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Where to put the faith

Juneau Christians struggle with use of U.S. force in Iraq

Posted: Tuesday, October 15, 2002

As a U.S. attack on Iraq becomes more likely, interpreting Christ's teachings on peace and justice has become a difficult task for Christians in Juneau and around the United States.

Bishop Michael Warfel of the Catholic diocese of Juneau joined the two other Catholic bishops in Alaska, Roger Schwietz of Anchorage and Donald Kettler of Fairbanks, in issuing a letter urging the United States to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict with Iraq.

The letter was in response to President Bush's Sept. 18 request that Congress give him full authority to use military force in Iraq. Congress last week passed a resolution authorizing such force.

"While the behavior of the Iraqi government has been unconscionable, it is imperative that we continue to seek peaceful resolutions that involve the entire international community," the bishops' letter stated.

The letter supported correspondence sent to President Bush on Sept. 13 by Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Not everybody agrees with the letter," Warfel said. "And some people would certainly take a much different stance."

Most of the response Warfel has received from members of the Diocese of Juneau has been positive, though.

"People have talked to me after reading the statement and they were thankful for the direction," he said.

Warfel said he will continue to keep world leaders in his prayers.

"The goal is that all people and all lands and all nations and all cultures would be able to live together in harmony and peace," he said. "That's certainly my prayer."

Juneau's Quakers also oppose a unilateral U.S. attack on Iraq.

Jonathan Anderson, clerk of the Ministry and Council for the Juneau chapter of the Society of Friends, said a pacifist view has been held by the Quakers since the group was founded in the 1600s.

"It's Jesus' call to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," Anderson said. "Jesus was taken hostage and when Peter took up the sword to defend him, he told (Peter) to put it down, that he who lives by sword will die by the sword."

While Anderson said he cannot speak for the approximately 25 active members of the Juneau Quaker community, the group did pass a resolution opposing unilateral action against Iraq.

Jimmie Stringer, pastor of the First Baptist Church on Twin Lakes, has a different interpretation of the Bible's stance on peace and nonviolence.

"We think that because there is an evil force involved with terrorism, it has to be dealt with and if we don't deal with it, it won't go away," Stringer said. "I will do whatever the government requires as long as doesn't contradict the teachings of Scripture."

He cited the New Testament passage in Romans 13, which instructs Christians to be obedient to governing authorities, as the Scripture most relevant to his position.

"Jesus said, 'Render onto Caesar things that are Caesar's,' " Stringer said, quoting the Matthew 22:21. "In dealing with things like the situation in Iraq, this is a matter of justice and civil law. Government and military forces are ways that God uses to maintain justice."

Despite his belief in the government's capability to justly handle the situation, Stringer said he includes prayers for world leaders in his Sunday services.

"We actually pray for our enemies," he said. "We pray God will work with them so it doesn't have to come to war, and we hope it won't, but if it does we'll do what we have to do."

The Rev. Bill Nelson of the United Pentecostal Church of Juneau also feels most of his congregation supports U.S. strikes against Iraq. He said Jesus' teachings on pacifism are difficult to apply at times like this.

"When your very country and way of life is being threatened, you have to do something about it," Nelson said. "If you took (pacifism) completely to the extreme, the U.S. would cease to exist and we would probably be communist by now.

"We're not war mongers. But our forefathers were Christian people, and a lot of them had to take up arms to make this nation what it is."

Nelson said he tries to stay away from preaching about the situation in Iraq, but he does pray regularly for the victims.

"When two countries clash, most of the time innocent people die," Nelson said. "That's something that I feel a great burden for."

Thomas Dahl, pastor of the Aldersgate United Methodist Church, said he prays for an alternative to war.

"We've prayed for leaders around the world that they may be responsible to all of humanity," Dahl said. "These decisions are difficult."

Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, recently issued a statement calling for restraint in U.S. actions against Iraq.

Aldersgate does not have an official opinion differing from the council's view, Dahl said, but he believes his community's reaction to the situation is consistent with Christopher's statement.

"I would say that the ones who are most outspoken about the present situation concur with the position of the denomination," he said. He has not heard any negative reaction to the statement.

Dahl said the scriptural basis of the United Methodist Church's stance can be found in the fifth chapter of Matthew.

" 'Blessed are the peacemakers,' that's what Jesus taught," said Dahl. "As Christians, if the government goes against the intent of the Gospel, which is to take care of people and to deal with the needs of people who are in trouble, it's our task to figure out where our loyalties are. And that's sometimes a difficult task."

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.



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