Politics & Policy

Church of The Peaceniks

Religious leaders who oppose the Iraq war.

I was e-mailing earlier this week with an Episcopal priest friend in the military’s chaplain corps, asking him how the soldiers he serves are bearing up these days, on the march to war with Iraq. He replied that most are going to the Middle East with “a resigned determination.”

”Our men and women in uniform understand that we can defang this evil monster now, and take our licks,” the chaplain said. “Or, we can defang him later, at a cost which is significantly higher. The odds in our favor decrease the longer we delay. To delay will cost Americans in body bags.”

I then asked how the soldiers feel when they read of religious leaders denouncing war with Iraq, the same war they are going to have to fight, if it comes to that.

“Betrayed. Disgusted,” the chaplain replied. “They find them naïve, clueless. It causes a rift between the soldier and the faith group. The Episcopalian soldiers I serve, for example, were outraged during the Gulf War when they saw the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church on the picket lines in front of the White House.”

Well, Episcopalian soldiers, here’s some comfort: Peter Lee, the bishop of Virginia (and thus the ordinary of Colin Powell, a parishioner at St. John’s, McLean), has issued a thoughtful, balanced statement about a Christian’s duty in the impending conflict.

“We pray for peace,” the bishop said. “We uphold our leaders and our military in our prayers. And in a fallen world, we understand that one of the responsibilities of international leadership is to name the threats to peace and to participate in removing them, by diplomacy if possible, by measured, necessary force as a last resort.”

Bishop Lee, a Korean war veteran, neither endorsed nor condemned this war, but said only that Christians should pray that our nation should do God’s will — even if the divine will means fighting a just war. That seems about right. Yet such a statement puts Bishop Lee at odds with his church’s presiding bishop, Frank Griswold, a strident antiwar activist who recently said that the “world has every right to loathe us,” and with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has described a U.S.-led war on Iraq as “immoral and illegal.”

Across the Tiber, the antiwar sentiment is much the same. Pope John Paul II has made several strong statements calling on the United States to stand down from war with Iraq. Top cardinals have sharply criticized America’s march to war, saying that attacking Iraq now would violate just-war principles. Cardinal Francis Stafford, the top-ranking American in the Vatican, issued Rome’s most detailed case against the war in this recent statement, in which he said that war can only be justified if it is defensive or the threat of attack is “very imminent.”

“Furthermore, the concept of a ‘preventive’ war is ambiguous,” Cardinal Stafford continued. “…The threat must be clear, active and present — not future. Nor has the American administration shown that all other options before going to war have proven ‘impractical or ineffective.’”

Though a number of U.S. Catholic bishops and heads of Catholic religious orders have taken hard antiwar positions, the bishops’ conference last November issued a more balanced statement. Though they opposed military action, the bishops conceded that “people of good will may differ on how to apply just-war norms in particular cases, especially when events are moving rapidly and the facts are not altogether clear.”

It’s the same everywhere you look. Heads of mainline Protestant denominations in America, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, are on record opposing the war. The National Council of Churches is strongly antiwar (which is like saying Homer Simpson is strongly pro-donut). Jewish religious leaders are divided, with some supporting the war and others opposed. Some Jewish peaceniks, however, hesitate to join the antiwar movement because it has become home to overt anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments. As for the Muslims — well, do you really have to ask?

In fact, the only major American religious leaders to forthrightly back the president are Evangelicals. Richard Land, a top Southern Baptist official, joined Chuck Colson three other prominent Evangelicals in a supportive letter sent to the White House last fall. But the National Association of Evangelicals have declined to make a statement on the war, reflecting the ambivalence many congregations feel about attacking Iraq.

So: With the overwhelming majority of major religious leaders in the West either antiwar or ambivalent about military action in Iraq, what are we laypeople to make of all this?

I have heard some say that priests and pastors “ought to get behind our president,” by which they mean refuse to criticize Bush and his war plans as a matter of patriotism. This isn’t quite right. Religious leaders have a prophetic role to play, speaking truth to power when civil authority is in the wrong. Plus, does anybody want ordained men and women uncritically baptizing war? The pope was right to call war, even just war, a “defeat for humanity.”

That said, religious authorities today are reflexively, and depressingly, pacifistic on this war, as if every devil can be cast out with high-minded talk and good intentions. Some of it has to do with the knee-jerk liberalism of the upper clergy in all the American churches, whose leaders are generally much more to the left on social matters than their congregations. These are the kind of hopeless naifs who take a fact-finding tour of Iraq, and return trumpeting news that the citizens of this totalitarian dictatorship don’t want war. A generation ago, their predecessors took “peace tours” of the Soviet Union, and came home denouncing America for its warmongering ways.

But there are those who truly believe that the classic criteria for a just war have not been met. The problem, though, is that just-war theory, which dates from St. Augustine’s fifth-century deliberations, is in need of updating to account for the dramatically different conditions of the present age. (For a more detailed discussion of this, see George Weigel’s lengthy First Things essay.)

In an era when weapons of mass destruction are possessed by rogue states, the very act of having such devastating weapons can legitimately be seen as an act of aggression requiring a response. This is even truer when it is known that a government supports terrorist surrogates that have sought to acquire such weapons. Must America lose New York or Washington before she is free to wage war on those who would nuke her, if they had the means?

Antiwar clerics have no answer to that question, and no responsibility for protecting populations from that fate. History will not hold bishops accountable for failing to prevent the annihilation of cities. One suspects George W. Bush and Tony Blair wish they slept as well these days as peacenik vicars.

Many divines, citing the just-war criterion that insists “competent authority” must be in charge of a just war, say that America must not act without the United Nations. Leaving aside the risibility of theologians tutoring statesmen on the rules of international sovereignty, the United Nations is very near to proving its moral vacuity, its impotence, and its incompetence as an authority charged with keeping international order.

We are told by Christian leaders that America and its allies haven’t gone far enough to resolve the crisis without resorting to military means. After 12 years of sanctions and a demonstrably useless inspections regime, and a year of intense diplomacy under the cloud of war, all with no effect on Iraq, there is simply nothing left to be done. We do not yet know how our religious leaders will react to the overwhelming case Colin Powell made this week at the U.N., in which he demonstrated conclusively that a dozen years of trying peaceful means of coercion has not worked with Iraq. But their credibility is on the line.

One antiwar argument the peace pastors use will not be swayed by Powell’s U.N. speech: that the Iraqi people will suffer terribly in the event of an American-led war. That’s probably true. But all war brings suffering to civilian populations. It’s terrible, and an army must do its best to minimize it. Yet many more people — our own — may die if Saddam is allowed to remain in power, and develop his weapons of mass destruction.

Barring a miracle (for which we all must pray), this nation is going to war. “The course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others,” the president said to Congress. One might add: Not even bishops and pastors. And, considering what some of them are saying, perhaps, Thanks be to God.


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