The Church has generally been of little help regarding the War on Terror. In the days and weeks after the 9/11 tragedy, the Church was kept busy comforting the mourning, guiding the confused, and helping to mobilize relief. That was fine; it was good ministry. But when the War on Terror started its Afghan phase, the Church was woefully silent. Again, when the Iraqi front opened, the Church was, for the most part silent. We do have a statement in our Social Principles in the Book of Discipline which gives us a theological springboard from which to address war, human rights, and "weapons of mass destruction", but the Church was silent...
"We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy, to be employed only as a last resort in the prevention of such evils as genocide, brutal suppression of human rights, and unprovoked international aggression. We insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them; that human values must outweigh military claims as governments determine their priorities; that the militarization of society must be challenged and stopped; that the manufacture, sale, and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled; and that the production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons be condemned. Consequently, we endorse general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control."
How many United Methodists pondered this statement as the Afghan and Iraqi fronts opened? A legitimate question for our denominational leadership and those who will be making Church law at General Conference 2008 in Texas is, "If remarkably few United Methodists utilize or consider these principles and resolutions, of what real value are they?"
To their credit, both the General Board of Church and Society and the national leadership of the United Methodist Women early on denounced the widening war and called for an end to hostilities, but both groups have been so tainted by bizarre behavior and, in the case of the national leadership of the United Methodist Women, recent flirtation with heresy (in reference to the entire "Re-imagining" movement of the late 20th century), that it was nearly impossible for the Church to take them seriously.
Where were our bishops? While they did pass a series of resolutions "lamenting" the state of affairs, I don't recall any great move from the Council (like the one we saw after the Hurricane Katrina disaster) to teach the Church and lead us to stand against the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, in the autumn of 2005, two years after the Iraqi front opened and a full three years after the opening of the Afghan front, our bishops spoke against U.S. action in the Iraqi front, and admitted their complicity in failing to lead. This struck me as "too little, too late"; they had missed a kairos moment to prophetically lead the Church into faithful but difficult waters, speaking out only when the mood of the American people had shifted regarding the war, and the belated statement of the bishops revealed real cowardice.
Throughout the War, the White House has been "skirting the edge" regarding what are acceptable practices during a war of this nature which, granted, is a new kind of war. I believe that President Bush is a decent and sincere man who is trying his best in the midst of extraordinarily difficult circumstances to be faithful to God, to protect the United States, and prevent another 9/11-like attack. I also believe that he and his administration have made some real mistakes regarding the War on Terror, on all of its fronts; I believe that, for good or ill, the President is obsessed with preventing another 9/11-like attack.
While as a pacifist I believe all war to be wrong, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, Haiti or Kosovo, Germany or Japan, I also believe that military and political leaders should do their best to minimize the horror of war. Perhaps I'm being too naive, expecting people who are engaged in radical sin (war) to "pretty up" the sins a bit. That's something concerning which I'll need to meditate.
I have been quite concerned about the prisoners detained at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. While, for all I know, every one of them is guilty of war crimes, the United States should be seeing to it that all of them are treated with compassion and justice. I am aware that many of them would reject these same considerations if they held American combatants, but if the United States is to claim a moral high ground, we should take this opportunity to demonstrate some just ideals. All of the prisoners in Cuba should have been given the opportunity to defend themselves in trial by now, and our national leaders should see to it that these hearings are expedited with utmost urgency.
How can the Church help? Well, perhaps the General Board of Church & Society (and similar boards in other denominations) can offer to actually pay for legal representation for the prisoners; prisoners certainly qualify as "the least of these" by the Biblical understanding. Showing them this compassion would certainly qualify as faithful witness to the gospel. Additionally, perhaps our bishops could visit Cuba regularly, even if it means incurring fines from the federal government, to speak with, eat with, and serve the prisoners in some way. There has to be a way to do that. What powerful images we could see...our bishops serving the prisoners, helping them, modeling the love of Christ! Now, that would be leadership, and might go a long way to restoring the tarnsihed moral authority of the Council in regards to the War.
There may be no more disturbing element of the War, however, than the allegations of torture. The incidents at Abu Ghraib were surely conducted by a few misguided soldiers who acted inappropriately and who should probably be behind bars for a very, very long time. But their actions don't seem to have been condoned by their superiors, or by the White House.
What we should hold the White House responsible for is the secretive ways in which the CIA and military "experts" have been permitted to conduct torture or, at least, torture-like activities. I understand that the American leadership wants to do all it can do to prevent another 9/11, and I appreciate the urgency of that desire. But that does not mean that Christians ought to turn a blind eye or, even worse, condone these kinds of activities (I write this knowing that both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are United Methodists).
The White House has fought for several years now for the right to maintain secret interrogation facilities where torture or torture-like activities are practiced in an effort to gain information. In a speech earlier this week, Vice President Cheney seemed to make light of a particular torture (or near-torture) method, and seemed to actually endorse it. While the White House has denied the speech was an endorsement, it still raises concerns.
If the Church can't speak out strongly against torture, we are a completely neutered and tame institution.
Scripture teaches us, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:21, TNIV) Our Social Principles in the Book of Discipline state, "...the mistreatment or torture of persons by governments for any purpose violates Christian teaching and must be condemned and/or opposed by Christians and churches wherever it occurs." (par. 164.A) The GBCS released a statement in 2005 condemning the presumed torture.
Now is a time for our denominational leaders to show leadership. They need not personally attack the president or vice president, which would be antithetical to the gospel, but ought to tell the world that the Church is clearly and entirely against torture, and that we regard this as a great moral and theological issue.
We have been given another kairos moment in which to prophetically lead the Church into faithful but difficult waters...let's pray that this time, we are more faithful.
Here are some helpful links...
* A Wesleyan Attitude Toward War
* Methodists United for Peace with Justice
* National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT)