The United Methodist Church’s controversial General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) hosted a three-day “Peace on the Korean Peninsula” forum last week in Washington, D.C. One particular panel discussion was titled “How People of Faith Can Advocate for Peace” and featured several religious leaders addressing what the church has the potential to do in order to restore peace between the U.S. and its adversaries.
Legislative Associate for International Affairs of the Mennonites Central Committee, Charissa Zehr, surely unified listeners in what is a core Christian principle: serving God’s people. Zehr centered her argument on the insistence that not only Christians but all people of faith should be aware of the humanitarian efforts that are being made in North Korea but more importantly the desperate need for them to be continued.
In addition to Zehr’s perspective, Anthony Wier (Legislative Secretary for the Friends Committee on National Legislation) addressed essential views about the role of the U.S. government in the current situation with North Korea. Wier spoke on his observation that the U.S. Congress is stuck between political forces.
One force is the belief that “it is really bad politics to let a country, particularly a small country like North Korea, somehow acquire the capability to fundamentally threaten Seoul or Tokyo or Los Angeles or New York.” The other force Wier acknowledges is the conviction in Congress that Americans are essentially against the idea of the U.S. getting involved with North Korea in a manner that would not be easily swept out of sight and out of mind.
Wier explains that because Congress remains torn between these two dilemmas, they have refrained from providing a solid answer on the North Korea situation. As he put it, “the sound of silence of Congress on matters of war and peace is very loud, and this is no time for silence. They need to speak up.” Maybe there is validity in the notion that Congress has not given a clear enough stance or has not spoken on the topic has dominantly as many think they should. However, it is entirely unfair for this panel to speak about silence in Congress when they completely lacked a voice on the topic of the legitimate threat of North Korea. There is no silence more deafening than that of religious leaders who hypocritically avoid speaking up about the reality of evil.
David Wildman of the UMC’s General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) spoke about the UMC’s role in advocating for peace. Wildman addresses the beliefs of the UMC concerning foreign affairs and the importance of dialogue across all nations.
A resolution adopted by the UMC in 1964, Wildman says, can be considered useful to those Americans who desire to promote peace between the U.S. and North Korea. The resolution addresses making sure that we as Christians are talking with our enemies and deliberately engaging with them while also challenging and speaking to other believers “for the sake of peace.”
Speaking specifically about the UMC, Wildman reminds the audience that the church is “not a pacifist [one], but we are a peace church, an antiwar church.” Acknowledging a struggle in this area for the church, Wildman criticized United Methodist politicians like President George W. Bush and Secretary Hillary Clinton, saying, “many of them feel they need to prove like any other politicians that they are strong on military and strong on the defense, and that is just a tragedy.”
However at fault American politicians might be, they have displayed a much greater and consistent desire for peace than many of the current world leaders, such as Kim Jong-un himself. Christians in the U.S. should remember that there is a time to criticize our country and our government, but the pressing criticism here needs to be angled at the ones who are violating their own citizens’ human rights and threatening masses of people across the world.
The UMC’s actual stance is a bit complicated. Doctrinaire pacifism probably represents no more than a small, if sometimes vocal, minority among the denomination’s U.S. members. Official United Methodist position statements include a lot of anti-war rhetoric, but recent General Conferences have also added language acknowledging the diversity of members’ views on such questions, affirming United Methodists who choose to serve in the military, and nodding towards key principles of Just War Theory. Pulling the panel back to the overarching, current efforts of the U.S. in North Korea, Wier explained that there are now 28,000 service members spread out over 60 bases in the Republic of Korea. In a plea for peace, Weir said, “I can’t stress enough that the reality is that there is no military answer that produces a United States that is better off than when the conflict started.”
Zehr added, referencing her experience with the citizens of North Korea, that she and others have been able to have “conversations about our peace values and why that calls us to care about our so-called enemies and how this is the way we demonstrate love for our neighbor. They’re really receptive to that, and they can understand that kind of motivation.”
This led to Zehr’s admission of a strong belief that Christians should be talking and thinking about this issue more along the lines of peace and not with a politically motivated mindset. We should already be past this call to focus on the situation in a manner that is beyond politics and past the stage of just talking about the benefits of peace. Yet, in a nod toward the possibility that war may be unavoidable, the game doesn’t appear likely to end as Wildman used his last statements to speak on the question of potential causalities.
“We have a president that comes out of the business world where, you know, if things don’t go well, you write off your losses and you save taxes on it. It’s just one of those business transactions. So you write off 100,000, a couple million causalities. It’s just a business expense. Where are the targets? They’re in blue states. The whole west coast, Hawaii, is all blue states. So I just want to put that out there, from a business standpoint, how dangerous that can be.”
Ultimately, war and peace are two social matters that cannot be ignored, twisted, or watered down by the Christian faith. Though controversial and without concrete solutions, the GBCS was able to use this panel to give Christians on both the right and left the chance to consider peace as an option when it comes to dealing with North Korea.