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A Just War?

An address by Fr John Slater

26 January 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

There is one subject which in the present circumstances a preacher finds it difficult to avoid, and that is the issue of war in Iraq. Many Christian leaders have spoken out against a pre-emptive strike in Iraq while the Prime Minister seems convinced this would be justified even without any further vote by the United Nations. I don’t want to speak about this is a political sense but I feel I should address the issue from a Christian perspective.

Although the earliest Christians seem to have avoided fighting in war, it was not long before the Church developed the idea of ‘the just war’. Article 37 of the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion, which is concerned with Civil Magistrates, says that It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons and to serve in the wars. Today’s debate among Christians is whether a strike on Iraq can be called ‘just’ in this sense. And of course the issue is far from clear. If it could be demonstrated both that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and that he intends to use them, then a pre-emptive strike against his forces would be justified. But of course he may have had such weapons for many years and yet, so far as we know, has only used chemical weapons against the Kurds. A war would perhaps not be justified without clear evidence of evil intention to use such weapons.

There are, of course, other nations which do have nuclear weapons, such as India, Pakistan and Israel, though we trust them to use them only as a deterrence. But North Korea is beginning to look dangerous. There are other nations which are in breach of United Nations resolutions and yet there seems no serious suggestion that the international community should respond with violence. Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is surely one of the chief causes of recent international terrorism, while Robert Mugabe’s years of tyrannical misgovernment in Zimbabwe has brought 7 million people to the brink of starvation.

I think our own government wants to avoid the mistakes of the 1930s when appeasement of Hitler enabled German rearmament and cost us the opportunity to prevent a world war. But perhaps that is the historian in me. What does the theologian say?

Obviously, Christianity urges us to the way of love and forgiveness. We are called to bless and not to curse and to love even our enemies. Preachers often preface their words with the phrase ‘in a fallen world’ which means that we have to take seriously the reality of evil and selfishness and greed. We cannot love an enemy while showing no concern for that enemy’s victims. We cannot forgive Robert Mugabe and do nothing for the starving millions of Zimbabwe.

I can understand why our archbishop counsels against a pre-emptive strike on Iraq without much clearer evidence of his evil intentions to use weapons of mass destruction. Without such evidence the war could not be called ‘just’ by a Christian leader. But the decision to go to war will and must be a political one in which the conclusion is reached that it is simply too dangerous to take the risk of inaction.

Ours is indeed a fallen world where men and women are motivated by self-interest as much as by concern for the common good. And nations reflect this, seeking their own advantage rather than the welfare of all peoples. It is hard to escape the suspicion that the western nations are most likely to act in situations which affect our oil supplies.

And what can we do? Clearly Christians should think seriously about these issues and we should think about them prayerfully. We need to be informed and we need at least to try to form our own opinion. And we must pray for a peaceful resolution of the present tensions and ultimately for an end to the madness of the arms race. If all the money presently spent on armaments were redirected to humanitarian and ecological projects, then nobody need go hungry, none of us need fear weapons of mass destruction and many of the world’s worst diseases could be eradicated. But we need to turn from our fallen ways of self-interest and cultivate the vision of the common good.
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