An open letter from the UCC's Collegium of Officers regarding the statement of United Church of Christ leaders on Iraq, the Middle East and war.
In the United Church of Christ, with its cherished diversity, we have a wide range of views about the acceptability of war as a means of resolving disputes. Some of our forebears engaged in the armed struggle with Great Britain for American independence; one of our noted theologians, Reinhold Niebuhr, argued from the standpoint of "Christian realism" that injustice must be resisted, if necessary by war, thus justifying U.S. participation in World War II. Others in our tradition, however, have opposed war in principle, including pastors and lay persons who adopted the very unpopular stance of conscientious objection during World War II and the Vietnam War. In 1985, the UCC's General Synod declared our church to be a "just peace" church, a church that would consistently seek nonviolent solutions to disputes whose attempted resolution by war would inevitably lead to death and destruction. In 2001, General Synod voted that the UCC join in the World Council of Churches' Decade to Overcome Violence.
During the period leading up to the first Gulf War of 1991, our church and other churches were challenged to reflect on two basic issues: can war ever be justified by Christian belief?; and, if war is, under certain circumstances, a necessary, if regrettable, measure, did the various rationales proposed for "Desert Storm" meet the criteria that have classically been applied to determine whether recourse to war was justified?
There are a number of remarkable parallels between that time and the present, as well as some notable differences. The cast of characters is almost the same, including a protagonist named George Bush and Saddam Hussein himself. Both have sought to enlist religion as an ally in the cause. In fact, in 1991, on precisely the same day, Saddam Hussein declared a "jihad" or "just war" against the United States and the coalition, and President Bush said bluntly that "God is on our side." Neither leader, according to his own religious tradition, was authorized to make such a statement, but both leaders were operating in an environment in which religion and patriotism were closely enmeshed.
In 1991, the issue felt most strongly by Middle Easterners, even beyond the invasion of Kuwait, was the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and Arab participation in the anti-Saddam alliance was predicated on a promise, which proved to be hollow, that the United States would act swiftly and decisively to resolve that issue fairly. Today, despite all the U.S. administration's efforts to deflect attention to Iraq, the Arab and Muslim world's attention remains riveted on Israel and Palestine, and this issue too, to a disturbing degree, has become "religionized," with U.S. support of Israel increasingly being interpreted as a manifestation of Christian and Jewish hatred of Islam and Muslims.
In the September 2002 statement of UCC leaders opposing the impending war with Iraq, we call attention to the fact that after the desert storm, the desert remains. The fundamental issues afflicting the region, issues that have kept tyrants like Saddam Hussein, as well as lesser dictators, in power, have not been addressed. The Gulf War left in its wake an unresolved and festering Israeli-Palestinian crisis, a refugee problem that continues to plague the region, an increased infatuation with religion as an answer to political problems; in short, the seedbed for the terrorism that has so grievously afflicted us and others. War did not resolve the problem; indeed, it deepened and further spread the region's already frightening anti-American attitudes.
There is no question that Saddam Hussein is a ruthless tyrant and a manipulator of his hapless people. There is no question that evil exists in this world, and that Saddam Hussein has perpetrated evil on his own people, particularly the Kurds, and his neighbors, Iran and Kuwait. What is in doubt is whether war will resolve the issues so skillfully used by Saddam Hussein, whether it will lead to a better life for the people of Iraq or for the people of the Middle East as a whole. In this statement, Christian realism joins with the Christian call to seek peace, not simply the uneasy peace of the victors, but the durable peace of those who would seek justice.
In Matthew's account of Jesus' temptation in the desert, Jesus is taken by the devil to a high mountain and is shown all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor: "All these I will give to you if you will fall down and worship me." Temptations are just that—tempting. It is tempting for the world's only superpower to seek to remake the world to its own advantage, to seek security through the use of overwhelming might. But Jesus' response to this very wily tempter is to remind himself, and us: "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him."