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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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More than an Agreeable Possibility?

Between now and Christmas we will have heard the word “peace” intoned over and over again.  The happy thought of swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks will mingle with visions of sugar plums as we warmly entertain the angels’ “glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth, peace.”  A recent study suggests, however, that all this talk about peace doesn’t translate into much concrete peacemaking among American church folk.  Most Christians in the United States, it seems, are more willing to give to the Marine’s annual Christmas toy drive than take action to keep those same Marines from mortal danger in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Robert Wuthnow’s fascinating book, Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches*, describes the many ways congregations, denominations, and para-church organizations in the U.S. relate to neighbors and issues around the world.  While the demographic center of gravity for Christianity is moving to the southern hemisphere, the interest in global Christianity among American church goers, and our influence on the world, is dramatic.  Transnational ties are growing everywhere among all types of U.S. Christians.  Participation in missionary work or mission trips is on the rise.  Financial support for evangelization, humanitarian relief, and many other kinds of ministries is more than impressive.  And Wuthnow documents what many of us have watched for a number of years:  the direct involvement of individual Christians and their congregations in our globalized world is accelerating.

Except, apparently, when it comes to peacemaking and concerns about war.  In 2005 when Wuthnow’s field research was undertaken, only 23% of U.S. church members said their congregation had, within the last year, “held a meeting at which questions about war and peacemaking were the main topic,” and only 18% said they personally had participated in a meeting of that kind.  Even more astonishing, given the grave situation in Iraq at that time, only 10% of those surveyed had taken part in a meeting at their church concerned with U.S. military involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Given the high levels of participation in other forms of global engagement, this is both remarkable and disturbing.

Research interviews suggested a number of possible reasons for this avoidance.  First, peacemaking is described by many as a “political concern.”  Unlike hungry people or those “in need of salvation,” war and peace are seen as issues “that governments decide.”  So, as one pastor put it, her congregation “wouldn’t deal with concerns about international peace and conflicts in other countries politically but would consider it appropriate to pray for peace and for government leaders.”  Some, while acknowledging Jesus’ call to be peacemakers, describe the peace involved as something more spiritual than the rough and tumble of international conflict resolution.  Some feel that peacemaking ministries divert attention from the primary work of planting new churches around the world, while others admit to favoring global ministries that have a higher chance of succeeding.  Better to be able to point to a church built, a conference funded, or a water system installed than to engagement with seemingly intractable conflicts in Africa or the Middle East.

Some of this reluctance may stem from fear of controversy that can erupt within congregations when hot topics are raised.  Few will complain if their pastor asks them to “pray for the troops.”  Considerably more will be upset if that same pastor challenges the wisdom or justification for any particular military action.  Or perhaps it is simply the case that by 2005 when this study was conducted, many U.S. Christians had grown embarrassed by the support they gave two years earlier for the invasion of Iraq (68% of Evangelicals, 57% of mainline Protestants, and 58% of Catholics), and as a result just didn’t want to talk about it.  Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld had little to fear political from the attitudes of most U.S. Christians as they concocted and sold their rationale for war.

So it appears that most of us will await the Prince of Peace this Advent with little enthusiasm for getting our hands dirty or our ethics challenged doing the things that make for peace.  Even talking about the tough moral choices in a world of violence appears to be off-limits in most congregations.  Meanwhile the merchants of death will ply their ugly trade unperturbed by the annoying voice of the prophet, confident that the churches will eagerly rush in to supply the refugee camps and rebuild the pulverized schools and care for the broken bodies that are the fruit of their violent schemes.  “O come, Desire of Nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; make envy, strife, and quarrels cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.”  A nice thought.  In his Christmas Oratorio the poet W. H. Auden haunts us with this grim prospect: “Once again as in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable Possibility.”  Haunting indeed.

John H. Thomas

*Robert Wuthnow, Boundless Faith:  The Global Reach of American Churches (University of California Press, 2009)

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