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US Churches are Preparing for Civil Disobedience Against War
Published on Friday, January 24, 2003 by the Guardian/UK
The Spirit of Martin Luther King
US Churches are Preparing for Civil Disobedience Against War
by Giles Fraser

Designated a place of prayer "for national purposes", Washington National Cathedral is as close as church and state get in the US. It was here, three days after 9/11, that an emotional president rose into the pulpit and declared war. As the Battle Hymn of the Republic rang out, Bush initiated his crusade to "rid the world of evil".

This week, to celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday, bishops and church leaders from across the theological spectrum met to claim the cathedral back for the Christian priorities of peace and non-violence. The symbolism was unmistakable. For it was from this same pulpit, a few days before his assassination, that Dr King delivered his last sermon: "It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and non-violence. It is either non-violence or non-existence. This is why I felt the need of raising my voice against that war and working wherever I can to arouse the conscience of our nation."

Dr King's opposition to the war in Vietnam won him few friends. Former allies said that a perceived lack of patriotism would damage the whole civil rights movement. The churches were also slow to follow him in opposing the war. But it's not like that this time and, with the exception of the Southern Baptists, all the major denominations are on board. After a weekend that saw the largest anti-war demonstration in Washington since Vietnam, a packed cathedral of more than 3,500 spilled out on to Massachusetts Avenue. Stopping for prayers outside Dick Cheney's residence, then outside the British Embassy, the congregation marched towards the White House, where the Bishop of Washington led a candlelit vigil for peace. Police looked on bemused.

What is remarkable about the coalition of churches opposing war with Iraq is how broad their political sympathies are. It is not just the left that is making the noise. Take Peter Gomes, Baptist minister, Plummer professor of morals at Harvard, and die-hard Republican. He gave the blessing at Reagan's second inauguration and preached at George Bush Senior's inauguration service. Here is Gomes in a recent sermon: "I demand a better excuse than revenge or oil for the prosecution of a war that is likely to do more harm than good, that will destabilize not only the region but also the world for years to come, and that will confirm ... our country's reputation as an irrational and undisciplined bully."

The senior Anglican bishop in the US, Frank Griswold, put it stronger still: "We are loathed, and I think the world has every right to loathe us, because they see us as greedy, self-interested and ... unconcerned about poverty, disease and suffering."

In the 16th Street Foundry United Methodist Church, the preacher invoked Dr King's memory to draw another unflattering contrast with Bush. For, whereas Dr King fought discrimination, Bush has attacked affirmative action, in particular the racially weighted admissions policy of the University of Michigan. Here, Bush finds himself on the other side of the argument to Colin Powell, who is "a strong believer in affirmative action". Dr King's memory is challenging Bush in two areas of increasing vulnerability - race and war. No wonder one headline spoke of Bush "straining at credibility" as he appeared in a church to proclaim Dr King "a great American".

Bush, himself a Methodist, cannot remain deaf to a faith community so united in its opposition to war. Until 9/11, the faith-based initiative was the signature issue of his presidency. As Bush has insisted, the government can only sign the checks; it cannot change hearts or lives. Hence his commitment to fund faith-based social welfare schemes. But this is as far as his faith takes him, for his theology is one of self-help; his God the God who helped him kick the booze.

Speakers at the cathedral urged him to expand his theological horizons. "We appeal to President Bush, to a fellow brother in Christ, to win this battle without war, to transform our swords into ploughshares and, yes, to persevere in disarming the world of weapons of mass destruction, including our own - but without the killing of more innocents." Jim Wallis of the Washington-based Sojourners movement concluded: "Mr President, what we need from you is a faith-based initiative."

So far, this has been all very friendly. But if Bush were to choose war there is talk of churches planning for civil disobedience. Again, Dr King is invoked as justification and precedent. As he put it in April 1967: "If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight."

The Rev Dr Giles Fraser is the vicar of Putney and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford



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