Reverend Sekou is a Pentecostal minister who works with United for Peace and Justice organizing Clergy and Laity Concerned about Iraq an interfaith coalition of religious leaders, faith communities, institutions, organizations, and lay leaders committed to peace and justice. The group states:
“We embrace non-violent forms of righteous indignation and call upon people of faith to honor the sacredness of all life and to highlight the immoral character of the war in Iraq. Finally we offer a vision of the world that seeks international cooperation, social peace, and economic justice.”
The interview below examines how people of faith are organizing to oppose the continued occupation of Iraq.
KEVIN ZEESE: So often God is invoked in war — God is on our side, God bless the United States, God protects our troops — can you discuss generally, your view of how Christianity and other religions should relate to the question of war?
Rev. Sekou: The biblical narrative has powerful critique of empire. Equally, the text takes seriously the poor in opposition to power over them. I think the call for prayer should be centered on our troops not being in harms way. The ideal that God is only interested in America is deeply problematic. Moreover, there have been a number of religious folks who spent a lot of time discussing the just war theory. When St. Thomas Aquinas distills just war theory in Sum Theologica, he does so at a moment when there are a number of warring tribal groupings with in the empire that do not possess quantity and quality of weapons of mass destruction. With a lone superpower, United States, and its unfettered access to weapon of mass destruction, there very notion that there can be a just war is obsolete. God in the Biblical tradition is the God of the least of these. The most vulnerable citizens who God has great compassion for. In the Hebrew tradition God is moved by the moans and groans of the Israelites as they suffer under Pharaoh in the empire know as Egypt.
Zeese: Is there a scriptural basis for your perspective?
Sekou: There are a number of Biblical proofs that support peace making, chief among is:
“For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” – – Isaiah 2.3-4, Micah 4.2-4, & Joel 3.10.
The entire Bible is the basis for the way I do and be in the world. Moreover, I see myself a part of tradition that cuts across time and space, religion and nation-the prophetic tradition; A motif of the prophetic tradition is struggle by people of faith to expand democratic access to the means to meet human needs. In the past prophetic faith was embodied by Mahatma Gandhi, Dorthy Day, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer and my beloved grandmother are all part of the prophetic tradition. On the contemporary scene, Bill Wylie-Kellerman, Cornel West, Susannah Heschel, Imam Talib Abdul-Rashid, Jean Stokan, and so many others. Previous social movements are sterling examples of the prophetic tradition. The prophetic goal of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was “to redeem the soul of the nation.” The soul of a nation is social structures, political discourse, and quality of life. To redeem the soul of a nation is to interrogate, challenge, dismantle, and restructure its society, political discourse, and improve the quality of life of its citizens.
Although I am a Christian I do not believe that any religion has a monopoly on truth. The prophetic tradition cuts across religious dogma and invokes humanistic notions of democratic freedom. Prophetic tradition has four major countervailing objectives: lamenting injustice and unrighteousness (discernment), social and self-repentance (empathy), pronouncing judgment on oneself and society (self-criticism), and setting forth an equitable vision for the future (hope). Prophetic tradition is not concerned with dogma but with how to build its language in such a way that configuration of sentences and the constellation of paragraphs themselves create a humane textuality-rooted in praxis that places a primary on the capacity of humans in relationship to the democratic vocation-a way of being. Hence, the prophetic tradition is rooted how folks treat folks who are catching hell and our capacity to defend their right to be human in an inhumane world. Muslims, Christians, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikhs, agnostics and even atheists are comparable of loving folks in unloving times; will one be courage against the cowardly that attack the weak? This are deeper questioned raised by the prophetic tradition that for me a rooted in the Biblical text
Zeese: The Iraq War and occupation is being defined by some commentators as a war between Muslims and Christians. What is your reaction to this?
Sekou: While there are those who believe that the greatest threat to the earth is Muslim terrorists. I do not believe that. The greatest challenge to democratic freedom and the heart of gospel is the way in which the Bible is being used to justify abiblical aims. In fact I believe that there is great commonality between the outlook of the fundamentalist Christians and Muslims which is a narrow of interpretation of sacred practice that centers on worldview that is pre-occupied with disciplining bodies, policing knowledge, and theologizing oppression in the name of ultimate authority whose divine agency is unloving and repressive.
Zeese: At the recent teach-in Washington, D.C. you described Jesus as opposing the empire of his times and being killed by the empire.
Sekou: How is that relevant to the issues today? Jesus-the world’s most famous Palestinian-died at the hands of the Roman Empire because his spiritual mandate: “to love the Lord God with all thy mind heart and soul and to love thy neighbor as thy self.” Then he proceeds to tell the story of a good Samarian who is among the most dispossessed in the land and tells how this dispossessed individual is the embodiment of the sum of the law. It is a quite powerful use the disinherited experience over and against the empire. Secondly, in the gospel of Mathew, Jesus articulates very clear vision of how we are supposed to be and do in the world in his characterization of the least of these. When we have not visited the imprisoned, feed the hungry, and cared for the sick we have not done them to Jesus. In word we have betrayed the author of our faith. These are timeless words.
Zeese: Tell us about your work in organizing religious leaders, denominations, and clergy on the Iraq War.
Sekou: Clergy and Laity Concerned about Iraq, initially, grew out of conversations that I had with several individuals, which posed the question of where was the national voice of religious leaders against the war. Susannah Heschel and I had an email exchange about the idea in late November and she recommended a number of folks I should speak with, particularly former Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam staffers. At the same time, Leslie Cagan (National Coordinator, UFPJ) and I began to have a similar conversation and she expressed an interest in bringing me on to the staff of United for Peace and Justice, in part to work with the coalition’s faith-based member groups (over 150).
In turn, United for Peace and Justice agreed to offer support and a home to the emerging Clergy and Laity Concerned about Iraq.
In February a working group of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Iraq met as part of the United for Peace and Justice National Assembly. This working group reviewed the work plan and looked at four program areas (goals/tool kit, direct action/righteous indignation, talking points, and domestic cost of war).
On the occasion of the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, The Riverside Church hosted Clergy and Laity Concerned about Iraq (CALC-I), in partnership with United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), for a special interfaith service on Palm Sunday, March 20. The service, was entitled When We All Get Together: An Interfaith Service of Remembrance, Resistance, and Reverence, and was the culmination of a weekend of worship and opposition to the Iraq War. Throughout the March 18-20 weekend, communities of faith nationwide gathered in their respective traditions to express their moral outrage at the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq.
At the Palm Sunday service Jim Wallis (author of God’s Politics); Susannah Heschel (Chair, Jewish Studies at Dartmouth University); Rev. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki (Resident Minster, New York Buddhist Church); The Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr. (Senior Minister, The Riverside Church); and Rev. Jesse Jackson (President, Rainbow/Push) raised a moral critique of the war and U.S. foreign policy and highlighted the negative impact that the war has both domestically and spiritually.
The program featured representatives of Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and the YaYa Network, a youth organization working on counter recruitment Our work includes supporting conscientious objectors in the active military, providing communities of faith with tool kits, and coordinating the national work of religious bodies opposed to the war in Iraq.
Zeese: How important is the religious voice in the anti-war movement?
Sekou: Empire needs religion to justify its existence (i.e. the Holy Roman Empire). Without religion, empire loses is existential weaponry and saliency. Moreover, I believe that the current administration use of the gospel cheapens the Bible and Christianity. Our task, hence, is to seize the narrative for those who cheapen it and articulate the prophetic character of Christian and other religious teaching. Buddhism notes that there is too much suffering in the world; Islam means peace; Central to the teachings of the Torah and the great Rabbis is Tikkun Olam which means to heal the world. And Jesus is known as the prince of peace and stated that blessed are the peace makers; this challenges the theological presupposition that God is as obsessed with war as the some of God’s followers.
Zeese: Do Christians and other religious people have a duty regarding opposing the war and occupation of Iraq?
Sekou: I believe if folks of faith who do not oppose the current war and occupation of Iraq betray our faith.
For more on Clergy and Laity Concerned About Iraq visit: http://www.unitedforpeace.org/article.php?id=2767
KEVIN ZEESE is a director of the ‘Stop the War’ campaign of DemocracyRising.US. You can comment on this column by visiting the blog spot on DemocracyRising.US.