During my sabbatical leave, I spent time studying the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In the last year of his life, for him silence about an unjust war in Vietnam had become betrayal and he was unable to be silent any longer.
In the weeks leading up to the attack on Iraq, most American churches were not silent. Leading Protestant, Orthodox and Roman Catholic church leaders were united in vocally opposing a war against Iraq.
In my first days back at work, I participated in a meeting of the World Council of Churches. Brothers and sisters from around the world, from differing Orthodox and Protestant traditions and differing political and theological positions, were united in opposing the war.
I heard them frightened about the impact the war will have on Christians living in multi-faith countries. I heard them lamenting how their own currencies, many in countries already facing stark poverty, have lost value. I heard them angry that we choose to spend money on bombs and bullets instead of HIV/AIDS treatment. I heard them ask why the United States seems to intervene only when there are natural resources we need while we didn't intervene in Rwanda or in the Sudan or in North Korea. I heard them saddened that the war has now split families, communities and nations into those for the war and those against.
I heard them ask, if the United States is in fact liberating Iraq for Iraqis, why did soldiers take down the Iraqi flag and fly the American flag when they took over the city of Basra. I heard them frightened by the use of religious language by the U.S. administration—of "crusade" and "good vs. evil." I heard them predicting that this war will sow the seeds of world insecurity, bitterness and religious persecution for decades, if not centuries, to come. I heard them saying that there will be many victims of this war—not only the women and children in Iraq, not only the soldiers fighting, but also the world economy, justice and, yes, religion itself. I heard them saying that the gospel has a different message—a message of peace, of non-violence, of reconciliation and love.
But beyond all this, I heard them saying that in many places our government has bullied their governments, threatening them with economic sanctions if they did not support, or at the very least abstain, in the vote on the second U.S. resolution at the United Nations. I heard stories of U.S. ambassadors meeting with cabinet officers of their nations, threatening other governments, of U.S. diplomats reminding governments of the economic agreements and contracts that they would lose if they didn't support the war.
Every morning I awake with a heavy heart. I fear for the young men and women fighting. I fear for the women and children of Iraq. Most of all, I fear for the soul of our nation. A time comes when silence is betrayal.
Bernice Powell Jackson is Executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries and one of the UCC's five-member Collegium of Officers.