Spirited conversation addresses war and peace

July 31, 2003

Against the backdrop of ongoing hostilities in Iraq, a panel of military chaplains and peace activists considered war in a forum Wednesday night, but mostly as a way to talk about peace.

The forum was one of five "conversations" drawing hundreds of people to presentations onteh opening evening of convention.

The forum raised the questions, “How can we balance ethical demands with the need to feel secure?” and “How can we think about war, especially the Christian idea of a ‘just war,’ when faced with crises like those in Afghanistan, Iraq and throughout the Middle East?”

Noting the significant number of teenagers in the audience of about 80 people, Bishop George Packard, bishop suffragan for chaplaincies, pointed out that the soldiers he and other chaplains serve are usually about the same age, “very late teens and early 20s.”

While he said it was clear that planning for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion has been woefully inadequate, Packard stressed his admiration for the people in the military and the need to support them. The young soldiers there, he said, are “highly trained, very well disciplined,” but also understandably scared. Trained for one task, they have been thrown into entirely different responsibilities as a police force.

The Episcopal Church is committed to being a “peace” church, he said, but “on the way to the kingdom, I believe that coercive force may have to be used.” Given the destructive impact of modern warfare, he said, the difficult question for responsible Christians to ponder is “when that coercive force is necessary” or even useful.

The military has the difficult and important task of defending the nation “against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” said the Rev. Kristina Coppinger, a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force Reserves at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.

But, she said, “prior to the commitment of troops, all of us have the responsibility to get involved domestically and internationally to try to avoid war.” Even the majority of the military, she said, would prefer to be “ambassadors, if you will, for the cause of peace, and not the instrument of force when that peace fails. They would rather help with disaster relief, assist with immigration emergencies, quell civil disturbances, enforce sanctions.”

September 11 “forever changed the way we view our national security,” Coppinger said. While not wanting to be “easy targets,” however, “we must also ensure that our own actions as Americans and as a country do not make people or countries want to attack us.”

Traveling twice to Afghanistan to help rebuild a mosque destroyed by coalition bombing helped show the Rev. Stephen Holton, founder of the Episcopal-Muslim Relations Committee of the Diocese of New York, “how we can build our security on ethics, and our ethics on love, and our love — finally — on the love from God.”

A young Afghan imam, who was particularly angry about the bombing and suspicious of American offers to help, was won over when the mosque was, in fact, rebuilt.

At the rededication service, “the same young man who had been so mad at me the first time, spoke up and said that I had promised that we would build the mosque together, and here it is completed,” Holton said. “He had learned something about Christian love — the love that makes promises in the midst of hate, the love that keeps its promises.”

Blessed with “enormous wealth and power,” the United States needs to use them responsibly and to recognize the need to address national issues of social injustice before interfering with other countries, said Deborah Stokes of Southern Ohio, chair of the Standing Commission for National Concerns. “I had always been taught that you should clean your own house before going to clean others; and my brothers and sisters, our house is not clean,” she said. “Oh yes, my brothers and sisters, there should be a war — a war against poverty, inequality and injustice.”

With a series of slides showing the extensive cultural, racial and religious diversity in the greater Detroit area, the Rev. Daniel Appleyard, who chaired the panel, illustrated what he said is the changing face of American culture. Long active in Christian-Muslim relations, Appleyard said he hoped the interfaith experience in Detroit would “give voice and vision for every community that has intimately encountered people of other faiths and have come to see the face of God in the other.” Only “in larger, more universal communities,” he said, will we "be given the gifts we don’t possess, and so become a people of justice and peace.”