The Churches and the War

March 1, 1991 Topic: Society Regions: Americas Tags: PostmodernismSociology

The Churches and the War

Mini Teaser: "The war in the Gulf is not a Christian war, a Jewish war, or a Moslem war--it is a just war," President Bush recently told a group of conservative religious broadcasters, "and it is a war with which good will prevail.

by Author(s): Robert P. Beschel, Jr. and Peter D. Feaver

"The war in the Gulf is not a Christian war, a Jewish war, or a Moslem war--it is a just war," President Bush recently told a group of conservative religious broadcasters, "and it is a war with which good will prevail."  Only a portion of churches within the United States would support this assessment.  The American Christian community has been divided over the morality of the Gulf War, with the split taking place along largely predictable lines.

The Spectrum

Conservative Protestant churches have been most supportive of the administration, with some fundamentalists choosing to view the war as an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of good and evil.  The parallels between Baghdad and Babylon are obvious for those who wish to see them, and Saddam Hussein fits nicely into the role of Antichrist.  The majority of the evangelicals and moderate fundamentalists, however, have adopted a more balanced and restrained approach, arguing that American policy is defensible on traditional just war grounds.  (The just war tradition, a Catholic doctrine by origin, holds that the use of force may be morally justified under certain conditions.)  Yet, in light of their sympathy for traditional values such as duty, honor, obedience, and love of country, evangelical support for the war has been surprisingly tentative and conditional.  An editorial in the leading evangelical journal, Christianity Today, held that any line in the sand should be drawn "only with tears"; the author then warned against the dangers of chauvinistic nationalism, ethnocentric pride, and the seductive euphoria of techno-war.  Dr. Richard D. Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest conservative Protestant denomination, sounded a similar note of caution.  Warning emphatically that jobs and oil are not a sufficient or legitimate cause for military action, he continued:

Is America's motive to help erect a stable, just peace in the post-cold war world in which all people have a reasonable expectation that aggressors will be restrained by the world community of nations?  If so, then perhaps this is a just cause....The American citizenry does not have the information to answer many of these questions.  We have the responsibility to ask them, however, and to demand that our elected leaders assess the crisis in light of them, and to provide affirmative answers before resorting to armed force--always a last resort.(1)

Catholic thinking on the Gulf War has also reflected a balanced assessment of the pros and cons of the conflict in light of traditional just war theory.  Last November, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops endorsed a letter by Archbishop Roger M. Mahony outlining their moral qualms about the developing crisis.  It voiced concern that the Bush administration had not adequately fulfilled several criteria, such as the principles of just cause, last resort, and proportionality.  By a vote of 129-15, the bishops urged the Bush administration to "stay the course" of non-military solutions to the crisis.  The president of the NCCB, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, expressed similar concerns the day before the outbreak of hostilities, but subsequently refrained from passing moral judgement upon the U.S. position after the fighting started, maintaining that "History will judge whether or when this war should have been launched."  Individual Catholic leaders have ventured a range of opinions over the past few months.  Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law argued that the war is legitimate according to traditional just war doctrine, whereas Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary bishop of Detroit and head of the Catholic peace group Pax Christi, has been critical of American military involvement.

Traditional peace churches, such as the Quakers, Mennonites, and Moravians, have actively opposed all phases of American military operations in the Gulf.  Drawing their inspiration from the Sermon on the Mount, these churches have historically rejected the moral legitimacy of any form of organized violence.  In the current war, they have been joined by new allies, who--although from a different theological point of departure--have arrived at the same conclusion.

Protesting Protestants

One of the most striking, if not unexpected developments surrounding the American Christian community's response to developments in the Gulf has been the rapid condemnation of U.S. policy by mainline Protestant denominations and the church bodies who represent them (such as the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches with which it is affiliated).  Although these groups were initially critical of Iraq's invasion and supportive of UN sanctions, they quickly became uncomfortable with the perceived militarization of American policy.  By mid-September, many church leaders were openly questioning the deployment of U.S. troops in the region and campaigning against the inclusion of food or medicine in the blockade.  After President Bush's decision to deploy additional American troops in November, many mainline churches moved to actively oppose administration policy.

A number of clerics journeyed to the Middle East in December for a "peace pilgrimage" under the auspices of the NCC.  Traveling throughout the region, they spoke with Iraqis, Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Cypriots, and Jordanians (no mention of meetings with Kuwaitis).  Upon their return they produced a document titled "War is Not the Answer" that strongly condemned current U.S. policy, arguing "The resort to massive violence to resolve the Gulf crisis would be politically and morally indefensible."

As the UN deadline approached, mainline churches increased their efforts to prevent the outbreak of hostilities.  On January 11, the chief social action executive of the United Methodist church called on Congress and the president to "stop the rhetoric of war" and pursue political and diplomatic solutions.  Four days later, the leadership of thirty-two mainline denominations and ecumenical organizations sent a letter to President Bush urging him to delay military action and not to lead the nation into "this abyss."  After the outbreak of hostilities, the United Methodist bishop in the Washington, DC area stated that he was "very saddened by President Bush's decision," while the president of the NCC characterized the resort to war as "a failure for the human spirit."  A January 17 statement by the general secretary of the World Council of Churches "regretted" the failure of the Iraqi government to respond to international appeals, but "deplored" the U.S. government's decision to initiate hostilities.  (In contrast, the WCC had been quite tolerant of the Soviet Union's decision to invade Afghanistan eleven years earlier, virtually blaming the Soviet invasion on American imperialism.)

Such strong opposition is remarkable because mainline Protestant churches have not been historically pacifist.  On the contrary, by tradition they reject pacifism in favor of just war theory.  And when the NCC issued its condemnation of Operation Desert Storm, it deliberately used the language of the just war tradition.

Although precise formulations vary, just war theory essentially focuses upon two different sets of principles: jus ad bellum and jus in bello.  Jus ad bellum, literally "right towards war," provides specific precepts governing the outset of any armed conflict.  Such criteria include: (1) the war must be waged for a just cause, such as self-defense or the defense of a third party; (2) war must be declared by a duly constituted authority; (3) there must be a reasonable chance of winning or achieving one's objective; (4) the use of war must be a last resort; (5) the participants must have right intentions (i.e., to establish a just and lasting peace); and (6) the expectation of good through winning the war must be greater than the expected evil from waging the war itself.  Jus in bello, literally "right in war," specifies criteria governing the conduct of the war, and includes principles such as: (1) the seriousness of the injury inflicted on the enemy must be proportional to the damage suffered by the virtuous, and (2) the means used must be moral (i.e., killing innocent people must be avoided and international law must be upheld to the greatest extent possible).

Although a legitimate subject for debate, it is not our purpose to address whether Operation Desert Storm satisfies all of these criteria.  What is at issue is why many mainline denominations, as well as the NCC and WCC, never bothered to engage this subject in a serious or systematic fashion.  Without explicitly rejecting traditional just war criteria, they offered extreme and unsubstantiated assessments about the likely dangers of combat.  They then used these assessments in a highly polemical fashion to argue that the criteria for a just war could not possibly be satisfied.

Typical of these allegations is the NCC's observation that "military experts predict casualties in the tens and hundreds of thousands."  Although there is a remote possibility of casualties in this range, expert testimony before the House Armed Services Committee suggested the actual numbers would be far lower, ranging from 300 American dead and 1500 wounded under the most optimistic scenarios to 3,000 dead and 15,000 wounded under the most pessimistic.

Predictions of massive civilian casualties also appear to be overstated.  In the early weeks of the war the actual number of civilian casualties, always regrettable, has apparently been modest, thanks in large measure to many of the smart weapons systems whose funding and deployment the mainline denominations opposed.

Diplomatic solutions are almost always preferable to military solutions, yet one searches the position papers and press releases of mainline denominations in vain for any constructive solutions.  In a spirit of heroic evenhandedness, the NCC's general secretary-elect returned from the Middle East convinced there would be no peace in the region until all outstanding issues were resolved.  She therefore called for a regional peace conference under UN auspices to address not only the Gulf War but Israel's occupation of Palestine and the presence of foreign troops in Lebanon and Cyprus.  It is difficult to imagine a more ill-conceived strategy than lumping together four problems, each so far incapable of solution in its own right.  Not only would such an approach be a recipe for guaranteed failure, but it would give credence to Saddam Hussein's argument that his invasion of Kuwait was intended to strike a blow for the liberation of Palestine--a thin post-hoc rationalization that did not surface until several days after the Iraqi invasion.

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