What has the Church had to say about the war in Iraq?

By Peter Carey

I was recently at a gathering of church leaders and the question arose, “what has the church had to say about the ongoing Iraq War?” While I realize that there may be churches that have taken on the issue of the war, for the most part, I believe we (and I include myself) have done a poor job to take on the issue of war in any kind of a helpful or constructive way. (If your church has engaged the question that is awesome; let me know what you’re doing!)

Of course, there are a variety of perspectives about war that emerge from the Christian tradition, and preachers and church leaders would do well to recognize that pacifists, veterans, active duty officers, as well as victims of war sit in our pews. But still, couldn’t we have the courage to examine the tradition of just war and the various forms of pacifism and do this in a way that could raise the tenor of discussion? Why haven’t our churches taken up the subject of the war in a more direct way? Are we fearful that any criticism of foreign policy will lead us to an I.R.S. audit (such as happened at All Saints Episcopal Church, Pasadena)? Or, are we worried that if we try to be prophetic someone might post it on Youtube and we would be labeled as “anti-American”?

Fear may be at the root of our reluctance, but there may also be deeper reasons for the church’s reluctance to take on war and violence. I believe that Western Christianity would receive a mixed verdict in terms of how it has addressed global issues of violence. All too often, the Church has become enmeshed in the power structures of society and has not offered alternatives to the dominant world-view.

In studying these questions in seminary last year, my thesis advisor, Rev. Dr. Michael Battle, helped me to see that one area on which to focus attention in order to address global issues of violence is on the virtues within Christian spirituality. Fear often leads to violence. This fear may be loss of possessions, of our way of life, or of our sense of security. If those of us in the church focused on the virtues of the monastic life such as poverty, chastity, obedience, work, study and worship, then a more grounded, nonviolent way of life may result. The bumper sticker, “Live Simply So that Others May Simply Live” is a secular outgrowth of these same virtues.

What if we worked to understand that one’s possessions, one’s family and friends, one’s nation and one’s very self are all gifts from God? If we truly see that this is all gift, that we deserve none of it, would we still be so willing to act violently to cling to it?

As one of my heroes, the preacher and activist William Sloane Coffin said, “People say, ‘I just want what I deserve; what is coming to me!’ but they don’t! We’re all in deep trouble if we were to get what we truly deserve.” Is it our fear of loss, ultimately our fear of death that leads us to choose the wrong path and exclude and dehumanize others rather than embrace and love them?

Ideally, our corporate worship is a corrective to an overly individualized spirituality. Our corporate worship ideally brings us together across those divides of class, of race, of politics, of theology. In Christ we are persons who are tied up with one another as parts of a body, and not as mere individuals. We need our neighbors and our neighbors need us. In thinking we can reach God on our own, without any need for either corporate fellowship, or love for others, we are no longer worshiping the God who calls us to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” We become islands unto ourselves, and our own dehumanization and violence runs amok. You may remember those lines of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkle who sang of the dehumanizing consequences of a individualized world view:

I am a rock, I am an island.

I’ve built walls, A fortress deep and mighty, That none may penetrate.

I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.

A recapturing of the early Western Christian spirituality is needed in order to encourage people to look beyond themselves, to see that who they are is bound up with others.

I began by asking “Why haven’t our churches taken up the subject of the war in a more direct way?” What’s stopping us from even engaging in discourse? Perhaps we are afraid of what might happen to our institution if we took on such a controversial issue. Perhaps people would leave the church. On the other hand, maybe people would see that the church is actually engaging with some of the key ethical and political questions of our time. Perhaps people would begin to see the church actually living out the gospel and come knocking in droves. Who knows?

From our biblical and theological tradition, the church has a unique understanding of humanity as being deeply relational. In addition, we have a rich biblical and theological tradition to draw upon when it comes to issues of violence and war. Of course, the church is not blameless or without fault when it comes to violence and war. However, from the prophets to Jesus, and from St. Augustine to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Church has had something to say and proclaim about violence and war. What if we were more willing to draw upon this tradition? Cultivating a robust corporate spirituality might give us the courage to lift up helpful and hopeful voices within the church on these important issues of violence and war. Isn’t it time to make our voices heard?

The Rev. Peter M. Carey is the school chaplain at St. Catherine’s School for girls in Richmond, Virginia and is also on the clergy staff at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. He blogs at Santos Woodcarving Popsicles.

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