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Essay

A Response to General Assembly: Can We Tame our Tongues?

By July 5, 2012 7 Comments
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The Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly is well under way. Like many other Presbyterians, I’ve been watching from afar—reading daily denominational news posts and skimming the interpretations posted by various special interest groups. The assembly began, at least for me, on a hopeful note: the elected moderator (Neal Presa) and vice-moderator (Tara Spuhler McCabe) are long-time friends who disagree on the definition of marriage. They represented unity-in-diversity in their leadership. I wondered if they could be a sign to the rest of us, a testimony of the love of God that binds us together and leads us forth into mission in spite of (and perhaps even on account of) significant difference and disagreement?

The vice-moderator has now resigned. The fact that she officiated a civil marriage ceremony and signed the marriage license for two women has elicited a backlash of judgments, accusations, and divisive comments. She referred to painful, divisive twitter feeds and blogs about her, about her friendship with the vice-moderator, and its impact on the focused work of the commissioners at GA. In response, she has stepped down in hopes that the assembly would proceed with greater ease, peace, and trust.

I haven’t read the blogs or tweets that she refers to, but I can only imagine the vitriol. I worry that this might elicit a counter-response of similar verbal attacks and increasing polarization. I’ve been to enough General Assemblies and read enough blogs and responses to PCUSA news to observe that both those who identify as evangelicals and those who identity as progressives are equally guilty of condemning one another.

As Presbyterians continue to process this event, I hope that at least some of us can remember these words from the book of James:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. (James 3:1-12)

7 Comments

  • Ben Masters says:

    I've been thinking about you during this. I thought that you might be at GA, since one blogger reported a commissioner asking the assembly after Rev. Spuhler McCabe resigned: "What just happened here? Are there any feelings of compassion or the need for some of us shocked by this decision to have some voice, some discussion…" (http://www.bagnuolo.blogspot.com/2012/07/elusive-courage-ga220-presses.html). I wouldn't have been surprised if that had turned out to be you!

  • Theresa Latini says:

    To be honest, Ben, it's been nice to watch from afar!

  • Barb day says:

    Well said Theresa I should print this and read it every day. Thank you for such wonderful words.

  • Theresa, in spirit, I'm with you all the way. But in this case the untold story reveals the saddest irony. As a church journalist that's also attended almost every GA for 20 years, and as one who has pleaded again and again for civility in our dealings one another, I searched out every "poisonous" comment cited by Neal and Tara. Almost none. The one example Tara gave me came from a woman who attends a church in a different denomination (one hostile toward PC(USA)). The resulting article can be found here. I invite you and your readers to cut and paste the link … and read it. When I say it's a sad irony, it's because the accusations she leveled against her critics actually set the tone for hostility that persisted throughout this GA — so many of the commissioners and advisory delegates simply were saying no to everything: to time management of their debates, to committee reports, to changes of all kinds, etc. It was sad.

    What’s fair: How far should criticism go? Presa and McCabe hold town hall
    http://www.pres-outlook.com/pcusa-reports/ga-2012/16996-whats-fair-how-far-should-criticism-go-presa-and-mccabe-hold-town-hall-.html

  • Theresa Latini says:

    Jack, thanks for posting the link to your article. I read through it last night and have been feeling increasingly disappointing and hoping for a more wise use of words in our public discourse. This line in the article you wrote is key: "Exactly what criticism McCabe received, however, and whether it crossed the lines of civility and fair discourse has been difficult to pin down."

    Language like "pernicous poisonous activity" (used by the Tara Spuhler McCabe, the vice-moderator who resigned) and "bullying" (used by others) only escalates tension and conflict, whether those are accurate interpretations or not. This is why the capacity to make clear observations about what we've experienced (rather than sweeping evaluations) is a critical communication skill and something emphasized in nonviolent communication.

    The same can be said for at one of the online blogs written by the president of Presbyterians for Renewal (Mateen Elass). For instance, he claimed that the outgoing moderator (Cynthia Bolbach) "is not well-schooled in Reformed theology" and the outgoing vice-moderator seemed like a "Hollywood actor." I'm grateful that he apologized for judging the motives of the vice-moderator in a follow-up blog. I'm disappointed that he didn't acknowledge in writing the potential impact of his words on the vice-moderator and others. I'm also disappointed that he didn't acknowledge how his interpretations of others' choices are deeply rooted in his own values for integrity and that these folks may in fact be acting in ways that have integrity for them. (He questioned the integrity of McCabe and another PCUSA leader in his blog.)

    Taking responsibility for ourselves, our own reactivity, and our interpretations would take us a long way toward greater mutual understanding, peace, and even reconciliation, by God's grace of course. To this end, I regret that I had not been a bit more circumspect when I wrote that I could imagine the vitriol in the blogs and tweets. It would have been more helpful for connection and understanding to wonder about the potential unmet needs being experienced by those involved directly and indirectly in this event.

  • Jeff Winter says:

    For a long time I have not judged the "success" of a GA by wins and losses. Usually, the issues I am in favor of….lose. This year I had a successful GA because I had a number of gracious conversations with people who don't agree with my position on same-sex marriage. We were able to listen to one another without raising our voices. We were civil and respectful in our dialogue with one another. To me, that was a win.

  • Theresa Latini says:

    Thanks for sharing, Jeff. Glad to hear this!

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