The Common Good
January-February 2003

Prophetic Leadership

by Jim Wallis | January-February 2003

Whatever Christians decide about war with Iraq, they must do it on the basis of Christian theology.

Whatever Christians decide about war with Iraq, they must do it on the basis of Christian theology. Liking and trusting President George W. Bush, as many conservatives do, or hating him, as many liberals do, is just not relevant here. Patriotism means loving your country and its best ideals, enough even to oppose it when it is grievously wrong. And Christian faithfulness always supercedes patriotism. U.S. Christians often need to be reminded that we are a worldwide church—the body of Christ; and what other Christians around the world think about what the United States does ought to be at least as important to us as the views of our fellow citizens. Judging from all the letters, statements, and articles that come across my desk, churches around the world (and across the theological spectrum) don't support the U.S. argument for going to war with Iraq. Which gets us back to theology.

The tradition of Christian nonviolence and pacifism rules out war as a way to resolve conflicts, and the just war doctrine, which many more churches accept, demands that a decision for war be subject to rigorous criteria and conditions. Those are the only two Christian traditions regarding war—unless we want to bring back the Crusade idea of war, which seems to be gaining in popularity with radical elements of Islam but not anywhere in the churches that I am aware of.

The majority of American church leaders who have spoken are against prospective military action against Iraq, saying it does not meet the standards of a just war (see "Not a Just or Moral War," page 26). The few pro-war Christian voices have been repeated over and over in news stories, suggesting that there aren't many more to be found. It took much longer for most U.S. churches to come out against the war in Vietnam. This time, the church protest of war is significant both in its breadth and its early clarity. Opposition to war with Iraq has come from a very wide spectrum of the church's life—Catholic, Protestant, evangelical, pentecostal, black church, and Orthodox. All of the statements, letters, and resolutions from church leaders and religious bodies take the threat posed by Saddam Hussein very seriously—I don't find much wishful or utopian thinking—but refuse war as the best response to that threat.

Churches worry not only about casualties but also about the many other possible consequences of a war with Iraq, and they believe there are other options for dealing with the Iraqi regime. Indeed, the churches—and other, secular voices that have protested this war before it has begun—deserve real credit for helping to push the U.S. government toward a U.N. Security Council resolution instead of instigating a unilateral war. (Colin Powell clearly deserves credit, too.) Most of the church statements are concerned about international law and the pre-emptive use of force. They also assert that war with Iraq could not be justified as a last resort without U.N. inspectors being sent back in to seek to disarm Iraq without war, as they have successfully done before. Now that the weapons inspectors have returned to Iraq, and the discussion about next steps must come back to the Security Council, there is a chance to resolve the conflict without the destruction of war.

The bishops of the Church of England have called upon all Christians to pray for a just and peaceful resolution to this crisis. Christians will be praying around the world during both Advent and Epiphany. As I write in mid-November, the outcome is far from clear. If the United States does go to war—especially without the genuine support of the international community and in the absence of an imminent threat from Iraq—Christian proclamations of an unjust war will likely turn into Christian calls for noncooperation and nonviolent resistance.

THE PROPHETIC ROLE churches are now undertaking is illustrative of the larger public vocation that may now be required. That role may become more clear in the wake of the mid-term elections. As it says in Proverbs, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." And without a vision, Democrats had nothing to offer the American people as an alternative to the vision of the Bush administration.

The Bush administration's message was that military might is the only real response to terrorism, and permanent tax cuts that most benefit the wealthiest Americans should be the heart of the U.S. domestic agenda—never mind that poverty rates in the United States are rising again for the first time in a decade. Many people who wanted to vote against war or for economic fairness didn't really know who to vote for in most races or just didn't turn out on Election Day. The Democrats' lack of a clear alternative to the Bush administration's economic program or its conduct of the "war on terrorism" is a core reason why the Republicans recaptured the Senate, increased their strength in the House, and solidified the popularity of the post-9/11 president.

Some say that Democratic opposition to war with Iraq and tax cuts would have lost against a popular president who has a habit of equating dissent with a lack of patriotism. Perhaps so. But at least the politics of principle gives you something to build on even when you lose. And our goal must be to make real social change in the long run, not only to win elections in the short run. When you compromise principle and still lose, there is little to build on for the future.

With the Republicans offering war overseas and corporate dominance at home, and the Democrats failing to offer any real alternatives, who will raise a prophetic voice for social and economic justice and for peace? Never has there been a clearer role for the churches and religious community. We can push both parties toward moral consistency and their best-stated values, over the unprincipled pragmatism and negative campaigning that both sides engaged in during the election.

The courage many church leaders are already showing in opposing the war with Iraq is an early sign of that prophetic role. So is the growing unity across the spectrum of the churches on the issue of poverty. The truth is that there are more churches committed to justice and peace than belong to the Religious Right. It's time the voice of those congregations be heard and their activism be mobilized to become the conscience of American politics in a time of crisis.

We've seen other moments in recent history when the churches emerged as the leading voice of political conscience and opposition. Certainly there were key times in the South African struggle against apartheid, in El Salvador during the 1980s, in the people power revolution that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, and in the opposition to communist rule in Poland when the churches became the critical public voice for both political challenge and change.

EVEN IN DEMOCRACIES, churches have responded to that same prophetic vocation. In New Zealand during the 1990s, when conservative forces ripped that society's long-standing social safety net to pieces, it was the churches—in partnership with the indigenous Maori people—who led marches, ignited public protest, and helped restore key programs in health care, housing, and social services. During the Thatcher years in Britain, it was again church leadership that reminded the nation of its responsibilities to impoverished urban communities, to the ethics of the common good over private gain, to social justice, and to peace. And, of course, in the United States black churches provided the moral foundation and social infrastructure for the powerful civil rights movement that changed our nation forever.

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown told me that he believed the Jubilee 2000 debt-cancellation campaign was the most important movement in Britain since William Wilberforce and the anti-slavery crusade (another faith-inspired social revival). Now Brown and others hope for a new "Marshall Plan" aimed at the developing world in places like AIDS-infected sub-Saharan Africa.

Already a U.S.-U.K. transatlantic church alliance is emerging in response to the urgent moral call to dramatically reduce global poverty. And churches in the United States are telling the Bush administration that such a moral and political initiative aimed at the root causes of global injustice will enable the war against terrorism to succeed far better than dropping more bombs on the children of Baghdad. This may not be the kind of faith-initiative that George Bush had in mind, but—given the election results of 2002—it may be closer to the witness that many U.S. churches may now be ready to offer.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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