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Public Theology: Lutheran World Federation Leader Critical of Iraq War
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Lutheran World Federation Leader Critical of Iraq War
Interview with Rev. Dr Ishmael Noko, LWF General Secretary, on the Current International Crisis Concerning Iraq

By Ishmael Noko

Interview with Rev. Dr Ishmael Noko, LWF General Secretary, on the Current International Crisis Concerning Iraq 7 March 2003

Lutheran World Information (LWI): Rallies against a war in Iraq took place all over the world during the past weeks. Among those who protested in the streets were many Christians. What role can churches and Christians play in the debate?

Noko: Churches and Christians have an essential role to play in the current international debate - as prophets of peace. This role is in no way peripheral to the Church’s mission, but is at its very heart. The Christians who are taking part in the worldwide resistance against war are responding to this prophetic calling.

The humanitarian consequences of war - a polite euphemism for the killing and maiming of innocents and the starvation and disease which will take the lives of many more - stand in direct contradiction of a genuine recognition of the image of God in all people. If the realities of human suffering which military action would entail are not clearly and specifically taken into account, war becomes ‘a dangerous metaphor, a fatal abstraction.’

In Iraq, after a decade of sanctions, infrastructure for essential services such as safe water supply, electricity supply and health services is known to have been seriously degraded. The horrifying statistics of infant mortality, mostly due to polluted water and malnutrition, have been widely reported. Out of a total population of 22-24 million, 15 million Iraqis are thought to be completely dependent on deliveries of food aid. However ‘precise’ the planned military action may be, it is easy to foresee the humanitarian disaster that will result from the further disruption of Iraq’s weakened infrastructure in any military attack.

Discipleship under the cross involves facing and naming the suffering, in the short as well as long-term, rather than allowing war to take place under the cover of abstractions. Such truth telling and unmasking of suffering must be factored into the ethical decision making necessary before, during and after any conflict.

LWI: Many Lutheran churches throughout the world have issued statements on the Iraq crisis during the past months and weeks. Do you see a common ground?

Noko: The common ground is clear: the rejection of war and violence as a political tool, or as an instrument of justice. This common ground is not only evident in the statements and positions of Lutheran churches, but also across the whole ecumenical spectrum. I have never seen, since the days of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, such a magnus consensus among the churches on a specific issue.

LWI: A statement of the 2002 LWF Council, at a commemoration of the first anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the USA, emphasized the LWF’s conviction that “military means will not provide the security that we [the world] seek.” Will the US-led war on Iraq contribute to increased world security?

Noko: The threat of international terrorism is a new and powerful challenge to global security, and it requires a response. But a response which is primarily military and which lends itself to being characterized as a purely ‘Western’ or ‘Christian’ campaign against a Muslim nation risks promoting the ‘clash of civilizations’ - the very objective of the terrorists - rather than the restoration of international security. The proposed military action in Iraq, especially with the current likely configuration of actors, is almost certain to cast a dark shadow over relations between Christianity and Islam not only in the Middle East but in all other regions as well.

An exclusively military response is totally inappropriate to countering a threat which is not a traditional military threat, but which draws its power from the sense of persecution and attack by the dominant military, political, economic and cultural powers which some individuals and communities - rightly or wrongly - feel. Even an overwhelming military victory by the USA and its allies on the battlefields of Iraq is likely only to inspire a new generation of enraged and radicalized militants.

The alleged links between the Iraqi regime and terrorist entities, and Iraq’s alleged possession of and capacity to deliver weapons of mass destruction, have not been satisfactorily proven - neither to the general public nor, obviously, to many of the political leaders who participate in the international debate at the highest level. Rumors and fear are a deeply insufficient basis for unleashing the dogs of war and for inviting the human suffering which war will inevitably leave in its wake.

In my view, the proposed US-led war in Iraq will not contribute to improved international peace and security. I believe it will do the opposite, not only polarizing the Western and Islamic worlds but also fracturing relationships between the USA and many of its historic friends and allies.

LWI: What about the role of the United Nations, and the possibility of an attack without UN backing?

Noko: The consensus among the churches to which I referred before also extends to an affirmation of the essential role of the United Nations in this process, and a rejection of unilateralism and of the idea of ‘pre-emptive war’ or of a ‘coalition of the willing’ outside of the UN framework. Any military action which might take place outside the established framework under the UN Charter will only serve to further weaken the collective security arrangements created in the aftermath of World War II when the horrors of war were fresh in the minds of all members of the international community. Undermining the Charter would, in effect, replace the rule of law with the ‘law of the jungle.’ The best hope for international peace and security is the preparedness of the powerful to subject their power to the rule of law - and the UN security framework is the expression of this hope.

LWI: And what about the concept of a just war?

Noko: The ‘just war’ criteria were established as a framework for thinking through the problems of international relations, given the reality of sin and the perennial conflicts that plague the human community.

According to just-war theory, a decision to use violent force should be based on, among others, the principles of ‘just cause,’ ‘right intention,’ ‘legitimate authority,’ ‘last resort’ and ‘proportionality.’ According to Luther, only the defense of one’s own country could constitute ‘just cause’ for warfare, and wars of aggression or prevention were clearly excluded. According to the principle of ‘right intention,’ only the intention of restoring the peace and the prior order could justify a war. The goal of completely destroying an enemy, or a religious basis for war, would not constitute ‘right intention.’ ‘Legitimate authority’ requires the decision to apply military means to be taken by a duly constituted governmental authority (generally interpreted as including the United Nations in the modern international setting). War must be the ‘last resort,’ and can only be contemplated once all peaceful means of dealing with the conflict and for re-establishing the earlier conditions have been exhausted. And the military means and methods used, and the resulting human suffering and cost, must be ‘proportional’ to the objective.

These criteria seem especially relevant in adjudicating the ethical appropriateness of a pre-emptive war against Iraq - an offensive (rather than defensive) military action, which would be devastating to those directly affected, and likely to lead to further political instability in the region if not the world as a whole. Significantly, these criteria require those contemplating war to scrutinize carefully their own motives, and to be forthcoming about their own interests, rather than focusing primarily on the suspected motives of others.

It should also be emphasized in the current context that these criteria were designed to constrain the resort to war, rather than to provide a framework for the ethical justification of military actions.

In any event, it must be said that the just-war tradition has been increasingly questioned by advocates of peace. The continuing appropriateness and relevance of just-war theory in the age of weapons of mass destruction and of international terrorism is open to question. This issue should be reflected on by the churches, especially those such as the Lutheran churches that have integrated just-war theory into their theology.

The question that confronts us today is whether war, in and of itself, can ever be just or serve the interests of justice or God’s design. I confess that personally I do not believe so.

Even in the Old Testament, where many stories seem to describe situations in which military solutions have been imposed in the pursuit of God’s design, a closer examination shows that military action never provided a permanent solution. Behind these biblical stories is the message that military and political power, and the solutions they achieve, are not lasting; what is permanent is justice, love and reconciliation.

LWI: So what is the alternative in the current situation? By what means can the threat of international terrorism be addressed in an effective way?

Noko: The LWF has long held the position that violence cannot create peace, but can only lead to more violence. We have articulated this position especially in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it is of general application. Whilst necessary for the legitimate purposes of defense from attack, guns and weapons of war cannot build human security; that is not their nature or design. Human security is created by mutual understanding and relationships based on justice and equity, and the chief instrument for promoting such understanding and relationships - and hence for defeating extremism and terrorism - is dialogue. Through dialogue, we can recognize each other’s common humanity and remove the enemy images that the extremists and terrorists seek to promote. And through dialogue we can better understand and address the injustices and inequities that breed the resentment and rage on which extremism thrives.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the vast majority of Muslim religious and political leaders around the world expressed their rejection of such acts in the name of Islam. It was a moment in which, through dialogue, strong alliances could have been made, across political and religious divisions, against the extremists who sought to provoke a ‘clash of civilizations.’ Dialogue, not war, should have been the first and principal strategy pursued in the struggle against terrorism and extremism.

An example of this approach was the Inter-Faith Peace Summit in Africa, which the LWF facilitated in Johannesburg in October 2002. This event brought together over 100 religious leaders -- Christian, Muslim, African traditional religions, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu -- from across the African continent to discuss practical action in the area of inter-faith dialogue and cooperation for peace in Africa. In this process, the importance of personal encounter and dialogue, and the sharing of experiences, was clearly demonstrated. The emphasis was on action against a common challenge -- conflict in Africa -- rather than on rhetorical statements or academic study.

Both with regard to the immediate crisis regarding Iraq and the wider context of increasing tensions between Christianity and Islam which has been exacerbated by this crisis, inter-religious dialogue and cooperation will be central to avoiding future conflict. The likelihood of violence is very much greater when the communities live in isolation from each other, allowing enemy images to be much more easily inculcated. Conversely, the prospects of the ‘clash of civilizations’ becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy are proportionately reduced with each personal encounter between a Christian and Muslim in which each can recognize the other as a human being, with similar hopes for his or her children and similar fears for the future.

Many people are genuinely fearful of the threat that international terrorism represents. It would be wrong to suggest, after the events of 11 September 2001 and the Bali bombings, that this fear is without basis. But as Christians we must strongly resist fear-based appeals and actions, out of our conviction that no matter how fearful the world, our hope and security are grounded in a God of peace and reconciliation, revealed through the cross. We live by the grace of God, not by our works. Thus we are freed from the fear that our security must finally be based on political or military might. We are liberated from every form of political messianism which identifies the kingdom of God with particular political programs and which demonizes our enemies.

LWI: In the rhetoric of those who promote a war against Iraq the concept of evil and Saddam Hussein as the expression of evil play a significant role and almost have a religious undertone. Is this a biblically appropriate way of using the term “evil”?

Noko: Saddam Hussein and his regime have inflicted great suffering upon the people of Iraq, as well as on the people of Iran and Kuwait. His record demonstrates no acceptance of the most basic principles of human rights, justice and ethical governance.

But to apply the term ‘evil’ in this context is an attempt to externalize the sin that is present in all human relationships and dealings, and to ascribe that sin to a political and military enemy. This is a strategy that has been used all too commonly in the past to promote political and military goals.

Evil is real, and those who carry out evil acts or policies give expression to the presence of evil in our world. But to assume self-righteously that we can defeat the forces of sin and evil in the world is a pretension contrary to basic Pauline and Lutheran premises about the human condition.

Human interests and actions are never pure; deception is rampant. This is illustrated by the fact that some of the same governments that are now calling for military action against Iraq to disarm Saddam Hussein’s regime are the original suppliers of many of his weapons.

Good and evil are complexly interwoven in all our dealings. This necessitates humility in personal as well as political affairs. We are complicit in the world’s failings, injustice and violence and cannot presume to stand outside this dilemma. Those who strike out against their enemies often become like their enemies. Revenge and violence begets more revenge and violence. These cycles are part of our human bondage, ultimately redeemable by God rather than through human efforts.

This theological anthropology can lead to a dismal fatalism regarding possibilities for human decisions and actions to make a difference. But it also can lead toward more realistic assessments and responses that are not naïve either about the human propensity for evil or about the human propensity for good. It casts serious doubt over the wisdom of military attacks that inevitably result in innocent human suffering, that are likely to play into the hands of those described as ‘evil,’ and that may lead to even worse cyclical violence. Jesus reverses this whole logic with his words, “love your enemies,” provoking the search for alternative responses to evil. Realism regarding the human condition necessitates fuller deliberation from different perspectives within the whole human community, rather than a one-sided imposition of a ‘righteous’ solution.

The President of the United States of America repeatedly sets up a framework in which the rest of the world is either ‘for or against him,’ thereby appropriating for himself and distorting the words spoken by Jesus (“Whoever is not with me is against me,” Mt 12:30). The dichotomy between the forces of good and the forces of evil is set up in such a Manichean manner that no further ethical thinking is required. A dogmatic literalism or fundamentalism takes over, and can readily become a license for totalitarianism. In the context of this dualism, dissent is censored or labeled as unpatriotic. It can lead toward an increasing fanaticism on either side: on the one side, viewing Saddam Hussein as the source of evil, and on the other side, the United States as the source of evil. In calling an individual or a nation ‘evil,’ the speaker arrogates to him- or herself the good -- the side of God -- and thus sets up his or her own position as beyond critique.

LWI: What is your view of the growing anti-Americanism in Europe and other parts of the world, in the context of the current developments?

Noko: The growing anti-Americanism evident around the world is itself a serious challenge to our understanding of communion. A clear distinction must be made between the American people, and the American government - and also between individual political leaders as human beings and the policies that they seek to pursue.

In this regard, I would like to pay special tribute to Bishop Mark Hanson and the leadership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who have again and again represented the wider LWF communion in their own context and to their political leaders in a truly prophetic way. Therefore, I ask all LWF member churches to support the leaders and members of their sister churches in the USA with prayer and accompaniment, as they seek to fulfil their prophetic calling.

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Date Added: 3/30/2003 Date Revised: 3/30/2003 11:51:35 PM

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