A Sermon by Sarah Oelberg on November 10, 2002

Last week was an historical week -- in more ways than one! While most of us were busy trying to figure out what happened in the elections, and the news media was focused on who got elected and why and what it means, several other things occurred deep beneath the radar screens. One was that, as my son so nicely put it, his country officially joined the ranks of terrorist nations when the CIA - not the military, but the CIA - targeted a suspected Al Qaeda terrorist and blew up a plane he was in, killing him and several others. No rule of law or due process here--but hey, folks, this is war!

Then there was an article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel which exposed a tiny rider put on the so-called "No child left behind" federal education act. It requires that every school which receives federal funding must turn over names and phone numbers of all high school students to military recruiters - or lose their funding! Not yet a draft--just getting ready.

Almost lost among the election fervor was an announcement that the U.S. is beginning to call up the reserves and National Guard for service in Iraq. Actually, there are already some 100,000 troops in the area, but this call-up will add 150,000, specifically for an attack on Iraq. And finally, the United Nations passed a resolution giving the United States almost everything it wanted, including, ultimately, permission to invade Iraq unilaterally if it decides to do so. Make no mistake, our nation is gearing up for war.

For me, it all seems like deja vu all over again. Twelve years ago, while I was an intern in the UU church in Lincoln, NE, the same thing was happening. Then as now we have a president named Bush, calling up the reserves for a planned war against the same enemy, Saddam Hussein, using the same tactic of demonizing him and calling him evil, for probably the same underlying reasons - oil, bases and politics - and spouting the same American hubris.

Twelve years ago, my mentor, the Rev. Charles Stephen, was all in support of going to war with Iraq, and preached a sermon in which he supported president Bush in his decision to do so. That was decidedly not the feeling of most of the congregation, nor mine. I marched with folks who were demonstrating against the war. I did not feel I could preach my feelings there, (after all, my future might rest on his evaluation of me), although I did initiate a discussion in the church, and on the Sunday on which the much-anticipated "ground war" began, I used Mark Twain's War Prayer in the service I conducted. Many thanked me afterward.

The big difference between Charles and me, I think, was that I had son whose reserve unit was called up to go to Saudi Arabia to support the troops in Iraq -- which put him in danger. Like thousands of loyal Americans, I was not convinced that the reasons being given for this dangerous military action were good enough to risk the lives of my son and the sons of hundreds of thousands of others - on both sides. Like many families, we spent a tense Thanksgiving together, then bid him goodbye, knowing we would not see him for Christmas, and wondering if we ever would. And, like so many of our military personnel who took part in that war, even if not in actual combat, our son has been suffering from "Gulf war syndrome" ever since.

Well, now I have my own pulpit, and I do not feel so constrained in expressing my feelings. And, once again, I do not feel that the reasons for invading Iraq that our present administration has given are either adequate or proven. I also find it interesting that it is the men in the administration who have never been in the military who are so gung ho to go; and the generals and others who have actually experienced war are counseling caution. Again there are anti-war demonstrations all over the country, including one a couple of weeks ago in Washington in which over 100,000 people participated, but which was very scantly covered by the press, which was obsessed with trying to predict what was going to happen on Nov. 5. They needn't have bothered; they were all wrong, anyway. How much more useful it would have been if they had spent more time and research on ferreting out the truth about this impending war, and letting the nation know that many, many, Americans are opposed to it--especially to America "going it alone" in a preemptive strike.

In addition to the personnel in the Pentagon, preachers in our nation's pulpits are also cautioning against this war, as it is being framed by the administration. In one statement, the presidents of all the theological schools in the Graduate Theological Union said:

"We are diverse in our religious beliefs. We differ from one another in our political stands on many issues. But we share a sense of concern and even alarm about the political and spiritual situation as our nation seems to be preparing for war with Iraq. Given the gravity of the steps soon to be taken, significant discussion is needed in our religious communities. The ethical and spiritual witness of our faith traditions must be spoken in the public square."

Our religious traditions share a strong presumption against war, especially against a so-called "first strike." Even those churches that allow for the possibility of just war insist that there must be adequate grounds for this resort to violence. But in addition "just war" theory requires the assurance that the war itself can be waged in an appropriate way--that the war does not target innocent civilians, especially children.

We do not think the American people have heard enough in detail to argue that war is the only solution for dealing with the threat that Iraq may pose to other nations. Nor have we heard discussion from our leaders about how such a war could be waged that would not target civilians in bombing or other offensive actions. Our allies have been more badgered to "fall in line" than been offered a chance to give their counsel.

When wars are waged, it must be with more than a patriotic sense of support for our nation. People need to be aware of the violence that will ensue and sober about the cost of such a war and the casualties that our own troops may experience. We have heard nothing about how our leaders intend to deal with a defeated Iraq or what kind of government would be installed to follow Saddam Hussein. We should not put our hand to the plow until we are confident that we are sowing seeds of lasting peace.

I quoted extensively from their statement because these are the religious leaders who are training future ministers. But they are not alone in their concern. The National Council of Churches initiated what they called a "season of peacemaking." It said bluntly that "it would be theologically, ethically and morally inappropriate for the nation under God to take direct military action against Iraq at this time in history...Only as a last option should we move ahead militarily." The Minnesota Council of Churches voted unanimously at their Oct. meeting to publicly declare their opposition to imminent unilateral, preemptive strikes against the nation of Iraq. They stated that the costs for war will not only be high for Iraqi citizens, but for the United States as well, "exacting an economic, moral and spiritual toll on our citizens, both civilian and military."

Many mainline church figures lobbied Congress, contending that a first-strike, unilateral attack would be immoral. At world-level gatherings of Anglicans in Hong Kong and Methodists in Oslo, church leaders urged that all means be taken to bring a peaceful resolution to the crisis. The Episcopal House of Bishops sent a letter to all members of Congress, stating that "we do not believe that war with Iraq can be justified at this time." The statement also stressed the "unintended consequences" of war, including "unacceptable civilian casualties." The Bishops concluded that they "do not support a decision to go to war without clear and convincing evidence of the need for us to defend ourselves against an imminent attack."

On September 25, 100 Christian ethicists, both pacifists and adherents of just war theory, released a one-sentence statement saying that they "share a common moral presumption against a preemptive war on Iraq by the United States." Similar concerns have been raised by church leaders overseas and in Canada, and by our UUA president, Bill Sinkford, whose letter I put on the back of the calendar in the November Mere Lys. Many of our UU churches have also passed resolutions against this war. And, of course, the national council of rabbis and other international Jewish leaders are strongly opposed, fearing what it might do to harm Israel and destabilize the entire Middle East.

Why has this impending war caused such a ruckus among religious leaders? It is not because any of them like Saddam Hussein, or don't believe he is an unstable, dangerous man. All agree the world would probably be better off without him, and many others like him. They do question however, why just him, why now, and why America should act alone? They are also extremely concerned about what might happen afterward, if we do depose Saddam. None are naive enough to believe that the United States can step in, occupy Iraq, and form a peaceful, democratic government there.

No, most of the opposition, as was true twelve years ago also, is because religious leaders are committed to a "just war" policy, and they cannot support a war that does not meet the criteria of just war. Nothing they have seen or heard so far convinces them that this planned conflict meets those criteria. Of course, some religions, like the Quakers and Mennonites, teach against war of any kind, preferring pacifism to conflict. Most others permit wars if they are the only available response to a clear and present danger to not only ourselves but others, will serve justice or prevent greater harm, are sanctioned by governments with "legitimate authority," are waged consistent with internationally recognized standards, the response is proportionate to the danger, and there are plans for what happens in the aftermath. These are the principles of a "just war" policy.

Let us look at these principles in light of the present situation. First, we need to ask: "Is there a clear and present danger from Iraq? What tangible proof, if any, do we have that there is? The head of the last weapons inspection team says that 95% of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction were destroyed through their work (compared with none during the actual war!), and there is little reason to believe he has been able to reconstruct many. What standard of proof do we have for an action that could cost thousands of lives -- to say nothing of $9 billion per day, according to Donald Rumsfeld? Specifically, what evidence do we have that Iraq has biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, and a delivery system capable of reaching the United States?

The second test of a just war is whether it serves justice or prevents a greater harm. How do we dis-entangle our self-interest from our principles? How do we differentiate our cultural values from universal values? How do we weigh actual present harm versus potential future harm? Closely tied to this question are ones about how much we can trust our leaders. Are their conclusions based on thorough, unbiased analysis, or, as Bush said yesterday, a determination to make sure America is the strongest nation in the world, by far, and remains so. What role do national interests like oil, influence, military bases, etc. play in the decision?

Is this war sanctioned by governments with "legitimate authority?" Even though the UN finally was cajoled into passing a resolution of support, does it support a preemptive strike against Iraq by the U.S.? Why are so many of our allies in the Gulf War of 1991 so reluctant to undertake this one? Has our government used fully the resources of organizations like the UN, NATO, or Amnesty International to help resolve the issues and understand the problems and the cultures and concerns? It is said that, in the Middle East, a policy based on less than a 100 year analysis of the culture, politics, and history of the region involved is doomed to failure.

One of the most important questions is that of proportionality. Justice is a measured response. Will our response be proportionate to the actual danger? A proportionate response means a clear and narrow definition of the enemy and an accurate and verifiable risk assessment. It also means as little damage to civilian populations, especially children, as possible. And it assesses the gains against the losses - will the cost, both in dollars and in disrupted and lost lives, be proportionate to the expected gains? I suspect there are many families of reservists and National Guard personnel who don't think so.

For our allies, as well as our enemies abroad, the question is whether our conduct of this war will be consistent with internationally recognized standards. After our failure to sign onto the International Court, many fear we see ourselves as "above" the general rules for "just conduct" during war. They see us targeting and hitting civilians as well as military targets, and then not acknowledging our "mistakes" in human terms rather than explaining them away as "collateral damage." If we commit war crimes, will we be held accountable, as we expect others to be? All good questions we ourselves must also ask.

Have we fully explored plausible alternatives to the use of violent force? At first, this seemed a very weak point in our plans to attack Iraq. Now, with the United Nations at least superficially on board and inspections likely to resume, it is less a question, but still one which bothers many. Must we resort to war to depose Saddam Hussein and eliminate his weapons of mass destruction? Have we made maximum use of diplomatic resources?

What are the ethical and pragmatic implications of legitimizing a "first strike" policy? What level of proof is required to justify a "first strike"? Will striking first, or unilaterally, make our world more or less secure? How would we react if, for example, Pakistan launches a "first strike" against India? Russian against Georgia? China against Taiwan? How will the other nations of the world react to us striking first against Iraq?

Finally, there are the questions of consequences. Will attacking Iraq inflame the Muslim world, help Bin Laden recruit a new generation of terrorists, and destabilize the entire Middle East? What happens in the aftermath of a "regime change" in Iraq? George Bush decided, in the waning hours of the 1991 Gulf war, that dealing with Saddam Hussein was preferable to dealing with the political turmoil of a post-Saddam Iraq--and that was before 9/11! George W shows no such worries, nor any signs he has thought much about it. But the challenges of stabilizing, much less democratizing, Iraq after a military invasion are formidable, and the responsibility of meeting those challenges will fall directly to the U.S.

These are a few of the questions that cause most religious leaders to be concerned about plans to invade Iraq. Some are practical, but most are spiritual, moral, and ethical questions. How do we balance spirituality with aggression? Morality with violence? Ethical behavior with unilateralism? Where is the peace in our faith? It is interesting that almost all the world religions are wary of this action, except the most conservative and fundamentalist Christians, the charismatic and Pentecostal religions. Some speculate that they approve because it fits with their vision of Armageddon, when the middle east will erupt into widespread war and killing, and the are will be in turmoil. Only then can the savior return.

As for me, I take the position that violence is such an evil, and our ability to control it and justify it is so limited that we must, if at all possible, err on the side of peace. I have a hard time distinguishing between "justified" and "unjustified" violence. For example, if killing another person is wrong- how can one justify the death penalty? I am sure that violence which is arbitrary, which doesn't serve some higher purpose, which kills and maims innocent people, and which isn't consented to by concerned parties is unjustified. The question is, what is a "higher purpose?" The just war tradition holds that destructive force can be used if a higher purpose can be proven. But one person's higher purpose is another's base instinct. We condemn terrorists while we fight a "war on terrorism".

I think the crucial religious question is whether there is an absolute set of values by which the justification of violence can be resolved. I don't think so. Even if there are cases where violence can be justified, human beings don't usually possess enough knowledge or self-control to administer it justly. I feel that is certainly the case in this present situation. Given human fallibility, I think the burden of proof has to rest on those who would use violence. They must show that they are certain it is justified and why, and that it won't be misused. In the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"

I believe the United States' efforts to extend the war on terrorism into Iraq has the potential of destroying our own hearts. We must be very careful as we consider using further violence, and we should modestly realize our own fallibility and choose to err on the side of peace. We each have one small voice to try to make it so.