A Few Good Saints
In 1970, as the bombing campaign in Cambodia was in full swing, George Regas, the new rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, spoke out against the Vietnam War. He delivered a sermon titled Mr. President, the Jury Is In -- a response to Nixons comments that the purposefulness and morality of the war were not yet clear -- and it was a bombshell. Regas not only criticized the administration, but also proposed using church resources to establish a Peace Operation Center as an advocacy group to oppose the war. His remarks were reprinted in the Los Angeles Times and set off a storm both within his parish and in the wider Episcopal church. Today, Regas recalls, its regular sport to take on the president, but it wasnt in 1970, when there were 500,000 armed men in the field.
Conservative congregants and community members tried to unseat Regas -- there was even a faction called Save All Saints, which Regas says was code for Save All Saints from me. But Regas survived, with ever stronger convictions, and he went on to make All Saints perhaps the most widely active liberal church in Los Angeles. All Saints established the Center To Reverse the Arms Race, sent delegations to Central America as it was being ravaged by the policies of President Reagan, and hosted Desmond Tutu during the apartheid years. Today, the Peace and Justice ministry is one of the most visible aspects of the church. Peace, in its broadest context, is a central part of our project, said Bill Doulos, a priest who has been there since the late 60s. As with many of Georges sermons, that one really had legs.
Its not surprising, then, that All Saints and Regas are playing an important role in the newest anti-war movement, the one that opposes military action in Afghanistan. Regas now heads the Regas Institute, a nonprofit devoted to the issues he cultivated at All Saints. Along with a sizable group of left-leaning clergy from across Los Angeles, Regas and his successor at All Saints, Ed Bacon, are working with citywide groups to think about progressive responses to terrorism as well as the war against it. They meet weekly for panels, dialogues, interfaith services and strategy sessions to craft their message. But finalizing that message has proved somewhat elusive. The main organization -- Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP) -- has yet to finish its official statement. Voicing moral opposition to war is easier than providing a set of alternatives to this particular war. When these religious leaders suggest international justice as a replacement for war, many of their congregants -- and colleagues -- ask: How?
And we dont always have the answers, admitted Ed Bacon. We are on a steep learning curve.
For Bacon and others, September 11 and its aftermath represent a new challenge to the traditional call for peace. They are exploring the competing moral imperatives of self-defense and the preservation of international human rights. They are re-examining the traditional theological judgments on warfare. They are turning the discussion in new directions to shed as much light on it as possible. In short, they are trying to rethink the practicality of peace for themselves and their congregations.
One of the earliest churches in Pasadena, All Saints was founded in 1882, and its Gothic revival buildings give it a feeling of ancient authority, even though theyre only 75 years old. The grounds are tidy; the buildings have just enough ornate flourishes; and the stone church itself is impressive -- it feels like a place for worship, and allows you to forget that the site sits on a small lot downtown, crowded by a monstrous pastel-painted DoubleTree Hotel. In high school, I used to go with friends to activities at All Saints, and I remember standing in the very back of the nave during midnight a Mass on Christmas Eve in 1990, listening to George Regas sermonize against the imminent Gulf War. I dont recall exactly what he said or what I thought about it; what did make an impression was that a few people in the pews walked out. So when I wanted to see how a liberal congregation was reacting to the war, I knew All Saints would be a good place to start.
Ed Bacon has been publicly opposing the war since before it started. He participates in ICUJP as well as another interfaith group of clergy, called Bridging L.A. Like his counterparts across Los Angeles, Bacon proposes that there are other means, short of war, that are available as responses to September 11 and the fight against terrorism in general.
Even at All Saints, however, not everyone is convinced. Bacon and his assistant rector, Scott Richardson, told me about a recent forum they held to discuss the war, where they found a spectrum of opinion. There were three main groups, according to Bacon: The core of the congregation agrees. Then theres a group who disagree totally. And then theres another group who would like to oppose the war, but they dont have in their hearts a real alternative. So what theyre left with is what weve always done: go to war.
Bacon and Richardson, in response, have been trying to articulate that real alternative. Bacons answer is, To activate, in a practical way, the value of justice -- he wants to use the international-justice system, which could include an international police force, if necessary, to track down terrorists. But practicality is the precise sticking point for many people. Tim Rutt was one of the people at the All Saints forum, and after Bacon spoke, he posed the question: How do we do that? We cant just go to Afghanistan and say, Hand Osama over. Id love to know what a police response would be. And most of the half-dozen other attendees who spoke had similar concerns.
It is a challenging question, one that is not confined to dialogue between the pulpit and the pews. I spoke with Charlie McBride, who is the vestrys senior warden -- the parish equivalent of chairman of the board -- and although he is a close friend of Bacon and supports him unflinchingly as rector, he disagrees with Bacons anti-war stance. Eds been saying we should be pursuing this as a police action, he told me. And frankly, Im not sure what he means by that. If that means the classic business of investigation and prosecution, I dont think there is any effective means or venue in the world to do that. Bacon and Richardson are open about the discussions among the management staff. Were all trying to get our minds around this, and we confess its complicated, Richardson said. He talked about how one of the staff members, Lorna Miller, lost much of her family in the Armenian Holocaust. As Richardson put it, Lorna has a different view on the use of force to prevent evil. Likewise, Richardson himself departs in this way from Bacons views, citing what Richardson calls the worst-case scenario.
Take Hitler. My concern is that all of the boycotts and candles and prayers and United Nations resolutions -- had there been a U.N. -- would not stop a guy like that. And in that case it may be that the faithful person is called into force to stop evil.
Within the anti-war movement and liberal institutions like All Saints, it should be noted, there is little disagreement about the ancillary issues, like examining the socioeconomic or political roots of terrorism or continuing to promote global justice as a pre-emptive measure against terrorism. No progressives believe, as some in America today do, that honest moral analysis of American policy is unpatriotic or disloyal. And, it should also be noted, neither do the leaders rule out force altogether. Bacon and George Regas are careful to say they are not pacifists. And almost everyone I spoke with would support applying military means to extract bin Laden and the top tier of al Qaeda, to bring them before a tribunal. But this is unlikely, if even logistically possible, and many of the rank and file on the left realize this, which leaves them confounded. As Richardson described, A lot of people here say, I dont know what to do. I dont like any of my alternatives.
I brought some of this up when I met with some ICUJP organizers at one of their regular Sunday events. We were at a synagogue in Woodland Hills, and Steve Rohde, the president of the Southern California ACLU, was going to be speaking about the nearly a thousand detainees who have been rounded up since September but have yet to be charged with crimes. I got a chance to talk with Rohde and others before the panels began. Rohde voiced the familiar themes about international justice and addressing terrorisms root causes. He nodded when I pointed out that many people werent satisfied with that, and replied, We understand the complexity of the issues presented by terrorism. We dont have the luxury of the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era, where there was no threat at home. People feel threatened and want that addressed.
And how do you address that? Again, through justice, he said. The weakness of the current international system is no reason to abandon it. It should instead be strengthened. No one thinks this will be easy, by the way. The fact of the matter is, bombing is easy; what were saying is not.
This sentiment was echoed by Regas when I met with him in the offices of his institute in Pasadena: The U.N. and the tribunals are far from perfect. But their flaws dont negate them as choices. Like Rohde, Regas believes that the very dilemma of terrorism requires a more vigorous struggle to correct the shortcomings of the international-justice system.
Still, even an improved international-justice system entails force, because you have to physically bring people to trial. As Reed Brody, the advocacy director for Human Rights Watch in New York and one of the staunchest supporters of the global-justice movement, told me recently, Its just not so easy. Using the proposed International Criminal Court in Geneva, or any other instrument of international justice, is not like waving a magic wand. And it certainly doesnt help you capture these people. Regas and others acknowledge the need for force, but do not want to bless full-scale war.
But if everyone agrees that some measure of force is necessary, the discussion is really about degree. People in the anti-war movement make strong distinctions between war and law enforcement, but this may not be all that useful. Perhaps law enforcement on the scale that is required to bring down al Qaeda resembles war. Stripped to its essence, the question becomes: How much force is morally appropriate? Without the other arguments, qualifications, or issues, attitudes toward war come down to conviction.
At places like All Saints, most peoples moral and philosophical convictions are informed by Christian theology, which has some long-standing and competing traditions relating to the ethics of war. The oldest of these is pacifism, which has its roots in the Sermon on the Mount and the early practice of the church. But, at All Saints a and beyond, another strain of thought often invoked in response to the war in Afghanistan is the just-war doctrine. (The last major tradition is the Crusades, which, despite Bushs slip, is few peoples choice for spiritual guidance today.)
The concept of just war originated with St. Augustine in the fourth century, although Aristotle first used the term some time earlier. For St. Augustine, resorting to war as a necessary evil is acceptable when it deters greater evil and is pursued in the spirit of justice. St. Augustine set out specific criteria for such a just war, and since the first American bombs fell on Afghanistan over six weeks ago, religious scholars across the country have weighed in about whether Americas New War is just; some say no, others yes. At All Saints, many of those resisting Ed Bacons outlook on the war voiced their opposition in these terms.
Charlie McBride believes there can be just wars, as does Tim Rutt, who said as much to Bacon at the forum on the war. The just war may be rare, they both say, but it can exist -- the classic example being the Second World War. Liberal clergy have theorized for some time, however, that the just-war doctrine is irrelevant. The section known as jus in bello -- rules during warfare -- requires immunity for noncombatants and forbids excessive force, and since these cant be guaranteed in the era of nuclear warfare, the argument goes, the doctrine is an anachronism. When I broached the subject with Rutt, he was skeptical. I dont think the theory is invalid. And if it is outdated, what would come in its place?
Bacon and Regas do have some ideas about that. They propose replacing the just-war theory, along with pacifism, with a new theology that has been developing as a third way for several years. The literature of this theological movement incorporates the language of conflict resolution in international relations; it places equal emphasis on confidence-building initiatives along with a serious look at the causes of conflict. Address roots, not symptoms. Regas believes that this is an approach that can avoid war. It may not sound realistic, but you cant reject new ideas out of hand. It is important to be both realistic and aspirational.
The name of the synagogue where I talked with Steve Rohde was Kol Tikvah, which means voice of hope in Hebrew. It seemed fitting as I was sitting in the audience, because it occurred to me that the people I came there to see are motivated by a basic optimism about human nature. Whereas their critics see danger in the world and a need for protection, the people behind the anti-war movement view the threat of terrorism as a challenge to better ourselves. Right or wrong, theirs is a vision of human improvement. Scott Richardson, despite his own lingering reluctance to eschew war altogether, best expressed this affirmative spirit some days earlier: This can be the next step for humanity, as part of our moral evolution. Just as weve outgrown slavery, we can outgrow war.
None of this addresses the many practical concerns left open by the anti-war movement. But for Bacon, Richardson, Regas and their many counterparts across Los Angeles, it is important to publicly proclaim peace, even if the details arent ironed out. On an institutional level, we have an obligation, reflected Scott Richardson. A lot of us are living in confusion and have genuine ambivalence about this. But we are part of a much larger conversation, and if we start sounding like Pentagon analysts, then weve blown it. If the church isnt calling for peace, who will?
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.