The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy spent three days last week—Jan. 16-18—refining several hefty reports to the upcoming 221st General Assembly next summer in Detroit.

Though not yet in final form, reports on such issues as peace discernment, violence against women in the military, the use of drones in warfare and for surveillance, tax reform and the city of Detroit as a microcosm for urban ills will soon be ready for review by the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board before heading on to the June 14-21 Assembly.

One topic that is not headed to the Assembly is a report on end-of-life issues. At the urging of ACSWP member Eric Mount of Danville, Ky., the committee agreed to continue to monitor the issue but not to submit anything to the Assembly in 2014. “The staff and monetary constraints of developing a paper by this summer are too great,” Mount said.

Peace discernment

The committee reviewed a revised, shortened version of a paper entitled “Risking Peace in a Broken and Fearful World,” written by the Rev. Mark Davidson, pastor of the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, N.C., and chair of ACSWP’s Peace Discernment Team.

The report has grown out of a churchwide peace discernment process launched by the 2010 General Assembly on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the seminal document “Peacemaking: the Believers’ Calling.” The Assembly expressed its hope that the discernment process would “seek clarity on God’s call to the church concerning violence and to develop policy directions on terrorism and war.”

About 70 congregations and presbyteries have examined the document, using an ACSWP-developed study guide.

Built around “affirmations” (Davidson’s original draft had five, the abbreviated version reduced them to three) the report seeks clarity on the relationships between pacifism and “just war” theory, between violence and conflict, and related issues. When they are in final form, presbyteries will be asked to vote and provide feedback on the affirmations as a way of determining where Presbyterians stand on the issues.

Tax reform

A lengthy report on “just taxation” is built around a theology of covenant written by ACSWP member the Rev. Ray Roberts, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Westfield, N.J. “We are called by Christ to be a new community, the very Body of Christ,” Roberts writes. “For the believer, this experience of communion transforms our behavior.”

If justice and equality are the hallmarks of Christ’s covenant, then the current system of U.S. and global taxation represents “a broken covenant,” the report argues.

It outlines five “core principles” for just taxation:

  • Progressivity in taxation
  • Promotion of sustainability over generations
  • Transparency of the taxation system “to see that all are being treated fairly.”
  • Solidarity, with broad-based participation in the taxation system to demonstrate that “we’re all in this together.”
  • Simplification and effectiveness, with the closing of loopholes and “accreted” gimmicks that have turned taxation into a game “that stops bearing any resemblance to reality.”

Taxation issues, said ACSWP Coordinator the Rev. Christian Iosso, “are fueled by the crisis of inequality and poverty that seem to be getting worse, not better.”


ACSWP’s early work on the issue  of drones focused on their use in warfare, but as the use of drones for domestic surveillance has complicated the issue in the public eye and in ACSWP’s deliberations.

The current version of the paper calls for public debate and congressional approval “as they extend the powers of military, commercial and civilian enterprises to conduct warfare and surveillance on domestic and international target populations…”

The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship is pushing a resolution asking the Assembly to brand drone killings “summary executions” and to demand they be stopped. Not quite as strong, the ACSWP resolution calls for greater judicial and congressional review of the use of drones in warfare.

But several committee members desire a stronger statement.

ACSWP Co-chair Raafat Zaki of Maumee, Ohio, insisted that drone warfare “exacerbates conflicts. Does this really keep us safer? That premise is false from the beginning.” Added Gloria Albrecht of Detroit: “Violence in response to violence just creates more violence.” 

Most domestic surveillance, on the other hand, is conducted by unarmed drones. “I think we should separate military drones from unarmed surveillance drones,” argued Mary Jorgenson of Kansas City, a Presbyterian Mission Agency Board liaison to ACSWP. “Lots of communities—though certainly not all,” she said, “want drone patrol surveillance of their communities to augment police and security patrols.”

Kathryn Poethig, a college professor from Watsonville, Calif., countered, “Can’t we just say no to remote surveillance? “It’s unconscionable that we’re doing this, and illegal.”

Sexual violence in the military

Growing evidence that violence against women in the military is adding urgency to the joint resolution on the issue by ACSWP and the PC(USA)’s Advocacy Committee on Women’s Concerns.

The resolution expresses and support and commendation for the efforts of Presbyterian and other military chaplains to provide pastoral care and advocacy for military personnel and their families who have been subjected to abuse.

It also commends legislative and military leaders who have been revising and developing policies to eliminate sexual violence in the military.

And it calls on the denomination’s Office of Public Witness and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations  to encourage Presbyterians to support  policy and procedural reforms that will “end the problem of sexual abuse in the U.S. military.”

“The Gospel from Detroit”

With the 221st General Assembly set to convene June 14 of this year in Detroit, the committee is focusing on that troubled city not as a special case but as a bellweather for the plight of urban cores and urban ministry in the U.S.

“Detroit has its own unique history, but the forces that shaped it are forces that have shaped every part of our country,” the resolution states. It commends efforts of Presbyterians around the country “that embody an urban Christian vision” and urges the PC(USA) to strengthen its commitment “to bear the gospel of Jesus Christ to the cities of this nation.”

The resolution calls for more partnerships between Presbyterian entities and faith-based and community-based organizations; for greater resources, technical assistance and training for those engaged in urban ministry; and for coordination of national, regional and local PC(USA) resources and programs related to urban ministry.

In other business, the ACSWP:

  • Continued to refine reports to the General Assembly on Western Sahara and ministerial compensation.
  • Heard a report on Unbound, ACSWP’s online social justice journal, edited by Ginna Bairby, a recent graduate of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va.
  • Elected as co-moderators—to take office at the conclusion of the Detroit Assembly—Christine Darden of Hampton, Va., and Roberts.