Yesterday, Ash Wednesday in the Christian world, I sat in an old, comforting church in Bolton Hill and heard peace-loving clergy - Catholic, Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, United Church of Christ - speak eloquently against George Bush and his war in Iraq. I would say some of them spoke angrily, too, even if they do not like that characterization, because that's what I heard. That's what it sounded like. It sounded like righteous men and women turning over the tables in the temple.
"The time has come to confess our mistakes and wrongdoing and withdraw our troops," said the Rev. Peter K. Nord, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Baltimore. "The Jesus we follow prays for peace, and so do we. I am troubled that our commander in chief neither shares this prayer nor listens to his people."
The war has gone on too long, caused too much death and destruction, with human lives and immense financial resources gone forever, these Christian leaders said. The war is immoral, they said, it does not meet the criteria of a just war.
"George Bush claimed that Jesus changed his heart," one of them noted. "We would pray now that Jesus would change his policies."
"Enough is enough," said another.
It is time to march on Washington and demand an end to this unjustified war. Americans need to rise up and demand peace, they said. Americans need to go to Washington on March 16 for the Christian Peace Witness demonstrations and ring the White House and light candles.
That's what the clergy said on Ash Wednesday in Baltimore, and some of them sounded angry.
And we call that progress.
Just the other day, I received this note from a friend in London: "I don't understand why people aren't starting to protest in the streets. It's almost like people are afraid to get angry over there. Why is that?"
Here's my theory: The nation is divided between those who have something personal at stake - such as a brother, father or sister in uniform in Iraq - and those who don't. George Bush hasn't imposed on us - no new taxes to pay for the war, no call to volunteer, no plea for sacrifice on the home front - so most of us can take a walk on the war if we like.
Asked by newsman Jim Lehrer why he hadn't demanded more of Americans during the last four years, Bush gave a stunningly obtuse answer: "I think a lot of people are in this fight. They sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV each night."
Of course, that's assuming they're watching.
American Idol has much better ratings (some 30 million viewers at a time). The news media delivered more about Anna Nicole Smith's death than it did about U.S. casualties in Iraq.
There's no draft, so for most of us with sons or nephews at draft age, there isn't a lot of urgency about the war. Aside from a spike in the price of gasoline, life hasn't been so bad during the war years. And while you could say last November's election constituted a statement of public dissatisfaction with the administration's handling of the war, it didn't stop the president from ordering more troops into Iraq, nor has it encouraged Congress to offer anything so far but a nonbinding resolution of disapproval.
Yesterday morning, the first day of Lent, there was the promise of something bolder - Christian leaders assembling to say what too few in Congress are willing to say.
It's time to end the killing and make peace, they said, and time for leadership that takes us there.
I walked into the City Temple Baptist Church in Bolton Hill for the clergy's news conference, and I stumbled on combat boots. My eyes were still adjusting from the bright sunlight of the street to the dim lighting of the church. The boots surprised me. They had been placed on the center aisle next to a pew. The boots had been tagged, and there was a name on the tag: Pfc. Michael J. Potocki. And there was an age on the tag: 21. (Potocki was a soldier from Southeast Baltimore who was killed by small-arms fire in Iraq last summer.)
There were other boots with other names. And then I realized there were boots at the end of all the pews, placed there by the American Friends Service Committee to symbolize the human cost of war.
"We have to take responsibility for our failure as Christians to be peacemakers," said Bishop John Schol, of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. "As Christians, we could have and should have done more to prevent this war. ... Our leadership has failed the American people. ... We cannot remain silent while more troops are sent to be killed and to kill."
"We have been in a state of denial," said the Rev. John Deckenbach, of the Mid-Atlantic Conference of the United Church of Christ."We have been silent for too long."
"We must stand against the lie that says we will have peace by waging more war," said the Right Rev. John Rabb, bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. "Increased war, a surge - whatever you call it - it is morally wrong."
"Enough is enough," said the Rev. Frances Draper, of John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. "Jesus turned over tables in the temple. Like Jesus, we cannot be afraid to turn over the tables in the temple."