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NCC's Edgar holds to belief that war can be averted

3/17/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: Photographs are available.

A UMNS Report By Ann Whiting* By Ann Whiting*

Even as a U.S.-led military action against Iraq appears imminent to most Americans, the Rev. Bob Edgar holds steadfast to his belief that war can be averted.

Edgar, top staff executive of the National Council of Churches, has been working 16-hour days, jetting across the United States and around the world, building anti-war coalitions and making the church's voice heard in arenas of power and in the public media.

As late as March 16, he was among those rallying Americans in Washington with a candlelight vigil and concert against war, as part of a simultaneous rolling vigil across the world.

"We have to find a way to shape arguments (about war) using the lens of the religious community," says Edgar, a United Methodist clergyman.

A former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, Edgar served six terms in the 1970s and '80s, a period that saw the end of the Vietnam War. Later, as a seminary president, he turned around United Methodist-related Claremont (Calif.) School of Theology, rebuilding its endowment, its buildings and its faculty. In his current role, he has reshaped the NCC's mission and vision.

In recent months, his focus has largely been on advocating for peaceful resolutions to the crisis over Iraq, which reportedly has developed weapons of mass destruction. Edgar took a delegation of religious leaders to Iraq last fall on a humanitarian mission. The delegation, which included a public relations consultant, sought to focus U.S. media attention on the needs of Iraq's children and the results of long-term economic sanctions.

"We've been on the 'Today Show,' 'Nightline,' the Fox News 'Point-Counterpoint' on
Friday night and with Chris Matthews on 'Hardball,'" he says. "We have done some things to get the media's attention. I bring both the political antenna and a pastoral antenna."

Edgar says he has realized that the church will be heard if it is seen in the national news.
Part of the campaign to raise awareness has included placing a full-page ad in the New York Times, which in his words "caused a stir."

"It cost $90,000 to do that," he says. "The ad said, 'Mr. President: you tell us Jesus has changed your heart. We pray that he will change your mind.' And then we listed quotes from Bishop Melvin Talbert and a quote from Jim Winkler (head of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society)."

Next came a television ad with Talbert. "What's interesting about that ad is that we only paid for it to be shown twice, both in Washington D.C. on Fox and CNN," Edgar says. "All the rest of the time it was a news story, so we got about $5 million worth of coverage around the country.

'Middle Church'

"We've linked the message with getting into the media," Edgar says. "On our
Iraqi trip, calling it a humanitarian inspection, focusing on pictures of children, all of that was an attempt to change the way 'Middle Church' - a term I've invented, meaning middle America at church - views the impending war.

"There is a whole group of us who would be opposed to war under any circumstances and there's a whole group who can't find a war that they are not for!"

Edgar is focusing on the audience in the middle.

"Here's where I think Bush has failed. That group (in the middle) generally focuses on a 'just war' theory. They are not pacifists, they are not pro-war and they wonder whether war is justified."

Edgar says the efforts with "Middle Church" can make a difference.

"My guess is, if we had a little more time, we could get more people to actually see real Iraqis, and they'd discover a couple of things: one is that the Muslims in Iraq are less fundamentalist than any of the Muslims in the region. They are moderate Muslims - Sunni, not Shiite. They would discover that the children in Iraq look like our grandchildren. Yet we have this idea that all we are doing is removing an evil empire."

Edgar says he is troubled by "George Bush's arrogance." The president, he says, seems to believe that "God is not only on his side, but God is not on anyone else's side. I am frustrated with Bush's rhetoric, when it's so clear that he is blinded by the complexity (of the issues) and captured by the simplicity of his own arguments.

"It is amazing to me that he has been able to paint Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein with the same brush. They are both evil, but there are varieties of evil. They are not totally evil. They are human, and all of us as humans have a variety of evil tendencies."

Edgar also suspects the president's advisers are helping shape his religious rhetoric for their own purposes.

"I think his advisers have helped cloak (the impending war) in the language of American civil religion," Edgar continues. "They are people whose religion is the Jerry Falwell-Pat Robertson religion, and they move that into the political realm from a very self-righteous view of the world that we are right and everyone else is wrong, that we are knowledgeable and everybody else is ignorant.

"Americans sees Saddam Hussein holding up a rifle. They don't see the children holding up empty bowls or the children in the hospitals."

From Edgar's perspective, the presence of inspectors in Iraq represents a victory. He wants to tell the president, "You've won."

"Where I part company with the president is that he's already inside Iraq; he doesn't need to go to war," Edgar says. "What is all this talk about war? Is there another agenda?

"If you shift from destroying weapons of mass destruction to regime change, that gets us on fairly thin ice," he says.

"There are a lot of regimes that I hope would change over time. But I don't understand democracy as a form of government that decides to do regime change from top down rather than from voting up.

"We need to learn how to model some different behavior to show people, particularly in cultures like Iraq that don't have a culture of democracy, what is good about democracy. From their perspective, looking at us, what are they seeing about democracy? What are we telling people when we tell them we wish military leaders would assassinate their leader? What are we telling them about democracy?"

Voices in the wilderness

Asked if he has thoughts about how the NCC can help church leaders deal with supporting military personnel while at the same time being a critic of war, Edgar responds, "Absolutely."

"We need to support the warrior even when we are opposed to the war," he says. "I think it is very appropriate for Christians to be supportive of the warrior. We need to pray for them. I also think we need to pray for the president of the United States, even if you think the president's wrong."

Edgar maintains he is unwilling to use the term "when" in discussing a possible war against Iraq.

"I'm refusing to do anything logistically to prepare for the war. I actually got mad because the State Department came to all the aid organizations (including Church World Service, an arm of the NCC) and said, 'We're going to give you a lot of money to repair Iraq, but we don't want you to do anything between now and when the war starts.'"

Church World Service, which lost access to Iraq when the Middle East Council of Churches was expelled, is working now through the Mennonites to provide aid.

Edgar says the NCC helped invent the "All Our Children" campaign to raise money for food and medicine now for Iraqi children.

"We are going to have a horrendous humanitarian effort, I believe, and maybe I'm too political for some of our church folk, but I don't believe you give concessions to the State Department that you are going to help them (rebuild Iraq after war). A couple of aid organizations have already told the State Department they are not going to accept any of its money for the war - Oxfam, for example. They'll help in the rebuilding, but they are not going to accept government money, particularly money in advance.

"Let me be clear," Edgar says. "Humanitarian aid is fine. If you want to stockpile stuff on the side, that's fine. But don't give our government the impression that (we believe) it is automatic we are going to war.

"Iraqis won't need tents (after a war). They need medicines and food now. We need to expose the evils of sanctions. We've killed so many children."

Edgar likens the current witness for peace to the work of the Old Testament prophets.

"We are voices crying in the wilderness. One of the problems with organized religion is that they take too many votes, and we think God's will is what one more than half of us thinks it is.

"Remember that none of the prophets were in a majority," he says. "None of them ever took a vote to figure out what God's will was."
# # #
*Whiting is editor of the Michigan Christian Advocate, the newspaper of the United Methodist Church's Michigan Area.

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