Justice and peace

Archbishop Rowan Williams

The Archbishop of Canterbury was forced to give a sermon today at St Paul’s cathedral at a service to mark the end of military operations in Iraq. You can read the sermon here.

After readings from the Old and New Testaments, the archbishop Rowan Williams observed that:

“The conflict in Iraq will, for a long time yet, exercise the historians, the moralists, the international experts. In a world as complicated as ours has become, it would be a very rash person who would feel able to say without hesitation, this was absolutely the right or the wrong thing to do, the right or the wrong place to be.”

Would it be very rash to say such a thing? Would it be rash to say that the war was wrong, that the crisis should have been dealt with in a different way? The archbishop’s logic is to suggest that support and opposition to the war are morally equivalent. I think the archbishop is being the opposite of rash.

The hollowness of the case for the war is revealed by the archbishop’s closing remarks, in which he wants “to speak our thanks for those who have taught us through their sacrifice the sheer worth of justice and peace”. This is why I say he was forced. He praises the soldiers for what they did, but let us ask what it is they did. What have we learned about “the sheer worth of justice and peace”? The answer is nothing.

Let us imagine that a dictatorship arises somewhere in the world that starts to develop weapons of mass destruction with the clear result of making its neighbours feel threatened. It denies any such intention – why, its motives are entirely peaceful – but the rest of the world is unconvinced. If that should happen, what do we do?

What we do is the same as we did last time. Different countries will wave around different collections of evidence and different sets of analyses in the hope of convincing world opinion. World opinion will look at this evidence and these analyses but will also look at the commercial interests of the countries involved and the lucrative new market opportunities they seek. Perhaps they will also try to judge the sincerity of the political leaders who are doing the waving, but by what standards can this sincerity be judged? Who can prove that he or she means what he says?

And then, if one country is powerful enough and desperate enough, it can simply take the matter into its own hands. There is no means of stopping it: the rest of the world can either join in or stand by and hope for the best.

This is how the crisis over Iraq unfolded: it is happening again over Iran. The world has found no means of taking collective decisions over collective problems since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and it has no means of taking decisions on how to deal with Iran now.

If “the sheer worth of justice and peace” meant anything, it would have meant this. But it doesn’t. We have learned nothing. The archbishop should not be so polite.

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