What do Pope Francis, Rick Warren and Canon Giles Fraser have in common?
Yes, it sounds like a joke, as we don’t readily expect the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, an evangelical mega-church pastor and the darling of Anglican liberals to be in perfect harmony on something.
But they are.
Following the sarin gas attack in the suburbs of Damascus on 21st August that killed more than 1,300 people, a military strike on the regime of Bashar Hafez al-Assad seemed inevitable. Of course, Assad denied perpetrating the attack (believed seemingly by no one but Russia) and blamed the rebels.
The long-awaited report by UN chemical weapons experts did not say who carried out the attack on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta. It did, however, give details of the type of gas and the munitions used, which some experts said indicated only government forces could have been responsible.
At this point something unusual happened: Christian opinion from all shades of the theological spectrum began singing from the same hymn sheet in speaking out against military action as a way of restraining the regime.
Pope Francis has been the most vociferous. In an impassioned exhortation in St Peter’s Square at the end of September he pleaded: ‘Let us all be committed to efforts for a diplomatic and political solution in the hotbeds of war that are still a cause for concern. [This] human tragedy can only be resolved through dialogue and negotiation, in the respect for justice and the dignity of each person, especially the weakest and the most defenceless.’
Rick Warren, who visited Syria in 2006 and met President Assad, has said that he does not believe the proposed action to strike Syria’s chemical weapons installations meets just war criteria. He tweeted from Isaiah 59:7?8: ‘Rushing to do evil, ready to kill innocent people, they cause destruction, not knowing how to live in peace.’
Meanwhile, Canon Giles Fraser wrote in The Guardian: ‘So, will somebody please explain to us how bombing Assad will make the blindest bit of difference in the grand scheme of things? Because if this is really all about our political leaders being incapable of dealing with their own impotence, then dropping bombs is not going to help.’
In the last week of August, the rhetoric of retaliation for the chemical attack was ratcheted up and MPs were recalled from the summer recess to vote on joining US-led strikes against Assad’s regime. To the shock and dismay of some, the UK Parliament voted 285 to 272 against military action. Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown said that ‘in 50 years trying to serve my country I have never felt so depressed or ashamed’. His sentiment was not an expression of public opinion, though, as a BBC poll taken shortly after the vote showed that two-thirds of people agreed with the parliamentary decision.
The intervening weeks have held fascinating diplomatic developments and a seeming retreat from the militaristic route on the part of the US. The deal with Russia, though fragile, holds promise. And yet, the suffering in Syria continues ? and there is no quick fix to this prolonged conflict. So did our MPs make the right decision? Could military intervention in Syria have been justified from a Christian perspective? What sort of questions should we be asking ourselves as we try to work out what we think about this? In short, it depends on your theological perspective. Essentially, there are two positions:
1. Christian pacifism
2. Christian just war theory
If you adopt the first position then the answer is ‘no’ as it is to the question of the moral legitimacy of any war. But if you subscribe to the second, then the answer is ‘possibly’ ? depending on whether or not the conditions meet the appropriate criteria.
Variations of just war theory have been the predominant world view throughout two millennia of Christian history.
In a nutshell, the theory interprets the ‘pacifist passages’ of Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 5:39) as relating to personal conduct and not binding for national foreign policy.
A key verse used to distinguish the rights of the nation state is Romans 13:4: ‘For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.’
The 16th century reformer Martin Luther spoke not just of the legitimacy of conflict in the cause of peace, but the obligation for those in authority to take this route of action if necessary: ‘Every lord and prince is bound to protect his people and to preserve the peace for them. That is his office; that is why he has the sword.’
Likewise Karl Barth, the 20th century theologian, wrote to Christians in Britain, then under siege from Hitler’s Germany, to exhort them not to recoil from their duty: ‘The State would lose all meaning and would be failing in its duty as an appointed minister of God...if it failed to defend the bounds between right and wrong by threat, and by the actual use, of the sword.’
This theory, first espoused by St Augustine (354?430) has evolved and been refined over the centuries, developed by St Thomas Aquinas (1225?74) and reformer John Calvin (1509?64) and is still discussed by modern thinkers today.
This evolving theory can be summarised in a ten-fold criteria to help determine whether a conflict is ethically justifiable:
The Litmus Test
It must be in response to an urgent or imminent threat.
It must be an act of defence against aggression ? never simply for conquest or as an act of initiated aggression.
It must be sanctioned by legitimate authority (ie. the government of a sovereign state).
It must have a just cause.
It must be initiated with the highest motives, not based on revenge, but as an act of neighbourly love and protection, with peace as its supreme goal.
It should be the last resort when all other avenues (political and diplomatic) have been exhausted.
The intended force used must embody the principle of proportionality expressed in the UN guidelines for peacekeeping ? ‘the minimum force necessary to achieve the desired effect’
It must seek to minimise civilian casualties.
It must be calculated (as far as possible) that the evils caused by the conflict will not lead to greater evils than those originally perpetrated by the aggressor. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘principle of unintended consequences’
There must be a reasonable chance of success. In practice, this means there should be a plan, specific targets and an exit strategy.
It has been against this backdrop of ethical justification that many Christian leaders have examined the acceptability of military intervention in Syria ? and found it lacking.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, spoke at the House of Lords during the parliamentary debate on 29th August. He urged caution, questioning whether the sixth criterion had been met and all peaceful and diplomatic avenues had been exhausted. With this in mind, he urged MPs not to ‘rush to judgment’ on the issue, while conceding that the government had access to intelligence that he was not privy to.
One of Welby’s predecessors went further and voiced outright opposition to a possible attack. Lord Carey sounded a warning in apocalyptic terms, questioning whether intervention would contravene criterion nine, the principleof unintended consequences. ‘I share the PM’s sense of moral outrage at a government using chemical weapons against its own,’ said Carey. ‘But intervention will only drag us into a war that could engulf the entire Middle East.’
In America, Christian opposition to Obama’s proposed intervention has been just as vocal. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, has stated emphatically that he can’t see how military intervention at this time can possibly be justified (failing criteria six, nineand ten in the list). ‘As Christians, we need to ask these important questions: have we exhausted all options for peace, do we have a reasonable chance for success, and what would unintended consequences of war be for Syria and her neighbours?’
Stephen White, lecturer at the (Roman Catholic) Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC, comments that Obama’s aim is to punish the regime to deter future atrocities. He quotes Obama speaking shortly after the 21st August attack: ‘If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?’ White argues that such concerns are legitimate, but questions whether the limited nature of the intervention goes far enough.
‘…the President has proposed a response that seems designed to accomplish as little as possible: a “limited, narrow act,” that involves no boots-on-the-ground, does not target Syrian chemical weapons capacity, is not intended to tip the balance of the civil war, and is not directed toward regime change, he says.
‘One fundamental criterion for a just war is that there must be a serious prospect of success. It is hard to see how the administration’s proposed actions will accomplish what they are intended to accomplish. It is hard to imagine what “success” even looks like.’
Further than success being hard to define, ‘failure’ could spell disaster of apocalyptic proportions.‘We have got a proxy war that is being fought out in that area between Russia and America, between America and Saudi Arabia and Iran, between othercountries on the ground, between Islamic extremists and Islamic moderates and an internal Syrian conflict trapped in a war on terror,’ says David Landrum, director of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance.
‘I think to light a match in the middle of all that ? which is what an intervention would represent ? would be disastrous.’
So does any prominent Christian leader support military action in Syria? Seemingly not church leaders or theologians ? unless you include the retired vicar of St Albion’s, the Rev ARP Blair (as the satirical magazine Private Eye used to portray him). Tony Blair argued for military intervention in Syria even before the August tipping point and is arguing even more strongly now. He wrote an article in The Sunday Times on 1st September, the title of which saves you the bother of reading it: ‘Intervention is bloody, standing aside is worse’
He wrote: ‘The vote is shocking. Chemical weapons are used against innocent civilians, including children, and our response is apparently: best do nothing. So, America, with the support of France and the Arab League, will act. We will stay on the side-lines.’
Blair argues that apart from it being morally indefensible to do nothing, inaction is not in Western interests, as it paves the way for a Middle East with an Islamist regime that poses a threat to British security.
‘Intervention can be uncertain, expensive and bloody. But history has taught us that inaction can merely postpone the reckoning. We haven’t paid the bill for Syria yet. But we will.’
A (Jewish) Theological Case for Intervention
However, other religious leaders have not been so reticent in making a theological care for military intervention. Dr Jonathan Romain is a rabbi and a leader of the liberal Reform synagogues. He argues with a candour that is uncharacteristic of Christian leaders: ‘Praying for peace is not enough when God’s children are being gassed.’
Romain cites the Judeo-Christian scriptures saying: ‘The religious justification is clear: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour” (Leviticus 19:16) while the parable of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament screams out: when you see a victim, don’t cross over the other side of the road. The Archbishop of Canterbury is right to urge caution but wrong to let it mean not taking action. The fact that Iraq has turned out badly should not prevent us acting morally in other arenas where we can.’
It is interesting that Romain postulates that the negative experience of Iraq is perhaps more of factor influencing Christian opinion rather than some new-found rigorous interpretation of just war theory. Many Christian leaders supported the invasion of Iraq based on the belief that Iraq had WMD and might use them. Now it seems that no Christian leader supports strikes on Syria when they have admitted they possess WMD and almost certainly have used them.
In 2006, the social research group Gallup found that Protestant Christians in the US were the most supportive group of the Iraq War (45% of Protestant Christians thought it was a mistake, compared to 65% of no declared faith).
Why the change?
So why does the broad sweep of Christian opinion look different this time around? Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd (a Southern Baptist) postulated several reasons why evangelicals are opposing military action in Syria (while they may havecondoned it in Iraq). Rather than reasoning that intervention falls short of the just war criteria (as intervention in Iraq surely did), Kidd’s reasons cite war-weariness, right wing opposition to President Obama, and a particular concern for Syrian Christians.
He also cites an erosion of evangelical dispensationalist beliefs about Israel’s place in the end times that would previously have led many Christians to support US policies deemed pro-Israeli.
Does any prominent Christian leader support military action in Syria?
In Britain it’s not only ‘war-weariness’, but a perceived failure of the Afghan and Iraqi interventions that is a major factor in the decision for many UK Christians. The
Dean of Westminster, John Hall, tweeted: ‘At the time I thought we were right to go into Iraq ? wrong. Now I am clear that a Western strike on Syria would be disastrous. Am I wrong?’
As in the US, there is also concern for the safety of Syrian Christians. The resistance in Syria clearly contains jihadist elements, and reports have already emerged of outright persecution, including the ancient Christian village of Maaloula, where believers were allegedly coerced into converting to Islam and executed if they refused.
Political commentator Robin Harris wrote in The Spectator: ‘Who will fight it, let alone who will win it, remains unclear. But who will lose it is already known ? the Christians. Wherever any strongly Islamic regime is in power, Christians suffer. It is animmutable rule. And the more Islamic the state, the harsher the treatment Christians receive. Since the Arab Spring, every upheaval or election in the Middle East has brought some brand of Islamist to power. In every case, Christians are threatened.’
Harris highlights what is perhaps the biggest factor in most people’s reluctance to support military strikes ? the absence of an obvious viable alternative to the Assad regime.
The Barnabas Fund aid agency has drawn attention to the fact that independent UN investigators are concerned about oversimplification of the conflict. It quotes UN worker Paulo Pinheiro, who heads a team of experts documenting Syrian atrocities: ‘It was said the rebels were angels, but...the majority of rebels are very far from having democratic thoughts andhave other aspirations.’
This situation seems ever more complex as reports filter through of increasing numbers of rebels fighting alongside the US-backed Free Syrian Army ? analysts estimate between 10,000 and 12,000 (Al Jazeera America, 20th September 2013). If theWest helped topple the Assad regime, the succeeding one could be no better; indeed, possibly worse.
As long as this situation persists, it seems unlikely that the near pan-Christian consensus against military action will change. To be sure, the civil war in Syria seems an intractable problem ? a complex and confusing situation in which there seems to be no clear answer.
Before I started researching this article, I was sympathetic to the view that military strikes against the Assad regime could be justified; now I’m just not convinced.
In the meantime, the Christian community needs to wake up to the fact that in the light of what is the greatest humanitarian crisis of this century so far, inaction is not an option. The death toll has now exceeded 110,000 and over 2 million people have fled the country. The action need not be with Tomahawk and Patriot missiles. As Wallis has said, ‘I think the question for people of faith to be asking is not if we should respond to the crisis in Syria, but how should we best serve those Jesus called “the least of these”.