A recent United Nations report estimates that as many as 500,000 Iraqis would be injured or killed in the early stages of any war with the United States. In an effort to put a human face on tens of thousands of women and children threatened by a U.S. invasion, two weeks ago a delegation from the National Council of Churches -- which represents 36 denominations and 140,000 local congregations -- went to Iraq, where half a million children already have died in the last decade as a result of economic sanctions.
Given such statistics, it is the responsibility of the religious community to initiate a vigorous moral debate about going to war. When a debate of this sort does not occur, religion runs the danger of lapsing into idolatry -- simply legitimating the interests of the state without regard to morality. In fact, in the last century there are terrible instances of religion justifying not only war but genocide, as in the case of Rwanda.
President Bush has been a strong advocate of religion. He wants religious organizations and local congregations to join with government in providing social services. But direct care for the poor and indigent is only one aspect of the religious tradition; an equally important element of religion is its prophetic lineage, which challenges civic authorities and measures every social policy by the standard of justice. To embrace only the compassionate side of religion is to truncate it.
More than at any other time in recent history, we need to exercise moral imagination. The events of 9/11 seem to have paralyzed many people. They are living in a house of fear rather than hope. This can be deadly to any attempt to think about creating a world based on justice and peace.
The next several weeks will be a defining moment for the integrity of the religious community in our nation. Can it energize a moral debate on the prospective war, as it did during the Vietnam debacle? Will someone of the stature of Martin Luther King Jr. step forward to raise ethical questions about our nation's policies and mobilize people? Or will such a movement ignite spontaneously in houses of worship across the nation?
Here in Los Angeles, there are growing signs of a vigorous peace movement. One of the co-sponsors of Saturday's antiwar rally was Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, an eclectic gathering of Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. Individual congregations also are involved in the peace movement.
Though part of this movement is anchored by pacifists who reject war in any form, the majority of faith-motivated people who are involved feel that an attack on Iraq does not fit the criterion of being a "just war." They question whether there is adequate cause for going to war (one of the central doctrines of "just war" theory).
They are concerned about proportionality: Will large numbers of innocent civilians be killed? And they raise the principle of last resort: Have all peaceful means for resolving the conflict been exhausted?
Across the nation, the religious community appears to be mobilizing against a strike on Iraq. Except for the Southern Baptists, every major religious denomination has issued proclamations questioning unilateral action by the United States, including the United Methodist Church, the religious affiliation claimed by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Not every religious community need join the peace movement. There is a place for honest disagreement as people of faith evaluate the political implications of their moral convictions.
But every church, temple, synagogue and mosque in the United States should be engaged in debate these next few weeks, drawing on the deepest elements of their sacred texts and traditions in discussing the moral legitimacy of going to war against Iraq.