Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar, a modern-day prophet and giant in the faith justice and peace movement, died unexpectedly this past Tuesday, April 23rd. Pax Christi USA worked very closely with Bob when he was head of the National Council of Churches, the Protestant counterpart to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, after 9-11 and in the lead-up to the second Gulf war in 2003. He worked with passion and brilliance in orchestrating a host of strategic faith initiatives to try and prevent the initiation of that war.
Bob also was a cherished friend and mentor, so I write with deep personal grief as well, and hope to lift up his example of courage and effectiveness as an advocate–so that we may likewise carry on.
I was last arrested with Bob in a religious civil disobedience witness in the summer of 2011, a “pray in” in the National Capitol Rotunda during heated Congressional debate on the federal debt ceiling. He organized the action to dramatize how those made poor and marginalized would suffer most from proposed budget cuts to safety net programs. Although Bob was working as the president of Common Cause at the time and not in the faith community, he knew that elevating a prophetic, moral voice was desperately needed at a critical moment in the national debate on the issue. Beyond just organizing the pray-in as a statement in itself, Bob took care to engage Common Cause’s communication capacities and the next morning the story was covered in over 200 local newspapers—including a picture in the New York Times.
As a young seminarian in the 60s, Bob had heard Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak to the triplet evils of poverty, racism and militarism; smitten and inspired, he never ceased to raise his voice on these evils. Bob carried in his wallet a folded up paper with Dr. King’s saying, that our generation “will have to repent for the appalling silence of good people, not just the brutality of evil people.”
Bob served six terms in the House of Representatives. His unwavering dedication to reversing poverty has been beautifully captured in obituaries posted in the Washington Post and New York Times, both on April 25th. The latter included a quote by former President Reagan, who called Bob Edgar— “the most dangerous man in America.” Yes, he was a threat to the status quo with an incredible moral compass and fearlessness in speaking truth to power.
Bob knew that to effect social change one needs not to just be an activist, but to be an organizer—and that he was. He took leadership in convoking gatherings of national religious leaders on peace issues so that Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups could speak with one voice and say no to war and violence.
A deeply faith-filled person, Bob lived out the Christian vocation of peacemaking. He helped infuse the political discourse in this country and beyond with that message of peace. In the months prior to the Iraq war, he was on every TV news program and talk radio that he could get on, passionately urging political leaders to step back from the brink of war. He developed throat problems and lost his voice at one point, likely from such relentless speaking out. He authored a book: “Middle Church,” a call to progressive people of faith to take back the moral high ground from the right-wing extremists and to make America a better, less divided country.
Pax Christi USA was Bob’s “go to” place for Catholic voices ready to speak out against the rush to war, and then to end it. We were honored to collaborate on a host of his initiatives, including a Congressional briefing on the eve of a vote to give the president authorization to go to war. Before the UN Security Council was to have its vote, Bob developed a strategy to send U.S. religious leaders to the key Security Council countries to meet with religious leaders there and do high profile media work with a united faith voice urging global political leaders not to go to war. With two days’ notice for the first trip to France, we found Trinitarian Fr. Stan Deboe, then social justice staff for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, ready to go and represent Pax Christi (http://www.ncccusa.org/news/03news10.html). For the Italy trip, we sent Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace, Fr. Joe Nangle, OFM, who managed to hand-deliver a letter to the Pope asking him to come to the U.S. and more loudly elevate his call not to go to war in Iraq (http://www.ncccusa.org/news/03news15.html).
When we think of the spiral of violence and how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the current drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and beyond, have so inflamed anti-Americanism abroad and contributed to fanning terrorism, there was one initiative that Bob organized in 2004 that stands out as the kind of high-impact response our peace movements might consider doing more. After pictures from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were made public in April of that year showing U.S. military personnel engaged in torture and other forms of psychological and physical abuse of Iraqi prisoners, the world watched horrified. Bob immediately called us for a Catholic leader to join an interfaith religious video message which he organized to publicly apologize for the sins of our country. Sent to Iraq and the Arab media as a 30 second paid ad for TV, it was played repeatedly in the Arab world—showing another face of the U.S. and a gesture that mattered at a critical time http://www.nbcnews.com/id/5224603/ns/world_news-mideast_n_africa/t/us-group-apologizes-arabs-abu-ghraib/.)
For the past five years, Bob served as president of Common Cause, a nonprofit that advocates for government accountability and regulating campaign money, including challenging the Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court. He would nudge me, and others working on our variety of social justice issues, to commit to tithing 10% of our respective organization’s focus on such issues to hold government accountable, given that the common good would benefit if we all did so. Though I haven’t tithed that much time, I did join Common Cause and urge others to do so in Bob’s memory (www.commoncause.org).
Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, another Pax Christi partner, reflected on Bob’s passing by elevating a phrase that Bob often used when he was giving talks around the country. He would make us in the crowd repeat it several times, phrase by phrase, until it sank deep: “We are…the leaders…we have…been waiting for.”
It’s time to step up to that challenge, even more boldly and creatively.
We have lost an effective leader and advocate, but have learned much from his example and inspiration. In gratitude, we remember Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar, and go forward.