CRC Ministry Director Among Faith Leaders Calling For Diplomacy, Not War

CRC Ministry Director Among Faith Leaders Calling For Diplomacy, Not War
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Last week Colin Watson, director of ministries and administration for the Christian Reformed Church, signed a statement calling for diplomacy, “given the escalation of confrontation between the United States and Iran,” as a preamble to the statement reads.

“It is time for leaders from our faith communities to point to more effective ways to transform conflict and to speak strongly against military action that could have enormous human and financial costs, and which could easily and broadly escalate,” the statement reads.

Watson said he was invited to sign through a network of faith leaders that includes the organization Sojourners, which Watson serves as a board member.

He said he signed as a reminder to all of us that “while we are not pacifists, we are on the side of ensuring that we do not support policies that could unintentionally hurt other people—the poor and the oppressed.”

Three specific actions are called for in the statement, which is titled Back From the Brink, Faith leaders call for diplomacy, not war, with Iran.

“1) The United States should offer to return immediately to the Iran nuclear deal and use the resulting discussions with Iran to engage in an effective diplomatic process for enhancing regional security.

“2) The United States should end its policy of harsh and punitive trade sanctions against the Iranian people.

“3) If necessary, (the United States should) establish safeguards for commercial shipping in the Gulf.”

Watson said he looked at this particular issue from the perspective of “consider(ing) the impact on individuals—members of God’s creation, as these policies are implemented.”

Others who have signed the statement include Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, former secretary general of the Reformed Church in America, clergy from individual congregations, and representatives of interfaith organizations. At the time of the statement’s release (July 9), there were more than 100 names, and the network continued to collect more. 

When asked whether statements issued by faith leaders on any particular policy actually make a difference, Watson said, “I think that there are cases where we are called to speak out even though it might not have any immediate impact—just to remind individuals who we are … we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

About the Author

Alissa Vernon is the news editor for The Banner.

See comments (7)


So I have a question for the foreign affairs expert CRC leaders who have signed on to this Sojourners position: Do you believe that the US should still pursue a foreign policy that enforces (with other nations) nuclear non-proliferation?

Re-establishing the Obama agreement (never passed on by Congress of course) and removing economic sanctions will virtually guarantee that Iran becomes a nuclear power not very long from now, which in turn virtually guarantees Saudi Arabia will pursue the same path (how would we say no to them?), not to mention North Korea (ditto the reason) as well any other country, large or small, regardless of form of government, that chose to become a nuclear power.  In other words, the current nuclear non-proliferation strategy would be dead and the world would indeed enter into a new phase where the globe bristles with nuclear weapons proliferation.

So if (when) this happens, that is, if what our CRC leadership is pitching is the route the US takes, and the end of nuclear non-proliferation is the result, can I blame my denomination?  Is my denomination willing to take responsibility after it presumes to politically engage for me in global foreign affairs policy?

Synod 2019 removed Sojourners from the list of organizations that the CRC works with, for good reason. This "statement" about Iran is an example why the CRC is not working with Sojourners anymore. The statement is basically a highly-subjective opinion piece about a very complex foreign policy situation. In it, the folks at Sojourners support several opinions that arguably go against Scripture. The statement does not offer concrete & actionable ideas, but rather proposes lots of vague platitudes.

In light of Synod's decision, two questions need to be answered:

1) Why did Colin Watson sign the statement on bahalf of the CRC?

2) Why is The Banner covering it?

I’m not sure we can say that Colin Watson signed the document “on behalf of the CRC”. But it does seem to me that when a denominational official signs on to something of this nature while listing his affiliation it carries the *implication* that the imprimatur of the denomination is behind the signature. Whether intended or not, that is typically the case. I don’t begrudge Colin Watson any position he personally wants to take on international relationships, but I think it does not necessarily represent well the position of many within the denomination that he lists with his name on the document.

It’s not that I don’t believe Watson’s fellow believers in the CRC also long for peace and desire to avoid war, but there is more than one way to skin a cat, as they say. It’s interesting to think of the parallels to the Second Cold War era of Reagan’s presidency. Reagan, like Trump, rose to fame largely as a product of media exposure. Reagan, like Trump was masterful at using the media to his advantage. Reagan (prior to his governorship), like Trump was a political outsider. (To be sure, Reagan was congenial, while Trump exhibits boorish behavior as a trademark - so differences can be pointed to as well). Reagan dealt harshly with the USSR, while building up the U.S. military and regularly excoriating the USSR and its leaders. Reagan carried the threat of military action with him constantly, not as an alternative to diplomacy, but as a tool of diplomacy.   Reagan’s sabre–rattling was regularly criticized. Reagan recognized the weakness of the USSR and applied additional economic pressure by getting OPEC to produce more oil, thus dropping oil prices and robbing the USSR of one of their main economic engines. This undoubtedly damaged the overall Soviet economy and had a significant effect on the lives of ordinary people, but was necessary in order to force the sort of social and economic upheaval that leads to political change. The Soviets gave no reasonable indication that some sort of Pollyanna diplomacy would have an impact on their behavior – the Cold War had been ongoing since the end of WWII. In the end, Reagan was proved much more prescient than were his critics. By leading with strength, Reagan helped to save lives, end suffering, reconfigure regional political reality, and avoid large scale war. Time will tell if Trump is able to accomplish similar outcomes.

Here is an irony: Threat of military action is actually a tool of diplomacy. It is actually a very effective tool. It is one of the reasons why the U.S. is a meaningful diplomatic counter to Iran and Canada is not. By asking the government of the U.S. to “step back from military action as an option”, the proponents of this statement are asking the U.S. to rule one of their strongest diplomatic tools out of bounds. That is not wise, and given Iran’s history, is much more likely to lead to greater suffering. Good intentions don’t count with rogue regimes. Economic sanctions are probably the second most effect diplomatic tool, which the signers of this document also want to render essentially ineffective by paring them back to “Iranian officials” only. Bargaining from strength will have a greater chance of leading to justice than will bargaining from weakness. The U.S. is the primary counter to Iran specifically because the U.S. has military and economic might and can wield them. Despite missteps, poor judgment or even outright wickedness at times throughout history, no world power has ever wielded these powers with the magnanimity shown by the U.S.

Are we supposed to believe that the signers of this document have greater diplomatic insight than someone like former CIA agent Reuel Marc Gerecht who called the Iran nuclear deal “strategically and morally absurd”? Just what do the signers of this document suppose that Iran did with the 150 billion dollars in frozen assets that President Obama freed up for them? Do they believe the mullahs approved its use for economic relief for its beleaguered people or to be funneled to more proxy wars and terrorist groups to further destabilize the Middle East? Naïvete is not a Christian virtue. The signers instruct the U.S. government to “engage in an effective diplomatic process for enhancing regional security” as if this is some sort of new idea, heretofore not thought of by the U.S. or international diplomats.

God instituted governments specifically to bear the sword and punish evil. To ask the government to throw away its sword is to ask it to defy its God-given role. The government is not the vehicle through which I am to show love to my neighbor.

Curiously, how can the signers of this document judge any war with Iran to be “morally and religiously indefensible” without knowing under what circumstances this hypothetical war arose? While Watson proclaims not to be a pacifist, this is the language of pacifism. Under the just war tradition, wars can only be judged as to their morality when you have a known set of circumstances. To declare any potential war with Iran to be indefensible is to be a practical pacifist.

I don't think I disagree much with Colin Watson's position, but I do have to ask if we are a Reformed denomination, why is a statement he signs onto of any more importance than a statement by any other CRC member? Unless he is speaking on behalf of the institutional church, this should be of no more significance than a letter I write to my local newspaper. If he is speaking on behalf of the institutional church, I would argue that he has crossed a line in terms of speaking to policy rather than moral principle. That is the church is competent to reiterate Just War principles to our members as well as elected officials as part of public discipleship. It is not competent to speak on specifics of nuanced foreign policy matters. 

Note from the editors: 
Synod 2019 removed Sojourners from the list of ecumenical organizations noted in the EIRC charter because it does not formally fit in that category. Director of Ministries Colin Watson, Sr., continues to serve on the board of Sojourners. Any time a CRC denominational leader is signatory to a public statement, it is appropriate news for The Banner.  

Alissa, to be clear, I was only questioning the point of a denominational leader signing these types of documents. I agree that it is entirely appropriate of the Banner to report. 

What processes are in place to authorize Executives of the CRC to sign documents like this? At the local church level we have consistories, administration committees that would probably meet and decide to allow a Pastor (as an example) to sign AND include position name to a public document supporting some kind of action. Does this apply to CRNA HO? To prevent this, I suggest we let a Synod approve, ideally via an overture from a classis or a church. Maybe Mr. Watson should have signed as a Director of Sojourners.