LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. -- The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used nonviolent civil disobedience to change the world and society, while today's church leaders are too afraid of what others will think to speak out against social injustice, says the Rev. Bob Edgar.
“How sad it is now that our churches are so passive, so quiet. You guys are genetically nice,” Edgar said to 302 participants at the fourth annual Lake Junaluska Peace Conference on Nov. 15.
“Sometimes you’ve got to stand 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 themed “Poverty, Abundance and Peace: Seeking Economic Justice for All God’s Children.”
Last July, Edgar was one of two United Methodists arrested with nine other faith leaders in the Capitol Rotunda after refusing to stop public prayers. His colleague 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 to the Lake Junaluska audience, after asking Winkler to stand. “We were there to have a voice for the voiceless."
The "Rotunda 11" were praying for legislators to remember the poor when making national budget decisions.
Edgar contrasted the politeness of the officers who handcuffed 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 was one of several speakers at the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference, including David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World Institute, and Bishop Nkula Ntambo, resident bishop of the Katanga Conference, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Edgar was a substitute speaker for Senator George McGovern, whose health forced a last-minute cancellation. Winkler preached at the conference’s concluding worship.
Edgar walked listeners through his career path as a young pastor, six-term congressman, president of Claremont School of Theology, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, and president of Common Cause since 2007.
He was influenced by leaders like King, who 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 also spoke of his experience and molding 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 and experience, 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.”
Repeating “We are the leaders we are waiting for,” Edgar 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, have a voice. “Let the other 90 percent have their club, their setting for worship,” he said.
The “courageous remnant” – not the majority – have 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.”
However, the “Common Cause” leader warned that the nation’s founding fathers did not intend for money to be used as a form of speech. Founded in 1970 by Republican John Gardner as a “people’s lobby,” Common Cause is currently 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 to his audience in Lake Junaluska’s Stuart Auditorium.
“They’re buying our legislative democracy … Let’s go back to a representative democracy … We need to occupy democracy.”
Participants applauded Edgar when he criticized economic stability tactics that “depend on a percent of people being under- or unemployed and a percentage of the world‘s population 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.”