Fall 2001, Vol. 4, No. 3

Table of Contents
Fall 2001

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From the Editor: The Civil Religion Goes to War

Religion After 9-11:

Good for What Ails Us

Falwell and Robertson Stumble

Islam is Everywhere

When Our Allies Persecute

No Bad Sects in France

The Stem Cell Conundrum

Gain, No Pain

On the Beat: Covering Religion in Hard Times

Letter to the Editor and Reply


Religion After 9-11:
Pacifism on the Record
by Dennis R. Hoover

"It’s a tough time to peddle pacifism," began Saeed Ahmed’s October 9 article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Local Peace Activists Seek to ‘End War Now.’" With polls showing upwards of 85 percent of the public in favor of a military response to the September 11 attacks, it was hard to disagree.

Still, dozens of news stories and columns were devoted to the war-wary minority. Journalists fanned out in search of quotes from those thought to be representative of "pacifism," phoning or interviewing them at local peace demonstrations. Invariably at least one person from "the peace church" was willing to go on the record.

Not that there is a single "peace church" or Christian pacifist point of view. Within Roman Catholicism there are pacifist groups like Pax Christi, while within Protestantism groups typically referred to as "historic peace churches" include Anabaptists (Mennonites, Amish, Brethren) and Quakers, who differ among themselves in how they understand and live "pacifism." Too often after September 11 journalists missed the variety of views. The result was coverage largely comprised of softball news stories and simplistic editorial bashing.

Even as most of the public appeared ready to let slip the dogs of war, journalists understood that it was important to make sure dissenters got some attention. "Concerns Rise That Peace is Not on the Table," read the headline on Sue Fox’s Los Angeles Times story September 18. The Bergen (N.J.) Record headlined Charles Austin’s September 23 piece, "Pacifists Know They Go Against the Grain: Give Peace a Chance?"

For the most part journalists ignored the Catholics and simply put down what various Protestant peace church leaders or members told them, without asking many hard questions. On occasion there was a sympathetic or even promotional quality, whether intentional or not. For example, Mara Lee of the Dayton Daily News ended her brief September 16 story on a meeting of local religious pacifists with the full text of the antiwar statement they issued. On October 8 the Portland Oregonian’s Matt Sabo reviewed in some detail the history of the abuse endured in wartime by a 90-year old Mennonite church.

While some stories took note of anti-pacifist reactions to peace demonstrations, few included competing religious perspectives such as the "just war" tradition that was nicely reviewed by Gregory D. Stanford in his October 14 column for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Taking exception to the widespread assumption that the peace church voice was in danger of being censored or drowned out by the drumbeat of war, Hartford Courant columnist Laurence Cohen argued on September 30, "Although churches with a pacifist tradition—especially the German-speaking Mennonites—were routinely harassed during both world wars, the peace churches and the American people usually find a happy medium over time…Despite derision, the religion-based peace tradition will emerge, because America has room for such diversity."

While the peace churches were given a place at the media table, their varied pacifist positions were rarely explored. In the September 17 Philadelphia Inquirer Dale Mezzacappa and Kristin Holmes wrote that pacifists "of all faiths reject even the notion of a ‘just war’ and condemn all militarism and force, leading to their condemnation of U.S. policy around the world." Although it is true that most religious pacifists scoff at the notion that actual wars ever meet the demanding criteria of "just war" theory, it is not true that "all" pacifists reject "all" use of force by governments. Nor are they necessarily aligned politically with the "blame America first" contingent on the left. Kim Lawton got it right in her report for PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly when she noted, "There is disagreement among pacifists about whether force could be used to apprehend perpetrators."

Overall it was liberal activist Quakers—best known for their longstanding opposition to U.S. war making—who got the most ink. On September 11 several Quaker organizations put out a "Joint Statement" press release saying, "The Religious Society of Friends, since its inception in the 1650s, has been led to eschew war and all forms of violence for any end whatsoever." Two days later, the 84-year-old American Friends Service Committee spearheaded a "No More Victims" campaign that included use of national media advertising. An ad that ran in the New York Times and Washington Post October 7 read:

"Dear President Bush, We, the undersigned, join the American Friends Service Committee in urging you to look for diplomatic means to bring to justice the people who are responsible for this crime against humanity. Now is the time to break the cycle of violence and retaliation. Do not respond to these terrible acts by waging war. War will lead to additional deaths and the suffering of many people in the U.S. and abroad."

Quakers were not without their internal debates, however. "We’re a peace church," Tom Ryan, a Quaker from State College, Pennsylvania, told the AP’s Tina Moore September 26. "But there are some people who are worried whether that’s enough, or whether some sort of police action is consistent with our beliefs." Similarly, 24-year old Matt Reilly told the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Lini Kadaba September 24 that he felt war might be justified in these unusual circumstances. "I feel less Quakerly," he said.

Kadaba was the only journalist to notice that, in contrast to the largely liberal strand of Quakerism that predominates in the Philadelphia area, the more conservative Evangelical Quakers (located mostly on the West Coast, and who represent something like 30 percent of all U.S. Quakers) do not oppose all forms of violence in all cases. "There may be a need for violent action in order for there to be justice," said Jim LeShana, an Evangelical Quaker pastor from Yorba Linda, California.

The AP’s Richard N. Ostling found other religious pacifists feeling similarly conflicted. In an excellent September 28 article on peace church traditions, Ostling quoted Albert Keim, an historian at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, who admitted, "We pacifists know how to behave in war, but we’re still learning how to react to terrorism. We’re finding it very, very difficult." Ann Rodgers-Melnick of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported September 30 that for the first time in its history the Bruderhof (an Anabaptist group thrown out of Nazi Germany for its pacifism) erected U.S. flags in several communities across the country.

Christian pacifists’ convictions are rooted in radical obedience to Jesus’ self-sacrificial ethics and example. They believe in turning the other cheek, in being willing to die but not to kill for their beliefs. Hence, most of them are conscientious objectors, resisting government attempts to conscript them into combat roles but often willing to serve in non-combat or alternative service capacities.

For many Anabaptists (who outnumber Quakers at least 5 to 1), it is the church, as a community of disciples anticipating and modeling the kingdom of God, that must be nonviolent, not necessarily the government—though less violent governments are theoretically closer to God’s will for mankind than violent ones. Anabaptists generally believe that government is a God-given institution for restraining evil, and that they are commanded to obey the government in most circumstances. Frequently the result is an apolitical if sometimes radically nonconformist worldview.

Jeff Hawkes of the Lancaster, Pennsylvania Intelligencer Journal illustrated this worldview in a September 27 story on Mennonite-owned Good’s Stores Inc. Good’s owns general stores that stock a huge variety of items, but no American flags (or televisions, or violent toys and games). Although this is not an unusual policy for Mennonite businesses in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, after September 11 some seekers of Old Glory were offended and declared their intention to take their business elsewhere. (One reportedly suggested the owners "move to Russia.")

Amos Martin, Good’s vice president for development and pastor of Weaverland Mennonite Church, gave voice to an apolitical pacifism held by many Mennonites, especially those of Swiss-German background: "It is not for us to judge someone who would support the military. God chooses people to do his work, and I firmly believe God chose George Bush to serve as president at this time. Therefore, I cannot judge what he does, but I need to judge what I allow myself to do. Our [Mennonite] forefathers died for the faith. If I have to go out of the business…it would seem like a small thing."

Mennonites, explained Donald Kraybill, professor of Sociology and Anabaptist studies at Messiah College (affiliated with the Anabaptist denomination, Brethren in Christ), "choose not to fly the flag out of loyalty to a God they believe blesses all countries."

To be sure, not all Mennonites are apolitical, and a few can be found on the front lines of anti-war protests. Indeed, in Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (1994), Kraybill and Leo Driedger compared surveys of Mennonites conducted in 1972 and 1989 and found a substantial swing towards political participation. Yet political action is still often viewed with some ambivalence—a necessary and perhaps even honorable component of social action, yet a hazardous one in which progress is to be pursued incrementally.

"It’s possible God could ask someone to be part of the military, but that’s not the lifestyle we would choose," Mennonite pastor Dave Froese told Tulsa World religion writer Bill Sherman October 12. "[T]he Bible clearly gives the government the responsibility of seeking justice in matters like this."

On its web page, the Mennonite Central Committee posted this modest proposal for responses to September 11: "At a time when emotions are running high and there are no simple answers, perhaps the best role for advocates of nonviolence is to ask good questions." What followed was by way of a Bible study:

"Instead of treating the attack as a crime—appropriately addressed through a judicial process—President Bush has described it as a declaration of war… between good and evil and has promised to rid the world of evil. While the Bible suggests that governing authorities bear the responsibility to punish evildoers (Rom.13:4), it does not charge them with extinguishing evil. For this age, even God does not boast of ridding the world of evil, but causes the 'sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous' (Matt. 5:45) …The Bible explicitly warns against repaying evil for evil (Rom.12:17, I Pet. 3:9). Rather it urges that evil be overcome with good (Rom.12:21)."

By contrast, the American Friends Service Committee’s web site feels more like a political polemic, urgently advertising its No More Victims campaign, calling for ongoing marches and vigils, and noting AFSC’s membership in a National Coalition for Peace and Justice that includes groups such as the War Resisters League and the Green Party. No Anabaptist groups are listed as members of this Coalition.

The media’s tendency to treat "pacifism" as an undifferentiated entity characterized not only the (mostly soft-hitting) news reports, but also a string of opinion pieces editorially denouncing "pacifist claptrap," as Michael Kelly put it in a September 26 Washington Post column. Arguing that "pacifism" equals appeasement and surrender, Kelly quoted George Orwell, who in the midst of World War II wrote, "Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help out that of the other." On October 3 Kelly, denouncing pacifists as "liars," "frauds," and "hypocrites," declared that if "the United States did as the pacifists wish—if it eschewed war even when attacked—it would, at some point, be conquered by a foreign regime."

Denunciations were delivered by a clutch of anti-pacifist opinion writers, among them Rocky Mountain News columnist Mike Rosen, Omaha World-Herald columnist Harold Anderson, the Boston Herald’s Don Feder, and NPR’s Scott Simon (in the Wall Street Journal). Many seemed to have the secular left in mind rather than religious pacifists, but the distinction wasn’t often kept clear. "We protect the right of pacifists and other anti-war militants to assemble and advance their cause," wrote Rosen. "But I don’t respect such people and I don’t shrink from exposing their ideas as destructive and suicidal. Pacifists are my enemy because wittingly or not, they serve the purposes of my enemy and jeopardize my freedom."

To his credit, Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter at least recognized that most pacifists were advocating the use of international law to address terrorism, rather than doing nothing. "After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing we held our fire and treated the attack as a law enforcement matter," wrote Alter. "The terrorists struck again anyway…Peace won’t be with you brother. It’s kill or be killed."

Nor was every columnist antagonistic. After interviewing Mennonite pastor Richard Kauffman September 15, the Toledo Blade’s Rebecca De Boer almost seemed converted. "I realized I sought him out not only to interview, but to draw strength from," wrote De Boer. "I want with all my heart to nurture the small whisper within that warns how violence only begets violence."

But journalists didn’t have to be converted to seek some sort of balance. In his October 7 Washington Post column, E.J. Dionne, no pacifist himself, tried to separate the sheep from the goats, arguing that "most serious pacifists bear no resemblance to the hip, upper class, self-indulgent anti-warriors who are so easily parodied and attacked. They are often devoutly religious people—Mennonites, Quakers and many others—who abhor self-indulgence as much as they abhor violence."

Dionne then turned to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a mid-twentieth-century critic of pacifism more charitable to the peace camp than the secular George Orwell. Niebuhr, noted Dionne, declared it to be "sheer moral perversity to equate the inconsistencies of a democratic civilization with the brutalities which modern tyrannical states practice." But, in Niebuhr’s words, "We who allow ourselves to become engaged in war need this testimony of the absolutist against us, lest we accept the warfare of the world as normative, lest we become callous to the horror of war, and lest we forget the ambiguity of our own actions and motives."

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