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War in Iraq underscores bigger 'clash,' speakers say


NOTE: Photographs are available with this report.

By Joretta Purdue*

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K. James Davies (left), chaplain at the University of Puget Sound, and Susan Henry-Crowe, chaplain at Emory University, take part in a panel discussion during the "Servant Leadership Symposium" sponsored by the United Methodist Higher Education Foundation and in Washington. The panel discussed how the immediate conflict in the Middle East is affecting the United Methodist schools they serve and the larger effort of working in a multicultural setting. A UMNS photo Jay Mallin. Photo number 03-135, Accompanies UMNS #209, 4/10/03

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Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic Studies at American University, speaks on Islam and Christianity during the "Servant Leader Symposium" sponsored by the United Methodist Higher Education Foundation in Washington. Akbar cited Islam's traditional regard for Christianity, beginning with the Prophet Mohammad's respect for Jesus, quoted in the Koran. A UMNS photo Jay Mallin. Photo number 03-137, Accompanies UMNS #209, 4/10/03

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George McGovern tells participants in a "Servant Leader Symposium" in Washington that the U.S.-led war against Iraq is representative of a larger struggle, a clash of civilizations. McGovern, a , former senator from South Dakota, 1972 presidential candidate and history professor, was highly critical of the current US war against Iraq. The symposium was sponsored by the United Methodist Higher Education Foundation. A UMNS photo Jay Mallin. Photo number 03-134, Accompanies UMNS #209, 4/10/03

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Retired Bishop James K. Matthews speaks to the "Servant Leader Symposium" in Washington, sponsored by the United Methodist Higher Education Foundation. Matthews and his wife Eunice (seated at center) were honored for their servant leadership as part of the symposium. A UMNS photo Jay Mallin. Photo number 03-136, Accompanies UMNS #209, 4/10/03
WASHINGTON (UMNS) - The current war against Iraq is not so much a clash of cultures as a conflict between the United States and the people of the rest of the world, said former presidential candidate George McGovern.

The former South Dakota senator, 1972 Democratic presidential nominee and history professor said the U.S.-led war is also in conflict with the United Nations, not to mention the Sermon on the Mount and positions taken by U.S. leaders throughout history.

McGovern was among the speakers during an April 4-5 event honoring the servant leadership of United Methodist Bishop James K. and Eunice Mathews. The celebration included a symposium focusing on the "Clash of Civilizations: The Challenge to Our Institutions of Higher Learning." The United Methodist Higher Education Foundation and the Kerr Foundation sponsored the event.

McGovern, a United Methodist, said he doesn't think the clash will stop when Iraq surrenders. "I think other countries are on the list," he said, citing comments by administration officials. Since McGovern spoke April 5, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said that materials are continuing to enter Iraq from Syria and asserted that they will be stopped.

At the symposium, McGovern, a Democrat, criticized President Bush, a Republican and fellow United Methodist, for squandering the good will much of the world previously felt toward the people of the United States. McGovern remarked that the president has claimed to be "a uniter, not a divider," but said Bush "has united the world against the United States."

Though the president makes references to feeling guided by God, McGovern said that God "sent an entirely different message to the pope," the head of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, leading rabbis and others. McGovern himself is a former Methodist supply pastor and the son of a Wesleyan Methodist minister.

The toughest of Bush's "sideline warriors" have never been near a battle, said McGovern, a decorated bomber pilot in World War II. The best thing Bush could do is keep American troops out of an unjust war, he said.

"I don't see the slightest evidence" of a link between Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, McGovern said. Though Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida boss Osama bin Laden reportedly don't like each other, the U.S. government has said evidence exists that Iraq has provided training support to Islamic terrorist organizations. Al-Qaida is believed responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Besides McGovern's remarks, participants at the symposium heard a panel of five college chaplains discuss how the conflict in the Middle East is affecting the United Methodist schools they serve and the larger effort of working in multicultural, multifaith settings.

College students' culture is one of anxiety, said Stewart Jackson of Birmingham (Ala.)-Southern College. "Sept. 11 just heightened that." The anxiety stems from "experiencing yourself under threat," he said, noting that this is particularly true for international students. He also sees anxiety among staff and faculty.

"If you continue to relate only to people like yourself, your anxiety only will increase," he said.

Relationships provide an antidote to anxiety, he said. For example, "service learning" projects enable students to form relationships while experiencing the world beyond Western thinking, he said. Such experience is important, he said, because anxiety retards faith development, increases polarity between people, and blocks imagination and critical thinking.

The Rev. Lynn Pries at North Central College, near Chicago, has led students in service projects to other countries as well as to the impoverished Appalachia region of the United States. A student described one such project as "a spiritual growth program using hammers and saws."

The Rev. K. James Davis of the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., spoke of the value of being in ministry on a college campus, working with students of all faiths from a standpoint of one's own tradition. Last year, the students held a day of remembrance service for the Sept. 11 attacks, and each person read a prayer from a faith other than his or her own.

Before the war in Iraq, students put together a contingency plan for the outbreak of hostilities, Davis said. Vigils were held, affirming their connectedness to all humanity, he said. Their prayers were for the Iraqi people as well as U.S. soldiers and people in the United States.

The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, dean of the chapel and religious life at Atlanta's Emory University - at 12,000 students the largest of the campuses represented on the panel - said the program she heads does not work for common ground but for understanding and mutual respect among the 30 religious groups on campus. Great diversity exists within those groups, she added.

She had 10 Jewish and Muslim student leaders to her house for dinner recently and asked each to tell the stories of their grandparents, who were from all over the world. They couldn't discuss the war, but they could talk about their grandparents' lives, she explained.

The Rev. Don Fortenberry, chaplain at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., for 28 years, said students at his school are expressing their opposition to the war on street corners for the first time since the civil rights movement.

The two-day "Clash of Civilizations" event took its name from a book by Samuel Huntington, a political scientist at Harvard, who theorizes that the age of conflicts between nation-states is ending and the world has moved into a time of conflict between cultures, civilizations and religions.

The Rev. Shaun Casey, who teaches Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, outlined Huntington's thesis, which includes a rebuke to the people who think the world is moving toward unity. Huntington says the balance of power is shifting; the West's influence is declining, while Islam is exploding.

Casey offered several lessons for seminaries and divinity schools to draw: recover "public service as Christian vocation"; provide a safe place for people, including politicians, to discuss honestly faith and values; train clergy and teachers about the role of faith and public policy in a democracy; and offer "inter-civilization" education.

"Muslims in America today feel surrounded and embattled," he observed. Seminaries need to offer renewed study of Islam. "We need to know how to be good neighbors."

He also advised theological schools to deal with war as a moral issue, noting that the "just war" theory can help structure public debate; to expand the interfaith dialogue; to come to grips with increasing pluralism of religions in the United States; and to "eradicate global poverty." He said the gap between the fed and the unfed is growing.

Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Islamic studies at American University, said that Jesus is important to Islam because he symbolizes compassion, humility and peace. Ahmed spoke during a gathering of Christian scholars and education supporters hosted by Betty Bumpers, wife of former Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, as part of the two-day celebration.

A clash between West and East has been under way for the past thousand years, Ahmed said, using the Crusades as an example of that ongoing conflict.

The Muslim world has its problems, the professor noted, citing a growing gap between rich and poor, an often-corrupt ruling elite, widespread illiteracy and denial of women's rights as guaranteed by Islam. The Muslim world also feels its honor and dignity are at stake, he said.

Ahmed grew up in Pakistan and attended Catholic schools there. Fifty years ago, relations between Islam and Christianity were good, he recalled. "Churches are being attacked (now) because of the perception of Christianity on a crusade against Islam," he noted.

He urged his listeners to read about Islam; be actively involved in interfaith dialogue, which he termed the "only thing that can stop Osama bin Laden"; and speak up to say the conflict in Iraq is not a war against Islam.

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*Purdue is United Methodist News Service's Washington news director.

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