Fortunately, the city of Harrisburg, PA, has not had to deal with significant amounts of hate speech or religiously-motivated violence. But the Rev. Russell Sullivan knows that at any time that situation can change. That’s why the pastor at Pine Street Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania’s capital city has taken a direct and aggressive approach to the issue. A member of the Presbytery of Carlisle, he is also the overture advocate for “On America’s Interfaith Context and the Church’s Challenge,” which will be discussed and debated at the 223rd General Assembly in St. Louis in mid-June.
The focus of the overture is to “condemn religiously inspired and motivated violence and hate speech; in particular, those actions based upon anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim behavior and language.” The goal of the overture is to have the General Assembly direct presbyteries to create interfaith relations committees or task forces to increase conversations centered around this issue. The overture continues by asking “the General Assembly to encourage congregations to engage in interfaith conversations and partnerships, and we ask the General Assembly to direct the Stated Clerk to encourage congregations to utilize the resources of the Office of Interfaith Relations to promote education about other religions and interfaith dialogue.”
“Many of us in the presbytery and beyond have been very concerned about the climate in America that has tolerated hate speech and actions motivated by hate,” Russell said, explaining the thought process behind the overture. “We don’t think this has any place, either within the heritage that comes from America or our own Christian heritage. We need to remind ourselves what we believe, what is of value, and take a stand against this kind of talk that eventually motivates action that’s improper.”
Russell admitted that this overture isn’t really anything new in terms of what is spelled out in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) constitution but tries to remind people of what the denomination stands for.
“It doesn’t stake out a lot of new ground, but it gathers together positions and statements that we’ve made before,” he said. “It says, ‘This is our heritage, and we need to speak against this.’ It calls us to do certain things that we want to encourage all congregations and governing bodies to do.
“Part of the mission of the church is to engage in interfaith dialog and to encourage interfaith relation in order to build understanding so that we can diminish this kind of talk in our country and our society.”
Russell knows firsthand the importance of interfaith conversations surrounding this issue. Harrisburg has some of these programs already in place and he can see the difference this type of action can make.
“Our wonderful city of Harrisburg has deep interfaith relations and dialog already going on,” he said. “There’s a solid community of people across religious and ecumenical divisions that come together frequently to listen to one another and to act together on common ground.
“That really is part of the mission of the church. We deeply believe the story of the incarnation, that God assumes all of human flesh – he became one with us and all of our diversity and our uniqueness and wants to call us all to a greater unity.”
Beaver-Butler Presbytery is among the three bodies that have given concurrences to the overture, which has also been recommended for approval by both the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns.
“I hope the overture will be a slam dunk in terms of being accepted as a position of the church,” Russell said.
The idea for an overture grew with Russell and the session at Pine Street Church, at which point it was developed and eventually handed off to the Presbytery of Carlisle where a task group was created to continue to grow the plan.
“God has been working within our presbytery and in our area to bring us to a greater awareness of the necessity of encouraging interfaith dialog,” Russell said. “I have been on a personal journey in this area for a long time. I have a deep belief that God works through all faiths and all religions. What gives me hope in that and a belief in that is that the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ is the truth of the world, and that truth embraces a lot of people and is found in places we would never expect.
“God’s been at work in the world long before the church was there. We need to recognize his presence in other places and other faiths and within people who think differently than the church does.”