The BBC reports:
Tony Blair has been criticised by two Church of England leaders for his handling of the war in Iraq. Dr David Hope, the Archbishop of York, questioned the legitimacy of the war and warned that the prime minister would have to answer in the end to God.
And the Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, called Mr Blair a "vigilante".
The established Church is one of the idiosyncrasies of our polity. Though neither an Anglican nor a Christian nor a theist, I don't particularly object to it. The important principle of a liberal democracy in matters of religious belief is that there be no religious test for elected public office, and while I prefer the American principle of separation of Church and state, I do not think an established Church detracts from our democracy and occasionally its bishops and archbishops have contributed thoughtfully to our nation's affairs. (William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 to 1944 and author of Christianity and Social Order, was an important influence on the development of the post-war welfare state, while his contemporary George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, made necessary and troubling criticisms of the policy of saturation bombing of German cities.)
But a political role has its responsibilities too. One of the Church of England's better political thinkers, Canon Ronald Preston, Professor of Social and Pastoral Theology at Manchester University, made it his life's task (he died last year) to inform Anglican thinking on politics and economics. A Christian Socialist and a former student of R.H. Tawney, he at least made the effort to understand the ideas of orthodox economists, even if he occasionally retreated to a brusque dismissal of their ideas in advance of considering them. He liked to quote, as an instance of the approach he favoured, this judgement from a lay Christian leader in the ecumenical Church of South India (and did so in his Scott Holland lectures for 1983, published as Church and Society in the Late Twentieth Century):
In the modern world it is impossible to conceive of any particular moral or Christian responsibility in politics, economics or society without involving ourselves in technical problems which are rarely simple and clear. One may go further and say that it is in the technical decisions that one is moral or immoral and Christian or non-Christian. And without an understanding of the technical issues that are involved in the field in which Christians are called to act responsibly, mere goodwill or even piety does not go far.
You can see where this is leading. It doesn't trouble me what a Church of England bishop believes about the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation and the Resurrection, or how many of the 39 Articles he may honestly assent to; it infuriates me, however, when those who sit in House of Lords on account of their spiritual authority exhibit minimal understanding of the technical issues on which they ventilate their opinions.
Here, for example, is the Archbishop of York's considered judgement on the removal from power of Saddam Hussein:
We still have not found any weapons of mass destruction anywhere.
Are we likely to find any? Does that alter the view as to whether we really ought to have mounted the invasion or not?
Undoubtedly a very wicked leader has been removed but there are wicked leaders in other parts of the world.
If I thought the man had given these vapid musings more than a moment's thought I should find them indecent, especially the last sentence. What is he suggesting by this risible non sequitur? That because we do not overthrow all bad rulers we may not overthrow one of them (arguably the very worst of them at that)? This isn't moral reasoning: it's sophistry, of a dispiritingly reflexive and unreflective type that one can hear at most dinner parties. As a much more significant Christian ethicist, Jeane Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago, has said in connection with the Iraq war:
Augustine talked about politics as trying to reconcile conflicting human wills, and that's the world out there—where you have conflicting sources of power and of willing agents, some of whom mean you harm. That's what you have to deal with.
I think we need to recognize that if there's an opportunity to stop hideous violence being perpetrated against people, if you have the power to do something about that, and you refrain from doing it, then you're complicit at some level in the continuation of that horror. Now, you may decide if you intervene, it would make things worse, so you may stand down on that regard. There may be prudential reasons that preclude intervention. But to do nothing just because it's bad to use force—that makes you complicit in what's going on. Some people don't want to come to grips with that at all.
For 'some people' read 'the bench of bishops of the Church of England'. (Another lamentable example is the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, who fancies himself an Augustinian realist in the tradition of the great Reinhold Niebuhr. In August last year Harries contributed an article to The Observer opposing war in Iraq. In the space of 1000 words, he literally made not a single mention of the character of Saddam Hussein's regime.)
Yet for all my strong support for Professor Elshtain's views, I still believe that the point she makes understates the culpability of the anti-war Church establishment (and in England the anti-war Established Church). I am by no means opposed to the notion of humanitarian interventions by civilised states: I supported Nato's actions in defence of Kosovar Albanians from Serb imperialism, and of course I agree that there was a still more overwhelming case for invading Iraq and overthrowing a despot who consciously modelled his gangster regime on both Hitler and Stalin. But - unlike, say, the Labour MP Ann Clwyd, the political theorist Norman Geras and the journalist Johann Hari, all of whom eloquently supported intervention - I don't consider the central argument for overthrowing Saddam was the humanitarian one. What's wrong with the Archbishop of York's comment is not merely his counsel of indifference among wicked rulers, but his incomprehension that Saddam Hussein was in a different category owing to his demonstrable bellicosity.
Yes, there are numerous dictators in the world and Baathist Iraq was not the only country to be in breach of UN Security Council Resolutions. But Baathist Iraq was unique in having been the only regime in the history of the United Nations to have annexed another UN member state, and whose adherence to UN Security Council Resolutions had been a condition of the west's agreeing to a cease-fire (back in 1991, when Iraq's annexation of Kuwait had been reversed). Those who believe Saddam was susceptible to the rational calculations that are a prerequisite of a stable deterrence should look at his record: three aggressive and near-suicidal wars launched in 16 years (1974, 1980 and 1990 respectively). He was a tyrant with a declared wish to acquire nuclear weapons, longstanding support for terrorism, and a record of the use of weapons of mass destruction. Knowing that there were terrorist groups with the wish to destroy western civilisation and conduct holy war against our civilian populations, and with whom we now know Saddam's regime had links, the US-led Coalition was more than justified in overthrowing by force and with proportionality a dictatorship that was the most likely source by which our enemies would acquire weapons of genocide.
This wasn't primarily a war for humanitarian purposes, though humanitarian ends were served by it and humanitarian people ought thus to have supported it. It wasn't either a war of pre-emption, though our own security justified a pre-emptive strike against a regime whose determination to wage war is a fact of history. It was a war in defence of the international order of civilised states against the twin threats of apocalyptic terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and in furtherance of an effective system of international law in which UN Security Council Resolutions are seen to be implemented by the great powers. In short, it was exactly what the Prime Minister always said it was, and to whom immense credit for his judgement and political courage is due.
To the Archbishop's rhetorical question, we can say no, it does not affect the case for war that no stockpiles of WMDs have yet been found in Iraq. We know that Saddam had such weapons; we don't know what has happened to them, for the straightfoward reason that Saddam refused to comply with UN Security Council requirements to give a full accounting of them; we can have a fair degree of assurance, given the character and history of his regime, that western civilisation faced an inevitable if not imminent threat that our governments had not only a right but a duty to anticipate and extinguish.
As for the Bishop of Durham, I had some expectations of this.
The Bishop is in fact one of the outstanding scholars of the Church of England. His field is Biblical Theology, on which I can honestly say that his writings are models of erudition clearly-expounded, and from which I have learnt much. His books deal with what New Testament scholars since at least Albert Schweitzer - yes, that Albert Schweitzer - have termed the Quest of the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer argued in his magnum opus of that (translated) title, published in 1906, that the 19th-century obsession with reconstructing the life of Jesus reflected a misunderstanding of contemporary Judaism. Jesus was an apocalyptic Jew who expected the Kingdom of God to irrupt into human history within, at most, a few years after his death. On this, Schweitzer argued, Jesus was plainly wrong, and the Gospels represented progressively - with Mark first and John last - an attempt of the early Church to come to terms with this brute historical fact. Clearly this conclusion is a conundrum for orthodox Christians, and Schweitzer's account of Jesus' eschatology (doctrine of the last things) is not now generally accepted. The Bishop's close reading of Scripture and knowledge of first-century Judaism yield a fascinating interpretation that once again takes seriously the point that Jesus was a Jew of his time with a sense of the immanence of the Kingdom of God, but without the more questionable aspects of Schweitzer's biblical exegesis.
None of this, of course, has anything at all to do with politics or economics. On these subjects, Bishop Wright's knowledge appears to be minimal. I have some experience of this because a couple of years ago we conducted a long and cordial private correspondence after we both had letters in The Times on the same day almost immediately after the horrors of September 11. I argued that there was no possibility whatever of a political solution to the problem of terrorism, because our terrorist enemies sought the destruction of western civilisation rather than reforms of specific and remediable ills (my letter, should it be of any interest to anyone, is here). Canon Wright, as he then was, argued (under a different subject heading, for which I cannot at the moment find a link, but on the same page), so far as I recall, a variant of the 'root cause' fallacy that afflicts so much Church thinking about political violence. Disappointed by the lack of thought and research in the political judgement of one whose intellect I admire, I wrote to Dr Wright to say where I thought he was wrong, and so we corresponded over some months.
I have to say that, while I much appreciated, and still do, his willingness to discuss these important subjects with one of different views from his, I didn't feel we got anywhere. Dr Wright peppered his letters with judgements that seemed to me so far from what was actually happening - deploring a supposedly ultra-nationalist rhetoric from the White House, for example - that I had to conclude we had little chance of a meeting of minds. I'm thus not surprised at all to find him uttering such absurd and offensive remarks as these:
Dr Wright said he did not think Mr Blair and US President George W Bush had the credibility to deal with the problems in Iraq.
"For Bush and Blair to go into Iraq together was like a bunch of white vigilantes going into Brixton to stop drug-dealing," he told the Independent.
"This is not to deny there's a problem to be sorted, just that they are not credible people to deal with it."
As it happens, I lived in Brixton for many years, and if there had been more people with the public-spirited approach of the President and the Prime Minister I think some problems at least might have been avoided. The first major foreign policy crisis of President Bush's period of office was, of course, September 11; the President did not lash out immediately after those monstrous acts of war against American nationals, but waited to assemble evidence, give time for al-Qaeda's state sponsors to comply with what law and humanity required of them, and assemble international support. Of all world leaders, Tony Blair is on the evidence of recent history the one with the most pronounced sense of an obligation to the international community. When Kofi Annan issued a desperate plea for international forces to restore order in Sierra Leone, scene of marauding gangsters who lopped the hands off civilians when they were not feeling outright murderous, Blair responded - with not the merest possibility of receiving any political credit at home. That's the measure of the man.
And that, I'm afraid, is the measure of the Bishop of Durham as well.
A happy new year to all.