How do Christians Justify War?

Syrian civil war.tanks

I was living in Italy when a friend called to tell me, a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. I would later get more phone calls about more planes and the fears everyone felt. Between 2000 and 2003 I was in Rome studying theology at the Angelicum far away from terror most everyone I knew was going through. There was just something about being in another land on that day. It made everything that happened seem surreal to me. But surreal or not, I was still living in Rome when the United States invaded Afghanistan and then later Iraq. With both my American and Italian friends, ‘how you justify war’ was a recurring topic of conversation. I was talking about this one time with my roommate when he said:

“War is what happens, when peace become intolerable.”

I thought this was very insightful and I took it to mean two things:

First, that violence comes in many forms; and                                                                    Second, that sometimes war is what people resort to as a means of ending an even greater violence.

My theological focus has always been ecumenism. And while I’ve studied it, there’s a lot I don’t know about just war theory. So I was interested in this article by the Religious News Service. In it seven different experts weigh in on the morality of a US intervention into the Syrian civil war. The article includes statements from Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, Chair of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Global Task Force on Nuclear Weapons as well as Rev. Drew Christiansen, a Jesuit priest who advises the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on international affairs issues.

Both are good sources regarding just war. But what I find interesting is how dis-similarly they approached the topic. With the exception of Anabaptists, this isn’t a topic that divides Catholics and most Evangelicals. But if these two are any indication, we approach the morality of war very differently.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the Syrian conflict began in 2011. But recently there’s evidence that Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons against the rebels. For more background on the war or the chemical weapons dimension, click here or here.

Would military force against Syria be justified?

  • An Evangelical Perspective                                                                                           Wigg-Stevenson begins by clarifying what is certain and what isn’t. What’s certain is that as Christians we’re supposed to be agents of peace. And, that using chemical weapons is universally acknowledged as an unethical method of war. He considers the moral justification for action against al-Assad, as a “moral certitude”. But what is far from certain is what’ll happen if we do. In other words, we don’t know the future. Depending on what action is taken, we could make things worse, not better.
  • A Catholic Perspective                                                                                                Christiansen not only concludes differently, he begins with a different question. What difference does it make if al-Assad used chemical weapons? The number of civilians already killed should be the reason for intervention, not the fact that a few were killed with nerve gas. He also argues that to be morally justified, there has to be clear objectives and a reasonable expectation of success.  Since neither of these are the case, he says, military intervention can’t be morally justified.

On the one hand, I don’t think either one would dispute anything the other is saying.  But on the other hand, they come up with completely opposite conclusions. They both agree that taking innocent human life is equally wrong regardless of how it’s done. Further they both agree that intervening could very likely make matters worse. And yet, it’s precisely on these same points that they disagree.

Chemical Weapons

For Christiansen, if you’ve already ignored the death of over 100,000 civilians killed with bombs and bullets, you can’t claim you’re motivated by just war provisions when a couple hundred are killed with chemical weapons.  For Wigg-Stevenson the use of something like nerve gas, is so clearly a violation of what counts as acceptable warfare, it’s a straightforward justification for military force.

Uncertain Outcome

For Wigg-Stevenson, whether or not military action is likely to solve anything doesn’t influence a war’s justification. For him that’s a secondary judgment, which he admits it’s less certain than the first. For Christiansen, if a war is to be just, you must have reason to believe your actions will at least reduce the violence. For him warfare can’t be justified, because the outcome is uncertain.

I think it’s fascinating how they grapple with the moral complexity in different ways. I don’t know if the uncertain outcome makes warfare unjustified or just a bad idea. But I do think attacking the Syrian military will either do nothing or make the situation much worse. But doing nothing doesn’t seem like the right thing either. Should we just pass out medical aid and hope for the best? I don’t pretend to have the answers but when I remember what my old roommate said about war, it makes me think of another question.

If war is what people do when peace becomes intolerable, what do people do when war itself is beyond toleration?

That the Syrian civil war can no longer be tolerated seems to be the point Wigg-Stevenson was making. But is there an answer to what we do about it? What do you think?

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