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Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Crisis of faith.

Sometime in the next week or two, when the bombs start to fall, a new crisis will overtake religious people who have actively opposed President Bush's war to topple Saddam Hussein. The moral clarity that energizes the antiwar movement — especially in Unitarian Universalist churches and elsewhere on the "religious left" — will collapse. Liberal churches and their leaders will be hard pressed to respond to the anguish, bitterness, impotence, numbness, and grief that many of their people will feel. They will especially be hard pressed to stay active in the antiwar movement once the nation really is at war.

Right now, people are focused on persuading American and international leaders to oppose Bush. It's the democratic thing to do. We can win without war, they say. Believing that the ultimate decision has not yet been made — or believing, at least, that it can always be reversed — millions of people are trying to preempt a war. Caught between a desperate sense of urgency and the exhilaration of being part of a growing popular movement, people are focused, understandably, on a short-term goal. It is one they are unlikely to achieve. Liberal ministers need to start preparing for a more grim scenario — just in case.

President Bush is not going to back down. And once the war begins, the movement that has tried to stop him is going to find itself deeply divided. Many activists are promoting widespread civil disobedience once war starts. They hope to bring the war to a halt in the first few days by disrupting our own society and government. Religious liberals need to think long and hard about joining or encouraging such behavior: It can't work. It's self-indulgent. It is not a step toward realistic long-term political change. Instead, it's a revolutionary gesture, an expression of lost faith in any version of our current system. But many who oppose war will be tempted to act out of growing desperation. They may find it almost impossible to confront the fact that once the bombs start to fall, they will have failed. They will need help from wise companions, for the temptation to despair will be very strong.

There is a spiritual as well as political truth to be wrestled with here. Our failure to achieve one goal does not mean that all bets are off: Opposing the launch of a preemptive war does not automatically translate into open defiance of the law once a war begins. For many antiwar activists, their goal has been to convince elected officials — especially members of Congress — to use their Constitutional prerogatives to block an unjustified war. Many people have been seeking a more legitimate approach to disarming Iraq than Bush's doctrine of "preventive war." Religious opposition to war has been rooted, for most people, in "just war theory" — in the notion that nations must be subject to legal and moral constraints on the world stage just as their people are on the domestic stage.

Unlike the people of Iraq, Americans can elect a different government in November 2004. We are not dependent on revolution to change our course. We can still insist that our government do more to insure the long-term development of civil society in Afghanistan. We can still insist that our government provide rapid and extensive relief and reconstruction in Iraq. We can still demand more equitable policies at home and greater cooperation abroad. More importantly, we can continue to relate these short-term needs to our larger vision of "a world with peace, liberty and justice for all." Seeking the best among the sorry options available to us, we must not lose sight of the fact that there is no "immaculate conception of virtue." Building a better world is possible, but waiting for the perfect world is folly. We have work to do, we will need allies to do it, and despair and anger cannot sustain us on the way.

Hold fast to what is good.

It is a spiritual imperative to acknowledge when we have failed. There simply are moments when the next step is not yet visible. At such moments, it is wise to pause. This is the liturgical point of confession: It is liberating to acknowledge that "we have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done." (This statement will always be true.) When the war begins, religious communities must take up their sacramental role in addition to their prophetic role. I will pray when the war starts, but I will not join a protest march. Finding the next political step will require clarity that I do not expect to find in the immediate aftermath of war.

But I do think we can anticipate what the next step might be, after the shock passes. Simply stopping a war should never have become the religious liberal objective. Larger goals, like promoting freedom, human rights, and democratic government here and abroad, should set our course. These goals required much more commitment and much more public conversation than most Americans were willing to make back in the halcyon days before 9/11. President Bush has not asked Americans to sacrifice anything for his astonishing war plans — but then again, the Democrats have hardly proposed an alternative vision. Meanwhile, the antiwar movement is largely organized around "Don't." Its goal, out of necessity, has been to oppose the president's agenda. But we need a national conversation about what kind of role America will take in the world — the kind of conversation that takes shape in national elections, not just in conference rooms or opinion journals. And since religious liberals do not constitute a significant voting bloc in any part of the country, religious liberals can only contribute to this conversation by talking to their neighbors rather than to themselves. They will need help from religious leaders who can participate effectively in civic dialogue and interfaith work.

But most immediately, religious liberal leaders need to prepare for the deep spiritual challenges their people will face in the next few weeks and months. Many will have family members, coworkers, and neighbors serving in the military. They will need support. Many will experience escalating anxiety — especially in the major cities, where the fear of terrorism is already high — and many will turn this anxiety against people close to them. Fierce ideological arguments are likely to erupt in some liberal churches, with anger directed not only at the government but at less-than-fully-committed activists. Others will turn inward, seeking some refuge from the war. For still others, central tenets of their faith will seem threatened — like the viability of the United Nations, or the moral stature of their nation.

In a sermon I heard at the Episcopal monastery in Cambridge last Tuesday, the day before the beginning of Lent, I finally learned how "fasting" — the spiritual discipline — is related to the more pervasive sense of the word "fast." Our contemporary emphasis on hurry — faster! faster! — derives not from the speedy connotations of "fast," but rather from its deliberative connotations. One is steadfast in pursuit of a goal; to fasten something is to secure it. And fasting is not renunciation but discipline: A fast is time set apart for spiritual concentration, for focus, which may be helped by setting aside other distractions.

And this opened a new insight for me. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: "Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil." Many of us see a great deal of evil in the world, and we are tempted to think only of how we might abstain from it. ("Not in my name" is one of the more popular antiwar platitudes.) And yet it is not enough to abstain from every evil. Especially in times like these, people turn to their churches and religious communities in order to be reminded of what is good and worthy of praise and celebration, not simply to hear prophetic denunciations of the world's evil. In order to abstain from evil — in order to put aside its distractions and temptations — we must "hold fast to what is good." This is the sacramental purpose of religion.

When the bombs fall, we will help our people more by pausing to worship than by rushing to the barricades — acknowledging our despair and sense of failure through confession and prayer, reacquainting each other with sources of renewal through fellowship and praise and thanksgiving, holding fast to what is good. There will be much work to do, and we will need great strength to do it.

In October 2001 — when we were all still feeling raw and afraid — I was amazed that King's Chapel was celebrating Genesis 1 one Sunday with exuberant Haydn anthems, children's stories, and a sermon about the refrain in that chapter: "And God saw that it was good." It was a worship service defiantly and triumphantly celebrating life's good purpose.

Sometime not long after the war begins — not in the first solemn days, perhaps, but in the first month — a service celebrating the "experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life" will be just what people need most if they are to "confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love." May you find that renewal and that openness in the troubling days ahead.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 11 March 2003 at 3:27 AM

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