Just get out!
Local religious leaders advise President George W. Bush on the next step in Iraq
For the past couple of months, SN&R has invited local spiritual leaders to lunch. But we’ve made the God squad work for its meal, throwing the clergy thorny questions that spring from everyday life for a project that will soon show up in these pages. Knowing about today’s Feature Story, we also tacked on a bonus question at two separate lunches:
If President George Bush asked for your advice about the situation in Iraq, what counsel would you give him?
Since the religious leaders who broke bread with us arrived with diverging viewpoints on a host of social issues and spiritual matters, we anticipated disagreement on that question. So much for assuming; there was near unanimity that the United States should pull its troops out of Iraq. Now!
Guests for the May 31 luncheon were Pastor Kathi McShane of First United Methodist, Sherwood Carthen of Bayside South Sacramento, Sister Hansa of Sacramento’s Brahma Kumaris community and Michael Moran of the Spiritual Life Center. A portion of their exchange follows:
Carthen: If George Bush were to actually ask my advice, I would tell him, “George, it’s time to come home.” That would be my bottom line. And then I’d work my way back to letting him know that I think that one of the freedoms of America is to be able to express yourself and not always have to agree with every decision the government makes. And I want to let him know up front that I agreed with the idea that we should go after terrorists, that we should make sure that people knew that we weren’t going to let people bully us.
But I do agree at this particular point with the continual loss of life, in an area/place where there really isn’t much more we can do. There are other countries right now that have no infrastructure. They don’t have a government that is righteous. We’re not over there doing those things for them. People say this is about oil and, to tell you the truth, right now there is no oil shortage, and we’re still paying extreme prices at the gas pump, and we are still losing lives, and it’s time to come home. Saddam Hussein is no longer in authority—he’s dead. It’s time to come home. There’s nothing else that we can do to make the situation there any better. It’s time to concentrate on home now. We’ve spent enough money. Time to bring the troops home. Let’s celebrate them. Let’s make sure that there is not going to be any fallout for them psychologically, economically. Let’s get our act together and do what we need to do. Bring the troops home.
Moran: I would say the same thing. I’d say, “Bring ’em home, tell the truth, repent and resign.” [Laughter]
Especially telling the truth. There is just a thirst and a hunger for truth right now, because there’s been such an absence of it. And the way that the government has become so partisan, where 100 percent of one side votes one way and 100 percent of the other side votes the other way, that means there’s no thought in there. There’s no middle ground. There’s nobody thinking independently. It’s like a hive—two hives. To call people unpatriotic and traitors for questioning authority—they are not unpatriotic and traitorous to me.
I’m really disgusted by all government right now. I think that it almost doesn’t matter who’s in there, the system is—the guidance system’s broken. And until we fix that, it’s just an illusion that we’re all a part of, because the guidance system’s broken and no one’s willing to fix it because it’s big money. It’s big business. And as long as there’s money in politics, there’ll be George Bushes in the White House. I want the truth from whoever’s there, and George W. can’t be fast enough. I want those troops home. Now.
McShane: To think about George Bush asking one of us as clergy leaders for advice is troublesome, because I’m not sure a head of state should be asking for advice from any one religious perspective. I think it is always a mess when that happens.
On the other hand, I really do believe God has something to say about this war. And I don’t think that I’m any better qualified to give political advice than any number of people in this country. But I do think that people of faith have something to say, particularly about this war. I hope we speak for God’s perspective, which is about forgiveness and reconciliation and moving humanity toward something that looks more like the kingdom of god on Earth, which is not about winning this war, winning any war, oil, even national security. It’s about living at peace with one another.
And for that reason I think I have a different role in the conversation than George Bush does as protector of a national entity. He has considerations to think about that I don’t have to. I’m glad I’m not in his role. I think he’s doing it wrong, but OK. One of the things I would want to say to him is, “If you think that the goal is a world where there is no fear of terrorism or anything else, where no one can possibly attack us, we’re going to be at war forever.” And that is not what I think is the intent for us. I think all through the Bible and the history of God in relationship to humanity we hear, “Do not be afraid,” but not because there’s nothing scary out there that might ever happen to you. It’s about—
Moran: “I will get you through this.”
Sister Hansa: Actually, I have a dream, right, that Bush will come to talk to us. And the dream comes true. I wish! And if he doesn’t come to me, no problem, at least he’ll come to this lady. That would make me very happy.
What I understand, politically and coming from the background of the Indian philosophy and understanding: One thing is—regardless of philosophy or religious background—no religious or theology or philosophy or spirituality is supporting war, because that’s not something God has taught us. In any church, in any poem, in practice, in any book of scripture, it says God is about nonviolence and compassion, mercy and love—regardless of your different practices. So war is something that is inside-out. Like in Revelations, it says war is a human being’s mind out of control. When my mind becomes out of control, I express that out-of-control state externally also.
The last thing I’d like to mention is the kingdom of God. And that’s what is mentioned in Indian scriptures, also—that this is a time of change. And something … unrighteous into extremeness [happens], then it changes. It flips. And so this is right now what we are going through. It’s a big time of change. We are seeing, on one hand, extreme spirituality or acceptance and compassion, on another hand, extreme, this kind of war situation. And when it reaches that way, then it will flip and the kingdom of God will come. That … great vision, that’s why we are working to reinforce the spiritual energy into every single human being. Once it will reach critical mass, then it will be fact.
Carthen: I’m loving this because if you look at Martin Luther King Jr., you know he spent time with Gandhi and he followed his nonviolent approach. But the reality is that Martin was a Baptist preacher. His Judeo-Christian values come from “The Sermon on the Mount.” Love those who hate you. Do good to people who misuse you. Pray for folks who can’t stand you. He does not say retaliate! And God says by doing this, you will change the culture around you. Martin was leading this nation to repentance, not to a civil-rights movement.
What I’m thinking and I’m hoping all the other folks around the table who lead congregations agree with is [that] we have the only agent that changes people. Not policy, not Legislature, but the spirit of God. It changes the behavior of people. And when people’s behavior changes, it changes communities. And when a community changes, it changes systems.
The May 17 luncheon—attended by the Rev. Dr. David Thompson of Westminster Presbyterian, the Rev. Georgia Prescott of the Center for Spiritual Awareness and Pastor Les Shelton of First Church of Nazarene—was just as emotional.
Thompson: I would advise George Bush that we need to get out of there as quickly as possible. Our presence there is causing the insurgency. The longer you stay there, the more Americans will die. The more Iraqis will die.
Shelton: I think that I don’t know all the ramifications either way, to be honest with you. He is our elected leader. Everybody certainly has a right to be against his policies, but I just want to be assured that he is doing what he believes is the right thing. I don’t know that a unilateral withdrawal would not have more disastrous consequences than doing it however else there is to do it. So I would be reluctant to advise him to leave this afternoon.
I understand about war. I understand it’s awful. I am not surprised about what happened there. I had a conversation with my wife when they said we were going in. I said, “We will never get out” because of the factions. In these kinds of countries, [the factions] are just going to go on and on. It may have been ill-advised for us to go. But because of the emotion of the nation at the moment, it seemed like a good idea at the time, at least to the president and the Congress and all the rest of them.
I am suspect of the vehemence of the opposition just prior to the presidential election.
Prescott: Yes, I agree.
Shelton: So I am not inclined to make drastic commitments one way or the other. … I don’t get involved in the political issues because—I guess I’m a little cynical, but I don’t quite trust all that I hear about political issues, on either side. And I’m probably not smart enough. I do this one thing; this is what I do.
I believe we shouldn’t kill people. I’m not in favor of war. I believe we’re manipulated into these things. I believe, at least in this century, we have this great media engine that goes around the world taking pictures of awful things that are happening and begins to tell us we need to do something, then finally the American public decides we need to do something, the leaders go and do something, and then the media meets ’em on the beach and tells ’em they’re doing it all wrong. I believe that the entire process is a manipulation like that. And basically it’s to keep the stockholders and the media happy. I’m not able to get into it.
Prescott: I want to just be clear that I am answering the question, if he asked me for his advice. … For me, because I don’t deal with politics from the pulpit—and I’m very careful with that—I tell people, “Look, my background is a lunatic fringe of the left. You know exactly what I think on all of these issues.” But our founder has asked us to say the idea that we are for something and against nothing. And so we have a 64-day season for nonviolence, when we simply drill peace practices into our heads and our hearts that are very practical. And we do lots of peace activities. We don’t do any anti-war activities from the pulpit. Now, you’ll find me personally out there [opposing the war], but you won’t see me as the spiritual leader of the community out there.
Thompson: I gave you my short answer that I’d give to President Bush. But the facts that are out there are very interesting, on this war. … I protested against this war on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento. I wrote a [guest commentary] in SN&R, with my photograph that was put out there. It read, “Support the troops and turn our foreign policy toward peace.” I believe in Mother Teresa when she says, “I won’t attend an anti-war protest, but I will attend a pro-peace rally.” I think there’s a real place for that kind of ministry. … Focus on peace, you’ll bring peace. If you focus on hate, you’ll bring hate.
I’m listening to the troops. The troops are telling me, “Let’s get the heck out. This war isn’t working. We’re dying over there. Are you listening, America?” That’s what I’m hearing from the troops. And I’m also hearing, “I don’t think we got into this for the right reasons.” So I’m not just for undying loyalty to the flag and to the troops and all that kind of thing. These are real people, and they have given their lives for their country and, unfortunately, we’re going to be saying to them, “For what did you do this?” And that becomes huge.
Prescott: But I think we have to be very careful, because we don’t want these moms and dads to think that their children died in vain, and without our gratitude.
Shelton: Right, right. … The problem I have is that anecdotal evidence is always a moving target. So when we receive anecdotal testimony from some troops, and different anecdotal evidence from other troops, so that when we talk about finding the facts—it’s not that easy to find the facts. Virtually everybody who goes to the trouble to print some facts usually has an agenda. So you have to keep trying to dig away the agenda in order to find out what the facts are. It’s not that simple. It is often presented as being simplistic, but it’s just not simple.
Prescott: None of it is really. I used to be a person who just wanted “peace at any cost.” I didn’t care, just peace. And then I went to see the movie Hotel Rwanda and I thought, “You know what? I want our guys to go over there with guns. And get those people safe.” So it’s not easy.