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Commentary: Bishops speak as concerned Christians on Iraq

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Bishop Timothy Whitaker
Dec. 8, 2005

Editor’s note: The United Methodist Council of Bishops adopted a resolution in November expressing concern about the war in Iraq. That was followed by a statement signed by nearly 100 individual bishops, “A Call to Repentance and Peace with Justice.” This commentary was written in response to a newspaper article on the “Call to Repentance.”

A UMNS Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker*

Should anyone be surprised when a group of Christian bishops criticize a war? After all, war-making is not the business of a Christian church since the church has no other task except obedience to its Lord who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Christians confess that Jesus is Lord. When a nation goes to war, it should be expected that Christians will be wary because Christians live in obedience to Jesus Christ with a presumption for peace.

Christians understand that in a world still under the power of sin, war may be necessary as the only way to restrain evil, enact justice and establish the conditions that make for peace. The way any war is begun and waged must be subject to critical scrutiny in order to judge whether or not it is truly necessary and if it meets certain rational standards of being a just endeavor. The moral tradition of “just war” was developed to set forth these standards.

Before the war in Iraq began, some of us objected. We objected partly because war should be a last resort. Can many truly believe that the war in Iraq was a last resort? The coalition summoned by the United States did not even wait until the inspectors assigned by the United Nations finished their work. Since the primary rationale for the war was to eradicate weapons of mass destruction, when the inspectors began to discover that there was no evidence for the existence of WMD, then the premise of an immediate invasion was contradicted.

We also objected to the lack of legitimate authority by the United States and its coalition partners.

The legitimate authority for regime change resides in the United Nations for two reasons. First, the charter of the United Nations provides for the authority to enact regime change when a sovereign government oppresses its own people. The United States and other nations have a responsibility to abide by this authority, not because of some dreamy notion of internationalism or because of the purity of the United Nations, but because they had signed solemn treaties to endorse the charter of the United Nations. In the case of the United States, its own Constitution requires that the government adhere to its treaties. Moreover, the United Nations is the legitimate authority for the practical reason that a disordered state is a threat to the whole world, and a war will have consequences that affect the whole world.

President George W. Bush demonstrated strong leadership when he appeared at the U.N. General Assembly before the war and challenged it to hold Saddam Hussein accountable for his refusal to abide by U.N. resolutions. Once it had become clear there was no imminent threat from Iraq because of WMD, the president would have been in a position to continue to exert diplomatic pressure upon the United Nations to consider acting upon its authority to remove Hussein from power because of his clear record of cruelty and injustice toward his own people.

If Hussein did not agree to go into exile, the United Nations would have had the option to authorize an invasion, occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. If the United Nations refused to fulfill its responsibility, the United States and other nations could have justly claimed a moral legitimacy to take action on their own for the sake of the Iraqi people.

One should not underestimate the effect of diplomatic courage and patience that could have been exercised by the president of the United States and other leaders of great nations.

For weighty reasons such as these, some of us urged the president and Congress not to rush into war. We were motivated by a moral sensibility formed by the Christian tradition and also by concern for the honor of our nation, the lives of the Iraqi people and the lives of our fellow citizens who would be in combat.

The question now is not whether to begin a war but what should be done at this point. It is not easy to judge what should be done now, since such a judgment requires an assessment of the facts and a consideration of all options, which involves possessing information and expertise not possessed by ordinary citizens. Yet, citizens in a democratic republic do have a right and a responsibility to present their own assessment when their government seems unwilling to reflect critically on its own strategy.

Some of us have gradually come to believe the American military cannot prevail in what is essentially a civil war. There are not enough troops to prevail; and because the war is essentially a civil war in Iraq, the antagonists must be defeated by the military and internal diplomacy of the Iraqi government.

Both the administration and its critics understand that eventually the Iraqis must secure their own peace. The difference between the administration and its critics is the critics judge that the American military is not only a stabilizing force, but also a provocation. If one perceives the military is a provocation, then it is clear there needs to be a plan of exit for the armed forces of the United States as soon as practical.

How that should be done must be determined by policy makers, but from the perspective of those of us who are critics, a plan for the redeployment of the American military is necessary, albeit risky, since the alternative is weighted with its own dangers of providing a provocation to the insurgents, perpetuating the conflict, spreading acts of terror in the region, inhibiting the responsibility of the new Iraqi government, prolonging the suffering of the Iraqi people, and causing casualties among members of our own armed forces.

It is said that we must not allow the terrorists to win. No, it is not conscionable to consider letting terrorists succeed in their geopolitical aims that are a threat to all nations. But not letting the terrorists prevail in their long-term aims in what will be an indefinite conflict does not mean there should not be a change in strategy in the particular contest being fought in Iraq.

Although ends do not justify the means, the U.S. military has accomplished its optimal goals, which are the removal of Hussein’s reign and the establishment of a provisional government soon to hold its first election under its new constitution. The United States will still have to provide aid to the Iraqi government to enhance its stability. The political assistance of other governments is also needed. Yet, the sooner the present situation is changed, the sooner there will be a realistic hope for a better future for the Iraqi people.

Some of us who are bishops in the United Methodist Church first spoke a word of warning about this war because of our responsibility to represent the Christian tradition and to apply its moral wisdom to the consideration of waging war according to our limited but best judgment as witnesses of Jesus Christ our Lord.

We speak now as concerned Christians whose silence would be inconsistent with our original witness. While we are not experts in strategy, we are obliged to offer our own little word in a time when there needs to be a reassessment of a dangerous war that continues to bring misery and death to many.

*Whitaker is bishop of the United Methodist Church’s Florida Annual Conference. This commentary originally appeared in longer form in the conference’s e-review. The full text can be read at

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