This Christmas, a new probing in prayers for peace

At the main intersection of this former industrial town, they gather every Sunday after Quaker services - a half-dozen or so men and women bundled in bright coats and hats, holding homemade signs saying: "War is not the answer" and "Come join us."

In San Francisco, classrooms of children in Catholic school are dedicating the month to an "Advent of Peace" by doing something each day - from blessing wreaths to reciting the novena - to devote themselves to peace.

And in Cleveland, a diverse church group of 80 from around the country gathers to reinvigorate the "just peace" movement, trying, among other things, to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Across the country, church groups this holiday season are rededicating themselves to peace and social causes, at the end of a year marked by simmering conflict abroad and the threat of terrorism at home. This year's Christmastide, it seems, is giving rise not only to traditional prayers for peace, but also to fresh, grass-roots efforts to understand - in all its complexity - what makes for a lasting peace. Movements that stagnated in the prosperous, tranquil 1990s have been buoyed on waves of new interest.

"It's people in the pews saying, 'This is the time.' It's individuals choosing to do this," says Mary Elizabeth Sperry, associate director for publishing at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. "So it becomes a much more intentional process."

A year ago, Ms. Sperry's office was flooded with dioceses' requests for peace-prayer resources as the nation reeled from Sept. 11, sending up Christmas prayers with new urgency. This year, printers are again scrambling to spew out prayer cards, calendars, and songbooks, with orders coming primarily from youth groups, school teachers, and adult prayer groups.

After a feel-good era in which some Americans sported bumper stickers that read "visualize whirled peas," many are now pondering how to achieve peace.

In Philadelphia, Germantown United Methodist Church started a study group on how wars can be prevented. In Rockford, Ill., 150 laypeople showed up at Court Street United Methodist Church this month for a dinner and vespers meeting on peace. "It's average, ordinary citizens who are doing this, unlike in the '60s when it was students and left-wing radicals," says Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in New York, who attended the Rockford dinner.

Peace - but by restraint, or by force?

Yet as Christians probe peace, differences are clear. On one side is a series of rallies and vigils opposing invasion of Iraq, and a coalition of 11 religious and civic organization formed this month to "Keep America Safe: Win Without War."

"When you're celebrating the birth of Jesus, it reminds everyone that he came not with a sword but with a mission of peacemaking," says Mr. Edgar.

But other groups argue that military might and willingness to use it light the path to peace in a world that will always need to restrain tyrants. "Some people are so evil ... they can only be dealt with by force," says Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Religious Liberty Commission. "The worst thing for peace in the world would be a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein. The most peaceful thing we could do would be to make sure he doesn't get [nuclear weapons]."

Justice in the eye of the beholder

As Christians struggle to translate prayer to practice, they emphasize justice as a precondition of peace. Where activists diverge is in applying that principle. While Dr. Land emphasizes justice against Saddam Hussein - who, he says, has used weapons of mass destruction against his own people - Mr. Edgar speaks of justice in "new humanitarian aid for the children of Iraq," who suffer under US sanctions.

As the peace movement percolates among laypeople, those in the hierarchy are also stepping up. Pope John Paul II has already released his Jan. 1, 2003 encyclical entited "Pacem in Terris: A Permanent Commitment." In it, he urges Catholics to ponder the four "pillars of peace" - truth, justice, love, and freedom.

But peace as "the tranquillity of order," has proved elusive - in part, suggests the pope, because many on the world stage have emphasized private rights over moral obligations. "The international community, which since 1948 has possessed a charter of the inalienable rights of the human person, has generally failed to insist sufficiently on corresponding duties," he writes. "A greater awareness of universal human duties would greatly benefit the cause of peace, setting it on the moral basis of a shared recognition of an order in things which is not dependent on the will of any individual or group."

Far from Rome on the working-class streets of Amesbury, Ms. Hildt continues to go public with her prayer for peace and an anti-war placard every Sunday. In the Christmas season, she says, more cars are honking and flashing thumbs-up signs. Attendance is up at her Friends Meeting House, a small, white clapboard building. But, she says, the task remains large.

"People are still going around in their day-to-day lives ... as if it were any other Christmas," says Ms. Hildt. "It will probably take ... body bags coming home before we have broad concern for peace."

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