Blessed Are the Peacemakers
We spent the past week sweating in Austin. I grew up in Northern California and am not used to this weather, which I'm told is still mild compared to how it feels when summer actually starts. We initially planned to stay for only a few days, but we keep finding reasons to extend our stay.
Austin is considered by most of Texas to be the most liberal city in the state. The central party of the city is full of bars, restaurants, tattoo parlors and an endless array of live music. The outlying areas are considered to be more conservative. Austin is in Travis County, where John Kerry won 56 percent of the vote. Despite its liberal leanings, Republicans have a great deal of influence in this town.
While in Austin, I met with members of the Texas Right to Life, Austin Republican Women, interviewed a Presbyterian minister who referenced The Daily Show in his sermon and had my first mega-church experience at the Shoreline Christian Center, a 47-acre facility with the capacity to seat 5,000 worshippers.
After finding a parking spot in Shoreline's packed lot, I immediately notice Shoreline bumper stickers on most of the cars. I walk into a packed auditorium with a 13-piece band and 32-person chorus on stage. I feel like I'm at a bad rock concert; the difference is, almost everyone in the audience raises their hands high in the air and has a Bible at their side. The people to my right jump up and down while screaming: "Jesus wants us to get to the summit!" After about 20 minutes of singing and dancing, Shoreline Pastor Rob Koke takes the stage and immediately begins preaching about the importance of valuing peace. "I want you to be a peacemaker. The world needs peacemakers," he says. Koke speaks about conflict at the global and local level, but never specifically mentions the Iraq war. During the second half of the service, I feel like I'm at a retreat for people who are working to improve their relationships and communication skills. After the service, I interview Pastor Rob Koke at a new worshiper reception in the church foyer complete with a Starbucks and a huge gift shop full of crosses and Christian books and CDs. Here are excerpts from that interview:
How did this church get started?
The church started in our home in 1987 and has progressed over the last 18 years to be this church. We have a 5,000-seat sanctuary here in town and somewhere between the neighborhood of 7-10,000 people call this church their home.
Tell me about the philosophy behind the church's teachings. How do you decide which topics to address?
I choose messages that will hopefully impact people's lives on Monday morning, and so it's not just about theology or pie in the sky type of information; it's practical because the Bible is a very practical book and helps people to live the Christian life productively and positively on Monday morning.
The word 'peace' came up many, many times, which is rare these days. Has your church taken a stand on the war?
We try to be as sensitive as we can on that issue. We're not a political organization, we're a spiritual focused organization. We have people from every walk of life that attend our church. If you look around, it's an incredibly diverse multicultural congregation, which is very unique. Whites are worshiping with African Americans and Hispanics. There are Republicans and Democrats and all different types of folks that worship together in this environment, so we don't strive to make a strong political statement; we strive to make a strong spiritual statement. Wherever that lands us on the political spectrum is not really important to us; what is important is that we're living with God in an intimate, beautiful way and loving our neighbors.
Have you been following the controversy over the churches that are getting involved in politics? Have you heard of the church in North Carolina that said if you don't support Bush, you're not welcome here?
We have many people that are very active in the political process, which we also encourage as a church. We want people to be active citizens and to say that we're not political doesn't mean to indicate that we don't encourage our congregation to be very, very active politically. We just draw the line. When people come to church, they're thinking about their marriages, their kids and how they can live a Christian life. That's where we want to apply the majority of our emphasis, but in the political season and spectrum of life, we want our church to be very, very active, so we encourage our congregation, which I would tend to think would be overwhelmingly Republican, to be active. I would never say, from our pulpit, anything related to that. I would be extremely uncomfortable doing that.
Why are so many Christian churches predominantly Republican? When I heard you today, you sounded like a liberal talking about peace and the poor.
What we preached here this morning is being reproduced in churches like ours all over the country, but that's not the story that's being told. The churches that are flourishing and growing are meeting the needs of people. Period. So the idea that there's some vast white, right wing conspiracy type mentality in the church world is just not right. We do stand for things. We are strongly pro-life on a spiritual basis, not a political basis. Of course, there's political ramifications to that, but in terms of what we believe theologically, we believe in the Bible, we believe that it's an inspired word of God and that has very real practical implications in terms of how we live our lives.
What denomination is this church?
It's an interdenominational church; it's not affiliated with any denomination.
Are you Republican?
How do you feel about the Iraq war?
You're going to talk to me personally versus pastorally. When you talk about war, there is a just defense. What I mean by that is if someone came into my home and wanted to rob my home, I'm going to put up a defense for my wife and children and that is biblically supported. You'd have to understand the motivation behind Iraq and Afghanistan. If you believe that the motivation was a lie and that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that it was all manipulated because of oil, then I think the net end result of that would be you would feel that it was wrong. But if you really sincerely believe that this is a defense of our nation and our values of nation, that we'll be safer as a nation after this process is over and we extend to the nations of the world a commitment to peace through strength and security, that's where that element comes in from our perspective. We think it's justified. We have a montage of military personnel that we pray for every single week. When people come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, they are treated as heroes in our congregation.
So you didn't support the war because of the weapons of mass destruction?
I think that's correct. The reality of it, personally for me, is do I believe that our world will be safer with Saddam gone. I say yes, wholeheartedly, and I think our congregation would agree with that.
Questions are often raised about the pro-life statement you made. Why doesn't war fall under the pro-life platform?
I'm pro-life, but if somebody wants to kill me, that's where it stops.
A memo recently came out that found intelligence was being fixed to support the war.
I haven't heard about that memo.
So basically, you're in favor of the war because Saddam was a dictator and we have to get rid of him.
Should we get rid of every dictator in the world?
When the dictator affects our national security.
Do you feel safer?