Baptismal Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Epiphany 2, January 19, 2002, dedicated to Peter Terrell Spofforth on his baptismal day and always to the glory of God!

"Moral Conscience and Christian Action"

I Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51


I have always believed the Sunday of The Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday weekend was a special day for the church. It is not on the liturgical calendar, although with our themes of call and following Christ's way in the texts today and throughout Epiphany, it would seem to fit. On this day, I have always lifted-up and celebrated Dr. King as a pastor, preacher, and prophet. I have always sought to call people of Christian faith to moral action based on a faith-conscience which held justice and peace at the heart of that action. Today, I turn back the pages to April 4, 1967 - exactly one year to the day before his assassination - and recall Dr. King's historic address at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned, held in Riverside Church, New York City. Although not his first sermon on the Vietnam War, this occasion marked the first time Dr. King linked civil rights and the war and it was his clearest call to end the war.

He began:

"A time comes when silence is betrayal. That time has come for us in relation to (this war) . . . We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak."

In the same spirit and with similar purpose, I feel that I must speak about the preparation for war gathering over and around Iraq.

Before beginning my reflections, I add these two verses to the two passages already shared today. They come from the prophet Jeremiah:

Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches, but let him who glories glory in this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth: for in these things I delight, says the Lord. (Jeremiah 9:23-24).

Let us pray . . . May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.


I am deeply concerned about the rhetoric and the planning for virtually unilateral war coming forth from the White House and Capital Hill over the last five months. The rhetoric speaks of a "just war" against Iraq. The language speaks of "not living in fear" in relation to Iraq and Saddam Hussein, proposing instead, that the way to overcome our fears in this world is to exert our military power and eliminate the threat of our enemies. We hear also about "the axis of evil," in this world which is blamed for the problems facing our world today. This "axis" is loosely defined as certain nation states with whom we have a variety of diplomatic relationships or no relationships at all.

Perhaps most disturbing has been the association of questions and/or dissent about this administration's policies and actions as treacherous to the nation, self-loathing to America, anti-patriotic, or soft on democracy. This concern reaches its height and depth when our President has gone so far as to question the patriotism of those few in the U.S. Senate who question his policy or challenge his authority to wage war at will. Truth be told, a slim majority of Americans - 60% do not believe the present administration has made the case to proceed into war against Iraq. Disturbingly, I wonder if administration pollster's and policymakers are booking on the second level of questions which state that: "if we go to war (even without UN Support or the case being made to the American people), 81% of those polled would support this action." Whatever the truth is, in this mix of analysis, I am deeply troubled by attempts to create fear and widespread challenges to silence dissent, debate, and discussion in our nation related to war on Iraq.

If we cannot speak out of moral conscience now, of all times, then we will be forever consigned to moral silence. Although I hear words like "moral clarity" coming from the halls of governmental leadership, it sounds more like moral arrogance and must not be met with moral silence, but with voices speaking clearly.

Anthony Lewis, formerly of The New York Times said recently that if the purpose of the terrorists of September 11, 2001 was to destroy our confidence in our own American values then, he fears, they have succeeded. He goes on to say that our greatest values come in working through our differences and our debate on issues that matter - and debate over war really matters! Our values are endangered when in the name of patriotism, constitutional liberties are suspended, dissent is stifled, and being a good American means going along with the powers that be, who seem to present a "my way or the highway" mentality.*

Edmund Burke once said, "To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely." Our country is lovely, which is why we love her and are willing to serve her and if necessary die to protect her. * It is also why we seek to lift up and protect her core values which hold dear the right to dissent and, perhaps even more preciously - liberty and justice for all!*

I agree with the late Adlai Stevenson. He wrote: Patriotism is a sense of national responsibility . . . not a short, frenzied outburst of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime."

There stands in London, just above Trafalgar Square and just below Leicester Square a white marble statue of a British nurse, Edith Cavell. On October 12, 1915, she was tied to a stake in German-occupied Belgium and shot as a traitor for the "crime" of assisting soldiers in their flight to neutral Holland. Her last moments were described by an eyewitness: "After receiving the sacrament, and within minutes of being led out to her death, she said, `Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone." (Quoted in Sojourners, Jan-Feb., 2003, page 23). At the base of the statue are carved these words, "Patriotism is not enough." Edith Cavell's words call to us to seek an understanding in this time of terrorism's war and the build-up and preparation for war on Iraq, as to what should be the proper relationship between love of God and love of country.

In the text from Jeremiah, wisdom, might, and riches are set in clear opposition to love, justice, and righteousness. This juxtaposition sets a biblical tension for us which cannot be easily explained away. The prophet knows we are inclined to boast of our wisdom, our might, and our riches. We do so either by talking about them or showing off because we have them. In this, they become dangerous and not the sign of success.

The word "glory" translates from the Hebrew as "boasting." I see a lot of boasting going on in our nation's capital these days. I must admit (and I know others join with me when they don't feel silenced) I see a lot of powerful people in Washington, D.C. who are in the oil business and would love to get their hands on the oil reserves sitting directly under Iraq and (quite frankly) being under tapped by aging oil equipment and a dictator whose self-perceived power comes from sitting on his golden egg called oil.

There is in the prophet's call a moral mismatch. Wisdom, power, and riches out of sync with love, justice, and righteousness. In his April 4, 1967 speech entitled, "A Time to Break Silence," Dr. King pointed out that he was joining the small, but growing chorus of opposition to war, in part, to add his voice to saving the soul of America. He saw a growing war which was claiming the lives of the poor in Southeast Asia - both indigenous people and American soldiers - and whose effect at home was to strip resources from the needs of the poor here.

In the last few months, I heard Senator Joseph Biden speak out on the floor of Congress saying that if we attack Iraq it will come with a cost. He said the daily cost of waging such a war would be in the billions of dollars. Those dollars cannot come out of thin air - especially in the devastated economy we are in. Those dollars would have to come out of social welfare programs, medicare and medicaid, social security payments, schools, and other federal programs. We have no reserve in our government upon which we can draw to fight this war, my sisters and brothers. If this war is needed (which I do not believe it is); if this war is just (which I do not believe it is); then we will pay for this war in ways we can't even imagine.

On no other moral ground than the ground of love, justice and righteousness for the poorest of the poor and for our oldest and youngest citizens, I cannot support a preemptive strike against Iraq and a virtually unilateral war in the an already volatile Middle East. Beyond that, as I move to the ground on which I hear the voices of my brothers and sisters in Christ inside Iraq, I hear that war will further devastate and decimate a nation and people already deeply wounded by 12 years of economic sanctions. As I listen to the voices of Iraqi Christians in Baghdad calling us to "pray for them," I feel shivers down my spine. Iraqi Bishop Shlemon Warduni has made such an appeal. Bishop Warduni is part of the Catholic Chaldean Patriarchate, which represents 70% of the Christians in Iraq. Estimating that there are 650,000 Christians in Iraq - about 3% of the population - he has stated that they are free to practice their faith in Iraq. Rather than a threat from the Iraqi government, the Bishop has pointed out that the real threat, at this time, is chaos and destruction of war. He predicts, if war breaks out, Christians and Muslims will stick together. They will not turn on each other. All the Christian leaders agree, relations between the Muslims and their communities of faith are "very good." But, because of UN Sanctions following the Gulf War in 1991, 65% of the nation is unemployed. The church leaders conclude, the sanctions have not hurt Hussein, but they have cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. ++

Let us delight in the things the Lord delights in! Let us delight in love, in justice, in righteousness! If we do not, I ask, will the Lord delight in us? I know this thought won't fit on the bumper of your car, but try it on and think about it for a while.

We need to remember that fear - whether personal or societal - will not be cast out by anything but LOVE (according to the texts of scripture which guide us!). I John 4:18 declares, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, for fear has to do with punishment and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love." Violence will not end fear. War will not end fear. Only perfect love casts out all fear. When "patriotism is not enough" (in the words of Christian martyr Edith Cavell) perhaps we would be wise, and mighty, and rich in soul by returning to love, justice and righteousness. That is, after all, our calling from God and Christ Jesus. Amen.


* These thoughts are drawn from an article by Peter Gomes in Sojourner's Magazine, January-February, 2003.

++ This reference comes from a news brief, "Fearing War, Iraqi Christians ask prayers," in The Christian Century, December 4-17, 2002, p., 13.

Top of the Page