My pastor never preached on the war at all. As a congregation, we prayed for peace. We prayed for safety for our military folk. We prayed for the Iraqi people. We prayed for the president and other world leaders. But, beyond recognizing the heightened anxiety in which we’ve all been living, the subject never came up from the pulpit.
Contrast that with the presiding bishop of the United Methodist Church, who starred in TV commercials against the war before it began and who, along with dozens of his colleagues, signed a letter calling on President Bush to repent.
Contrast the two above approaches with that of numerous Baptist and other evangelical leaders who made the war a kind of Christian crusade and suggested criticism of the war to be tantamount to apostasy.
Add to the mix the photo which made the rounds on the Internet showing American soldiers being baptized by immersion in the desert in the days just before the attack began. Throw in the pictures of Iraqi Christians celebrating Easter.
The conclusion might be that the church of Jesus has lost the ability to bring moral focus in a complex world. Or it might be something more profound.
Teaching seminary in an ecumenical setting, with students from many different Christian traditions, one learns fairly quickly that what we share in Christ is far more important than anything which divides us. Yes, issues of war and peace are important. Yes we’re called to bring Christ’s teachings to bear in every situation of human life.
Yet when I send my students out to preach in the town and country churches here in the upper Midwest, they go out into a culture which, just like your culture wherever you may live, paints a thin coat of Christian teaching on an essentially pagan landscape. Often the tools for sophisticated ethical debate are simply lacking. Very often, like that crowd in the synagogue at Nazareth, people just aren’t willing to hear what goes against their own preconceptions.
So I tell my students to preach Jesus. In university halls, cattle auction barns and the concrete and steel corridors of the state prison, wherever they go, Jesus is still good news. Jesus will still be good news when this war and the next and the next have faded into dim and distant memory.
And when people really do know Jesus, hearts and minds do change.
So is that a cop-out? Some, I’m sure, will say so. Knowing some things I myself have said and written before, I can hardly believe I’m saying this either. But somewhere around your third or fourth “war to end all wars” you begin to notice a pattern. You begin to look for something better.
Just maybe Isaiah had it right after all. Maybe my pastor and the chaplains who baptized in the desert and the Iraqis lighting candles in Baghdad saw what some of the rest of us lost sight of. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders…..His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace.”
Ron Sisk is professor of homiletics and Christian ministry at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.