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Religious Leaders’ Network Will Set a Common Agenda for Peace

Times Staff Writer

In a meeting on the nuclear arms race and peace, prominent religious leaders from Southern California’s Christian and Jewish communities, joined for the first time by Archbishop Roger Mahony of the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese, reached consensus on support of a comprehensive test ban treaty and agreed to form a network to develop a common agenda.

Four of them--Mahony, Bishop Jack Tuell of the United Methodist Church’s California-Pacific Conference, Rabbi Leonard Beerman of Temple Leo Baeck in West Los Angeles and the Rev. George Regas of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena--agreed to act as the network’s four conveners to draw up a statement and develop an agenda.

Although they stopped short of issuing a formal statement at Wednesday’s meeting at USC, largely because of time constraints, they agreed on their support of a moratorium on nuclear testing and a test ban treaty.

Of the treaty, Mahony commented, “That particular issue is probably more ripe for a collective approach. It’s one that is so obvious to ordinary people. I think it would be a very positive step personally.”

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Rabbi Leonard Thal, executive director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations Pacific Southwest Council, observed that the magnitude of the recent nuclear disaster at Chernobyl has provided “a teachable moment . . . a strategic moment.”

The meeting adjourned, the leaders walked to a banquet at the Town and Gown where a sellout crowd of 800 had come to hear Mahony speak on “Making Peace Our Priority,” his first major address as archbishop on the subject.

Regas informed those assembled of the hours-old network, announcing that their goal was to work with each other and their own congregations to demand that President Reagan “sign that treaty, and if he does not respond, we’ll use our influence to get Congress to cut off the funds for those tests.” Recalling the late Pope Paul VI’s condemnation of the arms race as a “criminal mismanagement of the world’s resources,” Regas said “without firing a shot, the arms race is killing people . . . A comprehensive test ban treaty and a federal budget with justice for the poor--let that be our focus.”

The meeting and dinner were part of a one-day conference sponsored by the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race, of which Regas and Beerman are two of the founders. Designed to mobilize the leadership of the religious, educational and peace movement groups, the conference, “Breaking the Cycle of Violence: Empowering for Peace in the Nuclear Age,” drew more than 1,000 people.

A Delightful Dilemma

At the opening plenary session, the Rev. Tony Wolfe, the center director, apologized to those 100 or so who had been unable to obtain tickets to the banquet, admitting, “We’re delighted with the problem. This is the first time we’ve had to turn people away.”

In his address, Mahony called for “a genuine theology of peace, a new way of thinking about who we are and what we are about as a human community.”

His remarks did not so much establish new ground for the church as signal the importance he intends to give peace in his work as religious leader.

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He cited the Chernobyl disaster and the three recent disasters in America’s space program, especially the explosion of the Challenger Jan. 28 with seven people on board, as evidence of a sense of false security that high technology has given us. He said the disasters provide a “context for a moment here in our own country for concerns about the nuclear enslavery proliferating in the world . . . All of us have become tremendously humbled and far more human.”

He spoke of the arms race in the deeper context of peace, a word he seldom spoke separately from justice.

“We are so caught up in this East-West struggle, this polemic which so distracts us from the realities of the more urgent struggle, the North-South struggle,” he warned, saying the the former struggle was causing the nations of the North to ignore or fail to understand how their consumption of the Earth’s resources was harming the underdeveloped nations of the South.

He called for a synthesis between the “ministries of peace and healing,” and said that in terms of the Catholic community, “I see ourselves speaking much more out loud about the relationship” between peace and justice, peace and healing. “There is a deepening call for us to become doers of justice and makers of peace.”

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The earlier, smaller meeting had been described as “a dialogue with Archbishop Roger Mahony.” About 20 religious and several lay board members of the Interfaith Center attended, including Bishop Stanley Olson of the Lutheran Chuch in America Pacific Southwest Synod; Suffragen Bishop Oliver Garver Jr. of the Episcopal Diocese; Dr. Fred Beebe, executive of the Presbyterian Synod of Southern California and Hawaii, and the Rev. James Lawson, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Los Angeles.

Regas had chaired it, stating at the outset they would examine their role of leadership “in the area of peacemaking” and try to find out “where we stand on a common peace agenda” and if a network were possible.

No one had doubted the archbishop’s commitment to the issues in general but several had described themselves as uncertain about his willingness or readiness to work with them ecumenically and take a collective stand. To a large, somewhat subtle, extent the meeting seemed to be aimed at him. The tone of it, which proceeded with virtually no disagreement other than on points of emphasis or procedure, made it clear, several remarked later, that Mahony had arrived ready to work with them.

‘The New Kid’

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Mahony had introduced himself to them as “the new kid on the block” and from their joyful comments to each other at the conference’s end, in some instances accompanied by hugs and arm squeezing, it was obvious they had gotten more than they had allowed themselves to hope for from the new kid.

He had shared with them some of the history of the Pastoral Letter on Peace that the U. S. Catholic Bishops issued in 1983, including some early mistakes that he said may have “diminished some of the immediate impact.”

He described “an enormous gap” between the thinking of the bishops and the Pope and “where most of the people are” on the connections between the work of peace and justice and the broad context of the demands of faith. The gap, he said he discovered as bishop of Stockton when the letter came out, extended to the priests of his diocese.

He had planned a training conference for clergy to provide the “fine tuning” on the document that would enable them to study it with their congregations during the Advent season preceding Christmas, a time of preparation for the coming of “the Prince of Peace.”

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The letter had been published in May, 1983; the highlights of it reported in the press ever since; copies had been available for mass distribution for months. And yet, at the training conference it became quickly clear that almost no one had read it. He said the priests did not understand the basic faith dimensions of it.

The Advent sessions had to be canceled and rescheduled for the following February. The priests were trained. The workshops held.

“And all the saved came,” he said of people already convinced.

The lessons of the letter were now being incorporated into religious teachings for American children from kindergarten through 12th grade, he said. And it was true that there were increasing numbers of individuals emerging as leaders on the issues. But the Church was left, he said, with vast numbers of people, maybe 98% of the faithful, who “see no tie-ins between peace and justice issues and their faith,” and he attributed it in large part to a failure of leadership to provide the proper teaching.

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“I have no problem putting together all kinds of networks with you,” he said. “My problem is--how to engage more numbers of people,” of the 3 million people in his congregation.

Bishop Tuell, commenting on the recent letter the Methodist bishops had issued condemning nuclear arms in more sweeping terms than the Catholic bishops’, agreed that “to have it reach many people is a monumental challenge,” but said that while the gap Mahony described was real in his own church, “I don’t think it is that great between pew and leadership.”

Rabbi Beerman did not dismiss Mahony’s problem, but called it “the story of the whole history of religion--the persistent failure to get people to come on board,” and not peculiar to the issues of peace and justice.

“We can’t wait for people to get on board,” Beerman said. “That can’t deter us from getting to work on things we believe in.”

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It was not necessarily just their failure as teachers, he suggested, but other forces in the world they were up against.

In his experience, even when people came on board, he said, the learning had to be done over and over again.

Before they adjourned, Marvin Schachter, a center board member, reminded them of the adage, “speak truth to power,” advising they extend it to “speak truth to our own congregations.”

The people were ready for it, he said, and wanted it. He offered the day’s conference as an example.

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The workshops had been organized around the whys and hows of breaking the cycle of violence and reversing the arms race. People signed up for the whys.

“They wanted to deal with the substantive issues,” Schachter said. “The people in the churches and synagogues need information. We need to explain again and again.”

Indeed, from the beginning, the conference and the people seemed to go deep. It had opened with an address by Harvard psychiatrist John Mack on “Beyond the Dark Side of Humanity: Nuclear Weapons and the Struggle for Transcendance.” Much of the day was taken up with the dark side and getting beyond it.

The superficials of the problem, the actual hardware of the Nuclear Age that has proliferated around the world, were too important to ignore, and the familiar litany of words--Star Wars, MX, missiles, meltdown, radiation, leakage, testing--could be heard. However, people were more interested in what they saw as the roots of the problem and the roots of the solution--aggression, violence, greed, despair, meaninglessness, faith, peace, nonviolence, conflict resolution, peacemaking, community.

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The issues were profound ones. People seemed to be of a mind that it was their responsibility not just to contemplate them but to become profoundly active.

And some people seemed to be not from the 98% who needed to be taught, but from the 2%. If clergy think there is a gap, some laity, it became apparent, see a different gap and are waiting for clergy to catch up with them.

At one workshop on “The Scriptural Basis of Peacemaking” led by the Rev. Patrick Thyne and Rabbi Laura Geller, people explored the theological basis for peace as a fundamental religious requirement.

Geller related the creation of the universe to the 10 Commandments, leading people to see in them an implied command to preserve creation. Thyne cautioned against a defensive action on the part of religious people to “be shy about our religious roots.” Too often people allowed themselves to get “suckered” into high-tech arguments only, and leave out the moral dimensions of the problem.

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Ironically enough, less than an hour before the leaders had their dialogue with the archbishop, one woman listened to Thyne and Geller and voiced her frustration.

“But how, " she implored, her tone that of one who had long been trying, “do we get religious (leaders) to acknowledge that peacemaking is the major task of the church?”


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