At the Threshold published an email message while the debate was taking place over a proposed unilateral strike against Syria. That posting led a friend of the author to respond and the exchange that took place between them is directly reflective of the sort of exchanges that must have been taking place in the international corridors of power. For the present proposals conform rather remarkably to the analysis and conclusions that can be found within the conversation between the author and the friend.
We began with this declaration: Christianity is opposed to war. Then we went on to acknowledge that the church does make allowance for war if it meets certain standards. Two of the standards for a just war are: (1) that it will be effective for its intended purposes and (2) that there is no alternative in the face of a direct threat to national security. Additionally, we recognized the pragmatic reality: Lasting results do not come of war but ultimately must be worked out diplomatically and politically.
Thus, we came to the conclusion that a limited military action cannot be used to send a message, to make a point, to defend pride, or to demonstrate the threat of a higher level of action.
A Response and Exchange:
A Friend: I’m confused. Is there, or is there not, a Christian moral imperative to protect innocents?
The Author of the Posting: … there are unique questions regarding the use of war to protect people — perhaps beginning with innocents. There are innocents being killed, brutalized, and mistreated in many places other than Syria. Why, for a quick and simplistic example, don’t we go to war to defend them in each case? Glad to keep thinking this through with you.
Friend: Is a so-called limited attack justified to stop the murder of innocents?
Author: Not unless there are exceptional reasons that justify use of violence, and in particular the violence of war. As long as the international system relies on sovereign nations, the church cannot justify a unilateral attack unless the national security of the attacking nation is genuinely and directly threatened. Otherwise, license to employ violence belongs to the international community. It is true there are major shifts in international law that limit the right of a nation, despite its sovereignty, to abuse the human rights of its citizens, and that justify intervention — and it is possible that the church may recognize an attack, or even a war, as a just action. But a single nation cannot decide this and act on its own. It would be too easy for a rogue nation to claim the right to go to war on its own under the rubric that they are protecting the human rights of the citizens within the nation being attacked. The classic example, of course, is with Nazi Germany in Poland, Austria, The Sudetenland, and so on.
Friend: Thanks. That helps.
The possibility exists that the church’s position regarding war, and the refusal to justify a war unless it meets specific criterion, will be satisfied for ending the present crisis. President Obama has shifted the issue from a unilateral attack to an alternative action (1) that is non-violent, (2) that involves a much broader range of the international community, hopefully a UN Resolution, and (3) that has the strong chance of being lastingly effective in removing the threat of further usage of chemical weapons by Syria. Underlying these new possibilities is the recognition that war cannot offer an effective and lasting solution to the civil war, but that it must be resolved with diplomacy and political engagement.
One last thought, why have so few in the United States, and very few that we have heard, official or commentator, asked about the church’s perspective? It’s very interesting that our leaders have arrived at the church’s position with so little reference to that position.