Saturday, January 22, 2005

Faith, Culture and Politics--A Few Thoughts Re War on Iraq 03

Wanted to pass on some thoughts re Iraq. What a world, eh?

The Main Thing Is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

There are multi ways of looking at the impending invasion of Iraq. But the question I’m interested in at this point is whether Christian people can support the invasion and conquest of Iraq from an ethical or moral standpoint.

Wars are hard to fight without high levels of moral certainty. Because the people who give the orders to kill hundreds of thousands of people are human beings who on some level recognize the stakes involved, in most cases they feel the need for a certain moral certainty on their side. The killers themselves, largely young men and career military people, also need to believe they are doing the right thing.

Calling that moral foundation into question is an important way of resisting an unjust war. Perhaps it’s the most important way.

Point of View

I believe a U.S invasion and conquest of Iraq would be immoral. I feel Christians should resist our current government’s preparations and plans for war.

The Heartbeat

The present U.S. administration has clearly and repeatedly announced a new doctrine which they hope will guide our foreign policy in the future.

This new way of engaging the world is the doctrine of pre-emption. In this new approach to foreign policy the U.S. reserves the right to violently attack—with our full “conventional” arsenal and possibly even with “limited” versions of our nuclear weapons of mass destruction—any nations who are potential sources of future violence against the United States or our allies. Whether they are actually a present threat to the U.S., or whether they have more recently committed direct violence against the U.S, is a secondary issue under this new approach. Put most simply, this doctrine legitimizes “first strike” warfare to eliminate potential future threats using some of the most terrifying weapons ever developed.

This is an important departure from past U.S. views on the use of warfare and crosses well over the line of respectable and considered Christian views of the use of warfare which have been created over thousands of years of experience in many cultures and in many ages.

From a Christian moral and ethical point of view, whether the U.S achieves a UN mandate is perhaps less important than some seem to believe. That’s primarily a political and pragmatic issue, though it also has some potentially important moral implications. The key issue from a moral and ethical standpoint, I believe, is whether pre-emption can be supported.

Why Pre-Emption is Wrong

It’s important to underscore the fact that believers, for the first three centuries of the Church’s life, refused to support or participate in any state-sponsored military violence. That’s perhaps not surprising given the fact that the early Christians believed that their God had been violently crucified at the hands of the greatest state of their day and that the crucified Jesus would return very shortly and end all of history, including the Roman state. It’s not hard to imagine that their assertive non-violence also grew out of their reactions to the violent state-sponsored persecutions they experienced from time to time.

That comprehensive non-violence didn’t last. Eventually Christianity became the official state religion of a military empire.

It was during that imperial period, under St. Augustine, that the basic precepts of the “Just War Theory” (from now on JWT) were developed. Those precepts were refined over the centuries in many places and cultures and centuries.

The goal of the JWT was (and is) to influence political leaders with a Christian prophetic stance on warfare which is, at the same time, both realistic and in touch with the kind of “real world” tensions and contradictions that people in power—even Christian people--face when making decisions about the use of military violence. The situation in Iraq is a classic example of the complexities leaders encounter in trying to do the right thing in a very fallen world. It’s precisely the kind of situation for which the JWT was developed.

The JWT is arguably the most permissive Christian stance on war ever developed which also has reasonable biblical integrity. It has been the reigning Christian litmus test for the legitimacy of war for over 1500 years.

I thought the best way to ask whether a potential invasion of Iraq was ethically legitimate was to apply the most lenient and still legitimate Christian measuring stick to it, which is the JWT. Obviously, other less lenient but still biblically legitimate Christian perspectives would be even less likely to support state sponsored military violence.

A just war can only be waged as a last resort. All non-violent options must be exhausted before the use of force can be justified.
A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority. Even just causes cannot be served by actions taken by individuals or groups who do not constitute an authority sanctioned by whatever the society and outsiders to the society deem legitimate.
A just war can only be fought to redress a wrong suffered. For example, self-defense against an armed attack is always considered to be a just cause (although the justice of the cause is not sufficient--see point #4). Further, a just war can only be fought with "right" intentions: the only permissible objective of a just war is to redress the injury.
A war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success. Deaths and injury incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable.
The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace. More specifically, the peace established after the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought.
The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered. States are prohibited from using force not necessary to attain the limited objective of addressing the injury suffered.
The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Civilians are never permissible targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians. The deaths of civilians are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target.
After reading over the principles of the JWT you may have been struck, as I have been, by how deeply the contemporary debate in the West over the potential war in Iraq is rooted in the various requirements of the JWT. Governments are struggling to demonstrate that they are fulfilling its various articles because it represents millennia of Western values and is a basis, sometimes unconsciously, of moral legitimacy in matters of war for Westerners. And even among non-Westerners I believe many if not most people would find the principles of the JWT to be morally self-evident.

Reflect for a minute or two on the various precepts of the JWT, using your moral and historical imagination, and then ask yourself why you think these 7 tenets have survived 1700 years of the Church’s experience with nations and powers of every kind. There is a subtlety about the JWT which might be missed in a quick skim job.

The elements of the JWT most relevant for a moral critique of a potential war and invasion of Iraq are points 3 and 6.

Together these two moral directives are explicitly aimed at ruling out “preventive” or “pre-emptive” wars. The nation or power attacking must be redressing a clear “wrong” it (or by extension, an ally) has suffered. A nation or power which attacks another nation with a pre-emptive strike is acting unjustly.

Even the intentions of a nation or power are addressed. If the intention of a nation or power initiating violence against another is anything other than redressing an injury it has suffered, that nation or power’s intentions are explicitly understood to be unjust. There is nothing ambiguous about that moral reasoning in the JWT.

There is not time to go into all the reasons why the JWT so strongly emphasizes this third point. But suffice it to say that this element of the theory has been crystallized over millennia because of Christian people’s long experience of warfare in many ages and cultures, the clear teachings of the Bible (which regularly condemn nations and cultures for pre-emptive military violence), and as I mentioned before, the witness of even non-Christian peoples to what they intuitively understand to be right and just in terms of the use of violence between nations.

If there were any residual ambiguity after point 3 about the view of the JWT of pre-emptive war, it is dispelled by point 6. According to this tenet of the JWT, any nation or power that uses proportions of violence that are beyond what it itself (or by extension, an ally) has directly suffered is acting unjustly and immorally.

I simply don’t believe a potential pre-emptive U.S. invasion and conquest of Iraq meets either of these two tenets of the JWT. Actually, I don’t think the upcoming war even comes close to meeting the moral requirements articulated here.

That’s not surprising since the JWT has been constructed to rule out pre-emptive war from a moral and ethical point of view.

Why is that important? Well, when a moral standard like the JWT has been the consensus of the Church for millennia, and when it is arguably the most permissive (and still biblically legitimate) Christian moral standard for evaluating war, and when it explicitly rules out the kind of massive, pre-emptive war contemplated by our present government, then I think Christians should evaluate soberly if they can give any support to that war. In any case, I believe the onus of “proof” lies with Christians who would support such a war. I believe they need to make a strong case why this war should be supported.

Past American Views on Pre-Emption

I also want to touch briefly on traditional American views on pre-emptive wars, and especially pre-emptive wars in which the force and violence applied are grossly out of proportion to any wrong suffered.

The reality is that American leaders have consistently repudiated this kind of warfare. Perhaps the most striking example of this was the Kennedy administration’s response to the Soviet Union’s installation of nuclear missiles in Cuba in the early 60’s. If ever a “pre-emptive” strike would have been called for to protect American citizens it was during the Cuban missile crisis. One important reason, among a number of reasons, why that administration chose not to make a pre-emptive strike against Cuba was that they believed such a strike was immoral and would likely brand the U.S. as an unjust power in the world. They explicitly argued that the U.S. had never engaged in first strike, pre-emptive warfare, and they made it clear they didn’t want to be the first to cross that ethical line.

That is not to say that the U.S hasn’t made immoral decisions during wartime in the past or that we haven’t crossed crucial moral boundaries before. We’ve done so a number of times. Our wanton destruction, even obliteration, of cities and vast civilian populations during WW2, and the fact that we did it as a specific and conscious military strategy, was grossly immoral by any Christian standards of ethics or warfare (see tenet 7 of the JWT). From my point of view it was one of the most shameful episodes in our national history.

Many argue that it was a militarily necessity. That may be so (I’ll address those kinds of ideas in a bit), but its immorality can’t be doubted, in my mind. We crossed a moral line when we began killing hundreds of thousands of women and children in horrifying bombing raids on enemy cities at the end of the Second World War, and I fear we are going to cross another one as we make pre-emptive war on Iraq, and as we make it a part of our new policy of warfare.

So in summary, I’d maintain that the witness of generations of Christians in the past (as expressed in the JWT) as well as the witness of our own nation throughout its history makes it hard to argue that pre-emptive warfare has ever been understood to be moral or acceptable. Why it would be considered acceptable now is not clear to me.

Why So Few Like Our Upcoming Rambo on Iraq

I think part of the reason why such huge numbers of people in polls all over the world reject the legitimacy of this war is the moral issue I’ve been focusing on. While there are obviously a number of governments that are supportive, I don’t think there is any question that this war is highly unpopular among the people of most any nation in which public opinion polls have been taken.

I’d guess people’s response around the world would be different Iraq had recently attacked the US in some way, or if it had recently attacked or done violence against some other neighboring country. I don’t think there’s any question that large numbers would be supportive of US military action against Iraq in that situation, as the first Gulf War and the recent campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan made clear. Most people believe that a war fought to redress violence in self-defense is at least potentially moral and just.

But another important reason for the almost universal resistance around the world to this potential war is another new U.S. foreign policy doctrine, pre-eminence.

Our present government has announced that its policy--and what it hopes will be the policy of our nation in the future--is to pursue ongoing and unchallenged U.S. dominance in the world. No nation or power, whether friend or foe, will be allowed again to compete with the U.S militarily or politically, according to the people running our country these days.

That is now our official and public foreign policy, whether many Americans are aware of it or not. It’s obvious from public reactions to a potential U.S. war on Iraq that people from other nations around the world are very aware of it.

In effect our present leaders have extended the Monroe Doctrine--which announced our intention to pursue a decisive and unchallenged dominance over the western hemisphere 200 years ago—out to the whole world. We will no longer tolerate serious political or military rivals on the world scene.

That’s a clear departure from our past foreign policy, which has always been about alternating years of isolationism with periods of intense alliance building. During the Cold War the idea was to achieve some kind of strategic parity with the Soviet Union while at the same time encircling it with alliances and treaties. The method was keeping the pressure high and waiting patiently for 40 years, and the end game we were seeking was the collapse of the Soviet Union from within.

Some who are more cynical may say that global hegemony has always been our real but unstated goal, but I don’t think that point of view will stand up to even a cursory look at our national history. No American administration that I’m aware of has ever clearly announced a foreign policy doctrine like this one. And even if the cynics’ point of view is accurate, I believe an important moral and ethical boundary has been crossed when immoral behavior is publicly announced and publicly supported.

I think the doctrines of pre-emption and pre-eminence, taken together, frighten and galvanize many of the world’s people against the U.S. and especially against the potential war in Iraq.

Again, I would argue that many people around the world are responding out of their own cultural and religious traditions, and often from their own moral intuition. They understand that both pre-emption and pre-eminence are morally wrong and very dangerous. They are a witness against this kind of approach just as past American leaders and the mainstream of church tradition are. To me these are powerful reasons for Christians to consider, or re-consider, any support they might give this war.

The fact is that the U.S. now has an overwhelming advantage in terms of power and influence in the world. And that overwhelming advantage is a relatively new state of affairs for our nation.

Many respectable and leading thinkers in all parts of the world argue seriously that the U.S. now has greater relative power in relationship to the nations of its own day than any other nation in history. Whether that is true or not isn’t the point. The key issue is that we possess overwhelming military, economic, scientific, political, and cultural might.

When a nation which possesses such powers also commits itself unselfconsciously and publicly to resisting any serious rivals for power, and when it allows itself the moral leeway to engage in pre-emptive war using many of the most terrible weapons ever devised, is it any wonder why people around the world are deeply concerned?

And given the clear biblical judgments in the Old Testament and the New on nations who seek such pre-eminence and who achieve and maintain it through violence, shouldn’t Christians in this country resist the direction our present government is taking us?

The Bible clearly teaches and warns that all nations, no matter how well meaning, are fallen and are primarily concerned with advancing their own interests and assuring their own survival. So skepticism is the order of the day when evaluating any government or power. It also warns that when nations or powers begin to seek pre-eminence they are more prone to sin and to doing real damage to others and ultimately, to themselves. And finally, it warns that when nations actually achieve pre-eminence through military power and when they are convinced of their own moral rightness, a dangerous combination has emerged.

Some will say that the peoples of the world reject this war because many have a cultural hatred of the U.S. Some say it’s because many people reject or are ambivalent about modernity (which the U.S. symbolizes) Many believe the resistance springs from envy, jealousy, and pettiness. Others point out that some of the governments who are negative are cynical and self-serving (“champaign and cheese, anyone?”). And still others point to our policies in Palestine and believe we have acted unjustly toward the Palestinians, which casts doubt on our fairness to the Islamic world.

All of those points of view have validity to them. All are obviously part of the picture. But I also believe very clearly that many people are responding to the truly frightening, and I believe, immoral developments in our foreign policy which are summarized by the doctrines of pre-emption and pre-eminence.

There are other people who argue that the war on Iraq isn’t really pre-emptive, in spite of the fact that the present administration has clearly labeled it that way and has announced pre-emption as a new military doctrine which is “suited to our times.” Those people argue it’s really a police action in which the U.S, deeply concerned for the UN’s credibility and deeply concerned that international treaties be upheld, is simply doling out the consequences of Iraq’s failure to be a good member of the international community.

I don’t know how to respond to that point of view. Some people obviously believe our government is being drawn in as a world policeman in order to uphold international organizations and treaties. Personally, I side with those who believe our government is moving us toward war in order to take out a potential future threat in a pre-emptive war. Perhaps we’ve been following different world events.

If there have been any efforts on the part of the U.S. government to uphold the UN’s credibility, it’s pretty obvious to me that this has been seen as a necessary evil by our present government in order to allow them to do what they’ve been planning to do for quite some time.

Dark World and Difficult Decisions

For the sake of clarity I’ve made a strong and pretty one-sided argument against the moral legitimacy of the potential upcoming war.

But the decisions American leaders and leaders around the world are making are anything but easy or simple. There is a lot to be said for considering war.

We’re being told that present circumstances are so unprecedented that they require a new morality of warfare. There are a number of dangers our leaders are pointing to, but the heart of the argument for war against Iraq—and for pre-emption—seems to be that because of the tremendous and unprecedented power of weapons of mass destruction, and because there are now terrorists who will use them against us, past moral arguments against pre-emption, like the elements of the JWT, are no longer valid.

Are present circumstances dire? And do supporters of war have a strong case? And finally, are the circumstances so unprecedented that they require a new moral and ethical reasoning about war?

There is no question in my mind that Hussein is an evil man and that the Baathist regime in Iraq is evil. I say “evil” very specifically, and distinguish it from simply “fallen.” I think the Bible recognizes gradations of sin. There is “falleness,” which is the ‘garden variety’ of sin (excuse the pun). This is the common condition of all people and certainly of all governments and powers.

But there is a deeper wickedness which is evil. This is a moral and spiritual condition in which a person or group of people, or even nation, become so alienated and so distanced from God that they become what might be called “demonic.” At that point most vestiges of concern for the well-being of others are lost and self-obsession becomes almost pathological. Lying and the distortion of truth become routine. There is often pleasure taken in inflicting suffering and pain on others and in the sheer exercise of power and domination in the lives of others.

When this kind of spiritual and moral condition is combined with great power, something truly terrible has arisen which must be prophetically identified and resisted.

Some of the Europeans no longer seem comfortable thinking about a regime like Iraq’s as “evil.” My response is that if this regime is not evil the term has no meaning. Actually, though I understand why for political reasons governments might refrain from “speaking” about Iraq as evil, I wonder how to think about people who would not be willing to “view” Hussein this way.

So I do believe Iraq is a true threat, though I have major doubts about whether it is a true threat to us right now. I don’t doubt that many in the U.S. government honestly believe that Iraq’s regime is both evil and a threat to this country and his neighbors, and that they are motivated by it.

And of course, after 12 years of sanctions against Iraq, our government has good reason to doubt whether further sanctions of the type we’ve seen so far will actually disarm Iraq. Hussein is a master liar and manipulator, and a skilled politician. Why would anyone trust this man or this regime?

And perhaps most importantly, I believe many in our government and others who support this war also understand that the “peace” over the past 12 years in Iraq has hardly been non-violent. By even the most conservative estimates, over 200,000 Iraqis, mostly children, have died because of the deprivations caused by the sanctions and by Hussein’s wicked callousness toward his own people. Many others have been permanently physically and mentally damaged.

We’re also being told by our government that Iraq is working with terrorists to strike at the U.S.
I see little evidence that the Iraqis are working with terrorists, though I understand why there is a fear of “what might happen” were Hussein to give weapons of mass destruction to such terrorists.

When the Iraqi regime’s evil, the seeming failure of sanctions over 12 years, and the terrible loss of life and suffering during the “peaceful solution” to Iraq are all taken into account, there are very good reasons to consider a military “solution.” I don’t believe those reasons are strong enough to sanction a new morality, but I do understand them.

Political leaders and governments cannot afford romantic and idealistic views of the world. The bible clearly teaches that the world is a dark place of conflicting powers all seeking their own advantage, and where some of those powers become evil and demonic. Moral clarity is often hard to come by, and events present new challenges that people and governments are often unprepared to meet well and thoughtfully.

And as much as some Christians don’t like to hear this, because of the nature of evil in the world and because the world is fallen, sometimes governments and powers must use violence. Or in other words, sometimes there is simply no good choice.

So I don’t view the present administration or others around the world that support a war on Iraq, as “evil” people. I believe they are fallen people trying to make decisions in a fallen and complicated situation, and who are confronted with a specific challenge that is difficult and which might tempt anyone to use violence to solve it. I’m sure they understand that there will be many tragic deaths whether they choose to continue sanctions (200,000 and counting) or strike Iraq militarily. There are no good choices in a situation like this, no matter what politicians say for public consumption. Until we have strong evidence otherwise, I think we have to assume our leaders are human beings who are aware, on at least some level, of the “bad hand” they’ve been dealt.

This is part of why it is hard for me to get with much of the “peace movement.” I believe many of the people protesting are very well meaning and motivated by the kinds of issues I’ve been addressing, but quite a few seem to have lost (or maybe never had) the ability to draw finer moral distinctions or the ability to understand that the people leading are facing a very difficult challenge. To draw parallels between Bush and Hitler, or to be unable to distinguish between what is simply fallen and that which is evil, really damages the moral credibility of many of the protesters in my view. And when people support a more “simple-minded” anti-violence stance based on an unrealistic and naïve view of the world, well, that’s just weak anthropology and poor theology. Perhaps it’s the result of too much post-modernism, too much therapeutic mush that passes as a moral point of view, and too much TV…. Sorry, now I’m getting cynical!
It’s just frustrating when what I believe to be the best point of view on this war is discredited unnecessarily.

A Brief Comment on Presuppositions

I realize my comments in the section immediately above, and probably in the entire essay, would make more sense if I made my presuppositions about the Church and its relationships to nations and powers and to violence more explicit.

The Bible recognizes that violence must sometimes be used by governments or powers to restrain evil in this world. This kind of use of violence, on one level, is always a sign of falleness in that it is only necessary because of human sinfulness and rebellion against God. The Bible understands that violence in a fallen world is sometimes necessary precisely because it takes the sinfulness and darkness of the world very seriously. If you’re looking for idealism and romanticism, you’ll have to look elsewhere than in the pages of Scripture.

On another level, however, some uses of violence are worse than others. It is important for Christians to be able to draw moral and ethical distinctions between various situations they encounter in a fallen world. It is not enough to simply pronounce the standards of the Kingdom of God, which are to govern the Church, and then lump all nations or people or decisions into the hopelessly fallen category and draw no distinctions between them. To fail to do so is to fail to act morally and responsibly in this world. The governments of Sweden and Iraq may both be fallen, but there is an important difference between the two from a moral standpoint.

Some uses of violence to restrain evil may be understood to be “moral,” in the tentative and relative way that term must be used by Christians evaluating fallen governments and powers. War should never be celebrated or rejoiced in by Christians. It can only be grudgingly affirmed on those occasions when sin has made other options unworkable. And when the way it is waged meets both biblical and more common standards of morality.

Interestingly, in the prophetic literature nations are judged by God both by how far they fall short of Kingdom ethics (by how they manifest general human sinfulness along with all nations), but also in terms of how much they live up to their own stated codes of morality and the moral standards of the nations around them in their own day. This is based, I believe, in the Bible’s confidence that basic moral understandings remain in every human heart and culture and are expressed in all moral codes, though the way they are expressed may vary.

Since that is true, it’s important for Christians to evaluate how their own nation and other nations are doing in living up to important moral standards. And the standards related to the use of power and violence are some of the most important because they have such a dramatic effect on the lives of so many people.

What Should Be Done?

It’s time to summarize. My original question was whether Christians can support this potential war morally or ethically. My answer to that question is no.

What it comes down to in the end is deciding whether the potential moral good done by attacking Iraq justifies creating a new morality of pre-emption and putting that new morality into the hands of a fallen and very heavily armed superpower which has committed itself officially to a policy of pre-eminence. I just don’t believe the potential benefits of assertive military violence against Iraq or the present circumstances here create that justification, however understandable it may be that others disagree. I believe a pre-emptive war on Iraq would be morally very dangerous for our country’s future and the world’s future. This is a precedent that should not be set and a line that should not be crossed.

What should Christians do? Well, I believe part of our role in the world is prophetic. We must be willing to publicly evaluate both the U.S. and Iraqi governments and their policies in light of biblical teachings and standards, in light of Christian tradition, and also in light of the standards of our own nation and other nations and their traditions. That is what I’ve been trying to do in this argument.

I think Christians should resist this war both lovingly and non-violently. That means seeking to persuade leaders (I’ve been writing letters and making phone calls, for instance), but doing so in a way that shows respect for them as people and recognizes the moral ambiguities inherent in this particular situation.

Others may be motivated to actually become political leaders because of the directions they see us moving as a country. For some believers, if they believe they can actually do some practical good, this could be an important step to take.

It may mean protesting publicly as well. There’s no doubt in my mind that the public protests around the world have had a major impact on what politicians are doing and saying around the world.

And it might even mean practicing civil disobedience if a meaningful and helpful way of doing that can be created. I have been arrested doing civil disobedience on a number of occasions. Sometimes it is called for depending on the circumstances.

Well, I’ve tried to make clear what I think we should be against. What should we be for?

I think our government, and other world governments, should resist and contain the regime in Iraq in whatever ways clever people can devise. Much more intrusive measures may need to be taken, and Iraq may need to be squeezed much more tightly than it already has been. That may mean an even more dramatic reduction of Iraq’s sovereignty.

This will probably mean a much more active investment on the part of many nations to punish Iraq diplomatically and economically, and high levels of pressure on Arab governments and others to work for Hussein and his regime to step down.

In effect, it will take a concerted, intensive, and sustained effort to break the Iraqi regime. We did it with the Soviet Union. I see no reason why this kind of containment would not work against a much weaker and more isolated state like Iraq. If we have to exercise patience rather than go down the perilous road of pre-emptive war then by all means let’s be patient.

This will not change the terrible situation for the Iraqi people in the short run. But their situation will be terrible either way. A quarter of a million of them were horribly killed in the Gulf War, and any attack this time around is very likely to kill many more. They are people we should be praying for every day.

May God deliver us all from evil and lead us away from temptation. Amen.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have it's cool too.

2:16 PM  

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