FACE TO FAITH
Spiritual finds spot in vigils about war
S.J. Dahlman teaches communications and humanities at Milligan College. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The scene at a Johnson City park last Monday night was everything a war zone in Iraq is not: quiet, unhurried, green, damp. Still, the places were linked by a candlelight vigil that marked the fourth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In that time, more than 3,200 American soldiers and Marines have been killed, with many times that number wounded. At least 60,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the ensuing violence, a number that lurches higher every week. The cost is in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The vigil, one of eight across the Tri-Cities region that night, was part of a series of events scheduled this week by a group called Concerned TN Citizens, which describes itself as “a group of folks in Upper East Tennessee who are concerned with ending the war in Iraq and further acts of aggression for the purposes of corporate profit or establishing permanent, de-stabilizing military bases in the Middle East.” Sandra Garrett and her brother, Mike, formed the group in January. Since then their main activity has been organizing anti-war protests in Johnson City every Saturday, but they have also built a mailing list of more than 130 people, launched a Weblog, and affiliated with the East Tennessee Progressive Network and other left-of-center groups. Many people are surprised to learn about the group, Garrett told me at Monday night’s gathering at Metro Kiwanis Park. “They didn’t know others felt like this. People (who oppose the war) feel isolated,” she said. About 275 people gathered in the eight locations on Monday, according to the group’s Weblog (www.concernedtncitizens.org). Each one — in Bristol, Elizabethton, Jonesborough, Kingsport, Rogersville, Abingdon, Va., and Emory, Va. — took its own form. Some spent time in silence; others read the names of Tennesseans killed in the war. In Johnson City, participants spent most of the time standing in clusters and talking. The organization isn’t a religious one, but almost all of Monday’s vigils turned spiritual in some fashion, either spontaneously or by design. People sang hymns. They prayed. The Emory vigil coincided with a lecture on Christian pacifism at Emory and Henry College. The Elizabethton gathering met at First Presbyterian Church. In Johnson City, where 40 to 50 people gathered, Garrett read a letter written at the outset of the Iraqi war in 2003 by radio host Garrison Keillor (“Prairie Home Companion”). No one could miss his repeated warnings against “this religious war against Islam,” which he predicted would take 50 years to resolve. She then invited participants to speak, and Tim Ross, senior minister of Hopwood Christian Church (where I attend) stepped up to talk for about five minutes before leading the group in a decidedly Christian prayer. As he did, about half the participants bowed their heads; others stood politely, looking a little uncertain while Ross asked God to “end this crazy war” in the name of “the Prince of Peace.” Garrett said her group is attracting people from a variety of faith traditions.
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“We’re hoping to get a lot of different views, trying to break down walls between people,” she said. “I know, for instance, that conservative Christians run the gamut about the war. A lot of evangelicals are not in support of the war.” But even people who don’t consider themselves religious recognized some kind of spiritual dimension to the war and their protests. Steven Denton, for instance, calls the war a “moral-politicalethical issue” because of its heavy costs. “What could we have done with that money, not to mention the loss of lives, the cost of taking care of the wounded?” he asked. This is a spiritual matter “on a human level — and a humane level.” Several participants sounded similar notes that night. While the war isn’t necessarily a religious issue for them, at least in the formal sense, neither is it a mere matter of partisan politics. Their protests apparently rise from a deeper source. “A person’s faith should drive him,” Garrett said. “Regardless of a person’s religion, how we treat each other really defines who we are. Morality and the need to do good — that’s not a matter of religion. It’s a matter of humanity.”