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.
have to find a way to shape arguments (about war) using the lens of the
religious community," says Edgar, a United Methodist clergyman.
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
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.
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."
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
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.
"We've linked the message with getting into the media," Edgar says. "On our
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
"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.
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.
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
"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.
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.
Saddam Hussein holding up a rifle. They don't see the children holding
up empty bowls or the children in the hospitals."
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.
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
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.
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.'"
World Service, which lost access to Iraq when the Middle East Council of
Churches was expelled, is working now through the Mennonites to provide
Edgar says the NCC helped invent the "All Our Children" campaign to raise money for food and medicine now for Iraqi children.
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.
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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