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General Assembly Action

Resolution on Violence, Religion, and Terrorism

The 214th General Assembly (2002) directed the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy "to authorize a task force to study and report on terrorism, the relationship of religion to violence, U.S. military response, and U.S. political and economic involvement that may contribute to global problems, and report to the 216th General Assembly (2004)." The Assembly further described the work in this way: "A vital part of the work will be the defining of terrorism, war, and political violence and reviewing the applicability of the concepts of just peacemaking, just war, and nonviolent intervention in the context post September 11, 2001." Therefore this resolution is intended to provide a framework for Presbyterians to understand more fully and accurately the phenomenon of terrorism and its probable causes, as well as to make responsible judgments about the nature, size, and potential result of possible responses.

The 216th General Assembly (2004) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted this resolution. Selections are below.

See entire resolution

The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, in consultation with the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and Congregational Ministries Publishing, has prepared an accompanying study guide: Faithful Living in a Time of Violence and Terrorism.

Download guide

Recommendation A

A.  "Do Not Be Afraid"

Terrorism uses violence to create fear in people by attacking unarmed noncombatants for political purposes. Ordinarily it is not a successful strategy, but occasionally, if allowed to persist, it accomplishes some political change.

The ultimate response of Christian people to terrorism is the response of the angel to the first two Marys' fear on discovering the stone rolled back from the tomb: "Do not be afraid" (Matt. 28:5). Faith as unconditional trust in God overcomes fear and is a basis for wise penultimate responses to terrorism. The fear of Jesus' ministry led the political and religious authorities to kill him. The disciples showed fear, but it was overcome by the power of God's resurrection of Christ and the response of faith in the followers who within fifty days received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The immediate response to an attack of terrorism is to thwart it if possible. On learning of the intentions to utilize their plane as a bomb, some of the passengers on United Flight 93 responded, "Let's roll." Failing to secure the plane, it crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. In an appropriate first response to protect others they gave their lives. In New York City, hundreds of police and fire officials gave their lives to save other victims of terrorism: faithful action combined with responses of duty to save other hundreds. Though fear was present, Americans worked through faith to overcome the terrorist acts.

B.  Definitions

Discussion of these matters is facilitated if we have a common vocabulary for describing various forms of violence in our world.

1.  Terrorism

Terrorism is best defined by focusing on the act of violence and its component parts rather than the cause for the action. As an operational definition, terrorism involves an act of violence, an audience, the creation of a mood of fear, victims who are not parties to the dispute, and political or social motives or goals. The challenge of a precise definition of terrorism is that there are always exceptions to the act of violence that demand moral reflection.

2.  War

War is a term that is used in many ways:

a.  When used metaphorically, war describes an action undertaken with an unusual amount of effort or high resolve, as in the "war on drugs" or the "war on crime."

b.  When used more conventionally, war describes the violence carried out at the deliberate decision of a nation-state against another nation-state by personnel selected, trained, and equipped for combat.

c.  War can also describe a revolution where organized groups of oppressed or marginalized people train, arm themselves, and fight to obtain their freedom from some form of tyranny.

d.  War also arises from the traditions of religious groupsÑespecially those in the Abrahamic traditions. Whether the term used is "crusade," "herem," or "jihad," they are commonly referred to as "holy war," carrying the sanction, not merely of nation-states, but of a divine power itself.

3.  Violence

Violence is a characteristic of human behavior found throughout societies and most visibly expressed in warfare, in several kinds of crime, and in terrorism. Although some violence can be the venting of anger or deep hostility, purposive violence has the intent to inflict injury on others to obtain a change in behavior that is not freely forthcoming.

C.  Christian Responses to Terrorism

Beyond the immediate responses of ministering to the victims of terrorism, burying the dead, healing the wounded or traumatized, and rebuilding what has been destroyed, people of faith are called to make wise responses. Christians need to ponder the message of attackers who are so desperate that they surrender their lives to kill others, supporting our government in applying just and legal measures against those who engage in criminal activity, supporting the use of military and police force to suppress terrorist actions within the limits of international law and traditional moral limits for the use of force. Finally, we must join in the never-ending struggle to provide help through just and sustainable policies and actions for overcoming conditions of injustice and human depravity. Desperate acts of terrorism are less likely to grow out of just societies where there is hope, and they can be reduced in this world by pursuing justice.

D.  The Church's Confessions and Policy

Support for acts of listening, for legal responses, for military and policing actions, and for efforts of human development are found in Presbyterian peacemaking policies approved by General Assemblies. The Presbyterian Church has long antecedents in its peacemaking work. These commitments toward peacemaking stem from Holy Scripture, from The Second Helvetic Confession (1561), from The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), and from The Declaration of Barmen (1933). In the late 20th century, The Confession of 1967 articulated the reconciling work of Christ in a manner directly relevant to this "Resolution on Violence, Religion, and Terrorism." Further development of church policy is found in "Peacemaking: the Believers' Calling" (1980), "Christian Obedience in a Nuclear Age" (1988), and "Just Peacemaking and the Call for International Intervention for Humanitarian Rescue" (1998). All of these sources inform the background paper. Selections from the 20th century policies affirm the Trinitarian faith of the church in its relevance to just peacemaking as a response to terrorism:

1.  God's Sovereignty

The Resolution on "Just Peacemaking and the Call for International Intervention for Humanitarian Rescue" (1998) emphasized God's sovereignty and human sin as the occasion for a just peacemaking approach that allowed within limits international intervention for humanitarian rescue. God's sovereignty calls for human order and rescue of victims from human sin. As God's sovereignty overrides all human sovereigns, armed intervention even by the well-intentioned is subject to limits of international morality and international law. Criteria limiting such actions were part of the policy. Terrorism is clearly illegal and immoral and violent responses to it must be carried out prudently and within limits spelled out in that policy and in the background paper of this resolution.

2.  Christ's Call to Peacemaking

The Presbyterian Church's priority for peacemaking was established in 1980 in the General Assembly's action, "Peacemaking: the Believers' Calling." Here the emphasis was on the work of the resurrected Christ for peacemaking. Three particular affirmations were proclaimed: (1) "The church is faithful to Christ when it is engaged in peacemaking." This affirmation recognized the role of the church in changing our "military might, economic relations, political institutions and cultural patterns." (2) "The church is obedient to Christ when it nurtures and equips God's people as peacemakers." This affirmation challenged the church to develop its capacity for peacemaking and called for the creation of a program to implement this churchwide peacemaking emphasis. (3) "The Church bears witness to Christ when it nourishes the moral life of the nation for the sake of peace in our world." This affirmation called for the church to act on specific issues of foreign policy for our day. The issues of terrorism and the role of religion regarding it have been placed before us today for our faithful response to Christ ( Minutes , UPC(USA), 1980, Part I, pp. 202Ø3).

3.  The Spirit Moves the Church

The Spirit leads the church to respond to terrorism, to discern its religious and political messages, and to think and act in a new way to the challenge. Through "Peacemaking: the Believers' Calling," the Holy Spirit who led the church to discern the signs of the times, promises fresh direction as we choose "É either to serve the Rule of God" or to side with the powers of death through our complacency and silence" ( Minutes , UPC(USA), 1980, Part I, 202). One aspect of this fresh direction is for the church to engage with peoples of other faiths as never before in conversation, theological discussion, and actions for the common good. True religion finds terrorism and unjust wars immoral. Our faith teaches us that the Holy Spirit leads us in prayer, reflection, and action to overcome sin that leads toward religious or civilizational conflicts.

Fear of terrorism is overcome through trust in the sovereignty of God, engagement in Christ's transformative work in church and society, and openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit in facing new peacemaking challenges. It is in such faith that we are bold to give ourselves as peacemakers to overcome terrorism, its causes, and its effects.

E.  On Religion and Violence

The Presbyterian Church recognizes that religion is significantly involved in violence even while wise religious leaders pursue just peace. The history of religion is replete with acts of violence. Its origins and major religious symbols are implicated in violence. The church needs to confess its associations with violence and repent of its support for violence. Our faith teaches us that God wants humanity to be transformed and to embrace active and effective peacemaking. At the same time, violent sectarian movements within major faith traditions must be rendered ineffective by reconciliation, dialogue, and, if necessary, the legitimate use of force by the state and the international community.

F.  The Immorality of Terrorism

The General Assembly proclaims as PC(USA) policy that our moral criteria of both just peacemaking and justifiable war (Helvetic Confession, Westminster Confession) find terrorism whether state, group, or individual as immoral because it wrongfully and deliberately attacks innocent civilians. It also condemns any targeting of civilians by military forces participating in wars that otherwise might be justifiable.

G.  The Imperative of International Cooperation

The General Assembly affirms the imperative of international cooperation in developing and carrying out responses to terrorism. Whether responding to specific acts of terror or addressing the root causes of terrorism, the United Nations remains the international organization where such responses are best debated and decided upon.

H.  On Transforming Strategies

The General Assembly calls for less reliance on the military response to terrorism and a greater and sustained investment by the United States government in the transforming strategies that will address the political, economic, social, and cultural causes that underlie the resort to acts of terrorism.

I.  Acknowledging Our Complicity in Confession

Our tradition calls us to confess our sin and acknowledge our complicity in contributing to the circumstances that prompt individuals to engage in acts of terrorism.

As a people who believe that God intends for us to live in right and just relationships with all of God's children, we confess the following:

1.  That by our disproportionate consumption of the earth's resources, we have not always been mindful of the economic impact of our daily living on the lives of people in the developing world.

2.  That in the export of the artifacts of our popular culture such as movies, music, and television programming, we have been insensitive to and destructive of the cultural norms of others.

3.  That our support for military responses to acts of terrorism has too often been motivated by a desire for vengeance and not a desire for justice.

4.  That we have relied on the military response to acts of terror without sufficient call for the transforming strategies that can improve the daily circumstance of life.

5.  That we have too often condemned the religious faith of those who are different without taking the time to understand that faith.

J.  Relevant to This Time

In developing policies for particular issues, the General Assembly recognizes that such policies are important for guiding actions and that they should be open to modifications as circumstances and understandings change. The policies embodied in the resolutions that follow are offered as the most helpful judgments available to us at this time. They are for guidance as helpful and important, not as universal or immutable.

Recommendation B

B.  The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy makes the following recommendations to the 216th General Assembly (2004), to the middle governing bodies, to sessions, to members and local leaders, and to the colleges and theological seminaries of the PC(USA):

1.  That the 216th General Assembly (2004) do the following:

a.  Approve the report for churchwide study and implementation.

b.  Discourage the resort by the United States government to "preemptive attack" against other nation states as a means to deter terrorism.

c.  Urge the United States government to balance the use of the military option to deter terrorism with increased investment in programs that can transform and reduce the root causes of terrorism across the developing world.

d.  Hold up to the care of God and our churches all who serve at personal risk and cost to alleviate terrorism, whether serving in the armed forces, law enforcement personnel, emergency responders, relief agencies and workers.

e.  Affirm that the just peacemaking principles of the PC(USA), as recognized by the 210th General Assembly (1998), are equally pertinent for addressing terrorism. These include

  1. the promotion and preferential use of nonviolent means for conflict resolution and change;
  2. the importance of human rights, religious liberty, and democratic principles as foundational to peace;
  3. the necessity for sustainable economic development in the achievement of just societies and the protection of the environment;
  4. the abolition of nuclear weapons, limitations on the development of new weapons, restrictions on the sale and transfer of instruments of destruction;
  5. the strengthening of international cooperation through the United Nations, including its peacemaking and peacekeeping roles;
  6. the promotion of racial and gender justice in the achievement of social harmony and prosperity;
  7. the use of unilateral [peacemaking] initiatives to reduce risks of conflict; and
  8. the importance of self-examination and repentance in international relations as steps in the healing of conflict and the promotion of reconciliation ( Minutes , 1998, Part I, pp. 75, 457).

f.  Affirm the contents of "Respectful Presence: An Understanding of Interfaith Prayer and Celebration from a Reformed Christian Perspective," approved by the 209th General Assembly (1997) ( Minutes , 1997, Part I, pp. 434Ø40).

g.  Encourage all levels of the church to establish supportive connections with American Muslim groups to enable "support systems" where the U.S. government is engaging in discriminatory actions against Arab Americans and other Muslims in our midst.

h.  Encourage all levels of the church to support civil rights organizations engaged in monitoring the impact of the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 on citizens and noncitizens alike, and to publicize abuses.

i.  Encourage all levels of the church to advocate for the passage of the amendments of the USA PATRIOT Act that would limit wiretap authority, limit "sneak and peek" warrants, limit business records warrants, limit use of administrative subpoenas with libraries, impose additional sunset clauses on several provisions, and modify the definition of "domestic terrorism."

j.  Affirm the right of all individuals detained by the United States government to judicial review and counsel, on a case-by-case basis.

2.  That the 216th General Assembly (2004) direct the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly to do the following:

a.  Send this resolution to the president of the United States, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the national security advisor, the homeland security director, the joint chiefs of staff, and each member of the United States Congress.

b.  Send this resolution to the general secretary of the United Nations and to the heads of the delegations of the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

c.  Send this resolution to selected partner churches of the Reformed tradition for review and response.

d.  Send this resolution to selected partner churches in the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches of Christ for review and response.

3.  That the 216th General Assembly (2004) direct the General Assembly Mission Council to do the following:

a.  Direct the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program to prepare a study guide for this resolution and the accompanying background paper; distribute it to the sessions, middle governing bodies and their resource centers, and libraries of the theological seminaries; and place the document as a whole on the Web.

b.  Direct the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, the Presbyterian United Nations Office, and the Presbyterian Washington Office to continue to monitor and report to the church on the most significant developments in the "war on terrorism" and on efforts to amend the USA PATRIOT Act.

c.  Urge the colleges and theological seminaries of the PC(USA) to use this resolution in their study of terrorism and the responses to terrorism.

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