The Biblical story involves an edict requiring idol-worship on cue, and an accusation made against three Israelite exiles who refused to bow down. The three show their courage and determination by telling Nebuchadnezzar that the God they worship is capable of saving them, but even if God were to choose not to intervene they would not engage in idolatry. When they are thrown into the furnace, God's angel miraculously protects them from the flames and they survive unscathed.
We discussed whether and how we experience pressures anything like the pressures brought to bear in this story. Some felt that there was a cultural pressure to greed and selfishness from which their faith has freed them. My own thoughts went to the pressures I experienced a few years ago when the drumbeats of preparing for war in Iraq were building all around us. There was a particular stridency in the rhetoric at the time, and attempts to portray those who would oppose going to war as disloyal.
I could not make sense of the rationale, such as it was, for going to war against Iraq, but I was new to this church, new to this area, and unsure how the people of the church were thinking about the relation of their faith to this new major development. Prayer requests were being made every time someone learned that a young person they knew was being mobilized or deployed in preparation for war, and I did my best to relate the Christian faith to the issues people were presenting. But I don't think anyone at Central Presbyterian Church ever knew the depths of my misgivings about this particular decision to go to war. I was silent then - silent about the faith issue that had the greatest weight for me about this national issue. I was not one who stood up and announced that I would not bow down to this golden image on the national scene.
So I have been asking myself what kept me silent, what fears or values held me back from speaking out at the time.
In December right after the death of Gerald Ford the word came out that Ford had deep misgivings about the decision to go to war against Iraq, but had withheld that viewpoint from the national debate. On December 28 Wynne Everett, a former reporter for the Valley News Dispatch, wrote a column about Ford's silence. I am sharing it here with permission.
President Gerald Ford picked a fine time to tell us what nearly everyone now already knows - the war in Iraq was a bad idea.
Ironic that the man who is most famous for doing the right thing when it was spectacularly unpopular would choose to keep private an opinion that might have _ just might have _ swayed public opinion or official policy two years ago.
Most analysts now accept that the results of last month's mid-term elections mean Americans have concluded that the war is wrong. Either it's wrong because it was always a bad idea or wrong because it's been so poorly executed by this administration or wrong because there is no end in sight. But in most political conversations these days, the idea that it's wrong is no longer in debate.
When Gerald Ford secretly told Bob Woodward in July 2004 that he believed President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq was bad foreign policy that was still arguable. Also, when Ford shared his thoughts on the matter, about 900 American servicemen and women had been killed in Iraq.
Today, that number is nearing 3,000
Shame on Gerald Ford.
There is a tradition among American ex-presidents of not publicly criticizing their successors. Jimmy Carter, of course, famously ignores this tradition. He's earned a Nobel Peace Prize for his troubles.
It's understandable if Ford felt bound by that tradition. But then he either should have used his access to Bush or Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney _ both of whom served in the Ford administration _ to voice his concerns privately, or he should have stayed silent forever.
Don't get me wrong. I don't believe that the private advice of the only never-elected U.S. president could have stopped the invasion of Iraq. "Oh, the invasion is a bad idea? Ok, thanks for the call Mr. Ford. We nearly made a big mistake!"
But public criticism from Ford might have loosened the tongues of more influential figures. If you know the war is wrong and you have a voice people will hear, you have an obligation to speak up when it matters. Not when you're dead and so are 3,000 other Americans who didn't get to live to be 93 and die peacefully in their sleep.
I can see now why Ford was the first of several unsuccessful presidential candidates who would earn my vote. But I am very uncomfortable with my own choices about silence in the face of what looked like a grave impending mistake.