America’s Sin

In Romans 7:19 Paul writes: "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." Because of sin, Paul says, good people do evil rather than good. His insight into human nature can help us understand why the war in Iraq is going so badly. This war is America’s sin.

Paul reminds us that the evil in our world is not just the fault of evil people. Good people, who have good intentions, also do evil. Sin is not merely a theological concept, but a human reality. The world is not simply constituted by good and evil people, with good people doing good and evil people doing evil. Good people also do evil.

President Bush has called the war against terrorism a crusade against evil, and he has identified America as good and terrorists (and also some governments) as evil. But now we are able to see that the war against terrorism is America’s sin. Despite our good intentions, we now must accept responsibility for the evil being done by the war in Iraq.

Generals, soldiers, reporters, and many others back home have ignored or played down the fact that our war to destroy the evil regime of Saddam Hussein and remake Iraq in the image of America has caused immense suffering for the Iraqi people. Some good has been done in Iraq, perhaps even much that is good. But by attacking, invading, and occupying Iraq, Americans have also done great evil.

We have been horrified by photographs showing American soldiers humiliating Iraqi prisoners. Only a few soldiers and civilian contractors have been held accountable for these despicable acts, but all those supporting the war in Iraq bear some responsibility for the conditions that led to these war crimes. Members of Congress, the press, and many citizens were persuaded by the President and his counselors to believe that American security required a preventive war against Iraq. Even if all our intentions were good, America’s war on Iraq was unnecessary and has resulted in an oppressive occupation, which set the stage for the crimes committed against Iraqis in prisons run by American armed forces.

Americans, at least those who are Christian, should have known better. Christian teachings clearly state that a just war must be a last resort and an act of self-defense, which may be fought only to protect innocent life, preserve conditions necessary for decent human existence, and secure basic human rights against real and certain danger.

Despite claims to the contrary by the American government, Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction that threatened the United States, and there was no evidence that the Iraqi government was supporting Al Qaeda terrorists. But even if these facts were not absolutely clear before the war, there was sufficient doubt about these threats that the invasion of Iraq cannot be justified as a last resort or an act of self-defense.

Therefore, to try and excuse its actions the administration has increasingly emphasized that the war in Iraq has ended the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein. Certainly, ending despotic rule and encouraging democratic government are worthy political goals. But do these good intentions justify a preventive war against a country that posed no immediate threat to American security?

Previous American administrations thought not and even collaborated with Saddam Hussein in pursuit of other political objectives. Moreover, no recent administration has urged that America wage war against the oppressive Chinese or Korean or Saudi or Sudanese regimes, despite the many violations of human rights committed by these undemocratic governments.

Evil by itself does not justify war. Going to war must be the last resort in confronting evil.

Once Congress gave the President the authority to go to war, then the preoccupation of the American people was entirely on winning the war and limiting American casualties. Shock and awe firepower was unleashed on Iraqi soldiers and cities, killing tens of thousands of men, women and children. In addition, tens of thousands of Iraqis were arrested and detained, and once imprisoned these Iraqis were not allowed visits by members of their families or by lawyers. These men simply disappeared behind the walls of Abu Ghraib and other prisons operated by Americans, to be held until proven innocent.

Imagine an invading army sweeping into your neighborhood and arresting you or your husband or father or brother. Then consider what it must be like for those who are unable for months to find out what has happened to their loved ones. We would find this intolerable and outrageous! However good the intentions, this war is unjust and oppressive.

By our silence we condoned these mass arrests, the hooding and handcuffing of men, the rough treatment, and the loss of freedom imposed by our soldiers on people taken from their homes and neighborhoods. Some arrested were combatants, but many were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, as news stories have reported. Yet, they have been imprisoned for months.

Photos revealing the humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib have shocked us and people around the world. But we should have been shocked earlier by the shock and awe bombing in cities, by the killing of women and children as well as men, and by the mass arrests. We should have been shocked by the suffering that Americans inflicted on tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians — in their homes when bombs dropped on them or soldiers broke down their doors, and in their cars when fearful and fatigued soldiers shot or arrested them.

We have counted and mourned the American dead, and rightly so. We have yet to count much less mourn the Iraqi casualties. All this suffering and loss of life in an unnecessary war should shock us. For this, too, despite our good intentions, is evil.

The Christians among us, at least, must now recall Paul’s teaching that those who would do good may well do evil. Christians joined crusades to save the Holy Land from infidels and the Church launched an inquisition to purify its faith, but history records in both instances that Christians committed great crimes. Pilgrims and other settlers came to America to found a new society of freedom, but the creation of the United States and its expansion to the Pacific Ocean led to the slaughter of millions of Native Americans and the destruction of their culture. Americans went to war in Vietnam to help defend the Vietnamese from Communist rule, but lost the support of the people of Vietnam due to the brutality of the war waged by American armed forces.

Tragically, good people are often unable or unwilling to acknowledge the evil they do, so we need to remember these lessons of history. Moreover, we must now confess the sin of America in fighting the war in Iraq, for the only answer to sin is confession and repentance. We have to acknowledge the wrong we have done, and then do all we can to change our ways. This means not only an apology to the Iraqi people, but a rapid transfer of power to an Iraqi government, and also reparations for the harm we have done.

Our repentance must also include a commitment to resist terrorism without war. "Do not repay anyone evil for evil," Paul writes in Romans 12:17, "but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all." Setting a good example is the best way to respond to evil, and war never sets a good example. War can only be justified when there is no other means of self-defense.

We must now work to overcome terrorist threats by promoting friendship with other nations, even as we increase security at home. We must understand that the fight against terrorism is like the fight against crime. Instead of waging war, we must defend the rule of law everywhere.

We have used the excuse of terrorism to claim justification for killing people in their own homes in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the soldiers charged with the killing of men, women and children, and then with the guarding of prisoners in places like Abu Ghraib, have been brutalized by the horror they have seen and often done. Our brave young people are not only coming home in caskets and wheelchairs, but many are returning with shattered spirits because of their experience in the hell on earth that is this war.

We owe to these victims of our war more than words of gratitude, and more than an apology for their unnecessary sacrifice. We owe them compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and support as they try to reconstruct their lives.

But what are we to do about terrorism? The truth is we will only be safe by winning the hearts and minds of other peoples, through acts of friendship and justice. After the 9/11 terrorist attack there was an outpouring of sympathy for Americans. But the American war in Afghanistan, and especially the attack and occupation of Iraq, have led to widespread anger around the globe.

Many now see the United States as the world’s bully, because in order to protect American interests our government demands that all other countries back our war against terrorism. Sadly, by being concerned only with American power and security, we have squandered the goodwill of the world that was so generously given to us after 9/11.

This is America’s great sin, and the only answer for sin is repentance. Paul says, "If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." (Romans 12:20) We can only win over our enemies with our goodness, which will shame and convince them. If we want the respect and friendship of all peoples, we will have to earn it by proving to them that our way of life is not only free, but also generous, just and forgiving.

In a time of unprecedented threats for us and for people everywhere, including the AIDS epidemic, ethnic cleansing, drought and famine due to global warming, and millions of refugees without homes, America is spending over 5 billion dollars a month in pursuing a war that is destroying rather than rebuilding Iraq. We are squandering our resources as well as our moral heritage at a time when we should be providing global leadership by securing more just trade relationships, investing in education and health care for all people, reducing our pollution levels, and creating more jobs at home as well as abroad.

"Do not be overcome by evil," Paul says, "but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:21) This is the challenge of our faith. Here is where our true security lies. If we do what is right, we will overcome the terrorist threat. We may suffer from more terrorist attacks, but these will not defeat us or destroy our way of life — if we maintain our faith in one another and continue our struggle for justice, human rights, and the rule of law for all. © Robert Traer 2016