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War, domestic concerns dominate legislative briefing


NOTE: Photographs are available with this story.

By Joretta Purdue*

WASHINGTON (UMNS) - Politicians and social justice advocates held out hope during a legislative briefing that people across the United States could still make a difference where it counts: in the budget and on issues of war and peace.

More than 250 United Methodists attended a March 2-5 legislative briefing on "Gospel Demands Public Witness," sponsored by the denomination's Board of Church and Society. Speakers, including two senior senators, called for alternatives to a military strike against Iraq and urged President George Bush to give more attention to domestic issues.

Sen. Edward "Ted" Kennedy (D-Mass.), a Catholic, and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), a United Methodist, both elected to Congress in 1962, spoke about the costs of war. Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund, lamented the Bush administration's proposed budget and the high price she said it will exact from children and the poor.

Kennedy praised Bush "for the way he rallied America and the entire international community after the appalling terrorist attack of Sept. 11," and for "impressive leadership" during the war in the Afghanistan.

"But few can also deny that after that, President Bush squandered too much of the good will of the world community because of his single-minded rush to war with Iraq even if he has a few - or even no - allies to go to war with him, and even when there are other ways to contain the threat posed by Saddam's Iraq," Kennedy said. His address was broadcast live on C-Span.

He said everyone agrees that Saddam is a despicable dictator, but he asserted that war with Iraq would make the world more dangerous rather than less. He warned against shattering "the very coalition that we need in order to combat the greater and more imminent threat we face from al-Qaida and its terrorists." This is the same coalition that led to the arrest the preceding weekend of the man believed to have planned the Sept. 11 attack on the United States, Kennedy added.

"On top of these actions, the Bush administration quietly and stealthily changed a half a century of American defense policy from one that used our nuclear arsenal for defense to one in which nuclear weapons may be used pre-emptively," Kennedy said. That is a major change that affects prospects for peace on the planet, and Americans are owed a debate on that, he said.

"We cannot be a bully in the world schoolyard and expect cooperation, friendship and support from the rest of the world," he cautioned. War cannot be successfully waged if it lacks the strong support of the people. "The reason for that lack of support today is clear. The administration has not made a convincing argument for war against Iraq or its costs or its consequences."

He urged strengthening domestic defenses and an honest discussion of the financial costs of war. "Across the country, the Bush administration is leaving local governments high and dry in the face of continuing threats at home."

"I'm here because I've seen too many wars," Inouye said. One of his sleeves hangs empty because he lost an arm in military service during World War II.

He was a naive 18-year-old when he left Hawaii, he recalled, a young man who sang in the choir, attended worship and participated in Sunday school. After a little training, he went to the front. He will never forget shooting his first German soldier. He was praised by his buddies, and "I felt proud," he confessed softly.

"Killing becomes commonplace," he said. The training and military experience changes people, he reported. "It does terrible things to the human soul."

"It would take a minor miracle to change the path we're on (to war with Iraq)," he commented. Though he's the senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he said he has been given no idea how long such a war will take, how long an occupation the administration expects and what will happen after Saddam Hussein is gone. And even after Saddam, potential will exist for much bloodshed among the various ethnic and religious groups within Iraq, he said.

U.S. Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), a former Marine whose speech is slurred by Parkinson's Disease, complained that the men and women of the armed forces have been sent to countries that most Americans could not locate. Meanwhile, he said, this nation will not be able to devote resources to finding a cure for diseases like Alzheimer's.

"We need another debate before we rush to war," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas). Since the passage last year of a bill authorizing the president to use military force against Iraq, "the world is a different place. We have an extremely dire situation in North Korea, and Iraq is complying with the U.N. weapons inspections."

"War always produces uncontemplated, difficult-to-handle effects," said U.S. Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), one of the few Republicans who voted against the war authorization bill. He particularly warned against letting a war with Iraq become a war between cultures. To avoid promoting this perception, he advised careful use of language, particularly words such as "evil" - a moral precept that can be applied to actions and individuals but not countries - and "axis" - a term for an alliance.

"As long as democracy means anything, war is not inevitable," said Tom Andrews, national spokesperson for the Win Without War coalition, which includes the National Council of Churches. There is "a chance to expose this great mistake we are about to make." But he also warned against appearing to favor appeasement. "The first priority problem from my point of view is the terrorists and the conditions that cause terrorism to thrive."

Several speakers, such as U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), expressed concern for domestic issues.

"This country ought to stand for a national health care plan - a quality health care plan," Kucinich said. "Preserve Social Security and resist any efforts to privatize," he urged, saying Social Security is rock solid through 2041 as it is. He supports "full employment with a living wage" and an America at peace with the world "without aggressive unilateralism."

Eleanor Holmes Norton, delegate to the House of Representatives from the District of Columbia, said of the current administration and Congress: "They need to get back to the business of the United States of America." She praised churches for providing leadership and speaking out on the issues of the day.

"It's time for all people of conscience to wake up and stop the Bush administration's war on poor children," said Edelman. "This budget (recently proposed for the coming year) says the poor should subsidize the rich."

The Bush administration's budget dismantles Head Start, housing, foster care and Medicaid under the guise of state flexibility, she warned. She accused the administration of "playing a shell game," putting a few more dollars in some children's programs and taking away millions from others.

As an example, she said the budget would force children, persons with disabilities and the elderly to compete for diminishing amounts of money, while allowing states facing some of the biggest deficits in 50 years to eliminate or severely curtail programs for all these people.

"We have a profound values problem in America," she said. She urged her listeners to challenge "the unjust priorities" of the nation.

Two speakers focused on the problem of hunger. The Rev. Kenneth Horne Jr., a United Methodist who leads the Society of St. Andrew, urged people who do mercy ministries and those who do advocacy ministries to work together. The Rev. David Beckman, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who heads Bread for the World, called for support for President Bush's Millennium Challenge Account proposal to aid poor countries.

U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) raised questions about the high U.S. prison population and the difficulties that ex-convicts face in ever achieving a self-sustaining, productive life after release. In Illinois, he said, ex-convicts are barred from 56 jobs and from much housing.

Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine and an evangelical Christian, observed that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, would ask how the Bush administration's budget proposal and a possible war would affect poor people. That is the kind of question Wesley asked about alcohol and slavery, Wallis said.

Before the briefing, Jim Winkler, staff head of the Board of Church and Society, spoke to several advocacy networks about prophetic ministries.

"The logic of empire may well require good people to do bad things," he said. "It does not require the church of Jesus Christ to support such actions." Winkler cited Bishop C. Dale White's address to the 1992 General Conference, in which the bishop named three interlocking, demonic systems: hunger-making, war-making and desert-making.

"That," Winkler said, "is the true axis of evil."
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*Purdue is United Methodist News Service's Washington news director.

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