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Antiwar Activists Are Left Unsure

Members of faith communities say they will keep working, with a focus on what they call an overextension of U.S. power abroad.

May 03, 2003|Religion News Service

NEW YORK — The sudden end to the war in Iraq has caused a sense of confusion among antiwar protesters about what to do next, but religious activists say they will continue their work, focusing on what they see as an overextension of American power abroad.

"I think the single most overarching foreign policy question for Americans in the next decade and beyond is: What kind of lone superpower are we going to be?" said Ronald Sider, head of Evangelicals for Social Action.

Sider called the United States the most powerful and dominant force in the world since the Roman Empire. "Do we use that power for shorter-term self-interest or do we take the lead and create a different kind of world that is genuinely free and democratic?" he asked.

Echoing those concerns is the Catholic group Pax Christi, which in a recent statement called on religious Americans to "reassess the role of the United States in the world. Are we a force for good, for justice and peace, or are we perpetrating and deepening the cycle of violence we claim to be fighting?"

None of the leaders and activists interviewed about the state of the antiwar movement expressed any surprise at the war's outcome and relatively swift conclusion, which they called practically a foregone conclusion.

"There was no question that the United States could overwhelm Iraq," Sider said. "I expected it, and expected it would happen quickly."

But some admitted some frustration as the movement turns its attention to opposing the tenets of U.S. foreign policy and faces equal measures of public hostility and indifference.

"It's like shouting in the forest and there's no echo," said the Rev. Peter Laarman, senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City, a congregation with a long history of antiwar activism.

Equally frustrating is a kind of "I-told-you-so" triumphalism from conservatives, said Ken Estey, who teaches Christian ethics at New York Theological Seminary and is executive director of the New York branch of Peace Action, a national anti-war organization.

Estey admits that dire predictions about the war made by activists were not borne out -- including high levels of casualties, large numbers of refugees fleeing Iraq and the unleashing of weapons of mass destruction. But, he said, that is no reason for supporters of the war to gloat.

"The conditions under which those predictions were made still exist, and it's up to us to ensure" that such things don't happen, he said.

Estey and other activists are now focusing their attention on promoting a new foreign policy that, he said, has three principal aims: upholding human rights and democracy, reducing the threat from weapons of mass destruction, and promoting U.S. cooperation with international organizations.

Estey acknowledged that organizing mass movements around changing the overall direction of U.S. foreign policy is not likely to be as easy as planning protests against an imminent war. But, he said, public talk of "U.S. empire" -- something of a rarity until recently -- can resonate with a citizenry that may connect a bad economy at home with claims of overextension of U.S. power abroad.

Some say the theme of empire may be a clarion call for U.S. faith communities in coming years.

"It's Pax Americana, and such a policy of dominance ultimately costs too much and violates our core values," said Jim Wallis of the Washington, D.C.-based Sojourners Community. Wallis, like Sider, called it "immoral" that the Iraq war and future wars will be paid for by the nation's poor and working class.

Wallis said, however, that it won't be enough for U.S. religious groups to merely oppose or protest what is increasingly being called the "Bush Doctrine" in foreign policy. Opponents of that policy need to develop concrete, specific alternatives, he said.

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