We had only a few weeks to organize "Pray and Act: A Service for Peace and Justice" on January 20, the holiday of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. We knew the service in the Washington National Cathedral and a procession to the White House for a candlelight vigil would succeed only if "the moment" carried the day. John Chane, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, felt strongly that this could be an historic event, and that the cathedral was hosting a service that could challenge the nation's rush to war.
Almost 25 leaders from denominations, religious orders, and national faith-based organizations appeared and the middle of the sanctuary began to fill as the service participants gathered, many in their clerical collars and stoles. This was a genuinely prayerful event, not a political rally, so we joined hands to pray that God's will be done in this service and in our nation. As we processed to the front of the cathedral, the aisles nearest the pulpit seemed full, but from where we were sitting, I couldn't see beyond the first 20 rows.
From the start, the music, the readings from Dr. King's last Sunday sermon (preached in the National Cathedral), the biblical texts, and the prayers and meditations created a profoundly spiritual environment.
It wasn't until I climbed up into the pulpit to preach that I could see all the people. The National Cathedral was packed to capacity; an estimated 3,200 people had come to pray for peace and justice. I was amazed. This was clearly a response to the critical moment. Some who were there said they had been to the big demonstration the Saturday before and felt mixed about the messages there. They didn't want to attack or demonize the president, and their most enthusiastic response came when we called on George W. Bush to undertake a new "faith-based initiative" for peace. Many expressed a deep gratitude for the opportunity to express their faith in relation to war with Iraq.
The press was there too and could easily see the strength of the churches' response. It was one of those unique times when our message as Christians was clear, not mingled with many others. Broad coalitions are often a good thing, but there is also a need to witness as Christians. The cathedral service became that time. I preached from Micah 4, a call to go beyond anti-war to the deeper peace that can only be based on justice. Here is the text from that day, and my reflection on it.
[The Lord] shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid. —Micah 4:3-4
WE GATHER AS OUR nation moves closer to a decision about whether to go to war with Iraq. It will be a momentous choice, with great consequences for the life of the world.
I just returned from England, where the debate about this war is also raging. Most there hope Prime Minister Blair will not commit Britain to a war without genuine international support.
Virtually every church body which has spoken, internationally and in the United States, has concluded that a war on Iraq would not be a just war. Never before have the churches in America been so united on the issue of peace. Never before has the House of Bishops of the Church of England spoken out so clearly and strongly against the direction the British government is taking.
The churches have warned about the risk and cost of a potential war which could easily result in unpredictable and unintended consequences—high numbers of civilian casualties, the death of many American and British servicemen and women, more instability and violence in the already volatile Middle East, more anti-American sentiment around the world, and perhaps even more terrorism against our people. But at a deeper level, the churches are witnessing to the need for a new "world perspective" of which Martin Luther King Jr. spoke.
Today we remember the birthday of our brother Martin Luther King Jr. We have heard words from his last Sunday sermon on earth, given from this pulpit, where he called for an alternative to war and bloodshed, for a refocusing of our attention on the most dangerous enemies of our age—poverty, racism, and hopelessness—and for the development of a new perspective.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a modern day Micah, who knew that we will not beat our swords into plowshares until everyone has their own vine and fig tree—their own little piece of the global economy, their own small stake in the world, their own share of security for themselves and their families. Because when you have a little patch upon which to build a life, nobody can make you afraid. And it is fear that leads to violence. We must learn, as both the 20th century Martin Luther King Jr. and the eighth century Micah understood, that there is no security apart from a common security—a global security. That spiritual reality is more true today than ever before. Our weapons cannot finally protect us; only a world where most people feel secure will truly be safe for us and our children.
Both of our prophets, Micah and Martin, urge that we go deeper—to the resentments, angers, insecurities, and injustices embedded in the very structures of today's world. We must go deeper than war.
MICAH AND MARTIN knew well the cruel connection between poverty and war. The cost we will pay for war in Iraq will also be measured in the loss of health care for millions of poor American children, our inability to provide the education that frees inner-city youth from the prison of poverty, the shame of women and children forced to live in homeless shelters, and an alarming percentage of people going hungry in the richest nation in the history of the world. We fear that the urgent need to overcome poverty, at home and around the world, will literally be pushed off the agenda in favor of the resources, attention, and priority that war demands.
So today we don't just say no to a war with Iraq, we say yes to the biblical prophet Micah, yes to the American prophet Martin Luther King Jr., yes to our own church leaders, yes to the international body of Christ, yes to the millions of our fellow citizens across the country and across the political spectrum who don't want this war, yes to our own poorest and most vulnerable citizens, yes in urging our national leaders to find another way.
Today we pray to God and plead with our national leaders to avoid the destructiveness of war and find a better way to resolve the very real threats involved in this conflict with Iraq. We believe that is possible, and we believe we can still stop this war before it starts.
From this National Cathedral and then in our candlelight vigil at the White House, we appeal to President George W. Bush today, not in anger, but in hope, to a fellow brother in Christ, to heed the words of the prophets, the words of our brother Martin Luther King Jr., the words of Jesus the Prince of Peace—to win this battle without war, to transform our swords into plowshares and, yes, to persevere in disarming the world of weapons of mass destruction—all of them, including our own—but without the killing of more innocents. Provide us, Mr. President, with a leadership for peace that would sow the seeds of justice. Mr. President, the hour is late, we stand at a midnight in history, and what we need from you is a faith-based initiative for peace.
May God bless our prayers for peace, and, at this critical hour, God bless America, and God bless the world.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.