Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk


March 10, 2003 

The “war” on the American determination to bring about a regime change in Iraq rages on. This is a war of words plastered on countless placards and shouted by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the major cities of the free world on a Saturday in mid-February. 

This massive outpouring of protests, fueled by a visceral hatred of America, is in many ways reminiscent of similar “peace” protests of the 1930s. Are we condemned to repeat the mistakes made then? 

Very few today will disagree that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s efforts to establish peace by negotiations with Hitler paved the way for a world-scale disaster that killed and maimed millions of people and caused incalculable physical destruction. How could such evil happen?  But the real question is: Have we learned anything from that awful history? 

The anti-war demonstrators and the word hagglers at the United Nations will hasten to say that there simply is no comparison. Saddam Hussein is no Hitler, and his army is nothing compared to the Nazi war machine. 

Churches Speak Out 

I want to focus on the role of the churches in the current anti-war campaign. After all, we might expect churches to give  leadership when faced with vexing moral choices, such as we are now facing. 

Most of the major church bodies that have publicly expressed an opinion have opposed the war against Iraq, reinforced with frequent references to the biblical injunctions about peace and peacemaking, and against violence and war. With such backing, one might think that the case is closed. But things are a bit more complex than that. Let’s first review their major arguments by looking at a number of recent church pronouncements 

Of one thing we need not be in doubt. Church leaders are categorical in condemning the American determination to dismantle Saddam’s regime by military force. 

The World Council of Churches, a fellowship of 342 churches in more than 100 countries, issued a statement on October 15, 2002 in which it said that “many Christians strongly believe that pre-emptive war against Iraq is illegal, immoral and unwise.” 

It took aim at the U.S. and U.K. governments’ call for military action against Iraq. It called on the international community to uphold the rule of law, to refuse participation in what it called “pre-emptive” military attacks against a sovereign state, and to reject war as an acceptable instrument of foreign policy, which it described as a violation of both the U.N. charter and Christian teachings. 

The WCC said that the attention should be on addressing the “root causes” of this conflict and on ending the dire humanitarian crisis in Iraq and the entire Middle East. The thrust of this letter gives the impression that the main sources of the problem are the U.S. and the U.K. and not the current tyrant in Baghdad. 

Its statement concluded with the text from Isaiah 2:4: “No nation shall lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” 

A host of other church leaders have echoed the warnings against the U.S. war plans.  Last summer thirty-eight Christian leaders from Britain, Canada and the United States appealed to the American government to refrain from military action because they believe that alternatives to military action have not been exhausted. They warned that respect for law would be undermined by unilateral American action. Their urgent appeal concluded with Matthew 5: 9: “Blessed are the peace makers, for they will be called the children of God.” 

The National Council of Churches in the U.S., after a recent fact-finding trip to Iraq, declared: “As disciples of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, we know this war is completely antithetical to his teachings.” 

On February 5 of this year - the same day Secretary of State Colin Powell made his dramatic presentation to the U.N. Security Council in defence of disarming Saddam Hussein by force - the WCC sponsored a meeting of European church leaders. While also calling on Iraq to comply with binding U.N. resolutions, its main message was to condemn the US military plans. It urged the Security Council “to uphold the principles of the U.N. Charter which strictly limit the legitimate use of military force.” 

The Canadian Council of Churches urged President Bush in September 2002,  not to choose the terrible path of war to solve the challenges presented to the world by the government of Iraq.” It argued that the people of Iraq who had already suffered much would again bear the brunt of the deadly impact of another war. And it warned that a pre-emptive war is a dangerous precedent-setting policy, insisting that there are “credible” alternatives to a military invasion. The Council then quoted a statement of the President’s own church, the United Methodist Church, affirming that “the path on which the President seeks to embark is counter to the teaching of Jesus… and is one that threatens the rule of law as a fundamental principle of democracy.” 

This same church Council, in concert with the pacifist Project Ploughshares, had addressed the Prime Minister ten days after the attack on the U.S. on September 11, 2001. The thrust of that message was that at all cost a military response to the September 11 atrocities must be avoided.  And the Americans cannot be trusted to give the terrorists and their accomplices a fair trial.  That’s why this letter stated that if apprehended, the terrorists should be brought before an international tribunal. 

The letter writers used this opportunity to stress the superiority of Canada’s commitment to multilateralism over the American reliance on going it alone. They wrote that seeking to bring the criminals to justice is a policing not a military task. A single-minded military pursuit, according to the Council and Project Ploughshares, threatens to undermine our civil liberties and might lead to increased military spending at the expense of social programs. 

In an Open Letter to Prime Minister Jean Chretien on September 23, 2002 the Canadian Council of Churches urged him again to say no to war with Iraq. They assured  him that  “the peacemakers are called children of God. The world was created for peace, not war. That is an affirmation of faith. To live by it - to act politically on the truth of it – is fruitful beyond all calculation.” 

Questionable Advice 

You can read more of the same in other statements by church leaders on war, peace, and terrorism   I think that there are a number of serious problems with the churches’ advice on these hotly debated issues. 

One. In positing peacemaking over against war the church spokespersons are silent about the very clear biblical teaching that governments are instituted for the good of citizens and the punishment of wrongdoers. (See especially Romans 13.) 

Jesus announced a blessing on peacemakers, but he also said that he did not come to bring peace but a sword (Matthew. 10:34). Further, there is a long and significant history of Christian thought about war that reckons with the reality of evil and the need to oppose evil by force in certain circumstances. As the author of Proverbs says: there is a time for peace and a time for war (Eccl 3: 8). 

This does not mean that war can be undertaken lightly. A war to be just must meet a number of stringent conditions. It should be a last resort, there must be a recognized, lawful authority, non-combatants must be spared, and do so on. One of the conditions is especially crucial: (re) establishing peace and good order, and thus an environment of freedom and justice, especially the freedom of religion. 

What complicates the arguments for war against Iraq is that the transgressor is not, like Nazi Germany was, a single enemy nation. Rather, the enemy is driven by a single, hate-filled religious zeal but dispersed in more than sixty countries. It is like a Hydra-headed monster with many poisonous tentacles. Nonetheless, this one secretive, violent organization is directed by one overriding goal: to inflict maximum damage on the West, of which the U.S. is the most visible and powerful representative – the Great Satan. What makes this war against the West all the more repulsive is the indiscriminate attack on children, women and the old. 

This is a indisputable fact: war has been declared on America in the most dramatic and murderous attack on September 11, 2001. It seems eminently sensible to me that the country in the crosshairs of the terrorists has the right and duty to defend itself with the only effective countermeasure, military force. The problem is that terrorism of this kind cannot be defeated in one place and at one decisive battle. But that does not mean that the U.S. does not have the right to (counter) attack directly at least one part of the conspiracy. That’s like cutting off one particularly wicked/poisonous tentacle of the Hydra monster. 

Two. What is becoming all too clear, at least to those who want to know the truth, is the depth of savagery that Saddam Hussein has unleashed on his own people. Again and again, one can now hear the testimony firsthand of victims of the rule of fear, terror and murder of this cruel regime. It has invaded every aspect of Iraqi society so that all true life and spontaneity has been wrung from the people’s existence. 

Let me quote a description of Julius Strauss, an experienced reporter who recently visited the Kurdistan part of northern Iraq. He had previously reported on many scenes of brutality in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierre Leone, Afghanistan, and Chechnya. But he writes that nothing prepared him for the “odious evil of Saddam Hussein’s rule.”  Strauss continues: 

In the 1980s, while the West railed against Nicolae Ceausescu’s plan to destroy 3,000 villages, Saddam Hussein actually did it. Then he murdered 180,000 Kurdish men above the age of 15 simply because he thought they might one day turn against him….

Nor has the killing stopped since. Thousands of Iraqis are still being executed without trial, and tens of thousands are routinely tortured. Millions live in a state of numb fear…..

As the drums of war beat ever louder, I am still unsure of the strategic wisdom of opening a second front in the war against terror. But of the moral rectitude of such a course, there can be no doubt. (Julius Strauss, “Iraq’s poisoned babies have made me a hawk.”
(National Post, February 28, 2003, p. A 14.)

Many Iraqis who speak from bitter personal experience, having escaped from their country of birth, are supporting military action against  the Saddam regime. Rania Kashi, an Iraqi university student now living in England, sent an e-mail to her friends explaining why she would not join any “peace” protests:  

You may feel that America is trying to blind you from seeing the truth about  its real reasons for  an invasion. I must argue that, in fact, it is you are still blind to the bigger truths in Iraq… Saddam has murdered more than a million Iraqis over the past 30 years; are you willing to allow him to murder another million?

A further compelling reason to select Iraq as a target for military invasion is the reality, confirmed again and again, that Saddam’s regime is still in possession of large quantities of chemical and biological agents. And he is still pursuing the goal of acquiring nuclear arms. All the haggling at the UN and the so-called inspections on the ground have done nothing to eliminate the threat of Saddam Hussein in control of weapons of mass destruction. 

Three. In both Reformed and Roman Catholic thought much attention is paid to the distinctiveness of various kinds of authority. While the love command is universal, it must be applied differently in a variety of social settings. It is a serious mistake to ignore those differences. This is crucial in thinking about the rule of love in human relations. 

 As persons we are called to love and even forgive our enemies. We are called to turn the other cheek, and to walk the second mile. But the love command must be obeyed very differently, for example, by those entrusted with governmental authority, than by those within a church community, or a family. 

In fact, the state has been endowed with the power of he sword, which means that in extreme cases, when there is no peaceful, civilized basis to relate to one another, a government may not only be allowed but be obligated to use force in order to protect and safeguard the good order and peace of its citizens. And if in the process of doing so it also succeeds in liberating another nation from a murderous dictatorship, would that not be a cause of great rejoicing? 

It is not sufficient to quote the biblical injunctions to love our neighbour, even our enemies, and to be peacemakers, in support of an anti-war position. The truth is as Episcopal Bishop of Virginia, Peter Lee, stated in an address on January 31: “In a fallen world, we understand that one of the responsibilities of international leadership is to name the threats to peace and to participate in removing them, by diplomacy if necessary, by measured, necessary force as a last resort.” 

The biblical language of peace and forgiveness applies to each one of us in our relations to our neighbours. But to apply it similarly to governments is to abdicate our political responsibility. Can you imagine what would happen if governments would “turn the other cheek” to criminals and leave crime unpunished? Similarly, the United States, in response to a vicious attack and the repeated public threats of more to come, has the right to defend itself and to protect its citizens against attacks from the outside. Of course, if that can be done by an international force and with the support of the U.N., so much the better. 

Sometimes Evil Must be Met With Force. 

Is there anyone who would not agree that the defeat of Nazi Germany required that the free world, of which the military might and manpower of the United States then, too, was an important component, was prepared to fight at great cost?  Similarly, there is good reason to think that the war against Iraq is necessary and justified. 

No one can be sure about the outcome, and many things have to be considered by those in responsible positions. That’s why Christians should be prepared to pray for the government of the United States and the soldiers, who will be putting their lives on the line, rather than to demonize them. Things can go terribly wrong, and the loss of life may be very high. If Saddam Hussein realizes that his cause is lost, he may try to unleash a campaign of massive destruction  as a final act of utter contempt for his own people. 

There is nothing straightforward and simple about any of this. Therefore, we may well honestly disagree about the strategic wisdom of going to war at this time. But to suggest that the dangers facing the U.S.-and all of us -are not grave and do not require honesty and a determined, forceful response is foolish and very dangerous. 

There are two things that I find deeply ironic and disturbing in the current debate. One is the belief even in this country that the U.S. is a greater threat than Saddam Hussein. Anti-Americanism is ingrained in Canada, especially in the media, academy, and even government. Our Prime Minister has repeatedly let it be known that the Americans themselves carry a lot of blame for the September 11 attack. Recently two members of Parliament publicly expressed their disgust for the U.S., and one even said that President Bush delights in killing children.  Talk about verbal violence and hate mongering. 

The other is that many church leaders, while influenced by the same anti-American mindset, fail to tap into the best of our Christian heritage, that is, the biblical teachings about justice and the task of government. Their statements are filled with concern about the dangers of American unilateralism. Although most of them pay lip service to the need of eliminating Saddam Hussein, they seem to have no idea of the depth of suffering and evil imposed on the Iraqi people.

Their advice does not rise above the level of mushy, self-righteous sentimentality.  They do not provide helpful advice in extremely complex and dangerous situations where leaders must make difficult political decisions. Rather they retreat to the moral high ground from which to lecture those who are responsible  to make the hard decisions in a harsh and cruel world. Practical statecraft is about more than moralizing. 

How else to explain the condescending tone of the churches’ statements about   the Americans? Further, how is it possible that the North American doyen of pacifism, Jim Wallis and his Sojourners magazine can advise the people of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein by the methods of non-violent, civil disobedience that have worked well elsewhere? 

Anyone daring to give such advice to a people systematically brutalized and broken by a Stalinist monster is ignorant about the terrible reality. Such advice would be laughable, if it were not so pathetic – and immoral. That’s the tragic reality of those who posture as moral purists, but in fact condemn a helpless people to a future of endless degradation and unspeakable grief. 

Indispensable resources
on the Arab world and Iraq

Kanan Makiya, Republic of Fear: the Politics of Modern Iraq, 1989. This book                                                                             w                      was first published under the author’s pseudonym Samir Al-Khalil.

                         Updated edition, University of California Press, 1998. 

-------------------, Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising, and the Arab                                                     W                     World, New York : W.W. Norton & Company, 1993. 

This author was born in Iraq, now resides in the U.S. He writes brilliantly about Arab politics. While not uncritical of the West, he is unsparing of the Arab habit of blaming the West for its failures. This is not an intellectual exercise but a deeply moving and brutally honest detailing of the horrors unleashed on the Iraqi people and the entire Arab world. (Hence his use of a pseudonym for his first book.) Here are a few excerpts from Cruelty and Silence: 

“The responsibility for that failure [to establish democratic forms of government and free institutions] can no longer be placed on the West or Israel, as Arab intellectuals are so fond of doing…. Men like Saddam Husain, Hafiz Assad, King Fahd, and Yasser Arafat do not know how to behave differently. They are indigenous creations of modern Arab political culture….

“I have, in effect, been arguing that the language of human rights and the language of Arab nationalism, or political Islam, have become totally irreconcilable….

“The problem is that neither nationalism nor political Islam in their current incarnations are intellectually equipped to bring about a fresh cultural start in the politics of the region. Their greatest failure, as I see it, is that they have failed to evolve a genuinely convincing language of rights and politics. Both have become fossilized, backward-looking and steeped in romanticism of ‘struggle’ which is conducive to violence. This language is today compacted against a wall of self-inflicted Arab suffering and pain….

“Covering up for the Iraqi regime of cruelty during the Gulf crisis was not just a ‘small mistake’ of a misguided handful of people; it was a deep-rooted failure that must be acknowledged as such if we are to have a new beginning. If the cycles of violence, bloodshed, hopelessness, and despair are to be brought to an end, then Arabs must look inward – not outward to the West – and begin to realize that they are overwhelmingly responsible for the deplorable state of their world.” 
(Cruelty and Silence, pp. 282, 283)

 “The Unites States was not obligated to come halfway across the world with 443,000 soldiers to sort out the problem of the Middle East….But once the United States chose to shoulder that responsibility, and once the fighting began, then it acquired an obligation to the people of Iraq to end things differently, an obligation which it did not have before all those Americans were sent to fight in the Gulf….

“The Gulf crisis was never simply a matter of foreign manipulation or of the evil man playing the demagogue; it was at bottom an Arab moral failure of historic proportions, for which everyone who cares for the future of this part of the world must feel personally responsible…” (pp.20, 22)

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