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Mixed messages

With a nation divided on the need for war with Iraq, how do religious leaders address the subject? Or should they at all?

By Mike Conklin, Robert K. Elder, Raoul V. Mowatt and Patrick T. Reardon, Tribune staff reporters
Published February 25, 2003

It's easy enough to preach peace and love in times of international calm. But what to say during prayer services and other religious ceremonies when war seems imminent -- and the nation is divided about its necessity?

That's a question U.S. religious leaders are facing as the Bush administration gears up for a military confrontation with Iraq. How much should preachers say about world tensions when their congregations are likely to be split politically on the course of action the country should take? Are they forced to tiptoe around the subject? Do they preach both sides?

We asked ministers, rabbis, priests and Islamic leaders how they are answering such questions -- and how their fellow believers are responding.

Rev. Hycel B. Taylor

Pilgrim Baptist Church, 3301 S. Indiana Ave.

"Obviously I've spoken against the war in Iraq and apprised the congregation that the Bush administration imposing or forcing the issue of war with Iraq is not consistent with the Gospel we preach in our churches and it's not in the best interest of African-Americans in this country. ... It is our prayer that that will not happen. Our prayers are for Colin Powell, especially.

"Violence begets violence. I'm of the generation that marched with Martin Luther King, and we do not believe it is going to make matters any better. Previous to this, I spent time in Israel before the breakout there and talking to leaders of the Jewish faith and Muslim faith, and there again I've articulated my position on that, that somewhere along the line we need to transcend our boundaries and fights over land and laws. Similarly in Iraq, there have to be spiritual solutions to political problems. I think black people, particularly, will not benefit from this war. So many of our young people will be those who are going to war if we indeed go to war. We've paid enough price in this country without doing that."

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation, 540 W. Melrose St.

"I try not to take a political stand. I know you can argue this isn't a political issue, it's a moral issue. In the synagogue, I think most people are in favor of Bush's policies, even if they don't think he's doing a good job of explaining them -- but not everyone is. So I don't advocate a pro-war or anti-war position.

"One of the things that we do that is very important is we say a prayer for the soldiers of the United States and Israel. ... We also say a prayer for the government of the United States, and that's a way of not being political but to really emphasize these are important times and important decisions and we pray that God helps them make the right decisions.

"I don't know if my sermons have touched on Iraq. What they will touch on, now that we're getting closer, is the ethics of war, more general ideas on ethics of war and how to fight an ethical war. But they will not be advocating any position.

"In my congregation, I feel it's counterproductive to advocate any position on the war. My personal position is that I'm a very strong supporter of Bush's policies on the war . . . on Iraq. I'm a big supporter. And I'm very grateful for Bush's support of Israel and I think for the United States, regime change is critical and if it means going to war, that's what it means. ...

"The community is diverse. Everybody needs to feel that their positions are valued and that the rabbi really respects their position. In issues that are this sensitive, the priority I give is that we're all a community even though we disagree. And I want to create a conducive atmosphere for that, so taking on these kinds of important but potentially divisive issues would go against that."

Rev. Bill Burke

Ascension Catholic Church in Oak Park

"I think people can't stand it when they go to church and what's going on in the news is never talked about.

"I've spoken about the war or the possibility of war four times already. It's an important issue that people are thinking about that has obvious ramifications with the teachings of Jesus. You gotta talk about it. For the most part, people were very glad to have it talked about. Very glad.

"I try not to lecture people and take advantage of the fact that I have the microphone, because I know there are differing viewpoints, including among Catholics.

"What I try to do is really entreat people to not make a decision about the war without taking Christ into account. Not only taking him into account and what he taught -- but to put him first. Not last, not whether you're a Republican, Democrat, Independent or whatever -- but start with him. And then I go into things he said and did that I thought would apply.

"People bring up `turn the other cheek,' and they do it in almost a cavalier fashion, as if this had nothing to do with real life. He dealt his whole life with real life. He was constantly trying to find ways around accepted brutalities.

"It doesn't make any sense for us not to do this. We're supposed to be Christians, you can't put him last or in parentheses. Mr. Bush is a Christian and so are any number of people involved in this.

"Generally I got good marks for being fair. Some folks felt that I loaded [my sermons] against the war, and my response was, `I will agree that's what happens when you go through Christ's teachings.' I think he's basically anti-war. Therefore, to make a case for war, you have to show how the evil is so overwhelming you have to do something."

Rev. Joseph Shank

Winnetka Congregational Church

"There have been a couple of things that I've talked about from the pulpit. One issue is the pre-emptive strike and that within the Christian tradition, not simply the pacifist tradition, this philosophy is hard to justify from a church perspective. Now is the time for those of faith to really step out with our faith when it comes to dealing with these monumental issues. I wasn't saying that expecting everyone to agree.

"The other theme that I've preached is trying to remain faithful in the face of great anxiety. For instance, I started my last sermon with: `I come before you without duct tape and plastic sheeting. Because we can't ensure our health, but via our faith, we can maintain a community of well-being. That community, in turn, encourages us and informs us as we live our lives as Christians in the greater world and hopefully reduce anxiety and anger.' That's something Christians can bring to the table.

"The appropriateness [of preaching about the subject of a war with Iraq] gets questioned, but we are a wonderful congregation with diverse views and opinions. Some people come to worship to make sense out of what is overwhelming us in the world and some people come to see it as a respite or sanctuary.

"So that makes it very hard when you have 300-400 people out there to meet the needs of everyone. That's a concern just as people always wonder about the appropriateness of any issues that are political that also have religious ramifications."

Imam Mohammed Amin Kholwadia

Director of Darul Qasim, an institute for higher learning for Arabic and Islamic studies in Lombard

"I try and stay away from speaking about politics in general inside of the mosque -- especially during prayer time. Outside of prayer time, it's not a problem if I have classes or lectures. I would not shy away from discussing the issue.

"During prayer time, we will mention it, definitely. And if we don't mention it as part of the sermon, it will only be to develop the spirit of the Muslim community towards prayer -- and that they should turn to God for advice and comfort, strength and patience, words to that effect. It will not be something where we make any sort of radical judgment for or against any government in the prayer. It'll just be for the well-being of every human being.

"[Outside of prayer] we approach it from the universal perspective, how does [war] affect mankind in general and what are the Islamic universal values? And how those values filter, one way or the other, which particular is right or wrong morally -- maybe not politically or legally, but morally?

"We do have discussions and people do ask questions, very specific questions as to if this pending war is just or unjust. About two months ago, people were asking . . . is this the way to go? We would say, if there is no evidence which leads to someone being a threat or a potential threat, it is not valid enough to justify a pre-emptive strike.

"There are issues about civil rights that touch us very, very deeply in the community and people's rights have been violated. People have been detained. Those are some of the apprehensions people in the audience have."

Rev. Alan Gates

Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Lake Forest (Gates is a former intelligence analyst for the state department and defense department)

"Our Episcopal leadership is calling on the president to exhaust all diplomatic and multilateral initiatives as the alternative to waging war. Our local sentiment echoes this call. The forbearance of the powerful in using their power is a strong Christian statement, and one we hope our nation will make."

Gates faxed a copy of a sermon he recently delivered to his congregation:

"We are all aware that our nation may well be engaged in one of the defining moments of our history. The decisions which are being weighed these days are vexing. The only people I know who see the issues as being altogether simple are those who, for the sake of that simplicity, are willing to ignore one set of questions or the other.

"For myself, my years of working for our government in military intelligence have made me unable to embrace what seems to me the naivete of a purely pacifist position. On the other hand, those same years with intelligence make me keenly aware of our government's ability to seek out and consider only that data which supports the position it has already staked out. A critically discerning ear directed towards the pronouncements of the churches is not un-Christian; a critically discerning ear directed towards the pronouncements of our government officials is not unpatriotic.

"The Gospel demands that we work for justice and peace. But in the past 18 months we have found ourselves in that anguished bewilderment which has faced our friends on both sides of the Middle Eastern conflict for the past 50 years -- what to do when justice and peace seem to be at odds with one another. For peace without genuine security is an illusion, and is not peace. But security bought at the price of oppression is also illusory, and is not just."

Rev. John Buchanan

Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, 126 E. Chestnut St.

"I think that every Sunday since the crisis has emerged and heated up we have continued to pray for peace, and in addition prayed for the president and his advisers and for the secretary of state and the important decisions they're in the process of making. We have prayed every Sunday for the men and women in our armed services and their families, and we have prayed for the Iraqi people and their leaders and we have prayed for the United Nations.

"Sermonically, the Sundays I've been in the pulpit, I've in fact alluded to the possibility of war, hopefully in a balanced way. I have indicated the religious leaders of our denomination, and others have with one voice been asking the administration to slow down and give inspections a chance. The United Nations and the Security Council are where I hope and we hope our nation invests a little more energy. I've alluded to the fact that war, even when it's necessary, is always something of a failure and Christians need to remember that and Christians need to support and go to war only with enormous regret and only after exhausting every other possibility.

"[Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld] is a member of this congregation and does stay somewhat in touch with us, but I don't presume to offer my opinions. He does know what I've said from the pulpit and we've corresponded several times throughout this crisis.

"Any Christian minister starts off from the perspective of the Bible and the biblical witness in times of international conflict. And I think you speak out of your own theological tradition and then you speak from your heart. You speak what your conscience leads you to say. Sometimes that's not easy. Sometimes that's not what people want to hear. But in this case, I've not had a lot of objections to what I've said. I take that to mean that people are troubled and concerned and not in a hurry. I take that to mean people want us to continue to work through the United Nations and our allies."

Imam Senad Agic

Islamic Cultural Center of Greater Chicago in Northbrook.

"I'm trying not to elaborate on political issues. That's not helpful. We cannot solve the problem in mosques. Muslims should organize themselves in other ways, on a more professional level and address political issues and try to solve them -- not in mosques, not from the pulpits. Because there are many unqualified preachers, lay leaders, who don't know much about religion and then they compensate that with talk about politics. It's something that offends in our mosque. Many mosques, they don't have their own appointed, trained imams. I'm a trained one, but I avoid speaking about politics. I know enough about religion to speak."

Rev. Greg Dell

Broadway United Methodist Church, 3344 N. Broadway

"In my preaching, I've spent some time a number of Sundays talking about what I saw as the really demonic dynamics around the plans for the war in Iraq. This past Sunday, for instance, the scripture was related to a figure in the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament, whose arrogance almost got in the way of his healing. In the sermon, I talked about the sin of arrogance and the unwillingness of people to understand their commonality and the importance of listening to one another as they approach these kind of critical issues, and to be so arrogant as though one nation could operate as though it had the correct answer for all the other nations of the world regardless of what they said was an example of the kind of arrogance that we as Christians needed to take a hard look to see if we could in fact support that kind of arrogance. However we saw the evil that's expressed in the government of Iraq, the question is how one responds to that evil. It should be done with a bit more humility than the United States has done heretofore.

"For me as a pastor, the Gospel, our Christian faith, is a faith that relates to all aspects of our life. It relates to us individually as we explore our own personhood, it relates to our relationships with other persons, it relates to our society and it relates to our world. God didn't say I'm interested only in individuals and I don't care about the rest. When Jesus continually talked about God's realm, that was a realm that intersected with human realms as well. That meant human government. So if there's an evil, it can't be reduced to simply an individual evil. We're called to wrestle with all the problems of the world from the standpoint of our faith. And there are few that are more critical to us right now than the issues around the escalating war with Iraq.

"It's one thing for a preacher or individuals in the congregation or even committees in the congregation to say we've done some study and we feel it necessary to share our opinion or at least our perspective. It's my job as the preacher to make sure that's informed by scripture and is not merely a political opinion. Finally, only the congregation collectively can speak its own mind. No preacher, no pastor should ever speak for the congregation, nor should any small group. At least that's the way we see it. So as the congregation listens to me, as it listens to others who have different points of view on matters of faith as well as matters of the war, it will come to its own decision.

"Whenever any destructive power is at work, we are called as a people of faith to respond to it. That's our foundation. Then the question is, what's the best way to do that? Is the best way to do that to take a unilateral action against a nation that we armed in the first place? Is it perhaps to go ahead and, based on an interpretation of the just war idea, to say the human suffering that will be caused by an attack has to be assumed because of the greater evil that lies out there? Those are the questions that have to be explored."

Rabbi Michael Siegel

Anshe Emet Synagogue, 3760 N. Pine Grove Ave.

"The Jewish law offers an approach to meaningful issues that I believe we would do well to concern ourselves with. I make a strong effort to teach from the pulpit so that people can explore issues in a fuller, and perhaps more thoughtful, way.

"My own opinion is, Saddam Hussein has shown himself to be someone who we might put into a category of almost abnormal or radical evil, whether it's using non-conventional weapons against his own people or showing his willingness to go to war in his own area of the world against Kuwait. The environment in which we live, that is to say, the environment of global terrorism, is one in which if Saddam Hussein is not actively working with Osama bin Laden, one can see they have similar goals in mind. My own sense is the Bush administration is correct in its assessment of Saddam Hussein and the danger he represents, not only in the Middle East but in the world community. We have an obligation to stand up in the face of evil and use whatever means we can to stop it before it spreads. . . .

"I think that war is never a good option. War is sometimes the only option. The fact of the matter is no one who is a believer wants to be a proponent of war. I don't feel that's something I want to support myself. What we're talking about here is a war that is being foisted upon us by what is truly an evil regime. And probably the reason why those in the faith community are not being more outspoken is there's a terrible irony in being someone who believes in God, believes in human rights, who believes in the dignity of humankind being an advocate of a war. But my own study of at least the Jewish approach toward war and my own understanding of the present situation leads me to that conclusion, sadly and I think to a certain extent, tragically."

Rev. Edward Curtis

Grace Episcopal Church, 637 S. Dearborn St.

"Like many preachers, I find irony that the Martin Luther King holiday came in the middle of this ramp-up. I just quoted King on that Sunday a couple weeks ago. . . . I tried to channel as much of him as I could, and people got it. If he were alive today, he wouldn't be holding President Bush's hand in the White House, because he'd be out there really fomenting against this because of what this does to the poor, what it does to us as human beings, and just the injustices of it. Several people in our parish, probably six or seven of us went to that interfaith prayer vigil for peace.

"It's a spirituality of what war is really about. Organized violence in the service of politics just needs to be exposed for what it is. I think certainly the Christian message is one of peace and justice, not one of violence. As I understand Christianity, giving one's life is a noble thing and Christians say it was a salvific thing when Jesus did it. But taking someone's life is a whole other issue . . . .

"I think the issue is not about evil out there somewhere in the world and we have to go out and kill it. I think that spiritual development is that we realize that evil exists in our own hearts and we help create the very Frankensteins we want to go and destroy. And you can make a case in history of how Iraq was created by the Western colonial powers and how we helped arm this man during a previous war, and now we seek to destroy him. It's got sort of a cosmic, mythological feel to it when you put it in those terms. . . .

"I know other churches and other Episcopalians can add up the facts in different ways and read the history different ways. I don't begrudge them that. I just try to be, as I told my congregation, a small lone voice in the midst of all this cacophony about `Let's go get them.'"

Rev. Bob Baker

Vineyard Church of DuPage, 25W560 Geneva Rd., Suite 13, Carol Stream

"We do mention what's going on but as far as coming to a viewpoint on it, probably not too much. We're a little too -- how would you say it -- I don't know if `quietist' is the right way to put it. Maybe apolitical, that's a better name to give it.

"I know the stakes are high, but I feel we are responsible to be aware and to be praying and caring for the people. Praying for the leaders is definitely something the Bible talks about. But when it comes to being able to decide complex issues like this . . . we . . . don't really feel it's our job to come down on either side, unless you get to the point like it did in the day of Hitler and others when it becomes obvious that you need to give some kind of viewpoint on someone who can cause that much harm to people. I guess that's my rationale to the degree I've grappled with it.

"Last week, I said I could bring up the subject of Iraq and I'll bet you there'd be quite a few people on either side in this room. And there would be, because I know we have some pretty conservative Republicans and there are others -- I don't know what they are politically but one couple was at the protest in Washington.

"My hope is that those who are making these decisions are weighing both sides, and we're just praying that the Lord would give them wisdom.

Rabbi Doug Zelden

Ezras Israel, in West Rogers Park

"I address it on a regular basis . . . generally on Saturday mornings. [I approach] it as: How does it affect us as individuals? How does it affect us as a Jewish community in America? Does it become more of a threat to us?

"I address things head-on. I often speak in story form and bring allegorical stories to what I'm speaking about. I tell it like it is, in my opinion. I also believe I say things people want to hear. If I think what I'm saying is controversial, I'll be happy to say it. But I not going to say something that I think is controversial to the point of others all disagreeing with me. As a rabbi, I'm a spiritual leader. I'm not going to cause conflict within my community speaking in a way that will offend others. I approach it head-on, more factual rather than opinion.

"Everyone is a little bit scared, a little bit cautious. But I think people really don't want war. War brings on thoughts of further hate and conflict. I think people generally do not want war. The recent anti-war demonstrations across the country, in the world and in England have really spoken loudly for people's opinions. People don't want war right now and patience is really what they are looking for. They are scared that war will bring more conflict, more hate and there's enough of that in the world right now.

"I'm kind of neutral on war. I think if war is necessary to bring peace in the big picture or to save lives -- which is what I think President Bush is saying -- those are valid concerns. But I think there's not enough evidence of that now.

Rev. C. Frank Phillips

St. John Cantius Roman Catholic Church, 825 N. Carpenter St.

"Every Sunday at mass, we remind the people to pray the rosary every day for peace. We put in our [weekly bulletin] to pray for peace in the world, and that our civil leaders are guided by the Holy Spirit."

St. John Cantius is an unusual parish that specializes in such traditional pre-Vatican II Catholic practices as the Latin mass and the Divine Office. Its members come from throughout the city and suburbs, Phillips said, and represent a wide range in terms of education and economic status.

In his references to the potential for war in his Sunday homilies, Phillips follows the lead of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Francis George. "War should be avoided at all cost," he said.

Indeed, a war would have a direct impact on many parish members. "Many people here are involved in the military themselves, and have been called to serve already," Phillips said. He has a list of nearly 100 names of parishioners, friends and family members now serving in uniform.

But, after the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001, there is the sense among Phillips' parishioners, as among all Americans, that any military conflict could hit home in the form of a terrorist attack. "The Hancock Center is 10 blocks away from us," he said. "If anybody hit the Hancock Center, we would be in the direct line of falling debris."

And that prompts a fear, Phillips said, that runs counter to the message of the Gospels. "As individuals who are followers of Christ, we always have to be people of hope," he said.

Yet, also, he said, there is the need to be prepared for the worst. "If we really believe our Lord is with us, if he calls us tonight, we should be ready. If he calls us tomorrow, we should be ready."

Morris Taylor

Member of the administrative body of Evanston's Bahai community.

Although we're very concerned about what's going on in the world and our hearts go out to the people who are directly impacted by this, we are encouraged not to worry because we have a vision of what the world is going to be like when we go through a lot of these difficulties, which frankly we think are inevitable. Unfortunately, history shows us mankind needs this kind of thing to learn. It's an unfortunate kind of situation. But specifically as far as the war is concerned, the Bahai faith has no position on particular crises and conflicts. We hope and we pray that all conflicts like this will be resolved quickly and as peacefully as possible, and again, we're confident that in spite of these kinds of things that erupt in the world from time to time, we believe that world peace is inevitable.

Jeff Hammond, pastor, Horizon Christian Community Church, Round Lake Beach.

I could preach about war in general or the relationship of the church to the state in general and talk about "principles", but I would be wrong to tell people that God is for the war or that God is against the war. I am not here to tell people what to think, but I'm here to equip people with tools necessary to do their own living. I help people understand the Bible or I help organize believers into a community ... but I don't determine the choices of individuals nor do I determine how they think or feel. All I can do is say, "Here's the message of the Bible" and then let them apply it in their own way. . . .

My opinion is that a war against Saddam should be executed regardless of popular opinion for the sake of 1) disrupting a known terrorist-harboring and supporting state and 2) to free the people of Iraq from a murderous oppressor so they can govern themselves. . . .

I guess the main thought I have is that we pastors and Christians in general must still be humble when approaching hot topics remembering that our opinions are not necessarily God's plans. And we always have to be gracious even with our enemies.

©Copyright 2003, Chicago Tribune (IL, USA)

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