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As the War Begins, Interfaith Forum Explores 'Resistance and Reconciliation'

March 25, 2003, NEW YORK CITY -- In a free society, all are responsible. That was among observations of four panelists - all religious leaders opposed to the war on Iraq - at a March 25 forum, "From Winning the War to Winning the Peace: An Interfaith Dialogue on Resistance and Reconciliation."

Interfaith PanelMore than 100 people filled the "Great Choir" of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City for the forum, held in the early days of the war. "This forum offers us a chance to reflect and share ‘best traditions’ from our respective faiths," said the Rev. Chloe Breyer, Director of the Cathedral Forums on Religion and Public Life, moderator.

Panelists offered reflections that spanned disciplines of the mystical, historical, political, theological, psychological and more. Following are some highlights, based on panelists’ comments and then response to questions from the audience.

Sheikh Tosun Bayrak of the Jerrahi Order of America, a Muslim: Sheikh Bayrak called on a colleague to recite from the Koran, a recitation that echoed through the vast Cathedral nave. Then he translated and explored the beauty of the human being - body, mind, soul and will. "The soul … manifests itself through speech, which can be as sweet as honey and destructive as the atom bomb. When the tongue babbles and says things like ‘they underestimated me’ it becomes a poisonous laxative," he said to his audience’s delight.

Now that war has started, he said, "body, mind, soul and will need to be in balance." We have to heal violence, lying and cheating in ourselves; he said, otherwise, millions can shout against injustice but nothing will change. "Religious teachers and followers must be an example to humanity," Sheikh Bayrak said.

The Rt. Rev. Mark Sisk, Bishop of The Episcopal Diocese of New York, a Christian: "Because this is a democratic republic," Bishop Sisk said, "we can’t say of our government, ‘that’s them,’ because in a democratic society it’s me." Noting that Episcopalians are far from unanimous in their views of the war, he continued, "The structure of our society depends on speaking out and it is required if our culture and government are meant to be all they are meant to be."

Now that the U.S. is at war, he said, "This is a time of great testing for us. There is an enormous drive to resolve it, to take a side, to understand the issues. We need to be in the deepest contact with the heart of our own traditions so we know who we are. Be careful to listen with respect even to people we believe hold positions diametrically opposed to our own. We may understand that we speak from profoundly religious grounds but to be able to speak, we must listen to others." He urged people to hold fast to the "vision of all people being held in God’s hand."

Three PanelistsRabbi Arthur Waskow of The Shalom Center, a Jew: "In a free society," he said, "some are guilty, all are responsible." Affirming that Jewish tradition requires debate on war and peace, he observed, "Communities with a sense of power can turn power into an addiction and a willingness to destroy for what they see as holy."

Now that there’s war, he said, "I think there is something new in the situation we face. Bush, Exxon, Mobil are all right - the planet is a single community. Bush thinks the right thing to do is to govern everyone else. We don’t think that’s safe or right."

The planetary community needs to deal with terrorism, genocide, global scorching and other problems together, Rabbi Waskow said. And there is strength in alliance: "In Rome, labor unions and churches joined forces and two to three million people marched" against the war. He continued. "Out of our traditions we need to grieve both ‘our’ and ‘the others’’ dead. Mourn them all and not just our own." Finally, religions need to encourage members of the armed forces to explore their own questions and doubts about war.

Dr. Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, a Christian: "When religious communities speak even though others are telling them to be silent, it makes a difference," said Dr. Edgar, a United Methodist. "Slavery ended, child labor was outlawed, civil rights were won because the churches got involved….I believe in the separation of church from state but not from the public square. We have to speak truth to power from our faith traditions."

As the war proceeds, the person most on his mind, Dr. Edgar says, is a two-year-old girl he met in Baghdad on New Year’s Eve. She was wearing a Santa-red suit, imprinted with the words, "Let it snow," he said, and kept approaching him with a piece of cookie. "Tonight, she is shivering somewhere in Baghdad as bombs drop," he reflected.

Dr. Edgar offered 10 impromptu "be-attitudes for peacemaking." More long term, he said, "We have a responsibility to engage in the political process and raise up good elected officials who will make a difference. This is at least a 10-12 year process. Campaign finance reform is part of this. In the meantime, religious leaders have to take on a prophetic role. Some of us will lose our job for speaking out too strongly. As good patriotic Americans we have to help our country not do the wrong thing."

Questions from AudienceAudience member Dr. William F. Vendley, Secretary General of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, was called to the podium to offer a few comments. He spoke of his visit to Iraq just before the onset of the war, and observed, "It’s always more human and textured. What’s being portrayed is stylized."

"The problem is very deep," Dr. Vendley continued. "War has legal, moral, and humanitarian dimensions. It has to do with political order and how we organize our public life."

He encouraged his listeners, saying, "I’ve been in many parts of the world where the churches have made a difference….We have to look at our spiritualities, moral assets and social capabilities - the faith community has the biggest set of social assets that exists. We have to inventory our assets and unleash our capabilities, which are far bigger than we’ve mobilized."

Finally, Dr. Vendley warned against "sacred" violence, which is "violence that we don’t recognize as violence. It looks like legitimate self-defense. It calls the other ‘subhuman.’ It legitimizes governments to feel as victims and strike back."

In the closing exchange, a Roman Catholic priest in the audience asked whether we have lost the depth of the spirit of our traditions. Bishop Sisk affirmed the importance of being "deeply in touch with your tradition without being turned in on yourself."

Agreed Dr. Edgar, "Balance is important." He criticized Christians who are "on ‘automatic pilot’ and don’t do anything to change the world. I’d hate for our society to be run only by mystics."

Sheikh Bayrak was less troubled by that idea. "We touch the mystical," he said, "by touching the mystery of relationship with each other."

Pictured: Edgar, Bayrak, Sisk, Wascow, Breyer (top); Waskow, Bayrak, Edgar (center); audience members engage in dialogue with the panel (bottom).

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