When people of faith think the war in Iraq is wrong, what’s the right thing to do?
Some Presbyterians, grappling with that question, have decided it’s time to take to the streets in public witness. They are planning to come to Washington D.C. on March 16 to participate in Christian Peace Witness for Iraq, http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=action.cpw&item=cpw_main, an event that will involve worship at the National Cathedral and nonviolent civil disobedience outside the White House, possibly including arrests.
Organizers are hoping that thousands of Christians will show up at the event. Partner groups http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=action.cpw&item=cpw_partner_orgs supporting the effort range from Quaker to Catholic to Baptist. The speakers at the worship service are expected to include Jim Wallis of Sojourners; Bernice Powell-Jackson, moderator of the U.S. Conference of the World Council of Churches; and Celeste Zappala of Military Families Speak Out, http://www.mfso.org/, whose son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, was killed in Iraq.
Presbyterians and others who wish to support this effort but cannot attend, can organize or join others at regional meetings planned the weekend of March 16. They can go to this Web site, https://secure.democracyinaction.org/dia/organizations/Sojo/event/distributedEventSearch.jsp?distributed_event_KEY=249, and select ‘meet up’ to find a gathering.
One of the organizers of the event is Rick Ufford-Chase, a former General Assembly moderator and now executive director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, http://www.presbypeacefellowship.org/. In Sept. 2006, Ufford-Chase was arrested protesting the war at the U.S. Senate Hart Office Building, along with four Presbyterian ministers and 66 others, http://www.pcusa.org/pcnews/2006/06489.htm.
“Many Presbyterians were uncomfortable with this war from the beginning, and they’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with it as we’ve gone along,” Ufford-Chase said in an interview. He recognizes that not all who disagree with the war are willing to be arrested — some will come to pray for peace at the National Cathedral, and for them, that will be enough.
Others will march by candlelight down Massachusetts Avenue to the White House. There, protestors will gather for a prayer vigil, with some risking what they’re calling “divine obedience,” or potential arrest.
In a letter posted on the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship Web site, Ufford-Chase acknowledges that many Presbyterians opposed to the war “also have a pastoral concern for the folks in the pews who are serving in the armed forces, and for their family members.”
Some are troubled by protestors who resort to name-calling or violence. But there are those Presbyterians who long to make a public, non-violent statement of opposition to the war, Ufford-Chase wrote.
The March 16 gathering “is a witness to speak to those folks who can no longer remain silent while war is lifted up as a path to an illusory security that can never be achieved,” he added.
“This is a witness for those who believe that there was nothing naÃ¯ve or Pollyanna about the Jesus who insisted that the only way to overcome evil was to love the enemy. This is a witness for those who are convinced that the only appropriate way to honor our troops is to bring them home and to appreciate the unbelievable sacrifice they have made. This is a witness for those who know that there are no easy answers in Iraq, but that every answer begins with making it clear to the people of Iraq that we have no intention of becoming a long-term occupying army in their country.”
Tim Simpson, a Presbyterian minister from Jacksonville, Fla., was one of those arrested with Ufford-Chase last fall. “Even while we were in handcuffs, we started kicking around the idea of what God was calling us to do next,” what the next form of “prophetic witness” would be, Simpson said.
Those arrested started getting calls and e-mails from others who supported the approach of nonviolent protest.
Simpson — the president of Christian Alliance for Progress, a progressive organization involved in public advocacy, http://www.christianalliance.org/site/c.bnKIIQNtEoG/b.592941/k.CB7C/Home.htm — says he thinks many people of faith along the political spectrum, whether Democrat or Republican, are troubled by the war in Iraq.
He described his father, for example, as a conservative Republican — “in every election of his life, he has voted Republican. But my father is absolutely beside himself with concern about this war.”
People are concerned, Simpson said, with the chaos in Iraq; with the role of torture and detainment in the battle against terrorism; with what they consider to be inadequate resources provided to troops returning from service there; with the repeated deployment of National Guard and Reserve units.
“People signed up for the National Guard to get a college education,” he said. “Now they’re getting two and sometimes three tours of duty. …They’re stuck in the middle of civil war. I think that resonates with Middle America.”
Gwin Pratt, pastor of Lake Shore Church in Jacksonville (where Simpson serves as a parish associate), said his involvement in the peace witness comes from his commitment to follow Jesus Christ. “My faith walk calls me to follow a non-violent, enemy-loving Savior,” Pratt said. And he’s convinced that the war in Iraq is “immoral by any criteria that have ever been used in history.”
Pratt thinks many Christians long for a way to speak out from a position of faith against the war. He said: “I see God’s hand in attracting Christians from all over who are hungry, so hungry, to use the name of Jesus to stand for what so many of us see he stood for — which was peace and love in the world.”
Pratt is willing to be arrested again, as he was last September, along with Ufford-Chase. But he recognizes that other faithful Presbyterians won’t take that path, and he welcomes their prayers for peace in Iraq as well.
Pratt said he’s careful to describe the March 16 event as a “witness” and not a protest.
As Christians who follow Jesus, “we are looking at the back of Jesus’ head and the footprints that he leaves,” Pratt said. “We are witnessing to the Savior who calls us to peace. We are not saying anything about any politician,” but that “this particular war is wrong.”
Being arrested was “appropriately scary” and not pleasant, Pratt said.
He doesn’t take it lightly, but he also recalls feeling just before his arrest in the Hart building a “holy ground kind of moment.”
The police were using bullhorns to warn those holding the prayer vigil to disperse. The participants were reading from Scripture. As Pratt read aloud from the book of Isaiah, “there came a volume to my voice that was previously unknown to me,” the preacher said, as he spoke of hammering swords into plowshares, reading from the Bible that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”