In other congregations, adult Sunday school classes have been cancelled to give people time to attend forums focused on understanding Iraq and the Middle East — to let them discuss, in the context of their faith, the implications of war. And some pastors have preached not directly about war — should we or shouldn’t we? — but about the unease that’s washed over the country like fog creeping down over a mountain ridge.
Frank Yates, of St. Andrew church, Albuquerque, N.M., changed his sermon for Feb. 2, the day after the space shuttle Columbia exploded. Shuttle debris, like chunks of pain, rained down over the part of East Texas where he grew up, Yates told his congregation. “It was as though I was back in the piney forest and heard the loud sound and saw the descending debris and gathered with them in prayer around the wreckage. Yesterday I was an East Texan again and it couldn’t help but hurt.”
Yates spoke of God weeping, “as only a parent can, that dark day outside the walls of Jerusalem.” And in our sadness, he said, “we turn to God who has seen it all before — the explosionsand the screams and the fire and the falling metal. A God who has witnessed every disaster the world has ever known.”
Brent Eelman, pastor of Abingdon church in suburban Philadelphia, has helped organize a seven-week series of forums on the Middle East for his church, and has preached about “the horrendous anxiety that surrounds everything that’s going on.”
The forum speakers include an expert on Islamic culture from Temple University; a retired Naval Reserve officer; and George Hunsinger of Princeton Seminary, speaking on the doctrine of “just war”. There also will be discussions about the possible fallout of a war in Iraq on neighboring countries, and the difficulties of rebuilding Iraq after a war ends.
“We try to present the different points of view,” and to encourage people to listen to one another, even if they disagree, Eelman said. And he preached from the Sermon on the Mount, reminding people that Jesus said, “Don’t be anxious about tomorrow.”
Eelman said he both encourages his congregation to stay informed, yet not to be afraid to turn off the news when it all becomes too overwhelming. “At times, it’s OK to turn off the TV and stop reading the newspaper and start reading the Good News,” he said. “To me it’s tied to the resurrection, which is the foundation of Christian hope.”
On an issue of such potential international significance, some Presbyterians feel compelled to speak out, even if their stance may anger others. On Feb. 8, Yellowstone presbytery narrowly, by a vote of 23-21, passed an anti-war resolution, stating in part that “we believe our faith dictates that we voice strong opposition to a pre-emptive strike by the United States against Iraq. While many of us hold that a state is justified in using force in certain situations, we believe that a military strike by the United States against Iraq at this time is not morally justified.”
It’s difficult to find the right line, pastors say. Some Presbyterians support without equivocation President Bush. They think the case is strong that Saddam Hussein is a dictator who has brutalized his people and whose unwillingness to give up his country’s weapons of mass destruction presents a danger to the rest of the world. Others hear what the president says, but aren’t sure that he’s right about the need to attack now.
“Sitting in the same pews are people who are sending their sons and daughters off to the military and people who have sons and daughters who are considering becoming conscientious objectors, people who are in the military themselves and people who were draft dodgers in the ’60s,” said Sara Lisherness, coordinator of the Office of Peacemaking for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
At Fairfax church, in Northern Virginia just outside Washington, D.C., some members are policy-makers in the State Department or career military officers who work at the Pentagon. “There is a wide range of opinion” about whether the U.S. should go to war with Iraq, said pastor Henry G. Brinton. “I think church members are very concerned about the possibility of war, and nobody wants to rush into war. Our military people especially have a sense of the high cost of conflict.”
Both those who think it’s time for the United States to attack Saddam Hussein and those who do not are considering the issue from a faith perspective, Brinton said. Some question “whether Christians can and should be involved in making war” in any instance. And others turn to the “just war” doctrine, long a part of the Christian tradition for weighing the morality of military action, with some contending that a pre-emptive strike by the U.S. cannot be part of a “just war,” Brinton said, and others arguing that military action is necessary in Iraq “to liberate an oppressed people.”
In sermons, “I feel it most important to raise issues for people’s consideration instead of taking a strong political stand,” Brinton said. While he has urged restraint on the part of the U.S. government, “to take a very strident position anti-war would be to alienate those who feel as Christians they are being called to wage war, somewhat reluctantly, but to wage war to liberate innocent people . . . It’s a stand that deserves respect, if not agreement.”
The Official Policy— Restraint
Officially, the denomination’s leaders — the stated clerk, Clifton Kirkpatrick, and Fahed Abu-Akel, moderator of the 214th General Assembly — have called for restraint and for the Bush administration to pursue diplomatic solutions rather than resorting to war. Under the “just war” principles, “war has to be the last and final result,” Lisherness said.
As laid out by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his recent speech to the United Nations, “the evidence is pretty dramatic” that Iraq has not cooperated fully with U.N. weapons inspectors, Lisherness said. But some still wonder, “Is war the best course to fight the kind of terrorism we are afraid of?”
What the Peacemaking office encourages is for congregations to pray hard and to keep the dialogue open, despite what may be strong differences of opinion.
“People who really think about and study this issue — and I think a lot of Presbyterians do — if they come to a conclusion, they’ve come to it prayerfully and thoughtfully,” Lisherness said. “They’re not just out there waving the flag blindly one way or the other.”
And “most Presbyterians are not on the polarities,” she said. “Most of them are somewhere in the middle, feeling a lot of ambiguity, a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety about the way things are going.”
At Shepherd of the Hills church, Austin, Texas, Tom O’Meara, a graduate of the Air Force Academy who served 13 years in the Air Force, doesn’t feel much ambiguity at all. “I have no doubt about this war,” said O’Meara, now a lawyer. “It’s wrong as hell.”
Because of his concern about what’s happening, O’Meara pushed to organize a Lenten study series at his church to get people thinking and talking about what’s happening in the Middle East. O’Meara will lead one of the sessions himself, on military ethics. He has served in the military, studied military ethics and was subject to being called up in the Gulf War. “It’s as if my whole life prepared me for this,” O’Meara said.
But, as strong as his own views are about going to war with Iraq, O’Meara also wants people from his congregation, regardless of their views, to unite in praying for peace. “A war can’t be just unless peace is its objective,” he said. If the U.S. goes to war, “you’ve got to be doing it in order to achieve peace. We can all pray for peace, whether we agree with President Bush or not.”
Some feel that war will destabilize Iraq and the Middle East, not bring peace; but others think “only a forceful disarmament will achieve peace,” Brinton said in Washington. But ultimately, even for those who advocate going to war, “the goal is peace in the Middle East . . . . The goal for all Christian people is peace and stability and ultimately justice in that part of the world.”
At Grosse Ile church, located on an island between Detroit and Ontario, all the adult classes have been merged for four Sunday mornings for conversation on this subject — and the first week out, attendance doubled. Those who came included “people who were adamantly opposed to the war and some who are adamantly in support of it,” said pastor Karl Travis. “And most of the people are confused and in-between.”
In a sermon he preached in early February, Travis admitted to his own conflicted thoughts. Describing himself as “a pacifist wannabe,” he acknowledged that “in this fallen, broken world, some wars may become necessary,” and asked the congregation to struggle with him regarding some essential questions involving Iraq and what lies ahead. What information do you rely on to make your decisions here? Travis asked. “How is your faith, how is your knowledge of the Bible, influencing your thinking?”
In many congregations, pastors — while not taking an overtly political stand — are challenging their congregations to think hard about these issues. In Texas, O’Meara argues that Christians are not being unpatriotic when they think through, independently, their own positions on war with Iraq. Some say it’s unpatriotic to oppose the president’s position, “they say we have to support our troops in harm’s way,” O’Meara said. “Those of us who were in harm’s way (in previous wars) didn’t feel they were supporting us by keeping us in harm’s way. There’s another way of supporting the troops.”
And Travis told his church that “I have never wanted to be part of a church which produces cookie-cutter Christians. We will not — we should not — agree all the time. I crave for ours to be the kind of congregation in which faithful people can gently and intelligently discuss important matters, and discern together God’s will. It is in this process, in fact, that I believe God makes us truly Christian. We do not shape the church. The church shapes us. Or at least it should.”
Travis invited the congregation to join him in the four weeks of discussion about “the tensions between Christian pacifism and necessary violence.” In leading those discussions, he promised that “I will aim to keep Christ in the center of my thinking. We must not easily dismiss Jesus’ words to turn the other cheek, to pray for my enemies. This means that I will try first to think religiously, as a Christian, and not strategically, politically or geopolitically.”
Travis also said “I will refuse to avert my eyes, to change the television channel, to put newspapers in the recycle bin with the rubber bands still on them. Instead, I will read and study and listen and think in order to plant the seeds for God’s deeper understandings.”
So, in congregation after congregation, living under the shadow of war, they study and debate. They pray. And, their pastors hope, they turn in their anxiety to God.
Brinton says those in Washington live daily with the knowledge that their city could be a potential target for terrorist attacks. “Again and again I remind our people where our security is,” he said. “It’s in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ.”
His message, Brinton said, is the same for those upset about international politics and the possibility of war as it is for those experiencing stress and conflict through grief or loss or in other parts of life. He tries to “put them in touch with their true strength and security, which is God . . . . In life and in death, we belong to God.”