The Nazarene whose resurrection is celebrated Sunday preached a gospel of justice and peace. His sincere followers recognize him as a man of action, who chased the money changers from the temple. But they recall, as well, that he rejected the violence of emperors and their militaries and he abhorred harm done to innocents.
Some years ago, in an effort to promote moral values, Christians of a particular persuasion began wearing wristbands imprinted with "WWJD?" -- the acronym for the question, "What Would Jesus Do?"
After George W. Bush -- who once identified the prophet as his favorite philosopher -- initiated a preemptive attack on Iraq, killing tens of thousands of civilians, critics of the president and his war offered a variation on wristband slogan. They printed bumper stickers that asked: "Who Would Jesus Bomb?"
The absurdity of the notion that the Nazarene would sympathize in any way with the violent invasion and occupation of Iraq was not lost on one of the greatest Christian spokesmen of our time, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin. The longtime chaplain of Yale University and pastor of New York City's Riverside Church, who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the early days of the civil rights movement and came to national prominence as one of the most outspoken moral critics of the war in Vietnam, died last week at the age of 81.
Active to the end, Coffin explained in one of his last interviews that, "There are two major biblical imperatives: pursue justice and seek peace." Honoring those imperatives, he campaigned consistently and loudly – even as his own health failed -- for the quick withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
As a World War II veteran and a passionate patriot who described his arguments with U.S. foreign policies as "a lovers' quarrel," Coffin counseled his fellow citizens that, "What we shouldn't do is to believe President Bush when he says that to honor those who have died, more Americans must die. That's using examples of his failures to promote still greater failures."
The preacher who argued that, "War is a coward's escape from the problems of peace," believed that many of his fellow pastors were too tepid in their condemnation of the Bush administration and its Iraq imbroglio, explaining last fall that, "Local clergy must brave the accusation of meddling in politics, a charge first made no doubt by the Pharaoh against Moses. When war has a bloodstained face none of us have the right to avert our gaze. And it's not the sincerity of the Administration, but its passionate conviction of the war's rightness that needs to be questioned. Self-righteousness is the bane of human relations, of them all -- personal and international. And the search for peace is Biblically mandated. If religious people don't search hard, and only say 'Peace is desirable,' then secular authorities are free to decide 'War is necessary.'"
Coffin complained in the early years of the Bush interregnum that the United States was in a spiritual recession. But before his passing, Coffin witnessed encouraging signs that the recession was coming to a close.
Almost three dozen mainstream Christian denominations signed a February letter that signaled a more aggressive antiwar stance, in which U.S. religious leaders admitted that, "We have failed to raise a prophetic voice loud enough and persistent enough to deter our leaders from this path of preemptive war." That acknowledgement marks the opening of a more aggressive campaign on the party of the churches to raise a prophetic voice that, echoing William Sloane Coffin Jr. and the Nazarene he followed, calls for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. This is the truth that Coffin counseled must be spoken; just as the Pharaoh of ancient times had to be challenges, so must the pharaoh of our contemporary passage.
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times. Nichols is the author of two books: It's the Media, Stupid and Jews for Buchanan.
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