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Religious pro-war rhetoric
equals atheism

Dr Peter Matheson



Why are the Christian leaders of the United States,  Britain and Australia so out of step with Western church leaders,  asks the principal of the Uniting Church Theological Hall in Melbourne.   Dr Matheson was professor of church history at the Theological Hall,  Knox College  Dunedin,  for 15 years to 1996 and also lived in Dunedin from 1950 to 1960. This is an edited version of his address to a Melbourne peace vigil.

Religious rhetoric in defence of war is equal to atheism.

With rare unanimity,  religious leaders across the world have condemned the proposed war against Iraq.   The Pope,  Eastern patriarchs,  the Archbishop of Canterbury,  American and Australian religious leaders have all spoken out in unmistakeable terms.   Yes, George W. Bush and Tony Blair are deeply committed Christians.   The same may well be true of John Howard.   So what is going on?   Why are Western church leaders and political leaders so out of step?

There will be purely secular factors.   The military tail is wagging the political dog.   The urgent,  quite hysterical note to be heard from the White House these days reflects the exigencies of a military timetable that is already set in concrete.   The logic of military events drives the political lunacy.

But there are deeper issues.   One is reminded of the icy fury of Mrs Thatcher when the churches dared to criticise her intervention in the Falklands.   The assumption of such leaders as Bush is obvious:  the role of the Christian churches is to provide moral legitimacy and pastoral support for the "national interest".   And when Christians decline to be instrumentalised in this way,   such leaders are outraged.

We are standing in vigil in Melbourne because,  as people of faith,  we feel closer to the likely victims of a pre-emptive strike than to our political leaders.   One reason,  as our posters illustrate,  is that we put people first  –  the Iraqi people in the first instance.   Where humanity is to be trampled on,   the warning signs flash on.

But it goes much deeper than that.   This is an outrageously unjust war.   By every criterion laid down by the churches over the centuries,  this pre-emptive strike has to be condemned.   We fear it will ignite tension and hatred and a string of other wars.   World War 1 was hailed as the war to end all wars.   This will be the war to start all wars.   Its destabilising potential is alarming for all with eyes to see.

In his rhetoric,  President Bush often uses the prayer:  God bless America.   We have no difficulty with that.   The trouble is that he appears unable to distinguish between God and America.   It is not just the churches that Bush and Blair want to put in their pocket,  but the God of all times and nations  –  ludicrous as that would seem.

So we stand today in the ancient,  Judaeo-Christian prophetic tradition to warn that God is not mocked,  and that blessing can swiftly change into cursing.   Our worst fear is that there will be a terrible curse on this enterprise.   Imagine what would happen if other major nations  –  China,  for example  –  arrogated to themselves the right to such pre-emptive strikes.

In God's world  –  and there is no other –  security cannot be secured by military superiority,  however overwhelming,  but only by respecting mutuality of interests.   For all its religious rhetoric,  this market-driven war amounts to practical atheism.   Charlton Heston ideology.   It believes in nothing but overwhelming force and self-interest,  and is unfortunately right in line with the ravaging of the environment and the polarisation of rich and poor with which this US Government is identified.

We are not anti-American.   We stand,  however,  for humanity and common sense.   This fear–driven slide towards war flies in the face of the Christian Gospel of hope and reconciliation and justice.   It also happens to betray the best in the noble US traditions of enlightenment and freedom.

We are not fatalists.   Even now,  hoping against hope,  we call in the name of God for a halt to this war.   We cannot wash our hands of it,  because it will sully us all,  but at the least we want it to be crystal clear to our Islamic sisters and brothers that this is not our war.

God bless Iraq.

Dr Matheson's address was published in The Age newspaper of Melbourne
and on Friday,  28 February 2003,  in the Otago Daily Times.


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