On the Council of Bishops and Iraq

The bishops of the United Methodist Church (in which I am an ordained elder) have voted to call for the immediate withdrawal of all military forces supporting the Iraqi government in its quest to establish order and defend its people against foreign terrorists and sectarian insurgents.

I dissent.

The bishops list five reasons for their resolution, and then make four demands of the leaders of all coalition nations.

Here is a link to the entire resolution.

The reasons are these:

1) We are called to be peacemakers. Indeed we are. And it’s the armed men and women on the ISF and MNF-I who are making peace at the risk of their own lives and at great personal cost. The bishops sitting around a table and drinking iced tea at Lake Junaluska aren’t making peace. My brothers and sisters in arms are.

2) War is bad. Armed conflict is certainly not what God ultimately wants or has in store for the world, as we’ve seen in Jesus Christ. Now if we could only convince the terrorists and insurgents of this. It is not an act of love to stand by while fanatics and terrorists take over villages or murder people for their religion.

3) A lot of people have died. They sure have. Not as many as in other conflicts, but if it’s your child, spouse or parent, then numbers don’t really matter. For the people involved, it’s the most significant matter in the world. As they say, there’s no such thing as low-intensity conflict if you’re in it. I’ve been present when some of our courageous Soldiers have died, and I’ve been present when loved ones received the unwanted knock on the door. Neither is pleasant. But to say that the venture is expensive in blood – not to mention treasure – doesn’t really say anything. Many important ventures are costly. And certainly, if Iraq becomes a chaotic, failed state, the cost in Iraqi blood will rise, as will the cost in blood throughout the world if Iraq becomes a haven for international terrorists.

4) A lot of people left their homes due to sectarian violence. Certainly. And if Iraq fails, there will be a lot more refugees living in much worse conditions. (And, incidentally, the resolution comes at a time when a significant number of displaced persons are actually moving back home because conditions have improved. The bishops’ timing is impeccable.)

5) There is no end to the bloodshed in sight. Or maybe there is. I’m not there, and even if I were, one’s perspective is always limited. I’m hearing some good reports, however. It’s amazing to me that the bishops chose to offer this resolution to the world at the time when things are actually starting to change for the better. The Petraeus counterinsurgency strategy seems to be making a difference for the good of the Iraqi people. Still, I’m prepared to be disappointed one more time. Of one thing I am sure. If we leave prematurely, there is no end in sight to the “violence, bloodshed and carnage.”

That’s it. That’s the sum of their argument. There may be good political reasons for the nations currently defending Iraq to end their support, but the bishops haven’t given one. And if there are political arguments for leaving Iraq, the fact that a bishop makes them carries no special significance. The arguments speak for themselves and don’t need a purple shirt and a crosier to validate them.

I’m always curious about why I’m supposed to take these arguments more seriously than the content implies. Did God tell the bishops to issue this proclamation, so that its divine authority outweighs weak arguments. Are their political opinions holy simply because they come from bishops?

Church leaders know that political issues are important, therefore they often believe they must say something authoritative about them. They should resist the impulse. In the market place of ideas, it is reason that matters, not ordination. Do religious leaders have more insight than the laity when it comes to making political decisions? I think not. Church leaders are often out of their depth when they make pronouncements about about military issues, science, economics and a number of other topics on which they frequently opine.

Hey, everybody has a right to an opinion about politics. Write your congressman. Vote your conscience. The bishops’ opinion is the bishops’ opinion and nothing more. My opinion is my opinion, and it carries no special weight because I am a pastor (and an ordained elder, the same order of ministry in the United Methodist Church to which the bishops belong). Sometimes I’m right; sometimes I’m wrong. I think about the issues, pray about them, and then come to the best conclusion I can. So do the bishops.

Sometimes I think that church leaders believe that without their pronouncements, Christians wouldn’t take these issues as serious matters of the faith. Dear bishops, serious Christians are not just sitting out here waiting for you to tell them what to think and what to do.

The bishops, however, believe that their reasoning justifies the following demands of all coalition nations:

1) Get out. Now. The U.N. Security Council wants the coalition there, and has repeatedly said so through resolutions. The Iraqis government want MNF-I to stay until security improves. But let’s assume for a moment that everyone actually did what Council of Bishops said just because they said so. Don’t you think they ought to say something to the folks bombing mosques, schools and marketplaces, as well? Don’t you think they ought to say something to the sectarian militias and armed criminals who are the ones actually responsible for making life so bad for so many Iraqis? As it stands, the resolution simply calls for the community of nations to leave the Iraqis defenseless.

2) Don’t establish any permanent bases in Iraq. This is a strange demand in such a short resolution, but it does seem to be an obsession of the fringe left. It also reveals a striking lack of knowledge about military basing. Our bases in Japan, Germany, Italy and Korea, for example, belong to their respective governments, not to us. We are there at the invitation of those nations for mutually beneficial reasons. The costs associated with operating those bases, the rules for their use and even the legal status of military members and civilian employees are continually negotiated by the nations involved. The process respects the sovereignty of both nations. Our presence in these nations has helped – not hurt – them develop as free states following years of tyranny. Oh what a cruel thing it would be to do that to Iraq. Of course it may be best to leave completely once the time comes. Regional and religious sensitivities may make the situation different in Iraq than it has been in Europe and East Asia. That’s a matter for future negotiation based on the political needs of both parties. Having a mutually agreed upon troop presence in another country, however, is not immoral on its face. The German Air Force, example, has a contingent stationed in New Mexico.

3) Be nice to veterans. Amen. I am one. Bishops, listen to me and I’ll set you straight. (But you’ll understand if a lot of Iraq veterans think you’re more interested in politics than in them).

4) Initiate a plan to reconstruct Iraq and give high priority to humanitarian needs such as health care and education. Initiate? Seriously, initiate? Do the bishops read the newspapers? Well, maybe all they read is the newspapers. Dig a little deeper, folks, before you demand that people do what they’re already doing. Here’s a story from just this month about a school opening in Al Awad after Al Qaeda destroyed all the schools in the area. It took me about 10 seconds to find it. There are hundreds – if not thousands – of similar stories from the last 5 years. Seriously, if all you read is the New York Times and The Nation, you won’t really know what’s going on.

I’ll be the first to admit that some of our reconstruction efforts have been pretty messed up by bureaucratic BS. Welcome to the real world. Let’s fix it. But we initiated “reconstruction” almost immediately after Saddam’s regime fell. The overwhelming majority of the reconstruction was necessary, by the way, not because of damage by coalition forces, but because of decades of neglect and corruption. The task is one of great magnitude and we’re making some progress. Oh, and bishops, if you could get the terrorists, for example, to stop killing the teachers and bombing crowds of children AFTER we build a school, that would be helpful. If you can’t accomplish that, the forces on the ground will give it their best shot (no pun intended).

The bishops also ask for everyone:

  • To pray for peace and to have regular prayer vigils for congregations and communities;
  • To care for all impacted by the war, including combatants and noncombatants by honoring the dead, healing the wounded and calling for the end of the war;
  • To be peacemakers by word and deed that we may be called the children of God.

I can say “amen” to the last section – well, to everything except the “abandon the Iraqi people” part.

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