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A series of essays towards General Convention in 2003


Life and Witness in a Country at War

Life and Witness in a Country at War

by The Rev. Canon Mark Harris poetmark@worldnet.att.net
Friends:

This preliminary note is about preparing ourselves as a church to life and witness in a country at war.

I believe we as deputies and bishops to General Convention 2003 must begin to discuss what, if anything, we will do or say given two realities related to the United States of America. These realities are: (i) that the United States is in a state of armed, economic and political conflict with a range of persons, organizations and states in what is called a "war on terrorism", and (ii) that the United States government seems determined to end the current regime in Iraq by whatever means necessary, including armed warfare. We must prepare ourselves and our church for a life and witness in a country at war, a condition all ready present. This preparation is necessary no matter the actual character of the future conflict between the United States and Iraq or more generally the future occurrences of terrorist attacks or the actions of other states against the United States, or our responses before or after such attacks.

I am asking your consideration of the following question: What can we as the Episcopal Church do or say to prepare Christians for life and witness in a country at war?

It may be a question already under discussion in various committees and commissions of the church, in Executive Council, among staff at the Church Center. Certainly some independent organizations related to the Church have done so. Certainly there has been past witness to these matters. But as I attend to the matters on the Bishops and Deputies list, there seems to have been little about this. I believe the question needs also to be discussed by all of us called to be the church assembled in that very peculiar gift called General Convention, both now and in convention itself.

These are not easy times for such discussion. The government is calling for unity, and all questioners seems to encourage disunity. There is always the fear of being labeled unpatriotic, but we should not have a care for such fears. The issues are too large to be put aside because of an appeal to harmony within and loyalty to the state, or even within the church. We must find ways to discuss this question and indeed come to common tasks and resolution. Not to do so is to fail the essentials of Christian life together.

Many of you will have truly useful things to say. We all need to hear them.

I have a small suggestion: One of our lines of discussion toward knowing what to say and do to prepare us for life and witness in a country at war might be to raise the issue of the arrogance of power.

We in the faith know a lot about idolatry. One of the chief characteristics of idolatrous behavior is the arrogance of believing that owning this or that entity (be it a Golden Calf, being the nation representing a chosen people, or being the true Church) God is ours. And, backing up from that we come sometimes to believe that such owning gives us power beyond measure. Surely we have something to say about the arrogance of power that derives from such Idolatry? Surely we know it in our own church, and surely we know it in the workings of the state?

The current realities, I submit, raise the specter of a United States unparalleled in its abilities to incarnate the arrogance of power. And surely we as deputies and bishops at the next General Convention will be called upon to stand with another Incarnation, one whose embrace is not arrogant at all.

Mark Harris, c2, Delaware


Follow-Up
Friends: Forgive the longish note.

Following my initial note on "life and witness in a country at war" there have been a wide variety of responses, some of which lead us down paths filled with memories of difficult times past, others down paths to what I hope will be a constructive contribution to the next General Convention.

What follows is not a summary of those notes, but some effort to group the responses. I don't mention all the resources and helpful remarks. I hope my few quotes from notes are accurate.

My note was written with the hope that we, in an internet sort of way, might work on the problem of what we will do or say AT GENERAL CONVENTION given the realities of our being a country at war. The question posed was: "What can we as the Episcopal Church do or say to prepare Christians for life and witness in a country at war?"

Observations on the thread:

  1. In the thread no one contests the description of our current state as "a country at war." There seems at least to be an agreement that war issues are real issues for us.
  2. There were several responses that had to do with our (General Convention's ability to do or say anything that would be useful. One response questioned if we could get something in time to be part of the Blue Book. (The answer is probably no.) One response wondered if resolutions carried any weight anyway.
  3. Several responses took up the question of how our response to the current situation might lead us to actions parallel to what the respondents considered bad, irresponsible or perhaps even destructive about the opposition to the war in Viet Nam. Whether or not you or I agree with their assessment of the opposition to the war in Viet Nam, the observation is raised that whatever response we give can indeed have consequences. (That in a sense answers the question of the "weight" of our responses.)
  4. There were several responses that took the thread of considering our baptismal covenant a basis for whatever we might say in response to the question "What can we as the Episcopal Church do or say to prepare Christians for life and witness in a country at war?" I think those responses began the work of grounding the question in a theological/ belief context.) There was a fine example of supportive encouragement to the person that spoke of being perhaps "naive" about thinking the baptismal covenant was a starting place.
  5. On my example of arrogance, several resources were given: Herb Gunn of Michigan was particularly helpful, giving some references to the writings of William Fulbright and some thoughts on how to appropriate the critical task into our lives as faithful Christians and citizens. Jack Zamboni also recommends our reading of Walter Wink's Engaging the Powers.

About what to do -- remembering that my question was "What can we as the Episcopal Church do or say?" -- Several options were suggested:

  1. Robert Curtain said, "I doubt very seriously that the General Convention has enough credibility with "powers and principalities" to stay the hand of one terrorist or one head of state. We would do much better next summer to rally the Houses to fulfilling Vision 2020 and to share our experience, strength and hope in bringing people to Christ."

    There were other similar responses -- essentially calling on us to consider the focus of General Convention to be on matters that we have some hope to effect.

  2. Quite a few responses continued a thread of thoughts that both critiqued the intentions of the government, the morality of the war and its conduct, and the potential for action against Iraq. Those notes were beginning tests of several ways of understanding the current war situation. (Is this a war about fanaticism or fundamentalism? Is it a war about the arrogance of power, or about Oil or about control of weapons of mass destruction?)

  3. There was wide spread agreement in the thread that this whole area of concern -- the war -- was indeed vital. The question is, how, why and in what venue would it make sense for General Convention deputies and bishops to act.

My overall sense of the thread is that the answer is something like this:

So on to Convention!

Herb Gunn said to me in a private note, "These are compelling times for the church to act as a church should act--and risk faithfulness."

Part of that risk is to put up with one another enough to get to the next step on the way to answering the question "What can we as the Episcopal Church do or say to prepare Christians for life and witness in a country at war?"

I think the next step might be to ask if there are those among the deputies and bishops who would like to knit together an "online study group" to begin to look together at resources that would help us prepare for some sort of response to General Convention.

Such a list is really more specific than I think the general Deputies and Bishops list in that the thread is focused and would require some commitment to study. We could perhaps post a summary of our work at intervals on the Deputies Bishops list, and always invite whoever is interested to join in the discussion, but the ongoing conversation itself would stand separately.

Write me at poetmark@worldnet.att.net if you are interested in joining such a dedicated working group. I can either simply keep the list going (if it is small enough) just by group e-mail. If it gets larger, it may need to become an element in a larger system.

Again, thanks for putting up with a long message.

Mark Harris, c2, Delaware.


You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to lcrew@newark.rutgers.edu Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.

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