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Commentary: For Christians, every war is a civil war

2/20/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: A photograph of the Rev. Peter Storey is available.

A UMNS Commentary By the Rev. Peter Storey* 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 skepticism.

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, funded and armed by the United States, treats equally important U.N. resolutions with contempt by occupying territory not its own - and it has secretly produced nuclear devices. 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 removed.

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.

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*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 chaplain.

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.

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