A Conversation with Dr. Tony Campolo About the War In Iraq, the War on Terror, and Loving Our Enemies
Dr. Tony Campolo is known around the world for his outspoken views on religious, cultural, social, and political matters. A sociologist by trade, he is also a popular speaker and teacher and has been featured on television programs like Nightline, Crossfire, Politically Incorrect, The Charlie Rose Show, and CNN News. The author of twenty-eight books, Dr. Campolo’s most recent titles include Adventures in Missing the Point (with Brian McLaren), Revolution and Renewal: How Churches Are Saving Our Cities, and Let Me Tell You a Story: Life Lessons From Unexpected Places and Unlikely People. Despite these lofty credentials, Dr. Campolo was kind enough to grant us an exclusive interview for this issue of Clarion.
Clarion: What is your opinion on the war in Iraq?
Tony Campolo: There are two ways of looking at this question. There are some Christians who are pacifists. I would fall under that category. We build our case on the fact that historians do not argue, that for the first three hundred years of the Christian faith, the church was pacifist. It wasn’t until the time of Constantine that Christians really entered into the military. Secondly, I think an honest reading of the Sermon on the Mount and the other teachings of Jesus in the gospels would lead one to a pacifist position. The other position that Christians take is what is called the “just war” theory. This was developed by St. Augustine and refined, perhaps, by Calvin.
Clarion: Do you think it is possible to have a “just war” today?
Tony Campolo: Yes, it is possible to have a just war if you use those standards, and most Christians would hold to a just war theory. But I’m fairly convinced that the war in Iraq does not meet the requirements of a just war.
I say this in part because the first characteristic of a just war is that all possibilities of avoiding conflict have been exhausted. In the case of Iraq, the US went to war while everyone else was trying to negotiate. The pretext of the war was that America had absolute proof that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The evidence is quite clear now that those weapons probably did not exist. I think that giving the UN team more time, believing the UN research team that no weapons existed, would have been a wise course of action to take.
Another justification of a just war is that the good that is achieved will outdo the evil that is done. This obviously does not measure up in the case of Iraq. You can talk about 7,000 people that Saddam Hussein slaughtered (put to death for being political enemies). I’m sure there were lots of other people killed. But when you talk about atrocities, they’ve uncovered the graves of at least this many people. On the other hand, some have estimated that more than that many Iraqis have already been killed and wounded as a result of this war, with more Iraqi citizens dying every day. More than a thousand US soldiers have died, and the end of death is not in sight.
Beyond that, the goals of establishing a democracy were ill conceived, because I’m not sure a democracy is viable in Iraq. There are 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. But the overwhelming majority of people in Iraq are Shi’ites. If there is a democratically elected government in Iraq, the Shi’ites will dominate, and we will have a Shi’ite regime. The freedom Christians have had in Iraq to evangelize and create new churches will be severely curtailed under a Shi’ite regime.
Clarion: Why do you think America was so eager to go to war?
Tony Campolo: The former Secretary of the Treasury, John O’Neill, has pointed out that from the first day of his presidency, George Bush talked about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. [Editor’s note: O’Neill did so in the book The Price of Loyalty by Ron Suskind.] I don’t judge people’s motives, but it’s obvious from what O’Neill has said that from the very first cabinet meeting, this is what the presidency was after.
Clarion: Why would the removal of Saddam Hussein be so important to them?
Tony Campolo: I have some suspicions; I contend that oil had a great deal to do with it. The things that raise these suspicion in me about our motives as a nation is that during the first week of the war, the president immediately gave over all rights to develop the oil industry in Iraq to Haliburton, a company that still is financially contributing to Vice President Dick Cheney. A further problem was that there was not competitive bidding, which is against US law. More importantly, with massive unemployment in Iraq, one has to ask why the Iraqis were not given the opportunity to rebuild their oil industry. After World War Two, the United States gave lots of money to Germany and France to rebuild their infrastructure. We did not send Americans over to do it. There is every indication that the Iraqis could rebuild their oil industry, seeing as they built it in the first place and rebuilt it after the first Gulf War. Bechtel, a major contributor to the Bush election campaign, was given contracts to rebuild the infrastructure of Iraq. There is suspicion that these contracts were politically motivated. The Bible says to avoid the appearance of evil. I have to tell you, this is not avoiding the appearance of evil. When all is said and done, as one of my students who visited Iraq recently has said, ‘Saddam Hussein is a horrendous tyrant. But if a man is brutalizing his family, you don’t burn down his house with his family inside to get rid of him.'
Clarion: So you’re saying it would have been better if the US simply got rid of Hussein instead of declaring war on the entire country of Iraq?
Tony Campolo: When faced with a similar situation in Yugoslavia, the US was able to secure a verdict from the UN and the world court that this man—Milosovich—should be indicted for war crimes. That created the condition of going in and taking him alone. That course of action was rejected by the US.
You’ve got all these arguments: weapons of mass destruction, the removal of Saddam Hussein, going over there to create a democracy. When you begin to raise all of these questions, you find one big question behind them all: Should the US be moving into all nations where there is tyranny? Should we be going into Burma, for instance? Does the US have that responsibility? Take Red China as a case in point. Should we go in there? Or should we just invade smaller countries? And if we do, can we still call ourselves idealists?
Clarion: So you’re saying Saddam Hussein had the bad luck of sitting on one of the world’s largest oil reserves?
Tony Campolo: Yes, I am. But that’s merely speculation.
Another tenet: The US is under condemnation by the UN for using cluster bombs. And my students who were in Iraq saw the effects of these in the hospitals. How can you drop a cluster bomb in a populated community and call yourself a just nation?
What we are facing right now—and this does not make the US press or even the Canadian press—is that there have already been twenty-two suicides among troops in Iraq and three hundred attempted suicides. This rate far exceeds the suicide rate in Vietnam. The Navy has a psychiatric team that is expecting almost twenty percent of the US soldiers who go to Iraq will have psychiatric problems upon returning home. They contend that this is largely due to the fact that they expected to be received as liberators but instead find themselves being received as occupiers in a hostile nation.
We should note that in between the first and second Iraq wars, there was an embargo that really caused great suffering to the Iraqi people. It is estimated by the UN that half a million children died as a result of that embargo. You have to be extremely naïve to think that when you kill half a million children in a nation of seventeen million your soldiers will be welcomed as heroes when they march into town.
I feel the American people have been deceived and are still being deceived. I think everything about that war has the mark of a propaganda machine, such as the ‘rescuing’ of a young woman (Jessica Lynch) in a hospital that was shown to be a complete farce. She says it didn’t happen that way. ‘I was a coward,’ she says. ‘I was crying, I didn’t shoot my gun at anyone. I was in an accident due to my own stupidity. To call me a hero because of that is ludicrous.’ I fear for a nation that does not tell the truth to its people, because democracy in the United States depends on the truth.
Clarion: I often struggle with this, not knowing what to think about situations like America’s involvement in Iraq, because I don’t believe I have reliable information.
Tony Campolo: During times of war, you certainly don’t have to tell everyone everything, but to deliberately make up lies, that’s unnecessary. Let me say beyond this that I basically believe that George Bush is a good man, a Christian man trying to do the right thing. I can’t say as much for the forces behind the throne, who I believe are calling most of the shots.
Clarion: Who might these forces be? The Saudis? Big Oil?
Tony Campolo: I don’t know about the Saudis. In fact, one of the reasons we went to war was because of the Saudis. The Saudi government is increasingly unstable and unreliable. If any government has ties with Al Qaeda, it’s them. You have to remember that Bush has promoted this war because of 9/11, but there weren’t any Iraqis on the planes. There were Saudis and Egyptians. Secret documents found with Saddam Hussein said he had no connections with Al Qaeda and instructed his followers not to have anything to do with the organization. On the other hand, there are members of the Saudi royal family suspected of having helped fund Al Qaeda. The Saudi government is in a very precarious position. If it were to fall into unfriendly hands, the US economy would be doomed. That’s where the oil theory comes in. The US economy is almost totally dependent on Saudi oil right now. Thus, seizing Iraq’s oil fields is a form of insurance. There is every indication that there will be a radical Muslim takeover of the Saudi royal family, in which case the US would really be left out in the cold. So there are my speculations.
The ultimate question is, did we do what Jesus would do? And I think that question is one that people have to answer for themselves. I don’t think we did, but others will think otherwise. I have to say that my heart goes out to these soldiers over there who live in constant fear, many of whom have given their lives in a cause that is becoming increasingly ambiguous.
Clarion: What do you think of the ‘war on terror’? Can it be won?
Tony Campolo: That’s a good question. It can be won, but you can’t win the war on terror by killing terrorists just as you can’t win the war against malaria by killing mosquitoes. You get rid of malaria by getting rid of swamps that breed mosquitoes. In the same way, you get rid of terrorism by removing the conditions that breed terrorists.
You have an educated elite emerging in the Arab world that is angry over the humiliation of their people at the hands of the West. They find themselves powerless and pushed around. Tony Blair, on one occasion, said all the problems in the world right now can be traced back to Palestine and Israel, and I think he may be right. The United States provides one-third of all its foreign aid in any given year to Israel, most of which is used to build up a gigantic military. Thus, Israel is in a position to do what it wills in the Middle East. The inability to stand up to Israel, backed by the US, where the Palestinians are left with no negotiating power whatsoever, leaves them in a state of hopelessness. That’s what creates a suicide bomber, someone who sees there are no other alternatives. The suicide bombers have as much in their statements before going to death.
Clarion: So the situation in Israel, this is one of the conditions that breeds terrorist attacks against the US?
Tony Campolo: That’s one of them, but it’s the overall sense of being inundated by western commercial, political, and industrial interests. The Arabs see Israel as a surrogate nation used by the US to maintain its power in the Middle East. You have to grasp the fact that we overthrew the democratically elected government in Iran to make way for the Shah. We have been the primary buttress for the ruling family in Saudi Arabia, which is despised by much of the Arab world. Along with the English, we are responsible for creating the State of Israel. It is the western nations that actually created the national boundaries of all the nations that exist in the Middle East. It’s the West who created all of these nations after World War One when the Ottoman Empire fell and England divided up the territory.
I don’t want to get much more into the Middle East situation except to say the following: The Jews have suffered enough. They are the victims of anti-Semitism in every western nation. They justifiably believe they can have no freedom or dignity unless they can have a land of their own in which they are the rulers, and I agree.
Clarion: But what about the Palestinians, can’t they make the same claim?
Tony Campolo: The Jews should have a secure land with secure borders. They shouldn’t have to worry that their children will be killed on the way to school due to terrorists. Whatever may have been the justification for creating the state of Israel in 1948—and that can be debated—the Palestinians are asking what right a group of people in New York had to create a new nation in which the Palestinians became second-class citizens. But whatever the reasons, I would have to say that the nation exists now, and I violently oppose that kind of thinking among the Arabs, that the solution to the problem is to drive the Jews into the sea. We must stand behind the people of Israel and defend their right to exist as a nation.
Clarion: And the Palestinians?
Tony Campolo: Having said that, if we believe the Jews are entitled to a land of own, should not the Arab people who lived in the Holy Land have a land of their own, too? This was the original intention of the UN when the State of Israel was created, an intention that I think the Palestinians foolishly rejected. It has been said of Yasser Arafat that ‘he has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.’ There have been many opportunities for a separate Palestinian state to exist in ways the State of Israel would have supported. Most of those proposals were rejected by the Palestinians. Things have changed now. The Palestinians are willing to accept the State of Israel, but they want a negotiated settlement. However, the Israeli government is imposing a settlement by building a wall along what they want to be the border. Leading ideologists in the American Jewish community, people like Thomas Freedman, would say the survival of Israel—in the long run—depends on the nation making friends with Arabs. The United States could be there for Israel for 50 years at the most.
Clarion: What do you mean?
Tony Campolo: The United States isn’t always going to be the powerful nation it is today. Nations rise and nations fall. You can put it off to one hundred years if you want. But the US economy is facing a national debt of over seven trillion dollars! We simply cannot support what is going on in the Middle East right now. Military spending is exhausting us. We can’t always be there. Even if the US is behind Israel, consider the fact that there are Arab peoples living within Israel who are multiplying at a rate that is much greater than the rate at which the Israelis are multiplying. Demographically, twenty-five years from now, there will be more Arabs in Israel than Jews. Either Israel has to deny these people the right to vote or they will be taken over by an Arab majority. In fact, the most extreme Arabs right now do not want a settlement. They’re the ones doing the bombing. No one is asking why they’re so willing to wait. But Arabs have a great capacity to wait. As I said, it’s only a matter of time before the number of Arabs exceeds the number of Jews in Israel. Incidentally, this is exactly what happened after the Crusades, as Friedman points out. After the First Crusade, the Christians took back the Holy Land, but over time, the Arab population grew, so that the Christians had to retreat. If there’s anything the Arabs remember, it’s the Crusades. They learned why they lost the Holy Land, and they learned how they got it back. And history will repeat itself. That’s why these extremists torpedo every plan that comes along that proposes two states. They want a one-state solution. ”Let Israel own all the land, and let us outbreed them,” they say. This is obviously what has happened in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank over the last twenty-five years. The refugees that were once a smaller number now have grown into the millions. And the children that are raised in these places are taught to hate Jews. It is a fact that the schools teach hatred and a twisted view of history that makes the Jews and the Americans the incarnation of Satan. What are the consequences of that? Millions and millions of children growing up with that kind of thinking within the nation of Israel. The time has come for spiritual leaders who are moderates, in the Jewish community, the Muslim community, and the Christian community—please remember fifteen percent of all Palestinians are Christians—to come together and find some common ground between the Torah, the New Testament, and the Koran that will mean peace.
Clarion: Seeing as our magazine is a ‘journal of spirituality and justice,’ I’d like to ask you to define justice. For example, what does justice look like in the case of someone like Saddam Hussein? And how are we to balance loving our enemies with holding them accountable for their actions?
Tony Campolo: I’ll put it this way: What if the United States obeyed the teachings of the Apostle Paul in Romans 12: to love your enemies, do good to those who hurt you, overcome evil with good, feed your enemy if he is hungry, for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head? Paul suggests that the way to get rid of an enemy is to do the good that Jesus would do. I contend that if, over the last ten years, instead of an embargo we had fed the people of Iraq, we provided them with they medicine they needed to prevent their children from dying, and helped them economically so they were economically allied with us, I think that such loving commitment would have done more to bring down Saddam Hussein than the embargo. If we had done the good that God requires of us, then we would have overcome evil with good. The question that the church has to answer is, ‘Do we really believe the Apostle Paul? Do we really believe that evil can be overcome with good? Do we really believe that doing such good will ultimately destroy our enemy by heaping coals of fire on his head?’ I believe in the Bible, and I am willing to tell those who are in places of leadership what the Bible requires of them, whether they listen or not. In my case, I let it be known what the Bible teaches to President Clinton. I did not have the same opportunity with President Bush. I hope there are others who at least speak the Scriptures to him on this matter.
Kevin spoke to Dr. Campolo in Kona, Hawaii on January 29, 2004.
Kevin Miller is a freelance author, editor, and educator from
Abbotsford, BC. To learn more about Kevin and his work, please visit
Dr. Tony Campolo is professor emeritus of Sociology at Eastern University in St. Davids, Penn. Founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (EAPE), Dr. Campolo has provided the leadership to create, nurture and support programs for “at-risk” children in cities across the United States and Canada and has helped establish schools and universities in several developing countries. He is a graduate of Eastern University and earned a Ph.D. from Temple University. He is also an ordained minister in the American Baptist denomination. Dr. Campolo is married to Peggy (Davidson) Campolo. They have two children and four grandchildren. For more information on Dr. Campolo, please visit www.tonycampolo.org.