Religious moderates, long overshadowed by their conservative counterparts in the debate over Iraq, found their way back to center stage at a press conference at the Episcopal Church Center in Chicago December 1. In their first joint statement on a national political issue, members of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago urged President Bush to make war "among the last options our nation might elect," and work with other nations to ensure a long-term stability in the Middle East and around the world.
In a letter to President Bush drafted Thanksgiving week and signed by over 30 of the 47 denominational and faith group leaders making up the council, Chicago's religious leaders urged the President to continue working with other nations for greater security in the Middle East and Persian Gulf "while avoiding, if at all possible, a costly, dangerous and destructive war." The leaders, acknowledging their past difficulty achieving consensus on the 1990-91 Gulf War as well as last year's intervention in Afghanistan, were able to find common ground on the issue of whether war with Iraq is justified at this time. It is not, they said.
While some members believe war can never be justified, and others hold that just war is possible under narrow guidelines, the council as a whole decided "that in the present situation conditions justifying war have not been met," stated the leaders in their letter. Noting that "compelling evidence" of an imminent Iraqi attack is missing, and that diplomacy has not been exhausted, the leaders stressed "that there is ample time and latitude for pursuing alternatives that could avert warfare, saving untold thousands of lives."
War should be 'absolute last resort'
The United States needs to allow the U.N. inspection teams time to do their work, said Bishop William Persell of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago at the press conference. Persell, who is president of the Chicago religious leaders council, said the U.N. teams should be tough and thorough in their inspections, and that member nations should "hold Saddam Hussein's feet to the fire and not let him get away with anything. We have to really push him to comply with past U.N. resolutions on disarmament."
War, said Persell, should remain an "absolute last resort."
That sentiment was shared by Bishop Joseph Sprague of the United Methodist Church's Northern Illinois Conference. "It is impossible to think about war with anything other than a heart of sadness," he said. "War has to be the very last option if there is to be any kind of human dignity and decency."
Several of the leaders present for the press conference hoped the letter would be a signal for a broad-based public debate on U.S. policy in the Middle East, a debate that has been nearly monopolized by religious conservatives, they said.
"There is always a reluctance to do this," said the Rev. Paul Rutgers, executive director of the Chicago Presbytery and the council's executive director. "We feel that as well. But hopefully this will be part of a democratic process that will have people open up and express their feelings."
Sprague said that on visits to Washington D.C. senators have been asking him why the progressive voice of religion has been haphazard in its engagement of public policy issues, allowing the Christian Coalition to monopolize the headlines. By drafting this letter, the council now has an answer, he said.
"Today that voice is being articulated and I do believe that they want to hear it because it is representing them in the grassroots of this nation," said Sprague.
Letter is first for council
Given the council's diversity -- a religious mosaic of Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish and Islamic faith groups -- forging solidarity was no mean feat. Rutgers noted that this is the first time the council has taken a public stand on national political issues, a watershed event in its fifteen-year history. Organized by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago to address the city's racial tension, the Council of Religious Leaders meets monthly to discuss social issues affecting local communities and faith groups. In a rare public statement, the council last spring called for more stringent safeguards to prevent clergy sexual misconduct.
Though council members had talked informally with each other about a response to the rising tensions with Iraq earlier this year, efforts to draft a statement didn't get underway until an October dinner hosted by Persell and his wife Nancy at their home. Those conversations continued through email exchanges, culminating in a day-long retreat November 26 where the leaders composed a letter to President Bush. For Bishop Timothy Lyne, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago, the galvanizing force has been the rapport and trust shared among the leaders.
"We have different ways of thinking about many things, but the men and women who are part of this organization have a unique ability to talk to each other honestly because we trust each other," he said.
Given the diversity of organizations on the council -- besides most mainstream Protestant and Catholic denominations, members include the Chicago Board of Rabbis, the Council of Islamic Organizations, several Baptist conventions, the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, the Salvation Army, and the Unitarian Church -- the letter should catch the eye, and perhaps the heart, of the nation's leaders, said Rabbi Ira Youdovin of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.
"This demonstrates that opposition to a war at this time transcends denominational boundaries. It transcends ideological boundaries," said Youdovin. "It unites people who may disagree on many things, but we agree that this is an important issue and something that our country dare not do at this time."
Later this week, after other religious leaders have had a chance to read the letter and add their names to it, the letter will be mailed to the White House.
David Skidmore is director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. The text of the letter is available on the diocesan web site at www.epischicago.org.
By David Skidmore