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Bishops Against Iraqi Freedom By: Mark Tooley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, January 13, 2006

President Bush, like 8.2 million other Americans, belongs to the United Methodist Church. So the bishops of America’s third largest communion have taken a special interest in their prominent parishioner – by repeatedly bashing his policy on Iraq.

According to that church’s Council of Bishops, "the cycle of violence in which the United States is engaged has created a context for the denigration of human dignity and gross violations of human rights of prisoners of war."

In their most recent anti-war statement issued late last year, the bishops demanded that Bush "immediately" craft a plan to withdraw all U.S. troops and bases from Iraq. It is the latest in a flurry of statements from the prelates over the last 3 years that have faulted the United States exclusively for all problems in Iraq.

Some religious officials, such as the late Pope John Paul II, questioned the war in Iraq based on traditional Christian just war teaching. But the United Methodist Council of Bishops has been guided not so much by Christian moral teachings as by anti-Americanism and hard-line neo- pacifism.

Most Christian leaders look to St. Augustine for theological guidance on war. But the United Methodist bishops, at least when they speak corporately, seem to look no further than the 1960’s, to which the Religious Left ascribes a mystical reverence.

The United Methodist bishops’ disregard for traditional Christian just war teaching surfaced immediately after 9/11. The Council of Bishops met in early November 2001 to craft their reaction to Osama bin Laden’s atrocities

A first draft of the bishops’ response to 9/11 referred to the United Methodist Church’s official teaching that "force of arms may regretfully be preferable to unchecked aggression, tyranny and genocide."

Radical bishops immediately pronounced this regretful acceptance of war as unacceptable and demanded a "prophetic" statement, i.e. one that would instead denounce the United States for arousing ill-will in the Islamic world and launching a war in Afghanistan.

References to "terrorism" as a "shattering evil," were also deleted, at the insistence of radical bishops. Instead, the Council of Bishops vaguely denounced "violence," which by implication impartially covered both al-Qaeda and the United States.

Bishop Ann Shearer of Missouri urged acknowledging "our complicity in creating some of the chaos there [in the Middle East] and the Palestinian situation." Bishop Joe Sprague of Chicago, arguing for the "prophetic," declared that he felt "deep pain about Afghan and Iraqi civilians being killed [by the United States]. We can’t sit quietly."

Responding to these demands, the Council of Bishops, in their 9/11 statement, urged seeking "solidarity with victimized peoples throughout the world."

"We, your bishops, believe that violence in all of its forms and expressions is contrary to God's purpose for the world," they vacuously opined. "We also call upon the church to study and work toward alleviating the root causes of poverty and the other social conditions that are exploited by terrorists."

The prelates could not admit that the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban/al-Qaeda regime after it’s murder of 3,000 Americans, not to mention its reign of terror over Afghanistan, was justified or even morally distinct from the terror of 9/11. Needless to say, for them, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would be even more despicable.

"A pre-emptive war by the United States against a nation like Iraq goes against the very grain of our understanding of the Gospel, our church’s teachings and our conscience," insisted Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher as president of the Council of Bishops. "Pre-emptive strike does not reflect restraint and does not allow for the adequate pursuit of peaceful means for resolving conflict," she asserted in her October 2002 statement, six months before the U.S.-led liberation of Iraq.

Christopher lamented Saddam Hussein’s "treatment of his own citizens," but she urged "reconciliation." Oddly, she "acknowledged the need for military action as a means of self-defense demanded by highly unusual circumstances," but she did not describe what that situation might be. Seemingly, 9/11 was not among them. The full Council of Bishops endorsed Christopher’s statement a month later.

After U.S.-led forces overthrew Saddam Hussein in early 2003 the bishops undoubtedly were not pleased. But they avoided additional formal statements until May 2004. In their official statement then, they quoted the prophet Micah and selectively quoted their church’s official Social Principles, which "deplore war." Once again, they refused to acknowledge the church’s recognition that some circumstances, such as aggression, tyranny and genocide, may justify war.

"The continuing loss of Iraqi civilian lives, especially children, and the increasing death toll among United States, coalition military and civilian personnel in Iraq grieves the heart of God," the bishops said, undoubtedly accurately, but also once again very selectively. There was no admission that Saddam’s murder of hundreds of thousands also had been troubling.

Snootily, the bishops noted that the "premises advanced by the United States government for engaging in this war, namely, the presumption of weapons of mass destruction and alleged connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq have not been verified." They narrowly lamented the "the continued warfare by the United States and coalition forces," but did not mention any grief over the atrocities committed by insurgents. They also asked for the United Nations to establish a "legitimate transitional government" in Iraq.

In November 2005, the bishops issued their third official denunciation of the U.S. military action in Iraq. This time they called for a Congressional resolution urging U.S. withdrawal. And they invited the United Nations to organize "Iraqi groups opposed to the occupation to explore a political settlement to the conflict." Again, there was no mention of the ongoing elections in Iraq for a democratic government. Nor did the bishops criticize the "Iraqi groups" whose suicide bombers blow up civilians in their quest for an Islamic state, a regime that presumably would not be conducive to the religion of United Methodist bishops.

Not satisfied with the depth of condemnation from this latest official resolution from the Council on Bishops, 96 United Methodist bishops signed their own statement to denounce the "unjust and immoral invasion and occupation of Iraq." They prayed that the leaders of the United States would "turn to truth, humility, and policies of peace through justice," after having launched their immoral war based upon "misleading information." No prayers were offered for the insurgents of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose al-Qaeda-backed terrorism did not merit the bishops’ attention.

Of course, some radical bishops have acted on their own. Only three months before the U.S.-led invasion, Bishop Melvin Talbert traveled to Baghdad and met with Saddam’s deputy henchman Tariq Aziz. Serving as the Council of Bishops ecumenical officer, Talbert enthused that Saddam’s regime was in a "conciliatory mood" and open to negotiation. "They feel they are abiding by the UN resolution," Talbert insisted. His ecumenical delegation released a statement denounced "pre-emptive war" as "immoral," "illegal," "theologically illegitimate."

Talbert also appeared in television ads orchestrated by the National Council of Churches, declaring that an attack on Iraq would "violate God’s law." Afterwards, Talbert explained, "Iraq hasn’t wronged us."

In October 2002, Rep. Danny Davis, D-IL, convened an anti-war "Citizen’s Hearing on Iraq." Eight United Methodist bishops showed up to testify. Bishop Sprague of Chicago called a U.S. overthrow of Saddam "morally lamentable" and "theologically reprehensible." Sprague called for massive civil disobedience against the impending war and was himself arrested for a brief stunt outside the White House. Last year, another retired bishop, Joe Wilson, joined Cindy Sheehan in Crawford, Texas to demonstrate outside Bush’s ranch.

There is little reason to think that President Bush has taken these routine denunciations by his church’s bishops very seriously. Undoubtedly, a vast majority of United Methodists are also indifferent to their bishops’ political demands. The church’s governing convention met in 2004 and declined to make any official anti-Iraq war statements. Indeed, it actually strengthened the church’s acknowledgement of just war teaching. New language was added to the church’s Book of Discipline saying that war could be a last resort in cases of "genocide, brutal suppression of human rights, and unprovoked international aggression." Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, of course, was guilty of all three.

But the United Methodist Council of Bishops seems determined to ignore the church’s official teachings, in favor of their own aging brand of 1960’s anti-war theatrics.

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Mark Tooley is president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy. He is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.

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