Dressed in black, they stood outside the church door, beneath the American flag waving on a flagpole. In keeping with the mourning metaphor, they said nothing. A single sign explained their presence: "God's way is love, not war."
In the middle of the invasion of Iraq, these members of a Catholic parish in Suffolk County bore silent witness because they believed the war was immoral: It didn't come close to meeting the minimum criteria of the just war theory. Pope John Paul II and other major religious leaders agreed.
But this group had heard nothing from the pulpit of their own parish suggesting that the war was unjust. So they dressed in black, to stimulate thought in ways they felt their priests had not.
That silent theater was symptomatic of a phenomenon detected by a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Though 57 percent of regular churchgoers said they had heard about the war from their pulpits, only 21 percent said their clergy had taken a position on it. Only 10 percent said their religious beliefs were the strongest influence on their views of the war. The greatest influence, 41 percent, was the media. Those numbers are stunning.
Whatever else this war may be, it is certainly a moral issue. The analysis of moral questions and the exhortation of congregations are central duties of local religious leaders. They do it on personal matters, such as human sexuality, but on this global moral issue, they mostly didn't. The Pew poll shows that they had little impact in the pews.
Instead, almost half of the respondents relied more on the rah-rah coverage of such moral guides as CNN or Fox than on religious beliefs. That should make religious leaders blush with shame. Obviously, those who heard something about the war from their pulpits mostly heard something vapid - not something prophetic.
It takes no moral courage for a preacher to mumble a prayer for American troops or for all those affected by the war. The real challenge is to read the conflict through the lens of Scripture, and to speak out prophetically.
If you doubt that a preacher can do that, check out The Peace Pulpit on the Web site of The National Catholic Reporter, at www.natcath.org. It carries the homilies of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, an auxiliary bishop in Detroit. Using the regular Sunday readings, he examines the current situation and speaks truthfully about the war.
Gumbleton's willingness to probe peace and justice issues, using the Scripture of the day, should not come as a surprise. The texts most familiar to me, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, echo repeatedly God's thirst for justice. Anyone who reads Scripture holistically cannot escape that conclusion. And week after week, Gumbleton preaches the just word.
Unfortunately, too many religious leaders avoid preaching on war and peace, fearing that collections will decline or congregants complain. In the one excellent homily on the war that I heard, the priest repeatedly referred to it as unjust. As he spoke, the family behind us murmured unhappily. After Mass, we suspected that the husband expressed his gripe to the priest.
Too many people take offense when preachers venture beyond safe spiritual subjects and into war and peace - as if life and death, justice and injustice are beyond the scope of God's concern. Among Christians, too many preachers focus on only two aspects of the threefold ministry of Jesus as priest, prophet and king. They embrace monarchy and priesthood, but they don't speak truth prophetically to power, as Jesus did.
In times of war especially, religious leaders have a duty to speak out, despite the consequences - like the prophet Jeremiah, who grumbled that God had duped him into this thankless role. "I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it." Jeremiah 20:9.
Ultimately, preachers with justice burning in their hearts, preachers who can't hold it in, may well find that they have exerted a stronger influence on their people than Geraldo Rivera has.
Bob Keeler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.
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