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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

A Modest Proposal
September 8, 2011

Last Spring in this space I told of a poster mounted on Stanley Hauerwas’s office door that reads, “A modest proposal for peace: Let the Christians of the world resolve not to kill each other.” The ensuing summer has sadly been marked by other sentiments, perhaps most notably when Norwegian Andres Breivik  gunned down 69 people at a youth camp on July 22, all in the name of “Christian” values.

While few Christians would resort to such murderous violence to express their convictions, we must ask ourselves how we are doing with Jesus’ standard when he says that those who harbor hatred for others are no better than murderers. According to the Westminster Catechism, the commandment against murder requires us to think and speak in a way that builds up our sisters and brothers rather than tearing them down. One of the most impressive features of the Fellowship gathering in Minneapolis last month was how consistently the event’s leaders spoke affirmatively of PCUSA leaders, even as they were exploring possibilities of new church alignments. It reminded me of a saying that has long stuck with me, “You don’t need to tear someone else down in order to build yourself up.”

These thoughts come to mind especially this week as we mark the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and United Flight 93. First instincts led our national leaders rightly to remind us that just because the attackers were Arab Muslims gave us no license categorically to disrespect – let alone hate – Arabs and Muslims. But the intervening years have seen much backsliding, as we have permitted fear of foreigners (whether by nationality, ethnicity, or religion) to lead us into all manner of systemic measures to protect ourselves from people different from us.

One expression of this trend has been the recent establishment of stringent new immigration laws by a number of states. At our last presbytery meeting, Pittsburgh Presbytery asked me to draft a letter to our state representatives expressing our grave concern over several immigration-related bills pending in the Pennsylvania state legislature. These bills are now on the house floor, and I encourage each of us to contact our state representatives to underscore our commitment to treating the stranger among us with generosity as well as with justice.

I was checking through airport security one day when I saw a hubbub at another security check point. Everyone waiting in line was delayed while a man whose appearance and accent clearly marked him as a foreigner was probed head to toe by zealous officials. I quickly recognized the man as my Pakistani physician. It so happened that we were on the same flight, so we got to talk about his harassment in the security line. He was most gracious, but I was still angered at how our rhetoric of fear made it acceptable to treat suspiciously someone above reproach, just because he looks and sounds different from us.

How do we break away from the swirling currents of suspicion and antipathy that feed on events such as 9-11, or on expressions of value that differ from our own? Here’s my modest proposal: Let those who wish to treat strangers in Jesus’ way cease speaking ill or thinking badly of our nearer brothers and sisters. If we were to speak and live in a way that affirms and builds up our brothers and sisters, perhaps – just perhaps – we might speak and live more honorably and generously with those from other nations and faiths.

For the sake of God’s shalom on earth,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery

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