On Facing a War against Iraq: Four Theses for a Forum at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary

[1] The current threat of war against Iraq is very troubling and possibly very ill-advised. Religious communities are right to be questioning this course of action for the United States. However their ability to play a helpful role will depend especially on making that case without dismissing the possible threat from Saddam Hussein and his government in Iraq. Many citizens feel manipulated by their government and distrustful of much of the rationale for war that has so far been offered. But it will not do for the churches to engage in counter-manipulation. We are unwise to argue that there is no Iraqi threat (“the real reason is oil,” or “this is Bush’s vindication of his Father’s presidency”) given both the violent measures used by Hussein in the past and the skepticism of our members as to whether we really know what we are talking about in dismissing the threat that Iraq may represent to world peace. This means that the church’s arguments must be constructed persuasively, not only from the standpoint of innocent doves, but also of wise serpents.

[2] A special problem for the mainline Protestant Churches (including the ELCA) is that we do not know how to engage the deep and heart-felt patriotism of the American people. Given the excesses of that patriotism and the way that many national leaders manipulate it for their own ends, religious disgust is understandable. But ever since the Vietnam War, the liberal to moderate Protestant churches have had trouble engaging their members in social critique because the form in which this was heard seemed so often dismissive of the love of country that runs deeply in many of our congregations. This is a complex pastoral and theological problem (and not a new one-see Isaiah and Jeremiah, for example). But we are not likely to have effective moral deliberation unless we can engage the better aspects of that love of country and argue from it why war (or a particular version of Gulf War II) is not advisable.

[3] In criticizing the war much attention has been given to whether there is a real threat-a just cause for engaging in war, particularly in a preemptive way. This is a very important issue, perhaps even the decisive one. But concentration on it masks a second point at which Christians in the just war tradition might have great reservations about a war with Iraq. For any war to be “justified” it must not only be based on a just cause (self-defensive, for example, or protection of the vulnerable), but must also have the prospect of being able to be waged in a “just” way-that is one that minimizes civilian casualties. There are many indications that American popular support for war against Iraq is based on the relatively swift course of the Afghan War and the relatively low number of American casualties. (The ill-considered invasion of Somalia might be a more relevant precedent). The prospect of occupying Baghdad-a city of five million people-by the tactics of bombing and use of sympathetic local forces seems remote. American must be challenged both to count the cost of their own likely casualties, and also to consider the death toll of “innocent” Iraqis-many of whom have already been greatly weakened by the long-standing economic boycott of that country.

[4] At its heart Christian faith contains two shocking assumptions-God’s love for the unrighteous (including the Iraqis, including us, despite full knowledge of our secrets) and the call for Christians to show such love toward all people-including our enemies. The prospect of war is in part a good test of whether we have been preaching the authentic Gospel, or some other message which does not have staying power in such hard and confusing times. It may be that part of the shock of our people as we engage in deliberating this issue is a judgment on us-that we have been proclaiming (at least implicitly) peace when there is no peace. It is surely the case that we have failed to make the most of the opportunities since September 11, 2001 for teaching and preaching that would help us face this war decision.