Bishops call for post-9/11 rethink on force and freedom
A new report prepared on behalf of the Church of England's House of Bishops argues that the West needs a major re-think on how to oppose terrorism, the use of military force, American power, democratic reform in the Middle East, and international order.
The 100-page document, ëCountering Terrorism: Power, Violence and Democracy Post 9/11' (available as a *.PDF file here) says that the Church has a particular responsibility to contribute to the policy debate on these issues, because of its calling to reconcile, ëthe complex relationship between religion and violence', and the misuse of biblical texts to justify aggression.
Early media attention has focussed on a proposal for a ëtruth and reconciliation' process between Christians and Muslims in the aftermath of the Iraq conflict. But speaking on BBC Radio 4 this morning, the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev Richard Harries, said that this was a longer-term goal.
He stressed instead the need for practical, moral criteria for evaluating past, present and future policy options.
The report, which culminates in thirteen ethical and theological principles, stresses the political nature of decisions involved in responding to terrorism, developing international order and promoting democratic reform.
While largely critical of the 2003 Iraq war, it says that force can be justified in some circumstances, and urges reconsideration of the Christian ëjust war' tradition in relation to ëpre-emptive military action' or ëanticipatory self-defence' in the face of immediate, serious threat.
The report's authors, who also include the Anglican bishops of Bath and Wells, Coventry and Worcester, say that those who opposed the Iraq war (as they all did) should acknowledge that the removal of a brutal dictatorship and first steps towards democracy are important gains.
But they also accuse the Western powers of making serious mistakes, including substantial past support for Saddam Hussein as a strategic ally against Iran, a willingness to sell him weapons, and the widespread suffering caused by sanctions.
The bishops also suggest that the war was carried out 'as much for reasons of American national interest as it was for the well-being of the Iraqi people'.
American power needs to be examined dispassionately, the bishops declare. One of their main concerns is the influence of the religious right on US public policy, and the misuse of Christian doctrines and texts to reinforce the ëdangerous illusion' of moral (self) righteousness.
The bishops' report also says that civil and human rights must not be sacrificed in the struggle against terrorism, and emphasises that genuine democracy cannot be spread by force.
It acknowledges the pacifist strand in Christian thought, but has little to say about the practical application of non-violent principles in situations of conflict.
In a lengthy concluding case study of the current international row over Iran's nuclear capability, the report argues for a broader, more restrained policy, based on lessons learned from the Iraq crisis.
The report's authors were all involved directly in the debate about the Iraq war in 2003. The Bishop of Oxford, who has in the past argued in favour of nuclear deterrence and British military action, said it contravened just war principles.
The Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Rt Rev Peter Price, spoke at the 2 million strong Hyde Park anti-war rally in London.
The Bishop of Worcester, the Rt Rev Peter Selby, also joined the protest. Meanwhile, the Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Rev Colin Bennetts, has among his concerns a practical interest in Christian-Muslim relations.
[See also: Beyond the Politics of Fear, the UK Christian think tank Ekklesia's response to the 7 July London bombings and the wider policy issues they raised]