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Turning point for Christian peace witness

Washington, D.C., March 22, 2007--"It seemed to be a pivotal moment for Christian peace witnesses," said the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary, National Council of Churches USA.  Edgar took part in the first gathering in recent memory of Christian peace activists from nearly every state in the Union and dozens of Christian denominations last week for the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq.

"The words, prayers, music and testimony offered at the Washington National Cathedral opened hearts, minds and eyes for those who had been thinking they were alone in their faithful opposition to the Iraq war," Edgar said, reflecting on his participation in the event.  "To see Roman Catholics and Quakers, Lutherans and Reformed Church, Evangelicals and more, all witnessing to the Gospel in their proclamation that this war is unjust and immoral, well, it was breathtaking," he said.

The huge cathedral was packed on a cold, windy and sleeting mid-March (Friday, March 16) night as the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq loomed.  Prayers and readings were interspersed with music and preaching.  When the nearly two hour long service concluded, a planned candlelight march to encircle the White House, some 3.5 miles away, became an extra challenge because of the late winter storm. 

"We were two blocks away from the cathedral and the wind stopped and the sleet let up," recalled Edgar.  "It was like a miracle." 

More than 200 Christian peace witnesses, including Edgar, were arrested in the front of the president's residence.  Most stopped to pray.  When they refused to move authorities took them into custody.  Edgar was in a jail cell until 3:30 the next morning.

'Soul's in danger'

Edgar had been called upon to read from the Gospel of Matthew about the soldiers who stripped Jesus, mocked him, and led him away to be crucified.  He was followed immediately by the Rev. Phil Jones, Church of the Brethren.  He read excerpts of testimony from an Abu Ghraib detainee who had been stripped, humiliated and threatened with electric shock.

The witness that followed, electrified the gathered Christian peace activists.  It came from the Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, the "spiritual home" of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"America needs our moral witness now more than ever," Warnock said.  "Congress...by its action or its lack of action, has proven to be totally morally inept to intervene and too politically compromised to act with real conviction," he said to the packed cathedral crowd. 

He reminded the peace witnesses of the warning Dr. King issued in 1967 that a nation that spends more on bombs and killing than it does on lifting up its own citizens is "approaching spiritual death."

"The question being asked is will America lose the war," he said, but we must reframe the question.  "The danger confronting America is not losing the war.  America may lose its soul," Warnock said to sustained applause.

"Our soul's in danger," Warnock said of our nation.  "When you have the money to bomb and rebuild Baghdad but no money to rebuild New Orleans, soul's in danger," he said, listing lack of health insurance for 40 million Americans, a frozen federal minimum wage, and children born into poverty all followed by the refrain, "soul's in danger."

"We must tap into the best of our respective faith traditions in order to redeem the soul of America," said the Rev. Dr. Warnock.

Words from the front

An Iraq war veteran and peace activist, Logan Laturi, read some reflections of a U.S. soldier, Joshua Casteel:  "I was not afraid of being killed...The terror that filled me...was the possibility of becoming one who kills."

James E. Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist's General Board of Church and Society, read from a diary of a young Iraqi.  "Several students riding a bus to school were assassinated.  No one knows why--it isn't clear...When they left their houses, they were probably only worried about whether they'd pass or fail--their parents sending them off with words of encouragement and prayer.  Now they'll never come home."

Sister Luma Khudher, an Iraqi Roman Catholic Dominican nun, read the words of a woman in Baghdad:  "Their expressions varied--grief, horror, resignation.  It's a very specific look, one you will find only outside the Baghdad morgue.  It's a look that tells you they are walking into the moregue, where the bodies lay in rows, and that they pray they do not find what they are looking for."

Their readings preceded a moving personal witness from Celeste Zappala, a member of the First United Methodist Church, Germantown, Pa.  Zappala's son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, was killed in action in Baghdad April 26, 2004. 

"I'm here...to witness to the true cost of this war," said Zappala, and to the "betrayal and madness" our young men and women have to endure.  "We are here in the National Cathedral to lay before God on the nation's altar the sorrow that this war has caused all of us," she said. 

A prophetic welcome

The service began as the sun was about to set.  More than two dozen speakers, readers and prayer leaders each carried a large lit candle that they placed on a stepped table in the center of the cathedral's crossing.  It grew into what resembled a campfire where stories have been told for millennia.  A choir led the faithful in singing a chant from the ecumenical community of Taize, France, "When the night becomes dark, your love, O Lord, is a fire; your love, O Lord, is a fire."

The Very Rev. Sam Lloyd, dean of the National Cathedral, which is also the Episcopal Cathedral for the Diocese of Washington, welcomed those who braved the storm and cancelled flights to be there.  He told the story of four people from Spokane, Wash., who had an accident driving through Ohio but were uninjured.  They hitchhiked the rest of the way to be among the peace witnesses.

"This cathedral spends a lot of its life and ministry serving the nation in some pretty formal ways, inviting members of government for big services at times of crisis and funerals and celebrations," said Lloyd.  "But this cathedral has always had a special role as a place that welcomes prophets when it's time for them to speak.  And I want to welcome all of you 3,000 prophets here tonight," he said.

The National Cathedral has made available on its website [http://www.cathedral.org/cathedral/index.shtml] a video of the entire service, a downloadable service leaflet and still photos of the event.

Some of the other religious groups participating were the Alliance of Baptists, Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Disciples of Christ, Mennonite Church USA, Presbyterian Church USA, Pentecostal Charismatic Peace Fellowship, United Church of Christ, Seventh Day Adventist, Episcopal Peace Fellowship, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Christian Peacemaker Team, Sojourners/Call to Renewal, Faith in Public Life, and more.

"This one event, I believe, will be seen as the single galvanizing experience of the Christian peace movement in proclaiming Jesus's nonviolent witness to our government, to our churches and to the world," said Edgar.


NCC News contact:  Dan Webster, 212.870.2252, NCCnews@ncccusa.org .
 


 

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