Creating a civil conversation

Posted: Friday, March 15, 2002

You may have seen Mike Lukovichs political cartoon in the Empire on Tuesday. The first panel shows an affable-looking man speaking to a crowd, saying, "I'm a Democrat and I like the President." The next panel shows the crowd pummeling him with fists and clubs, and the correcting voice that floats from the affable mans battered body says, "I-I mean Love!!!"

With the presidents approval rating so high, it is easy to get the impression that every loyal American has, or should, join in unwavering and unqualified support of the steps he is taking to respond to the Sept. 11 attacks. And if the cartoon is right, there is an underlying threat implied in the call to support. The inference to be drawn is that disagreement may be disloyal, un-American, and maybe even dangerous. The message is clear: If you qualify your support of the war, you do it at your peril. One columnist in the Washington Post called antiwar protesters, unhappy people who like to yell about the awfulness of Amerika and attacked pacifists as liars, frauds and hypocrites, whose views are objectively pro-terrorist and evil.

Where in this present overheated scenario is the possibility for debate? Our British friends have a history in their parliamentary system of identifying the party not in power as Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Opposition in a democracy is not disloyal. Its useful and necessary. It clarifies the issues and builds consensus. Where, in ordinary social interchange on the subject of the war, which is clearly the most important subject for our time, are the voices that will say, as loyal Americans, "Now wait a minute."

Martin Luther King, Jr. said the church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. That reminder readily extends itself beyond the church to all people of faith.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners suggests that genuine faith either forbids violence as a methodology or says that violence must always be limited or lamented, never glorified or celebrated. He says that faith always seeks alternatives to violence that seek to break its deadly cycle. Still, it appears that American churchgoers have been as supportive of the U.S. military campaign as the rest of the citizenry. From the beginning, some honest people of faith have been particularly enthused about countering violence with violence, and support the apparent escalation of the war into those countries named as an axis of evil.

The question for this debate is not who is right. The question is whether we can have the debate at all. The question is whether those on one side will listen to the other without questioning either the depth of their faith or the extent of their loyalty. Those who stand with the president, some as people of faith and most, if not all, as loyal Americans, may welcome violence as our response to the clear threats that face us as a nation.

But there is another side to this debate. The great word of this Christian season, of Lent and of Easter, is that violence, the ultimate violence of a Roman cross, the terrifyingly effective deterrent of that worlds only superpower, did not win. And for those who are thinking at this moment, as the great juggernaut of an escalating war grinds away, "Now wait a minute," for those the great word of faith is that violence will not save us.

Who will be the conscience of the state, the loyal opposition, and say that word? And who will be brave enough to hear it?

Thomas Dahl is pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church.

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