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Mainline stances on Iraq challenged as Congress gives president go-ahead

WASHINGTON (BP)–Mainline Protestant clergy who question the need to counter Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime “are wrong to speak on matters about which they lack the information and competence,” Diane Knippers, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, said in a news release Oct. 10.

The House of Representatives, by a 296-133 vote the same day, approved a resolution empowering President Bush to move ahead with action against Hussein. The Senate, by a 77-23 vote the next day, likewise endorsed Bush’s authority.

“Church leaders should teach, to both citizens and policy makers, the principles by which moral decisions may be made,” Knippers said as the Institute on Religion and Democracy was releasing a report, titled “Discernment Needed,” critical of mainline leaders’ stances on the question of war with Iraq.

The “grave decisions” of war, Knippers said, “must finally be made by government and military leaders within their spheres of competence and authority.”

Leaders of more than 60 Christian organizations, including the National Council of Churches, issued a statement Oct. 11 opposing a preemptive war on both moral and practical grounds. Clergy opponents of action against Iraq also held a three-day lobbying and prayer campaign on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Various evangelical leaders, meanwhile, have supported a preemptive strike on Iraq. A letter from five prominent evangelical leaders to President Bush in early October said a preemptive war is in line with the “just war” theory developed over centuries by Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and other prominent Christian theologians. The letter’s signers were Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship; D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries; Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ; and Carl Herbster of the American Association of Christian Schools.

The Institute on Religion and Democracy, based in Washington, was founded 20 years ago as “an ecumenical alliance of U.S. Christians working to reform their churches’ social witness, in accord with biblical and historic Christian teachings,” according to the organization’s mission statement.

The IRD’s Discernment Needed report, penned by Alan Wisdom, the institute’s vice president, describes Hussein as “a tyrant in the classic sense of the term, a man who has usurped power and used it to oppress his own people. His power has no legitimacy under either democratic theory or Christian morality. The presumption of ‘sovereign immunity’ against foreign intervention should not be used to shield such a tyrant from all accountability.”

The IRD report lists 11 points that “mainstream Christians know — and their leaders should understand” and nine questions to which “mainstream Christians do not know [the answers] and their leaders should not presume to know better.”

The report criticizes left-leaning Protestant leaders who “seem quite certain that there can be no justification for any military action against Iraq, under any conceivable circumstances.”

Many mainline pastors are preaching their own “personal political opinions” rather than relying on “biblical and confessional teachings,” the report charges. Many pastors are spouting “pacifist-sounding slogans without clarifying that their denominations are not pacifist” — slogans which “ignore or minimize the threat posed by the Iraqi government.”

Such pastors often exalt the United Nations without regard to its “manifest limitations and defects” and offer no realistic alternatives to war, the IRD report contends.

The report clarifies that churches are not being asked to endorse any particular plans for war with Iraq, but to “teach their members how to make their own moral discernments, drawing guidance from the principles of the Christian just war tradition.”

Historic Christian teachings recognize that governments have a divine vocation that is distinct from the vocation of Jesus and his church, the report states, noting: “The magistrate’s vocation, according to Jesus’ apostles, is to ‘bear the sword’ to protect the law-abiding and ‘execute his [God’s] wrath on the wrongdoer,'” citing Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17.

“Starting from such passages, the Christian tradition has developed a set of criteria for discerning when it is appropriate to use the sword in a ‘just war,'” the report states.

But instead, many mainline Protestant pastors:

— Ignore or minimize the threat posed by the Iraqi government.

— Blame the United States, more than Saddam Hussein, for the sufferings of the Iraqi people.

— Attribute the basest of motives to the United States and its president, accusing them of acting principally out of greed, pride, bloodlust and the desire for dominance.

— Exalt the United Nations as the lodestar of international morality, ignoring its limitations and defects.

— Speak as if they had precise knowledge of the likely course of a war with Iraq, repeating the same kinds of grim prophecies that turned out to be false in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

— Offer no realistic alternative policies by which the threat from Iraq could be restrained.

The IRD report argues that a state of war already exists between Iraq and the international coalition that reversed Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Iraq has maintained a hostile stance since the Gulf War by failing to follow through on its promises to the United Nations to give up weapons of mass destruction, the report says, and Iraq furthers its belligerent actions by frequently firing on U.S. and British warplanes that seek to protect the no-fly zones the U.N. imposed on Iraq.

Among questions Christians should consider in arriving at their own opinions about the justification for a preemptive attack on Iraq, the IRD report states, are:

— The extent of Iraq’s production of weapons of mass destruction and the imminence of their use.

— The degree of international support required for a successful war against Iraq.

— The prospects for a post-Saddam political order in Iraq.

Christians need to explore whether the Iraqi threat is sufficient to warrant war against that nation and is sufficient to impose a regime change to a more democratic form of government, the IRD report states.

“Discernment Needed: What Mainstream Christians Know and Don’t Know about Possible War with Iraq” is available on the IRD website at www.ird-renew.org.

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  • Art Toalston & Daniel Walker Guido