News: Like Prophets Confronting the King

The spirituality of agitating for peace

Washington, D.C. — A Pentecostal preacher, a rabbi and a Muslim imam walked into an anti-war protest, and the punch line was deadly serious.

The progressive movement needs to better embody its faith and humanity. The religious right needs a viable alternative further to the left. But more than anything, the present times call for prophets.

"Prophets demand that a king meet them face to face and answer why," said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who led the invocation for an interfaith tent revival organized by Clergy and Laity Concerned about Iraq.

Almost 400 anti-war activists returned to the ellipse for the Sept. 25 service, one day after more than 100,000 marched past the White House to demand an end to the war in Iraq.

During the nearly three-hour service, speaker after speaker cast the protesters as prophets in an unjust kingdom ruled by an ill-intentioned king: President George W. Bush.

Like the previous days' protesters, they didn't mince their criticism of the current administration. But unlike the marchers, whose messages were for the most part secular, the assembled inter-faith protesters freely examined the Bush administration in biblical terms.

The Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, a Pentecostal preacher and national coordinator of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Iraq, found Bush's aims "a-Biblical and unrighteous."

Sekou hoped that one day children as far away as Iraq and Palestine and close as southeast Washington might one day say of the assembled activists, "There stood a generation in a dark hour that dared to be the light."

Speakers played up the common goals of their faiths and downplayed differences. Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, noted that all religions are calling the current time "prophetic."

They'd been called there to serve the "one true God" and each other through "prophetic patriotism," said El Hajj Talib Abdur-Rashid, imam of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem, N.Y.

"It matters not what name you call him right now," Abdur-Rashid said. "What matters is the call."

Prophetic patriotism scrutinized country and empire with the law and teachings of prophets, from Moses to Jesus to Muhammed.

"You're going to hear a whole lot of seditious teaching here tonight," he said. "We're going to do the kind of preaching that makes pharaoh uncomfortable."

He had a message for Bush: "The problem is you want to mold humanity in your image, and you're not Almighty God."

Mairead Maguire, the 1976 Nobel Peace laureate, spoke about the nonviolent tactics she used in the 1960s to agitate for peace in her native Northern Ireland.

"You cannot read the gospels and not know that Jesus was totally nonviolent," she said.

When Jesus said, "Love thy neighbor as thyself," he didn't put restrictions on which neighbor, said Rita Nakashima Brock, co-founder of Faith Voices for the Common Good.

"Where is the love?" when 43 million Americans don't have health care, when educational disparities abound and when people aren't free to marry those they love, Brock asked.

"You cannot have love when you can't even face a grieving mother," she said.

Brock was referring to Cindy Sheehan, who sat among the religious leaders at the front of the tent. Sheehan won national attention by camping out near Bush's ranch in Crawford, Tex., to ask the president why her son, Casey, died in Iraq.

The beginning of the service was characterized by sharp criticism of the Bush administration, which elicited bouts of hooting and applause.

But Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, asked the crowd to listen quietly as he turned the critique inward.

"We have to recognize and acknowledge there has been a problem in the left," Lerner said.

He called on the progressive spiritual community to add to the anti-war movement a positive, clear vision of the future and goals more nuanced than "just getting out of Iraq.

"There's something legitimate that the right is speaking to," Lerner said. "They know the problem, but they have the wrong answer."

That's why 1,400 spiritual leaders this summer formed the Network of Spiritual Progressives. What the progressive spiritual community seems to miss is acting on the true compassion their rhetoric demands.

Lerner's seen the genuine empathy in some right-leaning churches and synagogues, where he "can't stand the sermons" but watches people approach each other to check on their neighbors after the service. It's something Lerner doesn't see after more progressive meetings and services.

"If we can project an ethos of love and caring both in terms of our analysis and the way we treat each other, we can change this country," he said.

A Buddhist monk, Ve Suhita Dharma of Chua Dieu Phap Temple, then turned the calling for spiritual progressives even further inward.

"Calm down," he told the crowd.

Activists must go to the cores of their being and overcome fear, anger and hatred if they are to bring peace out into the world, he said. Otherwise, their opposition might begin to mirror that which they oppose.

"Sometimes the emotions will turn us into the exact same thing," he said.

Spiritual progressives have some work to do to bring their messages to a larger community. When the Rev. Lennox Yearwood, president of Hip Hop Caucus, asked all those who had lost a child in the war to come forward, only four people rose from the crowd.

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