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Redemption for the U.S. Through War? Church Visit #20

 By Nick Mottern and Nora Freeman


On Sunday, February 15, 2009 Martha Conte, Gayle Dunkelberger, Margaret Eberle, Nora Freeman, Debbie Kair and I attended The Church in the Highlands, a United Church of Christ-Congregational church in White Plains, NY, in our continuing bannering campaign to encourage clergy and laity to work to end the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.


We were welcomed by the pastor, the Rev. Melanie Miller, and by many in the congregation.   As Nora reports below, we offered the opportunity to spread our message on cable television, as well as the possibility of speaking to a church gathering.


But we learned later in the week that not all parishioners appreciated our visit.  One couple, objecting to our being welcomed by the pastor, said they would withdraw from the parish.    We understand that they felt the pastor should have told us to leave the church and that politics has no place there.


In addition, as will be discussed, we were told about the possibility that the theological connection that has been made between suffering and redemption may be being interpreted in a way, however unconscious, that is making war more acceptable.


We visited the Gothic stone church in a residential part of White Plains on a 30-degree, bright, sunny morning.  About 40 parishioners attended; all were white, with the exception of an African-American woman and two children.  In spite of the relatively small attendance in a sanctuary that could hold about 200, the atmosphere was warm and welcoming as light glowed into the cream-colored vaulted hall through simple, lavender and shades of light yellow stained glass windows.


The spirit of the service was summed up well by Reverend Miller, who said in her Call to Worship: “We are welcomed, we are forgiven, we are loved.”


Early in the service, at the time for “sharing joys and concerns”, we rose on the right side of the church and held up two banners.  The first said:


                              JOIN US – HELP END THE WARS!


        U.S. Soldiers                            Killed                         Wounded

          Iraq                                          4,245                            31,010

          Afghanistan                                653                              4,500


                                Cost of War From US Taxpayers

                                                $666 Billion



                          KILLED, WOUNDED OR DISPLACED


The second banner read:


                   PEACE ON EARTH   Good Will to All   Luke 2:14



Reverend Miller was obviously not surprised by our presence.  (She said later she knew of our visits because of reports such as this one that have circulated on the internet.)  She immediately told the congregation that our group has been visiting churches, that we were welcome, and she invited us to visit with parishioners during the social hour after church.  “The United Church of Christ is a very big tent,” she said.


We held the banners up for several minutes, until we felt that all had had a chance to read them, and then we returned to our pews.


Reverend Miller’s sermon dealt with choices, starting with a recounting of Jesus’ choice to heal a leper and the resulting need for Jesus to withdraw into the desert because of the crush of crowds seeking healing.  She also spoke of the unlikely choice of God, through the prophet Elisah, to heal the leprosy of the Syrian general Naaman, which led to Naaman’s acknowledging Yhwh as his god.  Naaman was advised to call on Elisah by an Israelite slave girl, another unlikely choice, said Reverend Miller.


“I stand before you saddened,” she said, “by the choices played out in our world.  And she continued:


“God does not choose military strength.  God does not choose money.  God does not choose war.  God does not choose one nation over another.”


“God chooses healing and peace.  What will you choose?”


She said that people may say: “Yes, we must always choose peace, but…”


She concluded, saying that “God’s wish for the world is unconventional…God’s choices differ from our own…God chooses love and life and happiness and health and grace and forgiveness not only for Naaman and the slave girl but for you and me.”


After the service, I asked Reverend Miller whether she had given sermons specifically on the Iraq War, and she said she had done so at the First Congregational Church of Chappaqua when she was assistant minister there.  She thought perhaps the sermons were not seen as threatening because she is a woman and was the assistant, but she believes that the pastor at that time, at the start of the Iraq War, had to leave the church because he spoke out against the war.


Reverend Miller said that the pastor gave a sermon critical of the war in which he suggested that the theological concept of redemption coming through suffering might be making war seem, even if unconsciously, palatable.  I called Reverend Miller when writing this report to make sure I understood this point, and she said that while no one would be likely to say directly that the suffering of Iraqis has a redemptive quality, she felt that perhaps on an unconscious level the theological connection between suffering and redemption might make some people think “that somehow this violence is OK.”  This, she said, “leads us down a road that I’m not prepared to go.”


Reverend Miller said that “the notion of ‘atonement’ doctrine in Christianity is the most problematic connection between redemption and suffering since the atonement doctrine tells us that we are redeemed specifically through the BLOOD of Christ…it is specifically the ‘bloodshed’ part of the redemptive action that is problematic.”


In pursuing this point on the internet, I found a sermon given in 2007 by the Rev. James Kubal-Komoto of the Saltwater Unitarian Universalist Church in Des Moines, Washington, in which he discusses the suffering-redemption connection as it relates to our current wars.  Reverend Kubal-Komoto observes there are tragedies to which the language of redemption should not applied:


“For example, in talking about the Holocaust, to say that anything good came out of the Holocaust seems to be almost monstrous.  Six million people died.  An entire culture was nearly wiped out.


“I also wonder about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and their relation to the events of September 11, 2001.  The events of September 11, 2001, were clearly a tragedy.  Nearly 3,000 people died.  However, to what degree did our country’s need to give redemptive meaning to these deaths, to make sure that something good came out of them, lead the American public to support wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?”


At the social hour I asked Reverend Miller whether we might have an opportunity to make a presentation on the wars to the church on a weekday night, and she said this would be a possibility.


Nora reports:


After the service, we were graciously invited to join the congregation for a special brunch in honor of one of the church members.  Debbie and I encountered a couple of elderly women who asked us to sit with them.  They were curious about why we chose to raise our banners in protest of the wars in a church.  I explained that we are trying to bring awareness of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the forefront of peoples’ consciousness, because the wars have receded from the headlines, even as people continue to suffer and die.  Debbie added that we are also attempting to emulate the activists of the Vietnam era who successfully organized church opposition to the war via Clergy and Laity Concerned.  The women agreed with us that the war in Iraq was unjustified, believing that Bush’s primary reason for starting it was to ensure his re-election in 2004. 


One of the women talked about how her father had been a World War I veteran, and then her husband and brother were in World War II.  She also mentioned that when she was in college in a small school in Iowa, all students were required to minor in war, which was totally new to me.  Then she described the desperate measures to which the local community hospital had been driven in order to provide adequate healthcare during the war.  The hospital, a three-storey building, had only two nurses, who were required to stay at the hospital all day, every day, while people were sent to the nurses’ homes to attend to their home and family responsibilities in their absence.  At the same time, there was also a Catholic hospital in the town, which was fully staffed with nurses who were also nuns.  Apparently, there was no cooperation between the Catholic and community hospitals to provide better care for everyone, although it was not clear why not.


The women asked Debbie and me where we are from.  It turned out that one of them is Debbie’s neighbor at the housing complex where they live in Hartsdale.  Small world!  We were later joined by Lorraine Buonoconto, who had participated in the service as a layperson.  She has a public access cable show in White Plains and was hoping to have us on the show to talk about our bannering campaign.  She offered several scheduling possibilities to accommodate those of us who have daytime jobs.