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UUA Commission drafts new statement on peacemaking

Congregations have until February 1 to approve new text for General Assembly’s consideration.
By Eric Fershtman

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The Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Social Witness has revised the draft Statement of Conscience on Peacemaking that the 2009 General Assembly sent back for refinement. The earlier draft, which came before the General Assembly for a vote in June 2009, was criticized by pacifists as being too militant and by just war advocates as being too pacifist, according to David May, Commission chair. Instead of being prescriptive, the new document tries to reflect current Unitarian Universalist attitudes toward peace.

The first draft, presented at the 2009 General Assembly, read, “In this Statement of Conscience, we reject war as inconsistent with our theological principles and religious values, with the exceptions of self-defense and the use of force for humanitarian purposes.” The revised version offers a different view, affirming the “right” of individuals and nations to self-defense and humanitarian aid, but goes on to say, “Some of us believe that these can be done without the use of lethal force; others believe lethal force is sometimes necessary.”

The Commission on Social Witness is the elected body that coordinates the General Assembly’s social witness resolution process. Statements of Conscience are documents developed by the Commission and adopted by the General Assembly as part of a four-year “congregational study/action” process on a particular theme. Congregational study/action issues are selected by the General Assembly every other year, and congregations are given resource materials and workshop opportunities to educate themselves on the issue. The Commission then formulates a Statement of Conscience based on its study of that issue, with input from congregations. Once a statement is drafted, it appears online in the Congregational Poll, where 25 percent of certified congregations must approve placing it on the GA’s final agenda before it goes before the General Assembly.

The revised statement on peacemaking appeared on the online congregational poll November 13. Congregations may respond to the poll until February 1.

The force behind the changes is the debate between just war advocates and pacifists that began online on the Congregational Poll and raged through the 2009 General Assembly in Salt Lake City, where many came forward to propose amendments. One group, led by the Rev. Paul W. Sawyer, president of the Unitarian Universalist Peace Fellowship, moved to have the statement referred back to the Commission for another year of study.

“Their treatment of history was very inadequate,” Sawyer said, explaining his reasons for stalling the process. “The major thrust of our movement since consolidation [of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church in America in 1961] has been one of strong opposition to war from a nonviolent perspective.” In the new draft, the commission added elements to the historical practices section that emphasize Unitarian and Universalist peace movements through American history.

The document was also restructured to begin with a section on “Where We Stand,” rather than beginning with historical context. “We decided that it would be good to start out on what the UU position is, instead of building up to it,” May said.

May said the commission wanted to reflect current UU thinking about peacemaking, rather than create a stance that people need to conform to. “We’ve tended over the years to move more towards trying to avoid the use of force,” he said. “So the whole question was, should we be a peace church? Or, should we formalize our past practices of being a just war church? The Statement of Conscience tries to describe where we think UUs are, which is that we’re not at either pole, we’re somewhere in between.”

Mac Goekler, chair of the new Peace Ministry Network, created to uphold the calls to action in the statement, agreed, lauding the balance between the two positions. “We think it’s balanced, we think it’s concise, and we think it briefly and succinctly covers all the various aspects and history of UU peacemaking,” he said. “We applaud the middle course that it takes.”

Although Goekler believed the new statement was better than the first draft, Sawyer said he was still disappointed to find an important concept missing that could have brought the opposing sides to an agreement. “There’s no strong reference to ‘just policing’ by the United Nations,” he said. “This is a bridge concept that could have brought and still could bring all of us together, and it wasn’t adequately explored or detailed.”

To create the statement, the Commission assembled a team of volunteers, called the Peacemaking Core Team, which put together a list of questions for the Commission to consider, such as, “What are the hallmarks of peaceful cultures?” “What is the role of electronic media in cultural violence?” and “Does gun control or gun possession reduce violence?” The core team set up task forces to consider areas of peacemaking at international, cultural, community, and individual levels. When the commission began to draft the statement, May said, they asked for the recommendations from the task forces, looked at literature on peacemaking, and tried to get a sense of what the preferences were among UUs.

May also pointed to the General Assembly’s 1979 General Resolution on peacemaking as a major influence on the strategy of the new statement. “What we saw was that congregations did not seem to remember the statements in [the 1979 resolution], or the calls to action,” he said. “The hope is that the Statement of Conscience will become part of the culture of the UUA, not just a statement that everybody says, ‘Well, that’s nice,’ and puts on the shelf.”

Goekler agrees. “If you don’t do anything and just move the Peacemaking SOC forward, basically you just have a statement,” he said. “We want to have more than just a statement—we want to give peacemaking a life of its own.”

The Peace Ministry Network grew out of the Peacemaking Core Team to become one of the institutions supported in the statement. The network works with other UU organizations, such as the UUA’s Washington Office for Advocacy and the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, and provides a number of resources, such as study guides for small groups, lesson plans geared toward children and teenagers, and links to YouTube videos that promote peace. “We don’t want to do this in a vacuum,” Goekler said. “We want to do this collaboratively. We look at this as a total statement, specifically the calls to action, and what we can do to help UUs do those things.”

Goekler said the referral of the statement back to the commission for another year of study was actually good for the network. “It gave us an extra year,” he said. “We saw it as a benefit to us to have an extra year to work on it.”

If 25 percent of certified congregations vote to put the revised draft on the GA agenda by February 1, delegates will take a final vote at GA in Minneapolis in June 2010. “We don’t want the idea to disappear,” May said. “The delegates cannot refer this draft Statement of Conscience back to the commission again. If they don’t vote it in, it just dies.”

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