RECENT NEWS stories indicate that the White House and new Republican controlled Congress intend to put the president's faith-based initiative high on the agenda for 2003. But the president is not acknowledging another faith-based initiative - the strong majority of Christian leaders opposing a war against Iraq.
It took a long time for most of the American churches to come out against the war in Vietnam. This time, the church protest of war is significant, both in its breadth and its early clarity. Opposition to war with Iraq has come from a wide spectrum of the churches - Roman Catholic, Protestant denominations, Evangelical, Pentecostal, black churches, Orthodox. All of the statements, letters, and resolutions from church leaders and bodies take the threat posed by Saddam Hussein seriously, but they refuse war as the best response.
Importantly, these church leaders are not making their decision based on whether or not they approve of President George W. Bush - some do and some don't. Rather, they are doing so on the basis of Christian theology and moral teaching.
The tradition of Christian non-violence and pacifism, of course, rules out all war as a way to resolve conflicts. Most remarkable, however, in this instance, is that the majority of American church leaders who have spoken against prospective military action are not pacifists. They are opposing war because they believe it does not meet the standards of a ''just war.''
Church leaders have used the traditional just war criteria dating back to St. Augustine in the 4th century. These criteria start with a presumption against war, then apply a series of judgments to determine whether that presumption can be overridden. And most church leaders have concluded that in the current circumstances, it cannot - a war against Iraq would not be just.
They have asked whether there is a just cause, and concluded that a doctrine of preemptive war to change a regime, however evil or threatening that regime may be, is not acceptable.
They have looked at proportionality - are the damage to be caused and the costs incurred by war proportionate to the good expected? They argue that initiating a major war in an area of the world already in turmoil could destabilize governments and increase political extremism throughout the Middle East and beyond. It could exacerbate anti-American hatred and produce new recruits for terror attacks against the United States and Israel. A unilateral war could also undermine the continued political cooperation needed for the international campaign to isolate terrorist networks. The United States could very well win a battle against Iraq and lose the campaign against terrorism.
If a war is launched, would it be proportionate and discriminate? What amount of military force would be used and what is the likelihood of disproportionate damage to civilian life and property? Would care be taken to avoid or at least minimize harm to civilians? Most have concluded that if the military strategy includes massive air attacks and urban warfare in the streets of Baghdad, tens of thousands of innocent civilians could lose their lives. This alone makes such a military attack morally unacceptable.
In addition, the people of Iraq continue to suffer severely from the effects of the Gulf War, the resulting decade of sanctions, and the neglect and oppression of a brutal dictator. Rather than inflicting further suffering on them through a costly war, we ought to assist in rebuilding their country and alleviating their suffering. The casualties among attacking forces - our sons and daughters - could also be very high. Church leaders say that the potential suffering of both the Iraqi people and our own society should lead to prudent caution.
Finally, is a war at this time really a last resort? Have all peaceful alternatives been tried and failed? It seems clear that, just as UN inspectors are entering Iraq to begin their mission, we cannot say they have failed. Continued diplomatic cooperation with the United Nations in pursuing rigorously effective and thoroughly comprehensive weapons inspections, linked to the gradual lifting of economic sanctions as a reward for compliance, might achieve the disarmament of Iraq without the risks and costs of military attack.
Bush has frequently reminded us of Martin Luther King's teaching that ''The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.'' As a war with Iraq approaches, the churches are fulfilling that vocation. Is Bush listening?
Jim Wallis is executive director and editor of Sojourners.
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