A Force More Powerful Than Violence: An Interview with Bob Edgar

They opposed the war on Iraq, met with those of other faiths, and called on the U.S. to rejoin the family of nations. Today church leaders continue their call for a just foreign policy.

BOB EDGAR, GENERAL SECRETARY of the National Council of Churches, has led the organization into becoming a leading force against war in Iraq and for a just U.S. foreign policy, and helped to form the Win Without War Coalition, which he now co-chairs. He has traveled to Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Cuba, and elsewhere on missions of peace, and reached out to people of other faiths. An ordained elder of the United Methodist Church, Edgar also served for 12 years as a member of Congress, where he was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and defender of the environment.

Carolyn: How did you first get interested in politics?

Bob: In 1974, in the midst of the war between Israel and Egypt, the oil embargo, and Watergate, a group of people who had not been active in politics stepped forward to run for public office. I was 31 when I got elected to Congress. In one year, I moved from being vice chairman of my son's parent-teacher organization to being a member of Congress because I got mad at Richard Nixon and at Watergate. I served in Congress from 1975 to 1987 and in April of 1975 I was one of the leaders who took the House floor and worked to shut down the Vietnam War.

Today, many people are frustrated with the U.S. domination of the rest of the world. We just need 15 visionaries in the House of Representatives and five in the Senate to change the political balance of this country. Newt Gingrich moved everybody in the Republican Party to the right of Jesse Helms and the Democrats moved a giant step to the right.

The progressive voice in the Democratic Party has nearly been silenced, so those of us in the faith community—Christian, Jewish, Muslim—who find in our biblical texts and our theological passions a God of peace and justice, need to be more vocal.

Carolyn: How does your career as a congressman inform the work you do now?

Bob: As general secretary of the National Council of Churches, I've tried to show the leadership of our churches how to get creative in breaking into the media. Let me give a couple of examples. The National Religious Partnership for the Environment created the ‘What Would Jesus Drive?' campaign—initiated, not incidentally, by evangelicals. We spoke about fuel-efficiency standards in a way that cut through the haze and got onto the talk radio and television circuit.

When I came back from Iraq, the Win Without War Coalition put an anti-war television commercial together with United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert. We bought time in a very few markets, but got widespread free exposure in television, radio, and print news coverage all across the United States, including on CNN, because in the ad Talbert said, “I'm a bishop in the president's church, the United Methodist Church, and I think the war is immoral.” That caused controversy and broke through. It was a way of speaking to our society reflectively.

n February, as the war on Iraq loomed, I sent church delegations to Germany, France, Russia, Italy, and England. I met with Chancellor Schroeder of Germany. Church leaders hand-delivered a letter to the Pope. They met with Chirac's and Putin's staffs and with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In doing this, we demonstrated that we have faith brothers and sisters across boundary lines of nations and we have power that we don't often think we have.

Carolyn: What made the National Council of Churches decide to get involved in this way?

Bob: Our involvement in the opposition to invasion of Iraq started last August when I was in Geneva at a World Council of Churches meeting. Representatives from U.S., Canadian, and British churches stayed up all night questioning why Vice President Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld were urging the president to go to war. We put together a statement that blasted Saddam Hussein's policies but said that war was not justified in this instance and that multinational efforts, particularly through the UN, should be pursued to find a way to win without war.

n September, the U.S. faith community brought 450 religious leaders to Washington to speak against war with members of Congress. When the House and Senate finished voting on October 11, we shifted our efforts to the UN and the media. That led to the creation of the Win Without War coalition, of which I'm co-chair. The National Council of Churches led a delegation to Iraq over New Year's to witness first-hand the suffering caused by repression, war and sanctions, and the potential for more suffering to be caused by another war, and we began to try to help give voice to our members who felt that this war was not justified.

Carolyn: How is it that your faith has led you in a very different direction from that of the Christian right?

Bob: I think there are two ways to read the Bible. One is to read it with a focus on the parts that call for the Messiah to be the leader of a mighty military and separate the good from the evil. They see God as a God of judgment who will divide the good from the bad, and good people are going to survive and evil people are going to die.

The other way of reading the Scripture is to focus on the parts that teach love and justice, forgiveness and reconciliation. Even the early church had difficulty understanding Jesus when he talked about loving your neighbor, loving enemies, and caring about the least of these, the brothers and sisters on planet Earth. This other way of reading sees that nonviolent action, of the kind Martin Luther King Jr. practiced, is more powerful than violence.

just got back from Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, where I met with religious leaders and with the president of Syria, the prime minister of Lebanon, and leadership in Jordan. They said to me, “Thank you for standing up to Franklin Graham, who wants to proselytize in the region, and for standing up to Jerry Falwell when he called Mohammed a terrorist.”

Last year, Syrian officials told me they thought we were going to move into a holy war. But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches, moderate and progressive Muslim, and Jewish leaders, all took a clear stand against those extreme fundamentalist views. I think we are a counterbalance to those who talk about Armageddon and who, because of their literal biblical reading, support the government of Israel uncritically.

Two peoples are fighting over this land because both consider it holy. If people of faith recognized that the whole planet is holy, maybe that would solve some of the violence we see now.

Carolyn: I'm under the impression that while evangelical churches have been growing in recent years, mainline churches have been shrinking. How do you see your organization, which mainly represents mainline churches, having a powerful voice?

Bob: There is good research showing that churches that stand for something are growing. Churches that are on automatic pilot are falling apart or dying, but there are many progressive, religiously left churches that are doing perfectly fine because they are organized, helping people engage in society. So it's not accurate to say that only evangelical churches are surviving.

Carolyn: You've spoken of articulating a different vision from the Bush administration's. How is your organization planning to mobilize religious communities on behalf of that vision?

Bob: Some of us who worked with people who became involved in the anti-war effort are trying to encourage them to run for public office. In the church community, we are encouraging young people to get more interested in public policy and in political office.

And I'm urging the churches to put down on paper their foreign policy. All churches have a foreign policy. They just don't articulate it. As part of that foreign policy we want, 1) to strengthen multi-national organizations like the UN; 2) to increase humanitarian aid, both by governments and by churches; 3) to move the U.S. away from a first-strike policy; and, 4) to find a way to move toward nonviolence and away from military action throughout the world.

We're going to continue to try to inspire the ordinary citizen to think about the importance of being part of the global community. The New York Times said there are two superpowers; the United States is one, and world opinion is the other. Many church leaders felt that they were chaplains to world opinion.

People around the world rallied in support of a different world view from the one leading us to war. A significant number, perhaps 30 percent, of Americans hold that alternative world view. Our job is to try to figure out how to reach another 21 percent, so that a majority of Americans think, as we do, that war is at most only sometimes justified, if ever, and that war is not a tool that should be used when diplomacy can work.

Carolyn: What are the dangers and opportunities of this moment?

Bob: I think there is a danger of a new colonialism. I also think there's a danger of inciting people against people through racial and religious profiling. I think there's still a deep chord of racism within our country and in the world. The fear of 9-11 can be exploited by political leaders, both Democratic and Republican, and I fear that, in the face of tremendous changes in foreign policy and domestic policy, people of faith will be silent. Our military over-aggressiveness is going to have enormous impacts, socially, on our country, and it's important that those of us who are called to care for poor people and the Earth don't let things happen by our silence.

think there is hope in the number of young people who were engaged in the peace movement. They are also interested in the environment, children's issues, and other humanitarian issues.

remind audiences often that the prophets of the Old Testament never had a majority and never took a poll to figure out what God's will and wisdom is. People of faith need to be more courageous in standing up on principle. Those of us who are called to a different world vision need to be clear in our prophetic voice.

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