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100 ethicists oppose attack on Iraq


The war drums may be beating loudly in Washington, but in the halls of academia, calls for peace and restraint are being echoed. In the Sept. 23 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education, 100 Christian ethicists issued a statement saying a U.S. preemptive attack on Iraq would not be morally justifiable.

The 100 “Christian scholars of ethical theory,” which included numerous faculty members at Catholic institutions, issued a simple, one-sentence declaration that states: “As Christian Ethicists, we share a common moral presumption against a preemptive war on Iraq by the United States.”

The statement, which was circulated primarily via e-mail, was the brainchild of Shaun Casey, an assistant professor of Christian ethics at the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, in consultation with Stanley Hauerwas, a professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C.

Perhaps most striking is the fact that Casey is a “just warrior” and Hauerwas a pacifist, a fact that seems to indicate agreement between two groups of scholars who often don’t see eye to eye. “It’s rare to get them both on the same page,” said statement signer Therese Lysaught, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, who says her decision to sign came out of her fidelity to Catholic social teaching about peace.

Lysaught said just-war teaching “starts with a presumption against war. ... Even for those who are not doves and not pacifists, there isn’t anything in the [just war] tradition to justify a preemptive strike” against Iraq.

Hauerwas downplayed the significance of the statement, which was signed by a widely divergent group of scholars, but he called the show of unity between just warriors and pacifists a hopeful sign. “The most important thing is a bunch of the just-war people are signing on against a preemptive strike,” Hauerwas said.

Signer William Cavanaugh, an associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., said the proposed war with Iraq “just makes a mockery out of just-war criteria.”

Cavanaugh said a preemptive strike is “almost a contradiction in terms” with just war. “How do you ever know that a preemptive strike is the last resort, for example? I’m a pacifist, but I would be elated if at the very least people would take the just-war tradition seriously.”

Both Hauerwas and Cavanaugh say the lines have blurred so much that few Christians can discern a difference between church and state.

“Nationalism has become a sort of religion,” Cavanaugh said, while many Christians have “transferred their loyalty from the church to the state” in the effort to find community.

“We think that our primary community is the nation state,” Cavanaugh said. “When we say, ‘We,’ we mean, ‘We Americans.’ And our loyalty to the body of Christ has become secondary. And I think that’s the fundamental problem underneath it all.”

Hauerwas said the gap between Christian morality and the so-called will of the people is nothing new. It can be traced to “the accommodation of the church to America over the past century.” Christians, Hauerwas said, “can’t tell the difference between their loyalty to God and their loyalty to America. They think they’re one and the same. They haven’t been told any different. It now makes it impossible to tell them anything different.”

Lysaught says many Americans recall the Gulf War as a painless experience where the United States suffered few causalities, while Iraq suffered thousands of causalities. “In war, the people who bear the harshest burden are always the poor and the voiceless,” she said.

While many Christians like to cite Romans 13:1 --“Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities” -- as moral grounds for just war, Hauerwas says a more important message can be found one chapter earlier when Paul says: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (Romans 12:17).

“You have to forgive the enemy,” Hauerwas said. “And people must think that we forget that when we read Romans 13. So I think Romans 12 is terrific.”

Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer who lives in Raleigh, N.C.

National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2002