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An American Empire and a Perverted Gospel
by Daniel J. Webster
[Ed. Note: The following article is drawn from a speech delivered to the Wasatch Coalition for Peace and Justice conference at the Salt Lake City Library on Sept. 27, 2003.]
One person who helped found the Episcopal Peace Fellowship was Paul Jones, the Episcopal Bishop of Utah from 1914 to 1918. Bishop Jones was outspoken against the war in Europe. He was described as a pacifist. He was forced to resign his office. He spent the rest of his ministry working for peace and justice.
I think we should acknowledge some of those who today are speaking up for their convictions:
These are the emerging heroes of our day. They are taking the stand -- and it would seem to be an unpopular stand -- in a nation so bent on unleashing its military power instead of its power of compassion.
"Peace never comes from the barrel of a gun," said retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He should know. He lived through the apartheid government of South Africa. Archbishop Tutu has been an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq.
So have been the leaders of nearly every major Christian church around the world. That includes the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the National Council of Churches.
Terry Waite, a former hostage in the Middle East, spoke in this very room last May. During his Salt Lake City visit he said the church has an important and vital role "to ask the right questions about root causes and to make a voice known. A voice of peace. Not a voice that gives way to everything, not a voice that appeases, but a voice that speaks out clearly and confidently with the message of Christ."
But time and time again church voices who oppose this war have been silenced. They have been told by their church members in the pews that they have no business bringing politics into the pulpit.
But time and time again church voices who oppose this war have been silenced. They have been told by their church members in the pews that they have no business bringing politics into the pulpit. They have been told it is unpatriotic to criticize the commander-in-chief, especially once the battle has been engaged.
"Religion is the most dangerous energy source known to humankind. The moment a person is convinced that God is either ordering or sanctioning a cause or project, anything goes. The history, worldwide, of religion-fueled hate, killing, and oppression is staggering." So writes Eugene Peterson in the introduction to the book of the prophet Amos in his paraphrase translation of the bible entitled, The Message.
Jim Wallis uses this quote to begin his article in the latest issue of Sojourners magazine entitled, "Dangerous Religion...George W. Bush's theology of empire" (Sept.-Oct. 2003). I strongly commend this article to you. Given the theme of this two-day conference I would say that Wallis' article sums it all up for anyone who has ever been or is a person of faith.
The Holy Koran and the Holy Bible are the two books that have become the focal point of the battleground. These were both written hundreds or thousands of years ago, both considered by their respective believers to be the word of God. Excerpts from each of these books have been quoted to justify actions and positions being held or done. Both sides in the "war on terrorism" have claimed God as the banner they carry into battle. The vast majority of those women and men who have dedicated their lives to the study of these sacred texts will tell you this is a perversion of these holy scriptures.
Biblical scholars will tell you this book is about love and faithfulness, about a God of justice who stands up for the oppressed and calls people into right relationship with one another. Islamic scholars will tell you this book is about brotherhood, helping those who are less fortunate, about a God who desires a world of peace and justice. The danger comes when, in either case, you depart from the overall message and start looking for verses here and there to give your position some higher credibility.
What's worse is taking words from sacred texts and applying them to this nation as our president has done. As Wallis points out in Sojourners, "On the first anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, President Bush said at Ellis Island: 'This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind . . . . That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.'
"Those last two sentences," Wallis points out, "are straight out of John's gospel. But in the gospel the light shining in the darkness is the Word of God, and the light is the light of Christ. It's not about America and its values. "Bush seems to make this mistake over and over again," says Wallis, "confusing nation, church, and God. The resulting theology is more American civil religion than Christian faith."
And last April at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, the president told our troops: "This goal of a free and peaceful Iraq unites our coalition. And this goal comes from the deepest convictions of America. The freedom you defend is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world; it is God's gift to humanity." The president has raised American society, its values and our way of life to the level of a gift from God entrusted to this country to share with others even at the point of a gun.
Jim Wallis characterizes it this way: "To confuse the role of God with that of the American nation, as George Bush seems to do, is a serious theological error that some might say borders on idolatry or blasphemy."
So why do so many churchgoers pack the pews when Archbishop Tutu or Terry Waite come to preach but disagree with them so strongly when it comes to the issue of war? . . . George Barna said: "A morally relativistic American culture was shaping Christians more than Christians were shaping the culture."
So why do so many churchgoers pack the pews when Archbishop Tutu or Terry Waite come to preach but disagree with them so strongly when it comes to the issue of war?
George Barna may have the answer. He is a social researcher who has studied the American church for many years. In an August 2002 interview with Christianity Today, Barna said: "A morally relativistic American culture was shaping Christians more than Christians were shaping the culture." His opinion, based on his research, was that many of those in the pews "didn't seem to have any real understanding of the Bible's distinctive message." If Barna is correct then American Christianity was ripe to be reshaped by this president. The disconnect between the churchgoers who have supported this war and their leaders who opposed it becomes more understandable.
So why is the president doing this, you may ask. Why would he be willing to divide Americans and alienate so many in the global community?
Wallis makes the case in his Sojourners article that our president feels he is called by God: "Bush has made numerous references to his belief that he could not be president if he did not believe in a 'divine plan that supersedes all human plans.' As he gained political power, Bush has increasingly seen his presidency as part of that divine plan."
Wallis continues: "Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention, recalls Bush once saying, 'I believe God wants me to be president.' After Sept. 11, Michael Duffy wrote in Time magazine, the president spoke of 'being chosen by the grace of God to lead at that moment.'"
So how do we know to whom we should listen? Is there some way to determine when God is speaking through someone or calling them into leadership? Here is some advice from Jim Wallis writing in his 1996 book, Who Speaks for God? (Delacorte Press, New York City, 1996): "When the voice of God is invoked on behalf of those who have no voice, it is time to listen. But when the name of God is used to benefit the interests of those who are speaking, it is time to be very careful."
If our religious communities, especially our Christian churches, do not find ways to empower the prophets among us, then I believe the prophets will find other ways to get out the message of peace and nonviolence.
Prophetic voices have rarely been welcomed whether they were from Amos, Isaiah, Jesus, Mohammed or Bishop Paul Jones. They have always seemed out of step with mainstream society. They have always called for a change of heart in the people of their time. If our religious communities, especially our Christian churches, do not find ways to empower the prophets among us, then I believe the prophets will find other ways to get out the message of peace and nonviolence.
The choice is not just serious . . . it is critical. One of those prophets who made the ultimate sacrifice was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He said the choice is not between war and non-violence. The choice is between non-violence and non-existence.
Let each and every one of us leave this place resolved to be prophets of peace in our homes, in our communities of faith, in our workplaces. Whether we are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or of no faith, let us not be swayed by an American empire that has climbed on the back of religion to expand a perverted gospel.
Let us stand for peace. Let us work for justice. Let us together build Dr. King's beloved community of all people, all nations. Thank you and may God bless the whole world . . . no exceptions.
The Rev. Daniel J. Webster is an Episcopal priest in Salt Lake City, Utah. A media veteran and peace activist in the church, he writes a regular column for "A Globe of Witnesses." Dan may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org