In the aftermath of the president’s request for authorization of military action in Syria, numerous Christian individuals and organizations reacted immediately, expressing clear opposition to any military action in Syria. The overwhelming reactions I read either denounced the president’s call using just-war theory or denounced the president’s call by expressing Pacifist convictions.
I am not sure as to the credibility of these arguments. Many of the arguments were rooted in whether or not you believed the administration’s claims, which was – and still is – open to debate. The veracity of the arguments is not my concern, however.
What is my concern is just-war theory and pacifist commitments themselves. I, personally, am not a proponent of just-war theory. And, while I am committed to non-violence, I cannot say I am strictly a pacifist.
As I was watching many of the just-war arguments being used against the president’s call for missile strikes in Syria, however, I couldn’t help but think that what the president was calling for had very little to do with just-war theory. Therefore, I began to question just how useful just-war theory is as a criteria for the strikes in Syria as well as how useful denouncing the proposed missile strikes using just-war theory is.
The president was not calling for war. This was not two nation-states getting ready to fight for power or control, where the winner of the conflict would be obvious. Consequently, the question of whether or not the conflict was “winnable” is irrelevant. There was no war to be won. The president was, in reality, proposing the United States act as an international police force, enforcing consequences for unacceptable behaviors on the part of Assad. The president was talking about using violence to punish Assad in order to draw boundaries and establish expectations for the future.
That is violence, yes, but it is not war.
Again, there is no way that this violence could be “winnable.” It could only be effective, or ineffective, at dissuading other actors, both nation-state leaders and non-state actors, from using chemical weapons. And, no one would know whether or not the strikes would be effective until after the fact.
In general, just-war theory was not developed with terrorists in mind, with the potential of non-state actors possessing nuclear weapons, or with the threat of chemical weapons, as we currently develop chemical weapons, in the hands of non-state actors. As the nature of war develops and as the nature of conflict develops, I believe just-war theory will become increasingly irrelevant.
On the other end of the spectrum, we had a lot of committed pacifists reactively – and, in my opinion, irrationally – rush to judgment on the president’s call for missile strikes.
While I am committed to non-violence, I have sympathy for our leaders who have to make these life-and-death decisions. I don’t think these are easy decisions and I think our leaders have an incredible burden placed upon them, one I can never understand.
I didn’t think missile strikes would be effective. But I also was, and still am, convinced the president didn’t actually want to bomb Syria. And, I was, and still am, convinced there is no truly non-violent course of action in this conflict.
If the president wanted to bomb Assad, he simply would have. There was no reason, at all, for him to go to Congress, if his aim was to actually launch missiles at Assad. Again, if the president wanted to bomb Syria, it would have just happened and been announced after the fact.
No, it makes much more sense that the president was forcing Russia to become involved, to come out from behind Russia’s UN Security Council veto and to force Russia to take responsibility for Assad, whom Russia has propped up. And this is the resolution the president readily accepted the moment it was floated by Russian President Putin.
And regarding a non-violent course of action, I still have not had anyone present me a truly non-violent option. Whatever the United State did, and still does, violence will, sadly, carry on in Syria. If the United States acts on the missile strikes, the nature of the already existing conflict in Syria will change, but violence will continue. If the United States doesn’t act, the nature of the already existing conflict will continue as is. Those are the only two options. Given the reality of this specific situation, violence is, sadly, inevitable.
The president was trying to decrease the violence, by reigning in the usage of chemical weapons. I am convinced the president has been earnestly attempting to decrease the violence in Syria using the tools available to him. We may disagree with his methods, but those are, clearly, the president’s aims.
All that to say, Syria presents a complex, intricate, tragic conflict, with no good outcomes visible. To rush to judgment of our leaders using either an out-dated theory or a commitment to an abstract hope (the prospect of no violence whatsoever in this conflict), completely detached from reality, helps no one.
I have heard from a few people that Christians are called to be faithful and not necessarily effective. Thinkers much smarter than myself have stated as much. My humble response would be, however, that simply being faithful to our abstract principles is not being faithful to Jesus’ call for us to love others. Loving others means we attempt to be effective in changing the circumstances of those who need changed circumstances the most. This means effectiveness is a part of being faithful and must be taken into account. The two are never mutually exclusive. Pronouncing a judgment reactively may be ideologically or theologically faithful, but if it derails the effectiveness of the Christian witness, we may want to wait before we speak.
Jonathan Saur is a candidate for ministry in Los Ranchos Presbytery. He lives in San Juan Capistrano, CA.