention of the printing press), the opening of Africa and the Western Hemisphere to European colonization, the rise of economic Capitalism, the spread of political democracy, and the rise of Protestantism and the reaction of the Counterreformation. They were all parts of a larger movement. It is not the case that Protestantism emerged and then gave birth to Capitalism (as perhaps Max Weber would have it). There was no causal relationship; there were simply different expressions of a larger tectonic shift.

That being said we Protestants are only partially off the hook, for there remains a relationship between these dimensions. Certainly they came to influence in inform each other. And even more certainly did Protestantism embrace and rationalize economic injustice, and often continues to do so.

While we may produce stinging documents like Accra, these tend to be somewhat hollow until we find a way to more comprehensively reject these atrocities in our actual behavior, ie. by not benefiting from or perpetrating such evils today. This is very hard to do, as I noticed when I went to the Princeton Seminary luncheon and heard the talk about "endowed chairs." An endowed chair, as I understand it, is when someone gives a pile of money to be invested so the interest gained on the investment can support a faculty position. What that money is doing to deliver such a return is rarely even considered. In other words, it's hard to point the finger at our forebears who profited from slavery, when we are profiting from God-knows-what atrocities ourselves.

Is Reformed Christianity so thoroughly enmeshed in the Modern Age as to preclude it having anything intelligible to say in the 21st century? Without transformation into some almost unrecognizable form?

Later in the afternoon the Assembly approved sending the Belhar Confession to the presbyteries for approval and inclusion in the Book of Confessions. Belhar was written in South Africa as a response to Apartheid. It's good to get these challenging documents into our Constitution; it would be better to have their Spirit infuse us with energy to act in new and transformed ways. We still think we can think -- and talk -- our way into acting. This is Modernist approach in itself. Emergence Christianity I think is more interested in acting our way into new ways of thinking and talking.

The Assembly's final action for tonight was approving a new Form of Government, for approval by the presbyteries. It is a trimmed-down, streamlined, deregulated polity intended to give presbyteries and sessions more flexibility in doing mission in different contexts. As opposed to the regulatory, litigious approach that often characterizes the way our current polity is used, this new model does intentionally try to get in line with Emergence Christianity, usually under the term "missional."

One may ask why deregulation is bad when we allow it for banks and oil companies, and okay for the church. It is a good question. The only answer I can come up with right now is that the church relates to the Holy Spirit and the mission of Jesus Christ, while commercial interests are inspired and guided by the demands of money, the love of which is the root of all evil.

Checks and balances are rooted in a definite theological commitment to a specific understanding of original sin. The idea is that humans are inherently sinful. Capitalist theory is that human sinfulness will somehow cancel itself out when given free reign in the market. Regulation is necessary when the market fails. But the central idea of "total depravity" remains. People are so irredeemably bad that the best we can hope for is that we can somehow force them into a social order that allows them to do as little damage as possible.

Instead of controlling people, we need to be about healing them/us. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, and it is based on an understanding of original sin not being so pervasive as to obliterate the image of God in humanity. The image remains and is capable of being liberated/restored by the Spirit.

The new Form of Government is a courageous attempt to move in this direction. I expect it will be very challenging and messy, if it finally passes. But it is either that or remain locked in this death-spiral into oblivion.

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