Christianity is opposed to war. That is where any consideration about going to war or using the weapons and instrumentalities of war must begin for Christians.
At the beginning of its history the church did not allow Christians to participate in killing of any sort, including the actions of soldiers. Before being baptized, a soldier would have to leave military service. In due course the church mitigated its absolutist position and made allowance for war if it meets certain standards. Two of the standards for a just war are: (1) that it will be effective for the security and justice it seeks to establish or maintain and (2) that there is no alternative way to effect the justice that is sought, absolutely, whatsoever, under any circumstances.
In this case the first question should be: Does the limited military action proposed by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry meet these two standards?
As is patently obvious, the answer is no.
The second question should be: Does the argument that the proposed use of force will act as a deterrent to both this tyrant and others meet these two standards?
The answer may be less obvious, but it is clearly no.
Is the church relevant in England but irrelevant in America?
Except when the issue involves a woman’s right to choose or the rights of gay couples to marry, it is not at all clear that the church ecumenical has a voice in the deliberations that take place in the corridors, committee rooms or on the floor of the Congress. Catholic senators and congress-people will have heard Pope Francis’ strong denunciation of U.S. plans to attack Syria but none seem to be heeding it, let alone acting on it. In England it was obvious that the opposition voiced by the Archbishop of Canterbury had a significant impact on the decision, but in America, will the voice of the church be heard?
Will the well established and carefully honed wisdom of the church be considered, or has its voice become so impotent that even in the most profound considerations of American society it is not to be raised as genuinely relevant to the debate?
Discounted as idealistic?
One of the reasons the church is increasingly discounted is that the Gospel is considered idealistic, for that is the message communicated by our hypocrisy. We say one thing, such as making pronouncements on justice and peace, and then we do, or we embrace, the opposite. The message comes through: Stances and theological views express ideals; actions submit to societal expectations.
In actuality, Jesus was the most practical of human beings, the person who could see through all forms of hypocrisy, naiveté, romanticism, and pseudo “realism” to see what behavior will really, lastingly, ultimately, work. Nowhere in the Gospels do we hear Him advocate any sort of violence. His opposition to violence and by extension to war, was born of his very real experience of their ineffectiveness.
The opposition of His followers to war, except when the standards of a just war are met, is the most highly pragmatic position. War has unintended consequences and is ineffective for achieving goals. War doesn’t work the way we intend or the way we wish. The lasting solution is always finally to be found in the political and diplomatic alternative.
One of the practical reasons the church is against war is grounded in the actual experience. There is no exception to this experience throughout history: There will be unanticipated and highly negative consequences to come — for years and years, and perhaps even centuries.
WWII is roundly considered a “good” war, and one meeting the Christian criteria for a just war. But the fact is, the cause of that war was WWI, the “accidental war,” the war no one really wanted and that everyone fell into. America entered the war with a peace-loving, non-militaristic president at its helm, a president who believed that he was fighting the war to end all wars. Yet the peace agreement that followed directly caused the next war.
More recently there is a general consensus among commentators that: 1) the first Gulf War was “a good war,” 2) Operation Iraqi Freedom was a bad war, 3) the Afghanistan War was a just war that the U.S. failed to win because insufficient resources were put “in theater,” and 4) the attacks on 9-11-2001 were the unforeseeable work of evil people jealous of our way of life. We can draw the link between the first Gulf War, 9/11, and the two other wars. When the first Gulf War was planned and launched, no one anticipated, as we allied with Saudi Arabia and used their territory as the staging place for our air attacks, certain young Saudis would be provoked into joining Al-Qaeda and eventually fly airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
No matter what the intentions are, when a nation goes to war, unforeseen consequences will come back to bite, and where it hurts.
Another reason for the church’s opposition is that even when successful, the goals of the war will still have to be negotiated politically and diplomatically; justice will be achieved only through the craft of political decision-making and the acceptance of change by the folk.
President Lincoln made the most eloquent American statement in justification of war. In the Gettysburg Address he declared that the fighting had proved that the nation as originally conceived could be brought into being and last through the most trying of challenges.
Fifty years later the reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg was held with great fanfare, and thousands of soldiers who fought on both sides gathered. A famous picture was taken of the soldiers meeting at the wall defended by the Union against Pickett’s Charge. The picture showed each soldier reaching across the wall and shaking the hand of a soldier of the other side. There were no black hands. Of the thousands of black soldiers who fought, not one was present. Instead the country had fallen from civil war into the hole of Jim Crow laws. In the year of the reunion, black veterans were more concerned with lynchings, brutalities, and discrimination that perpetuated the stamp of slavery and oppressed the former slaves and their children, and their children’s children, and their children’s children for one hundred years. It still goes on, but with the passage of the Civil Rights Voting Act we might be able to say that political negotiations had come to the sought-for resolution of the Civil War.
The human experience is that war does not serve its own goals to the extent people seem to assume, but must still be worked out in the slower, more cumbersome, much more muddled way of interactions within the human community — structural and relational.
Read an article from Southern Baptist pastor Bruce Sloan about the potential conflict in Syria.