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Commentary: Speaking unspeakable questions about
faith, fear, empire

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William K. McKelvaney
June 12, 2006

A UMNS Commentary
By William K. McElvaney*

Reaffirmation of nonviolent dissent is absolutely necessary to democracy and to uphold the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That this needs to be consistently reasserted seems absurd. Yet, a climate of fear has silenced a significant portion of the press, the public and the pews of our churches.

Indeed, throughout the global community, fear has become a weapon used by governments, commercial enterprises, special interest groups and, of course extremist organizations such as al-Qaida.

In the United States, for example, the present administration has demonstrated a dangerous tendency to equate nonviolent dissent with disloyalty. This use of intimidation has included verbal charges of patriotic failure and aiding our enemies, reinforced by secret surveillance and wiretapping. The results have been outrageous intrusions into organizations with long histories of peaceful inquiry and concerns for separation of church and state. Just ask the American Friends Service Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The dumbing and numbing down of press, public and pew does not bode well for democracy as we have known it. Once people lose sight of the distinction between support of their country and the policies of their government, democracy is on a slippery slope. As history shows us, when dissent is seen as seditious, the resulting picture is not pretty. Long ago, Isaiah exclaimed, “Truth has fallen in the public squares.” (Isaiah 59).

Woe to the deafening silence then and now that becomes complicit with falsehood.

It is for all these reasons that I applaud the United Methodist bishops’ “Statement of Conscience: A Call to Repentance and Peace With Justice.” Signed last November by 96 active and retired bishops, with perhaps many other supporters, the prophetic statement is soundly grounded in the peacemaking Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It provides a remarkable example of repentance and future commitment, minces no words as to the bishops’ belief that the invasion and occupation of Iraq are unjust and immoral, and calls “upon all United Methodists to join in the pursuit of peace through justice as revealed in Holy Scripture and incarnate in Jesus Christ.”

The bishops’ statement emboldens the church to accept the gospel’s call to break silence and to embrace the courage to move from the paralysis of fear to the promise and power of being prophetic.

With great respect for the bishops’ statement, I nevertheless invite and challenge our United Methodist leaders on all levels to take yet another essential step of prophetic discernment and utterance.

Fear, truth and empire

In the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, John the Baptist, Paul and Jesus, to name a few, I believe we must speak “truth to power.” In my opinion, that means overcoming our fear and addressing the reality of American Empire and what it is doing to our country and the world at large. The war in Iraq is arguably the clearest sign of that empire, but it is only the iceberg tip of endangered American values.

Domestically, the empire formula is simple: the most vulnerable are the most expendable.

If we can put aside our fear, then we can lift up these simple facts: Some 30 to 40 million Americans unsure of their next meal; thousands of children without health insurance; seniors nationwide no longer receiving grocery boxes each month and having to choose between food, health care or paying rent; increasing numbers of our citizens, including the working poor, flocking to food banks; shameful neglect of thousands of the poorest citizens, the vast majority of whom are African-Americans, following Hurricane Katrina; disdain for environmental protections and clear evidence of global warming, all of this while committing billions for the war in Iraq.

Globally, the signs of empire are equally apparent — and here the power of fear holds even more sway over our ability to speak the truth: A war initiated on shifting false pretenses, yet in the name of national security, democracy and freedom; seeking military solutions with expanding budgets, which dwarf social spending at home; willingness to tolerate torture and disappearing suspected terrorists into secret “black holes” in undisclosed locations.

Similarly, holding some 500 prisoners from Afghanistan and Iraq in Guantanamo without legal counsel or charges against them, thus defying long-held American values as well as international law; ignoring, vetoing or reneging on a range of negotiated agreements enjoying overwhelming support of the world community; willingness to sacrifice thousands of young Americans to death or injury on the altar of an unnecessary war, to say nothing about the death of Iraqi civilians through our “shock and awe” bombing and ongoing occupation.

The marks of empire are hardly new in American history. From early notions of Manifest Destiny to much later attempts to dominate Latin America, American Empire has raised its head. Yet the extent of current domestic and global manifestations of empire has caused me to ask questions I have never asked before:
  • Has the combination and dominance of far right religion and government brought our nation so far in the direction of empire that we can’t bring it back? Have we crossed the Rubicon beyond return?
  • How can the church, at its best, not ask, “Has our administration, with the patriotically intended blessing of the church itself, developed a sophisticated system of human sacrifice beyond anything the Mayas and Incas ever imagined, by virtue of the choices it is making domestically and globally?”

Christian peacemaking

To ask such questions today is to risk being branded as disloyal or unpatriotic. But Christian peacemaking today must call into question the underpinning of empire that sustains the war even as we acknowledge our own complicity.

This is not about bashing President Bush as a person. It is about overcoming our fear and challenging the church to be more beholden to the Gospel of Jesus Christ than to our government’s propensity for empire. To do so affords the highest example of patriotism based on love of our country’s most enduring values.

Christian peacemaking is rooted in God’s love, a perfect love that casts out fear. We are called to challenge the sources of fear in our world today, whether they be terrorism, nuclear proliferation, global warming, violence in our society and across the world. And as Christians we are called to invite and challenge our government to become an agent of peace, justice and reconciliation.

Let’s pray and work together so the promise and power of our faith as Christians provide an antidote to the destructive forces at work in the world today. By being faithful to the gospel, we can embody hope and show the world that Christian peacemaking points to a greater power than fear.

Our home is not in Washington or in Crawford, Texas. Our home is in Bethlehem, Nazareth and Emmaus.

*McElvaney is professor emeritus of preaching and worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, in Dallas. He served as president of Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo., and as a United Methodist pastor for 15 years. He welcomes comments at

United Methodist News Service publishes commentaries on a wide range of issues and from a variety of viewpoints. Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.

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