The war in Iraq is stirring the consciences of this country’s religious leaders, who are using their positions to persuade members to react and the Bush administration to change its policies.
This month, for example, more than 2,000 representatives of the 1.5 million Reform Jews in North America voted almost unanimously at a Houston convention for the administration to provide a clear exit strategy for the war in Iraq, with troop withdrawal to begin after the Dec. 15 elections.
“The sentiment was clear and overwhelming,” said Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President of the Union, this country’s largest grassroots Jewish body. “American Jews, and all Americans, are profoundly critical of this war and they want this administration to tell us how and when it will bring our troops home.”
In another nearly unanimous and unusual move, 95 bishops of the United Methodist Church, from every region of the United States, as well as other countries, recently apologized for being too quiet, for too long. Among them was Bishop Violet L. Fisher of Western New York, who said: “As bishops we are saying it’s time to let our voices be heard. I support this statement, I join it and I call on others to speak out. I continue to focus on the scriptural passage to do justice, to have mercy and to walk humbly with God.”
“A Call to Repentance and Peace with Justice” states: “As elected and consecrated bishops of the church, we repent of our complicity in what we believe to be the unjust and immoral invasion and occupation of Iraq. In the face of the United States administration’s rush toward military action based on misleading information, too many of us were silent.”
But now they are speaking – to other Methodists, to the nation, even to the president, who is a member of the church.
“I feel it’s a very unjust war and I’m very concerned as to the president’s motives for engaging the country in this war,” said Fisher. “I look at the number of young persons who have lost their lives and what this war has done to everybody. It is very, very painful and I am appaled that this president continues to hold us hostage and is not willing to listen to what the public is saying.”
Agreeing with her is Bishop Joe A. Wilson of Georgetown, Texas, who helped draft the statement as a way to give bishops “who were boiling with unrest an avenue of expressing their conscience.” “It’s an intentional declaration of the individual bishops desiring to offer their own feelings in their failure, and some complicity in being silent.”
Such initiatives join voices of other religious leaders, some of whom spoke out before the war.
One of the earliest was Pope John Paul II, along with top Vatican officials, who termed the war immoral, risky and a crime against peace, becoming a rallying force for peace activists and politicians.
The United States bishops were equally vocal. For example, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote to President Bush in September of 2002, stating: “Given the precedents and risks involved, we find it difficult to justify extending the war on terrorism to Iraq, absent clear and adequate evidence of Iraqi involvement in the attacks of Sept. 11th or of an imminent attack of a grave nature.”
That was followed up by this the following spring: “We have been particularly concerned about the precedents that could be set and the possible consequences of a major war of this type in perhaps the most volatile region of the world.”
Around the same time, U.S. Christian leaders met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair to convey their widespread opposition to war with Iraq. The delegation included Bishop John Chane, Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C.; the Rev. Dan Weiss, Immediate Past General Secretary, American Baptist Churches USA; and the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk, Presbyterian Church USA.
As the war progresses, religious communities continue to bring attention to the reality of the war in Iraq, some in creative ways.
Members of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship of Berkeley, for one, held a meditation vigil in March in conjunction with Eyes Wide Open, an exhibit that included 1,500 pairs of combat boots symbolizing each soldier who died, along with thousands of civilian shoes.
Wilson said he can’t predict what effect such actions, including the apology by the United Methodists, have on presidential decision making. “It will be part of the collective voice of the nation, as it represents a church that happens to be the church in which President Bush has a membership,” said Wilson. “If we believe in the church where we practice our faith, we should take notice of the opinions of its leaders.”
Asked why they are speaking out now, Wilson said: “As we begin to experience the deaths of so many young men and women and thousands of Iraqis, which is just as heartbreaking, and see that we’re making no progress, I think it’s natural that this kind of statement come,” he said. “In the confession, there is a directness that has a lot to do with our turmoil. It tells them that we are sorry that we didn’t respond.”
While saying that “we value the sacrifices of the men and women who serve in the military,” the bishops warn that true security lies “not in weapons of war, but in enabling the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized to flourish as beloved daughters and sons of God.”