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US Christians Differ in Approach to War with Iraq - 2003-03-15

As the United States contemplates an invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush has repeatedly stressed that this war… should it come… will not be a battle between Christianity and Islam. Even so, many American Christians are turning to their Bibles for guidance in the matter, and they're coming to very different conclusions about the impending war.

"What would Jesus do?" It's a fairly simplistic inquiry into the guiding principles of Christianity… but it's a question many Christians are asking themselves, as they consider President Bush's vow to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Joel Volk belongs to the Society of Friends… whose members are known as Quakers. The group embraces pacifism as the model given to the world by Jesus Christ. "Jesus calls me to love my enemies," he said. "To turn the other cheek. To go the extra mile. To voluntarily accept self-suffering as a way to reveal truth to myself and to others. Making this choice, I have put myself at odds with the state."

That's because by Mr. Volk's own admission, the state shouldn't necessarily be bound by the same pacifist principles that bind him. When it comes to the issue of war, Joel Volk believes the state needs to be guided by the so-called "Just War Theory" laid out by Christianity's St. Augustine in the fifth century. That theory attempts to determine when it's morally permissible to wage war. Joel Volk says countless Christian scholars have determined that self-defense is the only circumstance under which St. Augustine would have justified warfare. And because of that, Mr. Volk believes the Bush administration's national security policy should not be endorsed by Christians. "It articulates a doctrine of prevention," said Joel Volk. "It says even in the absence of an imminent and tangible threat, the U.S. may strike another nation-state that Washington believes may sometime in the future pose a threat to U.S. interests. This is war without a wrong inflicted, also known as aggression."

Not all Christians agree with Joel Volk. Father Alexander Webster is an Orthodox priest and a military chaplain. He says many Christians, including leaders of his own church in Greece and Russia, have confused the notion of "preventative" warfare with "pre-emptive" warfare. Father Webster agrees that preventative warfare… that is, war not triggered by an imminent threat… cannot be justified under St. Augustine's theory. But he also says that isn't what the Bush administration is talking about. "What the president has talked about is not preventative war, but pre-emptive attack… a pre-emptive attack because of, presumably, a clear and present danger to that region and to the world by a regime that has already demonstrated its calculated, immoral willingness to use weapons of mass destruction against its own people, against its neighbors, and presumably against anyone else that the tyrant deems suitable," he said.

Father Webster says it's misguided to think that Christians must at all times avoid force. This point of view is endorsed by Reverend Paul Schenck, an Episcopal pastor who was sentenced to jail in 1992, for harassing a doctor in New York as part of a campaign to end abortion. "Jesus the Pacifist is only one aspect of the fullness of Jesus," he said. "You know, there are other pictures of him in the Bible. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus assumes a very different portraiture, and that is of a triumphant, victorious soldier, who vanquishes the enemies of God. "

Reverend Schenck believes the Bible itself justifies the impending invasion of Iraq, because in 1991, during the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein fired SCUD missiles at Israel. "All throughout history, God has used the powers of the world to protect and preserve his promises to Israel. Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, poses the most imminent and greatest single threat to Israel, and I think it would be a terrible tragedy if those of sincere Christian conviction were to ignore such a horrendous threat," said Reverend Schenck.

But that sort of interpretation of the Bible is fundamentalist and therefore dangerous, according to Michael Gorman, who teaches biblical scripture at St. Mary's Seminary, the oldest Roman Catholic seminary in the United States. Professor Gorman says it's not surprising that some people today might not want to embrace the image of Jesus as an advocate of non-violence. After all, that was also the case in biblical times. "It seems to me that Jesus' messiahship was precisely different from what was expected of him in the culture, namely to engage in the violent overthrow of Rome," he said. "I think that's what most biblical scholars would agree, that he had a different vision of human life that wasn't limited to something spiritual, but was a different kind of politics."

And whether they believe Jesus would support or condemn the impending invasion of Iraq, most American Christians agree that a different kind of politics will be shaping the world in the months and years to come.