The Rev. Bob Edgar (center) walks to the U.S. Capitol to raise his voice on behalf of the poor and vulnerable as Congress debates budget cuts. A web-only photo courtesy of Common Cause.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used nonviolent civil disobedience to change the world and society, but the church is too afraid of what others will think to take the same risks, says the Rev. Bob Edgar.
“How sad it is now that our churches are so passive, so quiet. You guys are genetically nice,” Edgar told 302 participants at the fourth annual Lake Junaluska Peace Conference in November.
“Sometimes you’ve got to speak up when people tell you to sit down, and you have to speak out when people tell you to be silent,” he said. “You’ve got to be out on the edge a bit. Jesus was out on the edge. He got crucified for it.”
A United Methodist elder and president of Common Cause, a national advocacy group, Edgar spoke on the last day of the three-day conference that was called “Poverty, Abundance and Peace: Seeking Economic Justice for All God’s Children.”
Edgar was one of two United Methodists arrested last July with nine other faith leaders in the Capitol Rotunda after refusing to stop public prayers. The other United Methodist was Jim Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.
“On the 29th of July, we had the audacity to go into the rotunda of the Capitol of the United States and kneel in prayer, and the Capitol police arrested us,” Edgar said. “We were there to have a voice for the voiceless.”
The speaker contrasted the politeness of the police who arrested him with the clubs and dogs used to curb King and civil rights activists of the 1950s and ’60s.
“When arrested at the rotunda, I had five honorary doctorates but only four arrests for civil disobedience. You are now seeing a balanced Bob Edgar,” he said. “If I have any regrets in my life, it’s that I haven’t been arrested enough.”
Edgar walked listeners through his career path as a young pastor, six-term U.S. congressman from Pennsylvania, president of Claremont School of Theology, top executive of the National Council of Churches and president of Common Cause since 2007.
He said he was influenced by leaders like King, whom he heard preach in Washington, D.C., during his senior year at Drew Theological Seminary — just five weeks before King was assassinated in April 1968. Edgar said he also was shaped by his experience as a young pastor in a Pennsylvania town that had been environmentally and economically abused by a coal company.
Young people need to see the church step up for change, and they need role models, Edgar said.
“You can’t teach courage and risk-taking, but you can help people understand it with hands-on experience.
“Too often our young people only see the conservative posture, the lack of taking risks on the part of our faith community, and they do not learn the ability to speak.”
“We are the leaders we are waiting for,” Edgar repeated as he said pastors should train their congregations to allow the “born-again social justice gang,” which might comprise only 10 to 12 percent of the flock, to have a voice.
“Let the other 90 percent have their club,” he said.
The “courageous remnant” — not the majority — has historically made the greatest strides for peace, he said.
“We get so frustrated with Pat Robertson that we forget to teach people inside our churches that Jesus was a peacemaker.”
The Common Cause leader warned that the nation’s founding fathers did not intend for money to be used as a form of speech. Common Cause, which was founded in 1970 by Republican John Gardner as a “people’s lobby,” is now working on campaign finance reform to stop corporations and billionaires from influencing legislators, he said.
“2012 will be the most moneyed election in the history of the U.S., and it’s only the beginning,” Edgar said.
“They’re buying our legislative democracy … Let’s go back to a representative democracy … We need to occupy democracy.”
Edgar received applause when he critiqued economic stability tactics that “depend on a percent of people being under- or unemployed and a percentage of the world‘s population being enslaved or underpaid.”
“When ballplayers are getting paid more than teachers, why not re-order those priorities?” Edgar said. “It’s time to critique capitalism.”
*Spence is editor of The Call for the Holston Annual (regional) Conference.
News media contact, Maggie Hillery, Nashville, Tenn. (615)-742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org