On Oct. 7, just hours before President Bush in a Cincinnati speech outlined his case for the "urgent duty" of the United States to launch a pre-emptive military strike against Saddam Hussein and Iraq, some two dozen United Methodists from eight Michigan churches joined some 500 other people in a demonstration in downtown Detroit protesting the Bush preparations for war.
"We can't sleep through this rush to war," Rev. Ed Rowe of Detroit Central United Methodist Church told the Michigan Christian Advocate. "Killing innocent victims makes us the terrorists we hate."
The Detroit demonstration attracted little national attention. But the demonstration, in itself merely a drop of water, was a drop in what has become an ocean of faith-based opposition to the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld plans for war on Iraq. And for the most part it has been religious leaders and their congregations—especially mainline Protestant, progressive evangelicals, and Catholic pacifists in Great Britain and the United States—who have been the most vocal and visible in raising the alarm.
It should not be surprising.
Catholic and Protestant churches are in a different place than they were during the Gulf war of a decade ago or the Vietnam War of a generation ago. The churches have been shaped in large part by those two previous wars and, of course, are facing a different situation in that Iraq and the possibility of a new U.S.-led military campaign for a "regime change" has been a concern since 1991.
In the first Gulf war, Hussein was clearly the aggressor, and some religious leaders—under just war theory—felt the invasion of Kuwait was a provocation that could ethically be resisted and repelled with the use of military force. At the same time, the way the war was conducted and the subsequent punitive sanctions regime created legitimate concerns over both the question of proportionality and the impact on the Iraqi civilian population. The churches and their humanitarian agencies, as well as independent groups such as Pax Christi and Voices in the Wilderness, have worried about the devastating impact U.N.-imposed sanctions have had, especially on Iraqi children.
More than a year and a half ago, before Sept. 11, before the new media focus on Iraq and the region, some of that concern—and the frustration—over American policy was expressed by Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, who has made more than a half dozen trips to Iraq in the aftermath of the 1991 war. "What we are doing must be condemned without equivocation. It is morally bankrupt, totally depraved." From Gumbleton, one of the Catholic Church's leading pacifists, such remarks are perhaps not remarkable. But his venue was—the World Association for Christian Communicators, which held a two-day workshop in April 2001 on "The News Embargo on Iraq."
THE ROOTS OF SUCH a stance reach all the way back to the 1960s and the "lessons" learned from the war in Vietnam. The churches, along with much of the rest of the American public, were slow to realize the nature of the war in Southeast Asia and to oppose it. The reasons for that are complex—some benign and some not so benign.
In the first place, in the mid-'60s the civil rights struggle was the great social cause of American mainline Protestantism and the Catholic Church, in the pews and parishes and at the national, institutional level. While some leaders and activists—especially among the pacifists—made an early connection between civil rights and Vietnam, most did not. Even Martin Luther King Jr. resisted the connection for a long time, and not until his April 4, 1967, speech at Riverside Church was the link irrevocably joined. The Vietnam buildup through the early 1960s was gradual and conducted under the auspices of a popular, liberal president; at the same time, many in the religious leadership, as in the national political and intellectual leadership, were still in the grips of the Cold War mentality that dominated the nation and put special emphasis on the atheistic character of communism. To stand against communism was to stand for God.
What's important for the current context, however, is that the very sharp and sometimes bitter debate waged in many denominations over Vietnam—and, more broadly, American nuclear and foreign policy—was led by young insurgents who now hold power in their churches. Even more important, denominations—most prominently the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops with its 1983 pastoral letter "The Challenge of Peace"—made far more explicit the religiously grounded assumption against the use of force.
Thus, as the Bush administration zeroed in on Iraq this year, so did the religious community. Voices of concern and caution came not only from New York and Washington, but from Rome, Geneva, London, and Jerusalem as Christian leaders felt the international community was being stampeded toward an ill-conceived and highly questionable conflict.
Last August, as the administration threatened what amounted to a unilateral pre-emptive strike, the cautions swelled to a chorus. A group of Protestant and Orthodox leaders from the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, attending a Central Committee meeting of the World Council of Churches, issued a statement warning against the "apparent drift towards military confrontation in Iraq." Their spontaneous, independent action was followed within days by a more formal statement from the full Central Committee of the WCC. In many respects this statement set the tone for the flurry of statements and actions that followed from individual church leaders, denominations, and various coalitions such as the theologically broad-based statement "Disarm Iraq Without War," developed by Sojourners' Jim Wallis and the United Kingdom's Anglican Bishop Peter Price.
NEARLY ALL THE statements have two things in common: a just-war assessment that finds the Bush-Blair approach to war morally questionable at virtually every turn and a realistic, sharply critical assessment of the Saddam Hussein regime. The joint U.S.-U.K. statement argues: "Let there be no mistake: We regard Saddam Hussein and his regime in Iraq as a real threat to his own people, neighboring countries, and to the world. His previous use and continued development of weapons of mass destruction is of great concern to us." The statement from the North Atlantic members of the WCC was equally sharp: "We believe that the Iraqi government has a duty to stop its internal repression, to end its threats to peace, to abandon its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, and to respect the legitimate role of the United Nations in ensuring that it does so."
Despite administration efforts to make the link between the "war on terrorism," the military action in Afghanistan, and the proposed war against Iraq, the U.S. Catholic bishops, at their November meeting, said that they "continue to find it difficult to justify the resort to war against Iraq, lacking clear and adequate evidence of an imminent attack of a grave nature." The bishops continued: "[W]e fear that resort to war...would not meet the strict conditions in Catholic teaching for overriding the strong presumption against the use of military force.... We are deeply concerned about recent proposals to expand dramatically traditional limits on just cause to include preventive uses of military force to overthrow threatening regimes or to deal with weapons of mass destruction."
The administration does have some supporters in the religious community. The earliest, and biggest, supporter of a pre-emptive and, if necessary, unilateral strike against Iraq has been Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who put together a supportive letter to Bush with his spin on just war theory. Endorsers of the letter included Prison Fellowship's Chuck Colson; Campus Crusade's Bill Bright; and D. James Kennedy, head of Coral Ridge Media Ministries. Land argues a pre-emptive strike against Saddam is a defensive "just cause" because of the Iraqi leader's actions of a decade ago.
But most of the religious response to the unfolding of the Bush Iraq policy uses elements of the just war theory—if not always explicitly, at least implicitly—in making its case against the war. In particular, two elements of the Bush-Blair style-passing-as-policy appear especially troubling to church officials: the insistence that a pre-emptive strike was not only permissible and justified but a necessity, regardless of any Iraqi action; and a failure to address consequences—to the Iraqi civilian population people, first of all, but also to the rest of the Middle East and in such Asian states as Indonesia and Pakistan.
Bush's unilateralism has gone through a number of different phases as public opinion—and pressure from the churches—has forced the administration to modify its stance. The administration first insisted it needed no new authorization to pursue al Qaeda and the war against Afghanistan, then it agreed to seek congressional authority and, finally, U.N. Security Council authorization. With the Nov. 8 Security Council resolution, it would appear that unilateralism is a dead issue, but administration officials still hold out the possibility of acting alone if the U.N. inspections don't work to their satisfaction.
MOST CHILLING for many is the administration's insistent threat on the use of a pre-emptive strike, even in the absence of any imminent Iraqi attack. The overwhelming thrust of just war theory would find fault with the use of pre-emptive military action before diplomacy and other means have been exhausted. "The case for a pre-emptive attack on Iraq has not been made," top officials of the United Church of Christ said in a Sept. 12 statement. "While Iraq's weapons potential is uncertain, the death that would be inflicted on all sides in a war is certain. Striking against Iraq now will not serve to prevent terrorism or defend our nation's interests."
Similarly, Bishop Sharon Brown, president of the United Methodist Church's Council of Bishops, in a pas-
toral letter to the denomination's 8.4 million members—including President Bush and Vice President Cheney—said a pre-emptive strike against Iraq "goes against the very grain of our understanding of the gospel.... Pre-emptive strike does not reflect restraint and does not allow for the adequate pursuit of peaceful means for resolving conflict. To be silent in the face of such a prospect is not an option for the followers of Christ."
Finally, the churches—especially Christian-related relief and aid agencies—argue that the Bush-Blair policy has not given enough consideration to the likely military, political, and humanitarian consequences of military attack. These groups have already been concerned about the effect of the decade-old sanctions—and Iraq's response to them—especially on the Iraqi civilian population. According to U.N. officials and Iraqi health workers, some 1.6 million Iraq children have died since sanctions began in 1991—seven times more than in the same period before sanctions—and 1 million children are malnourished. Following a fact-finding mission to Iraq at the end of October, CAFOD—the relief agency of the Catholic bishops conference of England and Wales—warned that war on Iraq could create a "humanitarian catastrophe" that would "bring shame on the world." The warning follows similar views expressed by Catholic Relief Services and Bread for the World in the United States.
One conservative commentator said that church leaders lack the "information and competence" to address the Iraq question, and that "those grave decisions must finally be made by government and military leaders within their sphere of competence and authority."
But, church leaders reply, that is precisely what they are doing by raising the ancient Christian teaching of the just war theory and exercising their citizenship by demanding that the administration make not only a profane case for the war but a moral and ethical one as well.
David Earle Anderson is editor of Religion News Service.