by Paul Seebeck
The closer the war in Iraq gets, the greater the need for guidance on one of life's great moral questions: Is war ever justifiable?

It's the kind of question that has people seeking guidance from spiritual leaders, and it's undoubtedly the subject of many sermons lately. We asked five religious leaders in the Inland Northwest what they're hearing from their congregations, and how they're leading the discussion. We chose three men and two women: A rabbi, a Catholic pastoral administrator, an evangelical Christian pastor and two United Methodists, who belong to the same church as President George W. Bush.

"We throw up critical caution to government leaders not to move first," says Mark Randall of Spokane's downtown Central United Methodist Church. "The evidence is just not there, the justification of threat has not been fully developed."

Rabbi Jacob Izakson of Temple Beth Shalom, a synagogue on Spokane's South Hill, sees it differently. "If the future of America is at stake, Judaism instructs me that a defensive war is obligatory," says Isakson. "Given the events of 9/11 and the subsequent intelligence from American, European and Israeli sources of Iraq's complicity with Al Qaeda, one could argue from a Jewish perspective this is an obligatory, defensive war."

"The hard part for me is to know whether there is justifiable reason for war," says Joe Wittwer, pastor of Life Center. The Four Square Gospel church is one of Spokane's largest evangelical congregations. "Since human beings are selfish by nature, I wonder about selfish motives. How much of this is simply motivated by our economy and the oil flow?"

"War is not an acceptable answer to our problems," says Linda Kobe-Smith, pastoral administrator at St. Anne's Catholic Church. "Our conversations are shaped by our church's teachings on peace and reconciliation. We are concerned by all of the rhetoric. Not many of us trust the honesty of our government."

Flora Bowers, the district superintendent of the United Methodist Church, concurs. "Our book of discipline, which is part of the ruling authority for the church to which George Bush belongs, says war is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus."

Bowers admits that perhaps half of the members of the Methodist church in the Inland Northwest support war. Yet she is ready to put a "No War Iraq" sign in her yard. "It's a hard one," she says. "I struggle with the evil that exists. But how do we talk to President Bush, who is a member of our national church, about the possibility that there is another way?"

"Competing claims are being made on individuals in churches," says Randall. "People are being asked to consider being a member of the kingdom of God and a member of the state. The result is emotional responses to these questions about war are as varied in the church as they are in the pub."

At Life Center, "People are all across the board," says Wittwer. "Some want to kick Saddam Hussein's butt, others are visible at antiwar rallies. If you asked me about war now, I would say no, based on the lack of evidence for a 'just war'. But Saddam is a bad guy. If George Bush knew Iraq was sitting on a nuclear weapon that would be used against Israel this spring, then I would invade now."

"Maybe I have some tension around the idea of a 'just war,' " says Kobe-Smith. "In wanting to name Saddam as evil, what do we call ourselves, who have given him weapons? What do we call ourselves for supporting him as long as his target was Iran, as if we are good and he is bad? So much of our foreign aid is in weapons. That's the part of the conversation around this war question that we stay away from."

At Temple Beth Shalom, conversation is centered in the special understanding Jewish people have that they are the canaries in the world's coalmine: What happens to Jews first invariably begins to happen to others later. Rabbi Izakson claims international terrorism is a classic example of this, beginning with the hijacking of an El Al airliner in 1967, followed by the Olympic Games Massacre of 1972.

"The world's reaction -- releasing the hijackers with no sanctions against the Palestinians -- led to ever increasing acts of international terrorism, until finally international terrorism came to American soil," says Rabbi Izakson. "Many of us have friends and relatives living in Israel. It concerns us to see Israelis checking their gas masks for proper operation. You have to understand in the aftermath of the Nazi concentration gas chambers, seeing a Jew in a gas mask has visceral effect on every Jew. Our conversations are framed in part by these 'miners' canary' experiences that often have been the result of appeasement, ambivalence and ostrich head-in-the-sand perspectives."

Aware that some of its religious dialogue on war was falling on deaf ears, in part because of perceptions that it didn't deal with the cold, harsh realities of war in the real world, the United Methodist Council of Bishops issued a statement commending President Bush for "calling the United Nations to accountability on Saddam Hussein's human rights violations." It even called on the United States and UN to take "necessary steps to ensure compliance." But when the war conversation debate got into a preemptive strike against Iraq, the bishops' language shifted from agreeable to unacceptable. "This goes against the very grain of our understanding of the Gospel, our church teachings and our conscience," says Randall. "The evil of violence is that it tends to perpetuate itself long into the future. It's why I've called on my congregation to be peacemakers and to pray for peace, since praying for one's enemy makes it more likely we can see how we are similar than different. I say always pray and practice for peace until it is time to ask for forgiveness when peace is not ours to live with."

Wittwer has also felt the urge to pray. "In our service a couple of weeks ago, the Lord nudged me to ask everyone to pray deeply about this [war]," says Wittwer, who has just received two letters from soldiers who are members of his church asking for prayers for them and their leaders. The possible war is also hitting close to home for Wittwer, who just found out that his 19-year-old son Jeff, who enlisted in the Marines in August, ships out for boot camp this month.

"Six months from now, he could be toting a gun in Iraq, being shot, and having to shoot at human beings. It's really scary," says Wittwer. "I keep reading Psalm 47, that God is king of all the earth, and all the kings of the earth belong to him.

"War happens in the microcosm every day," Wittwer continues. "You have, I want, I take. It's the basis of all war."

And Rabbi Izakson has been reading from the Torah and praying, too. When I asked him about it, he sent me this verse from Isaiah: "Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet My unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor My covenant of peace be removed..."

Publication date: 02/13/03

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