No Just War: Political Reflections on Australian Churches' Condemnation of the Iraq War

By Porter, Elizabeth | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, September 2006 | Go to article overview

No Just War: Political Reflections on Australian Churches' Condemnation of the Iraq War


Porter, Elizabeth, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


Potentially, there are positive roles churches can play in public debates about foreign policy and especially on defence and security matters involving the threat or use of armed force. Churches can bring considered moral reasoning to these matters as part of their larger societal responsibilities. This paper critically examines the political significance and strength of Australian Christian churches' condemnation of the Iraq war in the light of concepts and counter-arguments on just war theory. Despite holding differing theological positions on justified military action, member churches of the ecumenical National Council of Churches in Australia all expressed deep disquiet with the US-led attack on Iraq and Australia's involvement in the "coalition of the willing" and urged the Australian government to make diplomatic efforts to reach a United Nations resolution. Worldwide, all regional ecumenical organisations signed a declaration opposing war that was delivered to the UN Security Council on 13 March 2003. In this paper, I use select examples of strong, politically significant religious voices to highlight common themes that are couched in legal, religious, moral and political reasoning. I position these types of reasoning primarily within theories on the just resort to war (jus ad bellum) and, to a lesser degree, on the rules of justice in war (jus in bello). The purpose of the paper is not to defend just war theory but to consider how Australian Christian churches used its language in their condemnation of the Iraq war. **

Part of my interest in this condemnation stems from the fact that the war in Iraq is unique in that powerful western countries went to war without the moral authority of the churches' support. As Jonathan Glover writes, "the evils of religious intolerance, religious persecution and religious wars are well-known, but it is striking how many protests against and acts of resistance to the atrocity have also come from principled religious commitment". (1) Across the globe, churches took a high profile in anti-war peace actions. (2) The Vatican became a major focal point of diplomatic activity to prevent war with a succession of world leaders visiting the Pope and officials. (3) In the USA, leaders of churches and organisations from Catholic, United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ sent a joint letter to President Bush opposing military action on moral grounds. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, led by Bishop Gregory, stated their difficulty in justifying the resort to war against Iraq. (4) In the UK, the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, and the Archbishop of York, David Hope, strongly criticised Prime Minister Blair's policies on Iraq, as did the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who made a joint statement with Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor. (5)

In Australia, few church members are pacifists or indifferent to the threat of terrorism. But many were affronted at the willingness of the Australian government to work outside of the UN's legal framework and to support the pre-emptive military strike against Iraq with only minimal political debate as to whether war was in Australia's national interest. This disquiet was influenced by the profound shame many Australians felt over the government's mandatory detention of asylum-seekers, it is noteworthy that past prime ministers Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke, the former Opposition Leader John Hewson, retired military leaders (including all service chiefs who had held key command positions during the first Gulf War) and members of the Returned Services League all questioned the Australian government's commitment to the Iraq war. More significantly, religious leaders from all the major Christian denominations condemned it.

The Anglican Dean of Sydney, Philip Jensen, stated "that the war in Iraq did not have the church's blessing, let alone God's"; the National President of the Uniting Church James Haire, stated that "this war is wrong. …

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