Saddam and the saints

Catholic elementary school kids learn it’s better to pray for peace than to take a stand

Sister Hilda Maria Reynoso urged her students to pray for peace.

Sister Hilda Maria Reynoso urged her students to pray for peace.

Photo by Larry Dalton

As the Christian U.S. President George Bush pushes for war against Iraq, the children of St. Peter School in Sacramento spent Friday morning praying for God to show him the path toward peace. And it wasn’t just praying. The kids also were singing songs of peace, reciting poems glorifying non-violent conflict resolution, expressing commitment to a world without war and even forming a big human peace sign on the playground.

Despite inviting the media to broadcast its message of peace as the debate about war rages, organizers of the event took great pains to cast it as non-political, non-confrontational and non-controversial. Sister Hilda Maria Reynoso, the principal, refused to address the practical or political implications of the event or its message, or to provide the names of some parents who refused to sign the permission slips allowing their young children to participate.

“Our intent here is not political at all, and I don’t want to make it political,” the Catholic nun said. “Through prayer, we just ask that the Holy Spirit enlighten our leaders. We need to recognize violence and pray that we can get rid of it.”

They admittedly were praying that Bush doesn’t attack Iraq, whether that prayer is political or not. I, too, pray that something enlightens our president to the folly of launching a war on the Islamic world simply because he’s unhappy that daddy left Saddam on the throne.

So, I agree with the good sister’s worldview—at least, I think I do. I imagine Bush also would agree with many of the sentiments voiced at St. Peter School that morning, calls to embrace good and light and reject evil and darkness, the same kind of vague Christian platitudes that are the basis of Bush’s rhetorical style.

Yet, like an increasing number of people in this country, I fundamentally disagree with Bush’s willingness to resort to war. The president is simply wrong in this case, even if Reynoso considers it un-Christian to say so. But her desire to be non-political leaves ambiguities where there should be clear moral outrage.

It may seem swell for grade-school kids to embrace the vague notion of peace, but filling their heads with hopeful platitudes does little to teach them how to create peace in a complex world, or to unravel the contradictions expressed by their church.

For example, why does the United States Conference on Catholic Bishops oppose attacking Iraq when it supported attacking Afghanistan? How does Reynoso’s belief that “the teachings of Jesus are peace and non-violence” square with Bush’s view that it’s his Christian duty to start a war to rid the world of evildoers like Saddam? For that matter, what do you tell a child who prays on the question and concludes that God wants us to attack not just Iraq, but also North Korea, Iran, Russia and China?

People look to the church for moral guidance, yet not even the grade-school children of St. Peter School are given a clear path to follow. Instead, it’s all parables, prayers and platitudes. Not even with the saints—those chosen by the church to lead by their examples—are there clear messages that coercion through force is wrong.

Learning about a few of the saints who have been revived in recent rhetoric about war does offer some important lessons and perspectives, though, for Christians and the rest of us.

St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430)

Like our president himself, Augustine was a partier before he accepted Christ and became a devout member of the church. He went on to distinguish himself as a church leader who developed the doctrine of the “just war,” the exception to the “thou shalt not kill” commandment.

Despite our constitutional claim to being a secular country, St. Augustine’s name sure came up a lot on the floors of Congress during the debate before President Bush was given the go-ahead to launch a war on Iraq whenever he sees fit.

Basically, Augustine’s standards for starting a war are that the enemy must present an immediate danger that is “lasting, grave and certain”; the proper authority must declare war for the right stated intentions (no ulterior motives, such as oil or influence); all peaceful alternatives must be thoroughly exhausted; and the war must have a high probability of successfully solving the problem it addresses.

That’s a complicated and highly subjective equation and not one easily sorted out or illuminated by peace-rally organizer Marilyn Pendola’s exhortation to the St. Peter School’s kids. “You’re our peacemakers, right?” she asked, to which they all replied with an enthusiastic “Yeah!” from their places on the peace sign.

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote a letter to President Bush last month in which Gregory explained the Catholic position on this war and the last one.

“In our judgment, the use of force against Afghanistan could be justified, if it were carried out in accord with the just-war norms and as one part of a much broader, mostly non-military effort to deal with terrorism. We believe Iraq is a different case,” Gregory wrote. “Given the precedents and risks involved, we find it difficult to justify extending the war on terrorism to Iraq, absent clear and adequate evidence of Iraqi involvement in the attacks of September 11th or of an imminent attack of a grave nature.”

He goes on to put the Iraq situation through some of Augustine’s tests and concludes that the United Nations and not the United States is the “proper authority” in this case. He notes the lack of evidence that Iraq poses an immediate and grave danger and says, “War against Iraq could have unpredictable consequences not only for Iraq but for peace and stability elsewhere in the Middle East.”

Other religious organizations also oppose Bush’s current warmongering, including the 36-member National Council of Churches (which includes the major Protestant and orthodox religions), the United Methodists (whose 8.4 million members include Bush and Vice President Cheney) Council of Bishops, and just about every Islamic organization and country.

Every major religion in the world preaches peace. Yet the ideal of peace is only as good as the tools and details used to pursue it. After all, Jimmy Carter just won the Nobel Peace Prize, for his has been a lifetime of using diplomacy to avert war, more than just praying for peace. But one of the few Americans to win the prize before Carter was Henry Kissinger, who sought to attain peace by carpet-bombing North Vietnam and secretly bombing Cambodia.

Ultimately, peace can mean many things, so someone must sit in judgment.

St. Peter (d. 64)

Considered the “prince of the Apostles,” Peter was Jesus’ right-hand man throughout his Messiah days and went on to be the first pope and founder of the Roman Catholic Church. “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus told Peter, who the scriptures say renders the judgments of good and evil at the gates of heaven.

“We, students, teachers and staff of St. Peter School do hereby proclaim that we stand for peace. We ask the leaders of the world, as well as the people of the world, to seek ways of attaining an equitable, non-violent and lasting peace. We ask our leaders and the leaders of the world to choose love over fear and non-violence over war,” was how the permission slip that went home to St. Peter parents began.

As a parent of grade-school children myself, the idea of using kids in media photo ops to support a political position struck me as a little creepy. After all, I wouldn’t give my permission to let my kids take part in a pro-war rally, even one dressed up as a “support the troops” kind of thing. So, I imagine parents who support war with Iraq couldn’t be pleased about their kids being part of a peace protest.

But the school didn’t want me talking to those parents, even after I stated my anti-war views. “We’re not willing to make it controversial or political,” Pendola said, leaving the kids with a message almost totally devoid of meaningful content. The kids were told to call themselves peacemakers but not instructed on how to make peace.

“They see violence and war and feel very disempowered as a result. We want to let them know that they do make a difference in the world,” Pendola said. “Before peace can become a reality, we have to think peaceful thoughts and be peaceful people.”

When Catholics use the word peace, it refers to both inner and outer peace, more of a frame of mind than an actual lack of war in the world. It involves the ideals of love, acceptance, tolerance, patience and all those good, positive Christian virtues (and Muslim virtues, for that matter). It is something felt more than something articulated, particularly by kids.

That’s probably why KCRA reporter Deirdre Fitzpatrick—a crucifix-wearing Catholic herself—had such a hard time getting good sound bites as she asked the youngsters questions like, “What is peace?” and “How do you define peace?”

The answers, after much coaxing, included: “Peace is something that is good. It’s just about Jesus,” “It’s the good stuff that Jesus wants,” “Peace is when there is calmness and togetherness,” and “The world could be better if we all get together and don’t have wars.” All true? Sure. All cute? Absolutely. Any paths here to a world without war? Um, probably not.

Even when the kids weren’t speaking extemporaneously, during the prepared speeches in the heart of the rally, the message was about vague hopes for peace, and little by way of trying to influence Americans to stop being the world’s leading advocate of militarism.

Sure, few expect our youngsters to change this country’s attitude toward war-making. But, if Pendola’s goal was really to empower these kids, I don’t see that reflected in messages like, “We love our God and trust him to make peace,” and “If we pray for peace, one day we’ll have it.”

One kid had a dream of a peaceful world and contemplated direct action to make it a reality, even if he wasn’t exactly willing to fight for change: “I will go straight up to the president himself and tell him the dream I had, and, if he doesn’t listen, oh well, at least I tried.”

Few seemed to notice the contradiction between such defeatism and the song sang by the kindergartners though second-graders, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me,” or with the program’s closing prayer from St. Francis, “Make me a channel of your peace. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, in giving of ourselves that we receive, and in dying that we’re born to eternal life.”

St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226)

Founder of the Franciscan Order, St. Francis was the original peacenik, someone who had a divinely inspired change of heart on his way to go fight in the Fourth Crusade and came to proactively put into personal practice the Christian ideals of peace, charity, forgiveness and love.

Known to strip off his clothes in the middle of the street if he came across someone in need of them, Francis made great sacrifices as he pursued a more egalitarian world. He was so literal that when he saw the image of Jesus telling him, “Francis, repair my church,” he set about repairing the building itself. He was someone for whom the word “peace” had concrete meaning.

Although raised Catholic, I no longer subscribe to any organized religion. So, it is true that I see Reynoso’s approach of creating peace through prayer as not very effective and maybe even a little naïve. But that wasn’t the main problem I had with last week’s peace rally, which, on its surface, was warm, cute and probably a great way to plant the seed of peace in these kids.

My problem is with hypocrisy, with praying for peace instead of preaching it from every pulpit in the country, with not sounding the alarm to every parishioner in the world that the one just war there is left to fight is the one against war itself. The world’s religions collectively have the numbers to combat militarism, which is what they would do if they truly wanted to be peacemakers.

If you want to teach the kids to create peace, show them an example of concrete actions that actually will move us toward peace. Have the pope declare it the duty of all Catholics to refuse to fight wars. Have the Methodist Council of Bishops excommunicate Bush. Or, at the very least, have every church-going American sign a pledge not to vote for any members of Congress who supported the war resolution.

Bush’s proposed Gulf War II is political. It is confrontational. It is controversial, but not as controversial as it should be in this country. We Americans are allowing our empire to run amok in the world, launching wars for shamelessly flimsy and self-serving reasons, and we have not taken the personal, individual responsibility for stopping it that we should.

If we allow this president to launch this war—with all its potential to inflame the Islamic world and invite ever more terrorist attacks—prayer may be the only option for peace that we have. Let’s not rely on prayer.