With a nation divided on the need for war with Iraq, how do religious leaders address the subject? Or should they
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
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."
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
"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
"I think people can't stand it when they go to church and what's going on in the news is never talked about.
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
"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
"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.
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
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)
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."
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
"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."
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
"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.
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.
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
"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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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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