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Story Magazine

Second Quarter 2003

Faith in a Time of War

by Mark Hequet, Special to Luther Seminary Story

Prayer and caring and spiritual growth--those were reactions among Luther Seminary students, alumni, faculty and others as war with Iraq erupted in March.

The prayer banner for overseas military personnel, designed by MDiv student Deb Grismer, hangs in the Chapel of the Incarnation.

Some organized in support of the war, some against--affirmation in either case of the importance of Luther Seminary's leadership training.

Many in the seminary's extended community found new dimensions in their prayer life. Pastors and interns strove to comfort parishioners and bridge war-related disagreements in their congregations. And one Luther professor thinks war caught us morally unprepared. Here are their stories.

Praying by Name

Zach Thompson's church reacted to the war as the nation reacted--some members pro-war, some anti-war "and many who are in the middle." But the gospel overarches any rift between pro-war and anti-war political factions. "Preaching Jesus--the gospel--and preaching a specific American political agenda are not at all the same thing," says Thompson, intern pastor at Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines, Iowa.

The church, where more than 3,000 worship each week, has "encouraged passionate and frequent prayer" and "continually reinforced the fact that God is still in control," says Thompson. "Our world is a very sinful and broken place and war and pain are a part of that reality."

Lutheran Church of Hope conducted two prayer services the day after the war started. A total of about 250 came to pray for members who had been deployed, for the rest of the troops, for leaders of the United States, "for the Iraqi people and also those who are our enemies," says Thompson.

During worship, names of military personnel connected to the church went up on projection screens "and we prayed for each person by name," he adds. The congregation also donated care-package items for the troops.

Thompson's congregation is reading through the entire Bible this year and had reached the bloody pages of 2 Kings just as the attack on Iraq commenced.

"We have seen how war is frequently a part of the story of the Israelites and their neighbors," Thompson observes. "But we have also continually seen that God is faithful to his people and is always moving towards the future, where there is ultimately assurance and hope in Jesus Christ."

What should Christians do about war? "We don't presume to know exactly what the right response is at this time," says Thompson, "but do know that God can work through any human circumstance to bring about peace and his will."

War has reaffirmed some of Thompson's convictions--"the great importance of taking Jesus' Great Commission in Matthew 28 seriously," for one thing.

"As we share the good news of Jesus Christ with people of all nations and invite them into a personal relationship with him," says Thompson, "his message of hope, comfort, peace and discipleship will permeate the DNA of our world."

And war has "shown me the importance of prayer," he adds. "Prayer is not meant to be a last resort, something we do because we have run out of other options, but it is really the most powerful tool that we have."

Praying for Both Sides

The Rev. David Mattson, '87, says his church has been praying for both the United States and Iraq, especially for the innocent victims of the war. The church designated its Lent, Good Friday and Easter offerings for ELCA's International Disaster Response.

Mattson's Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Dana Point, Calif., is close to the U.S. Marine's Camp Pendleton and the congregation has three servicemen in Iraq. Discussion of the conflict was "much more than just speculating on whether this met just-war theory or not," Mattson says.

Opinion on the war divided his congregation. "The differences have not been hostile," says Mattson, "but frank discussion has taken place, mostly in groups within the congregation"--the men's breakfast, the women's Bible study and Sunday morning adult education.

If you're going to disagree, he says, maybe church is "the best place for the community to wrestle with these tough issues and then speak God's Word."

Divisions over the war "brought home again that we are all sinners," he adds. "The war has exposed my own prejudices and my own sin" and "intensified certain aspects" of his own spirituality, Mattson says--particularly the importance of his personal prayer time.

What's the pastor's role in binding up war-related rifts among members? "A pastor has to wear different hats," says Mattson. "At one moment you are a counselor sitting with a mother who's grieving her child's departure. To argue with her the justification of this war would be to destroy that relationship."

On the other hand, "during the prayers, sermon, Bible studies, a pastor reminds the parishioner of Jesus' words to pray for the enemy, that a military or even political solution is not the end-all, but that we live in a fallen world with fallen people and that it's only through Christ that there is ultimate hope."

And while families are waiting for the safe return of loved ones "it's the pastor's role to encourage the community that this is not to be wasted time, but prayer time, and deepening-of-faith time, and working for the day when God's kingdom comes more fully, and above all trusting time."

Walking with Humility

Mark Swanson stresses in his presentations to congregations that the Iraq war wasn't a Christian-Muslim conflict. "There are Christians and Muslims on both sides," he says, noting that the U.S. has the support of Muslim nations and many American soldiers are Muslim.

That Islam now is an established American religion is another key point Swanson makes. "Being an American is not a matter of being Protestant, Catholic or Jew," says Swanson, an associate professor and director of Luther Seminary's Islamic Studies program. "Islam is a growing piece of the North American religious mosaic."

Swanson has done about 100 presentations on Islam since the terror attacks of Sept. 11. Attendees acknowledge the rise of Islam in their community--and confess that they don't know much about it. Swanson covers the basics.

The conflicts of the Middle East remain unsettling to him as a Christian and "as a person who cares deeply" about the peoples of that area.

"I continue to pray for miracles of peacemaking, for miracles of reconstruction, for good things for the Iraqi people and that Iraq can become kind of a beacon in the region," says Swanson.

The great question, he thinks, is this: "Can the United States learn to walk with a certain humility in this world?"

If not, Swanson is "deeply worried" that Muslims may perceive the U.S. as a "new colonial and new imperialist power" in the Middle East. That could mean ill will toward the U.S.--and more terrorism.

Prayer Banner

Luther Seminary student Deb Grismer lived daily with the prospect of her airman husband going to Iraq. Her response? Prayer--in fact, a prayer banner.

"I had a vision of it in chapel one day," says Grismer, an master of divinity student. She felt an "overwhelming need to put names to those soldiers and to show people on campus there are direct connections--sons, daughters, friends, cousins.We can't feel that weare remaining untouched by this war."

Her husband Rod, a member of the South Dakota National Guard, had been on active duty since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He now is a tech sergeant in the Minnesota Air National Guard currently active with the Air Force. They have a daughter, age 7, and son, age 10.

As war with Iraq approached, Deb Grismer felt that "outward public support for the soldiers" was lacking. Grismer wanted the soldiers "front and center in people's minds."

The result is her white banner with red lettering, six feet long by three-and-a-half feet wide. It bears a dove outlined in gold--"to signify the Holy Spirit," says Grismer, "and peace."

By mid-April, the banner on the back wall of Luther Seminary's Chapel of the Incarnation in Olson Campus Center carried more than 70 names of military personnel with some direct connection to Luther.

The banner may bring healing for those who were "torn apart because they don't want war but their soldiers, their loved ones, are there fighting it," says Grismer. "That was my call. It was my way to give to the soldiers."

Student Chaplains and 'Spaces of Reconciliation'

Seminary students launched an outreach effort to provide pastoral care and counseling and share the Good News even in dark times. They anticipated that when the war started, people would flock to churches for spiritual shelter.

As it turned out, few came. But organizers are glad they made the effort. A group calling itself INViTE--Integrating Non-Violence into Theological Education--was behind what it named the Student Chaplain Outreach initiative.

INViTE's nearly 100 seminarian participants had been meeting with faculty, staff and some student spouses for fellowship and discussion of God's call to humans "to have dominion" over creation. Attendees concluded that violence grows from injustice and "discerning the meaning of justice," says participant Caryn Stone, "involves an element of caring for creation."

Jesus' atoning death on the cross, Stone adds, was the "ultimate expression of God's compassion." Moreover, Jesus' great commandment--love your neighbor as yourself--and Jesus' Great Commission--"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations--"are intimately woven with justice," she says.

The idea for the chaplain outreach ministry occurred at an INViTE social gathering. "I believe the Holy Spirit interceded within the group as war in Iraq loomed and our hearts were heavy with concern," says Stone. "An evening of hospitality, fellowship, prayer and support for one another" led to master of divinity student Sara Quigley's "brainstorm"--a chaplaincy initiative.

INViTE recruited 35 individuals, including some from outside the group, to provide pastoral care and counseling at nine "spaces of reconciliation" in area churches.

Organizer Mark Salo, a second-year master of arts student in doctrine and theology, liked the prospect of "being out in public with other believers and praying with each other."

Organizers commend Dean of Students Patricia Lull, Seminary Pastor Robert M. Brusic, Associate Professor Richard Wallace and Professor Charles Amjad-Ali for their help. Brusic and Wallace conducted a commissioning service for student chaplains March 16.

When war broke out, the chaplains deployed to the spaces of reconciliation. Organizers learned what they could accomplish in just nine days of preparation. Says Stone: "We used our faith, skills and love for one another as the tools necessary toward a sense of readiness in the event that our community needed us."

Support the troups

Corinne Johnson was among those who launched an initiative to support the troops.

Shirley Teske, '03, and Kristina Rahfeldt, '03, staffed the collection table of care package items for U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians.

Members of College Republicans at the seminary set up a table to collect the names of family and friends in the military to include in prayers and to receive packages of candy, toiletries, devotion books and other items to be sent by Lutheran World Relief.

The effort was important to "show troops we support them and support what they're doing and hope for a fast victory," says Johnson, a master of divinity student. It was gratifying, Johnson says, to see in the wake of the war "how happy the Iraqi people are to finally be free--to have just a small portion of the freedom that we as Americans have."

And Johnson is particularly glad for what she sees as the "opportunity now to spread the Gospel in Iraq."

Seminarians on both sides of the issue found themselves sitting at adjacent tables in Olson Campus Center after the war started--and by mid-April, pro-war and anti-war activists found common ground.

College Republicans and the war opponents of INViTE signed a joint statement on responsible public discourse and sat together at a table to gather care packages for U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians.

Uncomfortable Growth

The days leading up to the attack on Iraq brought uncomfortable spiritual growth for Ivy Borgstrom.War, she says, has "really challenged my faith."

Borgstrom is an intern at Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, D.C., just eight blocks from the White House--"close enough that on certain days when the wind is right we can hear the president's chopper landing on the lawn," she says.

Luther Place, where about 120 worship each week, has a tradition of activism. "This congregation is very social-justice minded," says Borgstrom. Some members were arrested in war protests.

In that setting, Borgstrom experienced real doubts about the war. But she also hears of the injustice of the defeated regime and acknowledges "that can't go on."

The urgent question in church, homes and workplaces has been this: What does faith mean in war?

"Throughout the Bible there are conflicts that God sends his people into," she muses. "People are killed and nations are wiped out. How does that play into what we're seeing now? Pounding our swords into plowshares--where does that fit in?"

During Lent at Luther Place Memorial Church, a congregation study group read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship and Life together.

Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who left the United States to return to Germany and resist Nazism. He was hanged in the concentration camp at Flossenb৘rg on April 9, 1945, at the age of 39, a month before Germany surrendered.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer argues that truly following Christ means a radical turnabout for Christians.

In the somber days prior to the Iraq war, Borgstrom, realized from studying Bonhoeffer, that discipleship is "meant to be life-changing."

"It's not an easy road by any stretch of the imagination," she says. "It's a real sacrifice being made when we
choose to follow Christ."

Missing the Big Questions?

Gary Simpson has done many presentations at churches on the idea of a just war--and found that main-stream Lutherans and Episcopalians to whom he spoke knew little about the idea.

"They don't realize there's a tradition that's very old that has developed over time and has different criteria," says Simpson, Luther Seminary professor of systematic theology. Just-war criteria "are always related to a concrete, particular situation."

Centuries of tradition define a just war in which Christians may morally participate. "For what is just war but the punishment of evildoers and the maintenance of peace?" asks Martin Luther in Whether Soldiers Too Can be Saved. And in his Appeal for Prayer Against the Turks, Luther argues that war against those invaders of Europe was just "because it is for the purpose of preserving Christianity."

Over the centuries, defining just war has taken into account imperial Roman military service, medieval chivalry and the threat of militant Islam. Twentieth-century discussions focused on warfare's destructiveness and the economic burden of military spending. And now the discussion takes into account the merits of preventing terrorism.

At one of his sessions, Simpson elicited a provocative question from a participant: Who follows the just-war guidelines? Responded Simpson: "Nobody--unless you hold them to it."

Nations follow just-war criteria, he explains, "just like they'll follow any kind of moral criteria--if you hold them accountable to those moral criteria. We're all citizens of this country. We all have the responsibility to press this case."

Simpson does think that the war cast faith in sharp focus. "People have a deep hope that their Christian faith has something really to do with all this," he says. We hope that our faith and the "real, live things that are going on in our world" have something in common.

War, he says, is "a great opportunity to actually inquire more deeply" about your faith and how it does connect with everyday life in a very global, public way."

What worries him is that the issue appears to have snuck up on us. "Why haven't congregations been talking about this for the past three or four years?" Simpson asks. Congregations and seminaries, he argues, "still are unprepared for most of the big moral questions of our world.

"We tend to think more in terms of pastoral care and counseling. We're really good there. But we're not very good when it comes to moral consideration, moral reasoning, moral reflection, ethical reflection."

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