Comfort as an illusion

Comfort as an illusion

August 31, 2006
Written by Daniel Hazard

Inside the church, the war seems very far away

There is no better place to forget that the United States is at war than in church. Three years after the invasion of Iraq, stories of bloody bombings and mounting casualties still top each day's news, but remain conspicuously absent from the discourse of most neighborhood churches.

For many of these congregations, the war in Iraq hits home only when they bury a soldier whom they last knew as a pimply member of the youth group with big dreams for the future. Until then, they may close their eyes and pray for peace, asking God to protect those in harm's way.

Few, however, will ask with eyes wide open how people of faith are called to respond to this particular war. As a member of the clergy for more than 20 years now, I have some idea why this is so.

People of faith are divided over the war - as they are divided over abortion, gun control, homosexuality and many other things. While that's not unusual, people of faith also hold a vision of the undivided life, in which they dwell in unity with God and neighbor. Church becomes the safe house where they may dream this dream on a regular basis, finding sanctuary from the divided lives that dog them every other day of the week. If they cannot say something nice in church, then they say nothing at all, saving their more pungent convictions for the parking lot.

Like it or not, clergy are the arbiters of this uneasy peace. Called to be shepherds of the whole flock, we must think at least twice before taking stands that church members may hear as choosing sides. If we want to tell the truth, then we had better hide it inside a story, or else save room on our calendars to mend fences wrecked by bolting sheep.

From a more pastoral point of view, clergy are often the only people in a congregation who regularly visit the sick, bury the dead and comfort those who mourn. Most of us have held enough broken hearts in our hands to wonder if this is not the division that matters most, beside which all other human rifts pale in comparison.

Yet at the same time, churches do not exist exclusively for the comfort of their own members. From earliest times, churches have also existed to stand with the poor, feed the hungry, visit those in prison and care for the widows and orphans, while challenging the authority of those in power who are not using their power to do these things. For clergy mindful of this ministry as well, there can come a time when keeping the flock together rubs hard against reminding the flock why it exists.

The last time I visited the Memorial Church at Harvard University, I noticed a khaki-colored booklet in the pews. Expecting a new hymnal or order of service, I was surprised to pick up a volume of "Prayers for Private Devotions in War-Time." The surprise was sufficient to sit me down in that house of prayer - built as a memorial to the Harvard dead of World War I - and read prayers written over the past 17 centuries.

In them, I found language that I was not hearing anywhere else in the world. I found prayers for justice instead of victory. I found laments for the fathomless sorrow of war, which kills the souls of the living along with the bodies of the dead.

Among the prayers for soldiers, civilians, children and enemies, I found words to confess the sins of my own nation and to ask that we be made equal to our high trusts, reverent in our use of freedom, just in our exercise of power and generous in our protection of weakness.

Such prayers are neither anti-war nor pro-war; they do not choose sides. Set in the pews by clergy who may or may never address the war in Iraq from the pulpit, they suggest a different vision of unity. It's the kind of unity in which people of faith who do not agree on many things may still bring their deepest concerns to church - instead of leaving them in the parking lot.

The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, teaches religion at UCC-related Piedmont College in Demorest, Ga. Her newest book is "Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith," published by HarperSanFrancisco. 

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