In the Cross Fire
Tom Baldwin on bishops and the war
Did you pray with George Bush, Tony Blair was asked as he flew back from a recent trip to Washington. The Prime Minister shrugged with embarrassment and stared at the floor for a moment before muttering a denial.Other than journalistic bravado, the purpose of such a question was to imply that war with Iraq will be some kind of Christian crusade against Islam. After all, both Blair and the American president keep a Bible by their bed. Although the Prime Minister unlike Bush also reads the Koran, Christian religion may well have played a part in the development of his moral certainty on this issue as with so many others.
But any suggestion that this is a war between Christianity and Islam ignores the remarkable degree of unanimity displayed by church leaders on both sides of the Atlantic in opposing military action. The Pope, an 82-year-old man suffering from Parkinson's who struggles to walk or talk these days, has even found the strength to voice clearly his belief this would not be a 'just war'.
Dr Rowan Williams, the bearded former Labour Party member and new Archbishop of Canterbury, says he has been using "every channel" to press his message of peace which includes "counselling" Blair in private.
He questions whether a "fragile and desperate" Iraqi society, devastated by 10 years of UN sanctions and a trebling in infant mortality, should now suffer the shock of war.
Of course, many church leaders have also opposed those sanctions. Some have even suggested that Saddam Hussein has earned the right not only to escape invasion but also to be reintegrated into the international community. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, the leader of Britain's Roman Catholics, says sanctions have not worked and "it's time to find a policy which offers Iraq a positive incentive".
Don't forget that Saddam is a man who has invaded two countries, launched missile attacks against five and committed genocide against his own people. If it had not been for the last Gulf War and sanctions, he would undoubtedly have the capacity to unleash weapons of mass destruction. Maybe what he needs, like some disturbed inner city teenager, is a hobby or a bit more love from some pederastic priests.
Church leaders are entitled to say war is immoral as much as, if no more than, anyone else. But in trying to define a just war, they wrap morality up with political, diplomatic and military questions on which they are not qualified to pronounce.
The criteria for a just war, as determined by the Church of England are that it is is waged by a proper authority, with correct intent and a reasonable chance of success. Total good should outweigh total evil, it should be a last resort and must have the final aim of peace.
Dr Williams doubts that there is proper authority, a reasonable chance of success or an ultimate aim of peace. How does he know? Did God tell him? Saddam's breach of two dozen international obligations is arguably more than enough "proper authority". He says there has been "some degree of compliance" with the UN. Really? I would rather leave that to Hans Blix to decide. He talks about the need to deal with the "open sore of the Holy Land". I'm not sure the Christian church, which spent so long trying to recapture the 'Holy Land', is really in the best position to arbitrate.
I suspect many readers of this magazine are stridently opposed to war with Iraq. Me? I'm coming round to the idea. If not sanctions, what? If not now, when?
Blair and Bush can answer these questions, others cannot. Both have Bibles by their beds. It also emerged that they both use Colgate toothpaste. No one says they are wearing halos right now, but they might just have 'a ring of confidence'.