November 15, 2017

Multifaith Gathering Urges Coming Together

PLEAS FOR PEACE: Religious scholar and bestselling author Reza Aslan speaks on “The Challenges of Peace in the Trump Era” to a gathering of about 175 conference participants at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton on Sunday. (Photo by John Lien)

By Donald Gilpin

About 400 gathered at the Princeton University Chapel for a Multifaith Service for Peace on Sunday, followed by an afternoon conference at Nassau Presbyterian Church, where participants considered “The Challenges of Peace in the Trump Era.” The event was sponsored by the Coalition for Peace Action (CFPA) and 40 other area religious and civic groups. 

Though much of the subject matter was bleak, focusing on nuclear clashes and potentially escalating conflict with Iran and North Korea, the tone of the proceedings was at times upbeat.

“Everybody left feeling elated and energized,” said CFPA Executive Director the Rev. Bob Moore, who stood at the back of the Chapel at the morning service with a range of other faith leaders С Sikh, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish С who all shook hands and wished peace to each member of the congregation on the way out.

“We share so much,” Moore continued. “The emphasis is always on division, but we emphasized joining together in our diversity, coming together. It helps people feel lifted up. You feel energy, empowerment, and hope.” The Princeton University Chapel Choir, directed by Penna Rose, provided a rich assortment of uplifting interfaith music for the service.

At the afternoon conference, featured speakers included University of California Professor Reza Aslan, scholar of religions and best-selling author; Costa Rica’s United Nations Ambassador Elayne Whyte Gomez, who presided over negotiations earlier this year that led to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons supported by 122 nations; New Jersey Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, a leader on peace legislation; Rutgers Associate Korean History Professor Suzy Kim, author and executive committee member of Women Cross the DMZ; and Harvard Professor and award-winning author Elaine Scarry.

Kim, author of an award-winning book on the North Korean revolution, provided an historical perspective to the current U.S.-North Korea conflict, citing brokenness and division dating back more than 60 years to the Korean War. She warned about the dangers of demonizing the enemy.

Moore, advocating for diplomacy rather than war, agreed with Kim’s argument that “there are legitimate concerns on both sides,” and added, “That needs to be the starting place if we are going to solve this problem in a way that doesn’t lead to war.”

Scarry, whose most recent book is Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom, argued that the nation suffers from a huge blind spot, priding itself on being a great democracy but being a complete dictatorship controlled by the president on the nuclear weapons issue.

She pointed out that the president has the authority to single-handedly start a nuclear war. She noted that a policy solution to this undemocratic situation exists if Congress claims the power to assert its appropriate role.

Legislation has been introduced in Congress, she added, to restrict the first use of nuclear weapons and to require that Congress must be the only authority to declare war and authorize nuclear weapons unless the U.S. is under nuclear attack.

Aslan, an Iranian-American and author of the bestselling Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, discussed the recent decertification by the U.S. of the nuclear agreement with Iran, while Gomez discussed the forging of the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons as a first step towards resolving the crisis.

Moore emphasized the mixed tone of the conference, balancing the urgent sounding of the alarm with the empowerment of people to take measures towards delegitimizing weapons of mass destruction.

Gomez noted that negotiated bans on chemical and biological weapons and an international standard on land mines provide examples of viable steps towards the elimination of weapons. She pointed out that the vast majority of the world wants these barbaric weapons banned.

“The only way is to abolish them,” Moore concluded. “History teaches us that if you have a weapon eventually it will be used. Many experts have said it’s mostly luck that nuclear weapons have not been used recently.”

Moore described the service and peace conference as “a very good day. I was encouraged by the highly favorable feedback from many participants.”