From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Commentary: For Christians, every war is a civil war
Thu, 20 Feb 2003 15:30:53 -0600
Feb. 20, 2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton7(615)742-54707Nashville, Tenn.
NOTE: A photograph of the Rev. Peter Storey is available.
A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Peter Storey*
Anything the church says about the looming attack on Iraq is deeply
compromised because of our disobedience to Jesus on the issue of war itself.
After 300 years of pacifism, the church, in exchange for Caesar's dubious
friendship, made peace with war. The nonviolence of Jesus was quietly
shelved, and the church was left with the contradiction of trying to
rationalize the barbaric act of war, while simultaneously attempting to hedge
its barbarism around with a list of rules - the "just war" doctrine.
Caesar has exploited that contradiction ever since, both flouting the rules
and claiming religious sanction for his war-making. Christian pacifists are
convinced that so long as people place their trust in what seminary professor
and author Walter Wink calls "the myth of redemptive violence," nations will
continue to sacrifice their citizens and kill other people in the vain belief
that war actually solves anything.
However, given that most Christians today are not pacifists but claim to
adhere to a "just war" ethic, there are a number of reasons - valid for
pacifist and "just war" Christians alike - why we should question President
Bush's unseemly rush toward war. Coming from Africa, I offer them together
with something of a Third World perspective on this crisis.
First, we need to remember that war is always about lying, and when leaders
everywhere decide on war, they tend to be less than candid, emphasizing what
they think will gain support and downplaying less worthy motives. Even if
some of what they say is true, there is often a subtext not offered to the
public. American leaders are no exception, and have frequently deceived their
people about war aims. We should view the stated reasons for war on Iraq with
A second concern is Mr. Bush's outrageous doctrine of "pre-emptive war," in
which the military power of the United States will be used against a nation
because of something it might do, rather than what it has done. How can he
claim that this illegal action would be in "the highest moral traditions of
our country"? The notion of "pre-emptive war" negates all "just war" criteria
and flouts international law.
In the rest of the world, we are extremely concerned that such behavior by
the United States will invite similar "pre-emptive" violence in places where
nations have fragile relationships or records of past hostility with their
neighbors. The Korean Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent and the Lakes Region
of Africa are scary examples.
The breathtaking inconsistency of U.S. foreign policy provides a third
concern. Iraq is singled out for disarmament by war because it has produced
weapons of mass destruction and defied the United Nations. Israel, which has
secretly produced nuclear devices, treats equally important U.N. resolutions
with contempt and is right now occupying territory not its own, and it is
funded and armed by the United States. If the fear is that Iraq might assist
terrorists, the obvious question is why this U.S. administration will not use
its enormous leverage to secure a just settlement of the bleeding
Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Resentment of the U.S. role in that conflict is
surely the primary reason for most Arab-sponsored terrorism.
Would Mr. Bush be as bellicose if it were not for the fact that war-making
may have become too easy for this nation? Since the Gulf War, in Kosovo and
Afghanistan, U.S. technology and weaponry have made it possible to win wars,
often from 30,000 feet, with minimal American casualties. Relying
increasingly on professionals to wage its wars, the rest of America can go
about its business as if nothing is happening. When wars can be virtually
bloodless for "our" side, an important brake on war-making in a democracy is
This becomes more serious when those with the most power to wage war have had
no experience of war on their own soil for more than a century. The terrible
atrocities of 9-11, horrific as they were, do not compare with the ravages
wrought by years of sustained war in large parts of Europe, Asia and Africa.
Yet, given the inordinate degree of fear and horror among Americans after
that single morning of terrorist butchery, one would expect a greater
curiosity about the death and suffering this war might bring to other people
just like them. I detect little such curiosity.
One of the most sickening things about reading and listening to U.S.
commentators is the disproportionate value that they seem to place on
American lives, compared to those whom Americans might kill. In the Gulf war,
more than 200,000 Iraqis were killed. How many will die this time? As a Third
World friend said not long ago, "America goes to war; war comes to us."
Allied to this is the question of outcomes. Theologian and pastor Harry
Emerson Fosdick reminded this nation in the 1940s that the only certainty
about war is that it always produces consequences different than those
originally intended. In the case of Iraq, there is a legitimate concern that
war there might bring a conflagration in the world's most volatile region,
offering an even more pressing reason to search for every possible
alternative to war.
"Just war" proponents agree that war should be an absolute "last resort,"
after all other options have been exhausted. The problem with this is that
the great powers explore so few other "resorts," and, apart from economic
sanctions, seem to be out of ideas. If even 1 percent of military budgets had
been expended on developing alternative, nonviolent means of pressure to deal
with cruel dictators like Saddam Hussein, the world would have a wider range
of options to choose from.
And why should the United States assume that it alone has the right to decide
when the "last resort" has been reached? Could it be that in this
administration, we are seeing the arrogant face of empire? It may be that
those who lead this most powerful nation in the world are more sure than they
should be that they can control even unintended outcomes.
I was born into the last days of the British Empire, upon which, we were
told, the sun would never set. As I look back on that empire, I recall how
sure we were about how good we were and how right we were. I know now how
often we were neither. Power, of itself, does not bestow morality or
infallibility on any nation.
Why is President Bush so determined to make his war a litmus test for the
United Nations? It is an open secret that there are those in his
administration who despise the United Nations as an irritating stumbling
block. Christians in the United States need to be reminded that their sisters
and brothers in many smaller countries regard the United Nations, with all
its failings, differently. We resent this president, who has so little
knowledge or even curiosity about the rest of the world, lecturing the United
Nations like a petulant schoolmaster.
We know from experience that the United States has not always been on the
right side of history, and the world body has sometimes had to give moral
leadership where the United States could give none. An example is the tacit
and sometimes active covert support given to the South African apartheid
regime by more than one U.S. administration. It was the U.N., not the U.S.A.,
which led the anti-apartheid struggle, until a growing number of American
Christians mobilized to shame their government into joining it.
The millions across the world who turned out to demonstrate on Feb. 15 were
not only protesting the impending war. They were also expressing their
frustration at this careless new confidence that might is right. Other
nations of the world look to the United States for something nobler than
another empire. We hope for something more than the outworn ways of war. We
look for vision and moral leadership, compassion and justice.
If we are Christians, we have an even higher reason, pacifist and
non-pacifist alike, to press this administration to resist the temptation of
war. Ultimately, Christians have a higher loyalty than that of flag or
nation. We belong to a wider commonwealth. When Christ was nailed to the
cross, he nailed us to our neighbors, breaking down the divisions between us.
All Christians, whether pacifists or proponents of the "just war" theory, are
bound to acknowledge that for those who follow Jesus, all wars are civil
wars. All wars, everywhere, are a form of fratricide.
That, above all, is reason to pause.
# # #
*Storey is the Williams Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at
Duke University Divinity School in Durham, N.C. He is a former president of
the Methodist Church of South Africa and a former bishop of Johannesburg. He
was an anti-apartheid activist and served as Nelson Mandela's prison
Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily
represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.
United Methodist News Service
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