Methodist Leaders Divided on Afghanistan

In a recent United Methodist News Service article, Kathy Gilbert wrote:

As the world moves into Advent and Christmas, there is vigorous debate over whether President Obama’s decision to deploy more U.S. troops to Afghanistan will lead to greater peace on Earth. Even as they disagree on military strategy, however, the one area faithful United Methodists have no trouble reaching consensus on is that Obama, and the soldiers and their families, need prayers and support.

The article identifies retired United Methodist bishop Marshall Meadors as an opponent of the surge and United Methodist pastor Walter Fenton as a supporter.

Meadors was the author a letter opposing the surge circulated at a November meeting of the Council of Bishops. Seventy-seven bishops signed the letter. Fenton, on the other hand, is an officer with the Good News caucus, a conservative advocacy group for United Methodists.

Since the president has decided to send over 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, I hope Meadors is wrong. I take some comfort in the fact in that in 2007 the bishops adopted a similarly clichéd resolution just as the surge in Iraq was succeeding. The text of that resolution is here.

On the others side of the issue, Mr. Fenton said:

We recognize that faithful United Methodists and reasonable people can disagree on various military strategies, but in light of the drastic reduction in the number of military and civilian deaths after the surge in Iraq, we support President Obama’s decision to send 30,000 troops to Afghanistan to defend the defenseless.

The entire Good News statement is here.

Fenton is right about one thing. Reasonable people certainly can and do disagree. My intent here, however, is not to debate either Fenton or Meadors. My point is that it their opinions on this issue are not terribly significant. I might agree with one more than the other, but I could really live without either statement.

Mr. Meadors says that he speaks only for himself. A statement signed by bishops at a meeting of bishops however, clearly claims some form of episcopal authority no matter what Mr. Meadors might say. It is a self-conscious communication strategy that attempts to draw on ecclesiastical legitimacy. Similarly, the “we” in Mr. Fenton’s statement presumably represents the Good News caucus. Neither statement would be news if they simply represented the opinions of John or Jane Doe who happened to be Christians.

Here, let me quote from Two Kingdoms, Not One, a statement of Cross Alone Lutheran Churches.

It is important to keep clear that the church is God’s means of bringing the Word and sacraments. But in the kingdom on the left the church is an organization like any other: broken, sinful, and dependent upon common reason, a moral voice like other voices but never the moral arbiter.

As an institution in the world, the church has no special gift of the Spirit for politics. Its assemblies, even after prayer, have no special spiritual guidance for politics. As a consequence, the church is free to focus on its unique mission — proclaiming God’s perfect kingdom through the cross and proclaiming the freedom for life in this world which comes from the cross.

Because the church has no special wisdom in politics, it is free to say “No” to spending time and money on lobbyists, public policy statements, and sending bishops to Washington.

The cross frees individual believers to be involved in politics, knowing that no political party – of the left or right — represents God’s politics. The cross frees believers to use their heads in politics, knowing, as Luther said, that it is better to be ruled by a wise Turk than a stupid Christian.

The cross frees believers to uphold the law and to care for the law, knowing that law is God’s good instrument for restraining evil that civilized life may endure.

Laity serve as moral leaders in arenas where they have expertise. This is not to say that every Lutheran economist is wise. But wisdom about moral dilemmas in economics is more often found in skilled economists than in clergy prone to utopian politics. The same is true for peace, justice, war, ecology, and the like.

And from Here We Stand: Politics:

Freed from the need to bring in God’s kingdom, we are freed for serving the neighbor. With what tools? Reason and the sword. As individuals we work through the political parties of our choice. We embrace politics for the sake of the neighbor, even as we acknowledge the moral ambiguity of all politics. As Bonhoeffer wrote from his prison cell: The Christian lives “unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.”

We affirm the legitimacy of military force as a necessary political option. Elected government leaders have the right and the duty to distinguish between those conflicts which can be settled by compromise and peaceful negotiation, and those that cannot and must be resolved by force or the threat of force.

In our work for temporal peace — which is always temporary at best, we seek to be “as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.”

In their entirety, the Cross Alone statements reflect a dichotomy between law and gospel that I find problematic, but the Lutheran “two kingdoms” approach to living responsibly in the world is the only one that makes sense to me.

As Christians who are free to have a voice in government affairs, Meadors and Fenton (and you and I) are free to influence the government’s decision on this or any other issue. We can do that individually or together with like-minded people. The like-minded people don’t have to be Christians. Presumably, we will act as wisely as we can and seek the welfare of everyone affected by our decisions. And, presumably, our thinking will be shaped by what we know about what God has done, and what God is going to do. When we attempt to undergird our opinions with ecclesiastical titles or church-group affiliations, however, we are claiming an authority for ourselves that we do not rightfully own. In these matters, we don’t speak for God; we shouldn’t subtly suggest that we do.

Neither the Council of Bishops nor the Good News Caucus has any special wisdom, insight or inspiration when it comes to making decisions like this. If these church leaders are concentrating on, well, leading the church, they probably have less time to study the issues than Christians who serve in the fields of national defense, international politics or diplomacy.

I work in the field of national defense (but not in the Central Command Area of Responsibility) and I’m not absolutely certain what I would have decided if I were in the president’s shoes. I probably know more about the Afghanistan conflict than most United Methodist pastors, but I’m not an expert. I certainly can’t visualize the operational environment the way that General McChrystal and his staff can.

I do know that the president has now decided on a course of action in Afghanistan and I am going to do everything in my power to help it succeed. As you are praying for the president, the troops and their families, I hope you pray for the success of the mission on which they are embarked. The Soldiers and Marines who will execute this plan will lay their lives on the line to bring security to the region and “defend the defenseless.” They deserve our prayers.

[Update: Almost all dead links now.]