- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 5, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 5 (UPI) — The Bush administration may have brought upon itself unnecessary difficulties with the faith community when it floated the notion of a "pre-emptive attack" and a "preventative war" against Iraq, prominent U.S. theologians suggested Wednesday.

In an interview with United Press International, Methodist bishop Marshall L. Meadors, who teaches practical theology at Emory University in Atlanta, pointed especially to the term, "preventative," as one reason for his objection to the current preparations of an attack on Iraq.

But according to Paul R. Hinlicky, religion professor at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., the words "pre-emptive" and "preventative" are misnomers for they don't describe correctly the administration's current war plans. In this, Hinlicky, a Protestant, is supported by Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and president of the New York-based Institute on Religion and Public Life.

As Hinlicky said, a "preventative war" would be morally dubious. It would, Neuhaus agrees, not fit into the historical Christian concept of "just" war as defined first by St. Augustine in the 4th century, by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century and then 300 years later by the reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, and then again in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

John F. Johnson, president of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, spelled out these just war criteria in an expertise the Lutheran Witness magazine distributed to all members of Congress: There must first and foremost be a "just cause" for the war, which in turn should be the "last resort."

A just war requires a "formal declaration" and a "just intention." The "principle of proportionality" must be adhered to; in other words, "weaponry and force should be limited to what is needed to secure a just peace." The "principle of discrimination" must also be respected, meaning that noncombatants should be immune from attack. Finally, the objectives should be limited — the goal is ultimately to achieve peace, not unconditional surrender.

As Hinlicky stressed — and a group of American Catholic bishops protested — a pre-emptive use of military force may indeed lack ethical legitimacy by not meeting "just war" standards. But it is precisely at this point that religious peace activists, "who have never outgrown the 1960s," according to Hinlicky, are using the imprecise language of administration officials for their own propaganda purposes.

"The real fault of the present administration is not that, beyond disarmament, it is seeking a regime change in Iraq, and is willing to act militarily to achieve that," he explained. "To deliver the Iraqi people from the butcher who terrorizes them in their own land would be as morally right as delivering the Afghans from the Taliban."

The administration's mistake is linguistic. In reality, Hinlicky and Neuhaus agree, the United States would not launch a pre-emptive attack but return to an old battlefield and finish off a war that was suspended in 1991. Why? "Because of Saddam Hussein's consistent violations of the Gulf War truce." Seen in this light, the attack would be in keeping with the historical just war principles of Christianity, provided the other criteria are also adhered to.

Furthermore, states Hinlicky, the charge of American unilateralism is unfair. "In fact, the administration, constrained by the need for international support, has moved toward multilateralism since it cannot effectively act without the sanction or at least acquiescence of the world's major powers."

One church leader who seems to have understood what is at stake with the greatest theological clarity is the Most Rev. Peter Lee, Episcopal bishop of Virginia, whose diocese includes the Pentagon.

In an address to a diocesan convention, he said, "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 first by diplomacy, and if necessary, by measured force as last resort."

St. Augustine, St. Thomas and their Catholic and Protestant successors could have written this. What is a little hard to fathom is why the Bush administration, with all its emphasis on faith, has evidently failed to consult systematic theologians on language. Somebody ought to tell them that theology is always a verbal minefield.

In this particular instance, by not mislabeling the impending war, the administration could have avoided a host of problems with the clergy — at least for the time being.


(This is the first installment of a two-part series. The second part will follow on Thursday).

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