C. Joseph Sprague, currently in the position of bishop in the UMC Northern Illinois Conference, spoke as a self-professed representative of protestant Christianity at a public panel discussion on war and peace on Sunday evening, October 28, 2001. The Panelists, which included representatives of other world religions, as well as many people in the audience found Mr. Sprague's extreme pacifism as a laughing matter, as he was the only panelist who expressed non-support of the U.S. military action against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. When an audience participant pressed Mr. Sprague to explain how he would stop terrorists from further murders in America and throughout the world, he couldn't propose a solution, but rather could only criticize the United States for a foreign policy that has resulted in deaths of Muslims in past years. In a feeble attempt to imply that there is a better way to deal with world terrorism, Mr. Sprague gave lip service to the United Nations with a vague reference to an international world court.
Mr. Sprague's pacifist position was not "breaking news" at the panel discussion, as he had previously publicized his criticism of America's war on terrorism. However, the unexpected news item from the event was Mr. Sprague's complete break from United Methodist doctrine concerning the Second Coming of our Lord and Savior. During the extremely brief question and answer period, Mr. Sprague responded to the question "When will Jesus come?" In his response -- in what is believed to be his first such public declaration on this matter -- Mr. Sprague said clearly and concisely that Jesus walked the earth about 2000 years ago and that he will NOT come again, as there will be no Second Coming!
The panel discussion titled "An Interfaith Dialogue On War and Peace" was held before at packed Sanctuary estimated at almost 600 people at the First United Methodist Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago. The audience represented the diversity of the American populace with as many people of Arab descent present in the building as those of European descent. The event was organized by UMC Reverend Diana M. Facemyer of Glen Ellyn's St. Thomas UMC, who acted as the host of the event.
The event started with a welcome by First UMC Reverend Bonnie Beckonchrist in the spirit of embracing all world religions with greetings in varying tongues and religious salutations. The program then began with an explanation of the format, which would allow a fifteen minute allotment for a speech by each panelist with a 20-minute question and answer session at the close of the two-hour event. The program listed the speakers in order as Dr. Dilip Sinh Vedelankar Mahida, Hindu; Rabbi Marla Spanjer of the Congregation Etz Chaim, Jewish; Deacon Roger Schmith of Peace with Justice Ministry from the Catholic Diocese of Joiliet Illinois, Roman Catholic; Mr. Mubasher Ahmad of Ahmadiyya Movement, Islam; Bishop C. Joseph Sprague of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, Protestant.
The first speaker, Dr. Mahida presented aspects of Hindu, and addressed the issue of war and peace, in a general manner. Nothing further can be stated concerning his live presentation as his heavy accent made his speech nearly unintelligible to the non-Hindu in attendance--virtually everyone.
Rabbi Spanjer, the self-proclaimed progressive Jewish rabbi spoke next and addressed the issue of war and peace most directly. She made clear that America's war on terrorism is a necessity, but she advocated peace to the extent that it could be practical.
The Roman Catholic Deacon Schmith made an educational-oriented speech about the origins of the Just War doctrine of the Roman Catholic tradition. He explained the doctrine in as much specificity as possible in the time allotted, including enumerating the conditions necessary for a Just War. He seemed to indicate that the current American military action is questionable as a Just War, but then clarified himself during the question and answer period to make clear that he simply would not state his personal opinion, but rather encouraged each person to study the doctrine and form their own personal opinion.
Rev. Facemyer then called for the audience to stand and join in singing the hymn "O God of Every Nation" from the UMC red hymnal page 435. The hymn was beautifully played by First UMC organist Marsha Webster, but hardly a voice in the audience was familiar with the hymn--Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike.
As everyone was seated following the "organ solo," a Muslim chanted in a language foreign to this writer for a few minutes, and then Rev. Facemyer introduced the speaker of Islam, who was no doubt the focal point of the event, Mr. Ahmad, who is originally from Pakistan.
Mr. Ahmad stated that he would present the view of war and peace as the Koran teaches, and so he read many passages from the Koran and reinforced the passages with his explanation and interpretation. Both his selection of passages as well as his expository seemed to present a well-balanced view of Islam, demonstrating both the desire for peace as well as the justification for war. He stressed several times that the prophet Muhammed was an advocate for order over disorder, and indicated that this was a basic underlying tenet of Islam.
For more than half of Mr. Ahmad's speech, to anyone in the audience who was unfamiliar with his personal position on the current affairs (certainly this would describe virtually all of the non-Muslims in attendance), it wasn't clear if Mr. Ahmad was justifying the war attitude of the followers of Osama bin Laden, or simply speaking in generalities. As his speech progressed, and even more so during the question-answer period, it became crystal clear that he was applying the teachings of the Koran to justify the American military response to the terrorist attack. Mr. Ahmad went so far as to say that the Taliban "must go", and that it is a necessity for the American military to "smoke them out of their holes." He provided a simple analogy to the situation by saying that if a citizen is harboring a criminal in their home, and refuse to turn over the criminal when instructed to do so by the police, then the citizen should fully expect that the police will do the right and proper thing of beating down the door to take the criminal by force. It quickly became clear, that Mr. Ahmad is so much opposed to the Taliban and Osama bin Laden that he apparently assumed that it wasn't necessary to preface his speech with his clear position (as if everyone should know).
Positioned as the last speaker, for obvious reasons, C. Joseph Sprague was gloriously introduced, including his credentials, by his underling Rev. Facemyer. Mr. Sprague began by stating that he would be speaking on behalf of protestant Christians, although he made clear several times that his speech is simply his own position as one bishop. The first third of this speech was an elementary presentation of the origins of Christianity, in which his intent was to slant the view of Christianity as being a religion based on a man, Jesus, whose purpose was to reverse the emphasis of the Old Testament on things like war. He later made clear during the question and answer period that there can be no interpretation from the New Testament of a justification of war.
Mr. Sprague stated that for the first 400 years of Christianity, the church was very obviously pacifist--he used the term pacifist many times and applied the label to himself, as well. He went on to say that it was only after the church was joined with the state that Christianity erroneously spawned the just war theory (his label). During the question-answer period, the Roman Catholic Deacon stated that the Just War doctrine was invented for the purpose of justifying the knights' return to the Eucharist after battle; all the while of this explanation by the Catholic, Mr. Sprague was nodding his head in aggressive agreement.
Besides holding up the Bible as he referred to various Scriptures, Mr. Sprague also held up the UMC Book of Discipline, as he urged the audience to read the book, which is the result of the world-wide conference of the denomination held just over a year ago, which included about 1,000 delegates. He stated that the Book of Discipline overwhelmingly speaks of peace, but acknowledged that there is still the remnant left of that old thinking that alludes to what he calls the just war theory.
In response to a question to him about the war on terrorism, Mr. Sprague stated that the just war theory was largely ignored since its inception, but then with the rise of Adolph Hitler, the church "dusted it off" and brought it to the forefront. Mr. Sprague spoke about Hitler in a fashion that would have caused a person to think that the next words out of his mouth would be that the Allied war against Nazism was a valid and just war; but, not surprisingly, he never made that correlation.
However if there was one thing which Mr. Sprague made crystal clear it was his emphatic opposition to the United States military response to the terrorist attacks. Even during the question-answer period when he was given an opportunity to explain himself, he simply didn't demonstrate any grasp of the clear and present danger to the free world of a murdering terrorist being allowed to roam freely in harboring states.
Clearly there were a fair number of protestant pacifists in the audience, as Mr. Sprague, the only pacifist among the panel consisting of a liberal Jew, a liberal Roman Catholic, a liberal Muslim, and a peace-loving Hindu, drew aggressive applause on three occasions from the obvious minority of pacifists in the audience: Once when he said he was in favor of bombing Afghanistan with food and medicine; once when he emphatically stated he could NOT support this as a Just War; and once when he said that God's kingdom will be established here on earth.
His comment concerning God's kingdom on earth concluded his response to a question by a young voice amidst a crowd of Muslim adults. "When will Jesus come?" asked the young voice speaking timidly into a wireless microphone. Rev. Facemyer asked that the question be repeated, although to the audience the question was well understood. Rev. Facemyer then replied, are you asking "When DID Jesus come?" To which the young voice repeated the question, and again Rev. Facemyer said "When DID Jesus come?" at which time the audience repeated the question in unison to the reverend, "When WILL Jesus come?" And in astonishment to the question, the reverend immediately and emphatically said "bishop?" in an effort to pass the question to Mr. Sprague, who proudly walked to the podium from his seated position.
Mr. Sprague began his response to the question by stating that Jesus came 2000 years ago. Mr. Sprague's diatribe continued in his typical style of the enlightened seminarian for about a minute or so, as he explained that Jesus is with us in spirit today. And then his speech pattern mysteriously shifted, and in a rather uncharacteristic fashion for this man, he spoke in clear and concise vernacular American English. He paused, leaning over to put his mouth in front of the microphone and speaking very slowing and enunciating his words clearly, he stated that Jesus will NOT come again; there will be NO second coming. Immediately he resumed his normal speech pattern and concluded with the liberal-pleasing statement that the spirit of Jesus with us today will bring God's kingdom to earth.
The extreme degree to which Mr. Sprague presented his pacifism became a bit of a joke, as Rabbi Spanjer answered a question from a Muslim who read from the Torah of God's harsh commands instructing the Israelites to kill their enemies including every man, woman, and child. The rabbi was in the midst of explaining Jewish traditional interpretation of such passages, which teaches that the response to aggression by an enemy should be proportional to that aggression. The rabbi said, pointing to Mr. Sprague, that "even the bishop" would agree that the aggressor must be brought to justice, as the crowd laughed at the implication by the rabbi which assumed reasonableness of even the most extreme example of a pacifist--Mr. Sprague. As a result of the obvious embarrassment to Mr. Sprague, she attempted to re-frame her reference to him, but no matter how hard she tried to recant, her subsequent words only further reinforced the illogic of Mr. Sprague's stated position.
Mr. Sprague's position has been well-defined in his commentary articles published in the Conference-paid publication of the local United Methodist Reporter. In his most recent two commentaries, he goes on record as being against the action of the President (Mr. Bush, as he calls him), and he makes clear that the terrorist attacks on the U.S. are a result of past and current U.S. foreign policy.
For the benefit of those not familiar with dissecting Mr. Sprague's verbose commentaries and speeches, the following excerpts constitute the crux of his two recent writings.
Notice in the final excerpt above that Mr. Sprague uses the term fundamentalism in the sentence in a manner that separates it from Islam. An interpretation of this, which would be consistent with Mr. Sprague's other writings and speeches, is that the root problem is in fundamentalism, whether it be of the Islamic form or of the Christian form.
Besides Mr. Sprague's announcement at the War and Peace event of his break with UMC Doctrine concerning the Second Coming, he's being deceitful as to the actual, codified position of the denomination. Below are just a few examples of the convenient omissions of Mr. Sprague concerning the UMC Book of Discipline.
Compare the above paragraph with the same portion of the Social Principles but from the 1992 Book of Discipline, below:
Clearly, the UMC has been moving in a direction toward the reasoning of Just War rather than away from it.
No, Mr. Sprague doesn't present both sides of this issue, but the wife of one of his underling pastors expresses another perspective on this subject (from the Chicago Tribune):
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