The Common Good

War in Iraq fails in two Christian traditions

Date: October 23, 2005

The sarcastic bumper sticker "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" provides a challenge to any Christian who supports our current war in Iraq. For, as the Jesuit scholar John L. McKenzie observed: "If you cannot say on the basis of the New Testament that Jesus was nonviolent, you cannot say anything about Jesus."

Two prominent and partially overlapping Christian traditions regarding war and peace have been recognized for many years: a consistently nonviolent, pacifist approach, eschewing all wars (Gandhi was greatly influenced by this Christian tradition when he developed his highly successful use of nonviolence, later adapted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others), and the "just war" approach, accepting war as rarely necessary, but then only as a last resort, and only when specific conditions are met.

Both traditions favor peaceful resolutions of conflicts and reject the rationales used to justify most wars.

Disagreements between these two Christian traditions arise when proponents of "just war" principles argue that certain situations (e.g., Hitler's aggression) render pacifism inadequate and also when pacifists point out that those who choose to wage war will always claim that their rationale is just. But when Scripture is misused to excuse or even glorify war (as it was during the Crusades), both traditions are abandoned -- and tragedy and chaos result.

The principles of a "just war" include the following:

A just war may only be waged as a last resort (this, the most important requirement, is the one so clearly violated in the case of the Iraq war).

A war is just only if waged by a legitimate authority.

A just war can only be fought to redress an injury (also violated by the pre-emptive war on Iraq).

A war can only be just if there is a reasonable chance of success.

The ultimate goal of a just war must be to re-establish peace (this goal was first voiced by the Bush administration long after the Iraq invasion, and only after the initial rationales for the war had been discredited).

The violence used in a just war must be limited, in proportion to the injury suffered.

The weapons used in a just war must discriminate between combatants and noncombatants -- every effort must be made to avoid injuring or killing civilians.

Obviously, Christians in the nonviolent-pacifist camp opposed America's pre-emptive war on Iraq. What is important, and perhaps less widely recognized here in Memphis, the overwhelming majority of Christian groups and denominations worldwide and in the United States opposed this war as well -- some because of pacifist views but most because they concluded that the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq clearly failed to meet the requirements for a "just war."

Despite what you may have "learned" from talk radio, Christian opposition to the Iraqi war was not and is not based on political partisanship: The groups voicing their opposition ranged all over the "liberal" to "conservative" spectrum, and included Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal bodies from around the world.

In his thought-provoking new book, "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It," evangelical Christian and Sojourners founder Jim Wallis provides a succinct review of the Christian "just war" theory and summarizes the evidence that the American misadventure in Iraq fails to meet the criteria for a just war. Wallis also describes efforts that he and other Christian leaders in the United States and Britain made to persuade the Bush and Blair administrations to seek peaceful alternatives to the impending war. And he rejects the specious claims that all critics of the war lack patriotism or fail to support our brave men and women fighting in Iraq.

Does this mean that all Christians must oppose the Iraq war? No. But it does mean that Christians who oppose the war should be respected instead of attacked. And it also means that no Christian should support this or any other war unless he or she is convinced that the criteria for a just war are fulfilled. In the case of the Iraqi conflict, it is difficult to understand how anyone could conclude that these conditions are met. In fact, if the Iraq war is considered to be a "just war," I fear the concept no longer has any meaning.

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