Should Christians Support War Against Syria?

Jason Micheli —  August 29, 2013 — 6 Comments

Unknown-1With military action against Syria increasingly looking like a foregone conclusion, I’ve heard lots of chatter on NPR and elsewhere about the separation of powers and what authority the constitution does and does not afford the President when it comes to war- concerns that must have been in hibernation during the previous administration.

When it comes to Syria, I’ve heard liberals making liberal political arguments and I’ve heard conservatives making conservative political arguments. What I haven’t heard much of is Christians making Christian arguments.

While I’ve have substantive problems with the Christian Just War tradition and have been open about being a closet Mennonite; nonetheless, Just War theory remains arguably the most dominant Christian tradition with respect to war.  For that reason, perhaps it’s helpful to outline its parameters and then you can discern how intervention against Syria fits the bill.

Below is a synopsis I wrote with Dr Barry Penn Hollar:

Just War theory was “borrowed” from the Roman Stoic tradition by Christian theologians, like Augustine and Aquinas, who gave it a distinctly Christian orientation. The development of this tradition reflects the changing context of Christian faith and witness.

By the fourth century, the Christian expectation of Jesus’ imminent return had waned. The church was no longer a persecuted minority in a hostile Roman empire. Indeed, soon after the emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, Christianity became the official religion of the empire and, at least nominally, Christian religion enjoyed majority status.

In such a context, it may have been inevitable that Christians came to recognize military participation as a legitimate expression of discipleship.

Now that the instruments of earthly authority were in their hands (rather than dripping with their blood!), they inevitably asked about the appropriate use of those instruments in the service of order and justice.

Not surprisingly, they came to feel a sense of responsibility that was not theirs before and to question whether prayer was an adequate Christian contribution to the welfare of the empire as they had believed earlier.

What developed over the centuries was a set of criteria for determining when it is appropriate for those in authority to go to war (just ad bellum) and what moral restraint should be shown in the waging of war (jus in bello).

The starting point for thinking about when it is appropriate to go to war was the idea of legitimate authority.

Only those with authority (from God?) for public order could wage war. Private violence, or violence in the service of individual interests continued to be condemned, but war as instrument of those charged with responsibility for public order and justice was recognized as morally appropriate.

Prior to the democratic revolutions and the development of democratic ideas about legitimacy, there was a strong presupposition of individual obedience to the authorities.

The authorities decided when war was just; individual citizens obeyed.  Matters are complicated somewhat by modern ideas about governmental authority arising from the consent of the governed.

In a democratic society, broad public support for war is not just a practical matter; since the legitimacy of the government depends on the consent of the governed, some would argue that war without broad public support is not waged with legitimate authority.

The just war tradition insisted that war could only be waged for a “just cause” and not simply to protect and promote the interests of some party or even of the nation as a whole.

Surely, war cannot be waged for the purpose of building or expanding an empire.  In the words of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops “force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic rights of whole populations.”

As well, the tradition insists that a nation can only wage war with a “right intention,” that is, motivated by the just cause and with the goal of achieving a just peace.

War fought out of hatred for the enemy and when expressed justifying causes are merely a mask for ulterior interests and motives is ruled out.

A legitimate authority with a just cause and right intentions must engage in further moral reflection before going to war.

It must be certain that war is a “last resort.”

Put differently, if there are other means (diplomatic pressure, boycotts, embargos, etc.) for defending the just cause and achieving a just and stable peace that could reasonably be expected to work, they should be tried before going to war.

We must also ask whether there is a “reasonable chance of success.”

It is not right to go to war—that is, to pursue a policy that inevitably involves death and destruction—if one has little or no chance of winning the war and, more important, achieving the just peace one seeks.

Finally, one must ask the question of “proportionality.”

Even if we win, will we have done more harm than good.

These final three critieria all involve great wisdom and prudence. They are not matters about which one can have mathematical certainty; they are matters of moral wisdom about which well-meaning people will disagree. This is especially true of proportionality.

Imagine one has a just cause (saving the citizens of Dafur, for example) and the military might necessary to defeat the forces promoting the evil injustices that appropriately cause moral outrage.  “Proportionality” suggests that it might still be wrong to go to war because the harm one would have to inflict to achieve the cause outweighs the good one could do.

The just war tradition also places moral limits on war.

Its two traditional criteria are “discrimination” and “proportionality” (with a slightly different meaning than before).

War is moral, says the Christian just warrior, only if civilians are never intentionally targeted.

Extreme care must be taken even to avoid “accidental” civilian deaths, what in contemporary parlance is euphemistically called “collateral damage.”  (Remember, hidden behind that phrase are the dead bodies of children, women, and old men killed “accidently,” but dead nonetheless!)

Proportionality in this context points to the just war claim that even in a justified war fought discriminately, one should use only the level of force necessary to achieve one’s legitimate objectives.

Even enemy soldiers are neighbors who must not be killed unnecessarily.


Jason Micheli


6 responses to Should Christians Support War Against Syria?

  1. Glad to have a succinct presentation of Just War.

    The blurb on facebook asks that we consider a “Christian perspective,” rather than merely a liberal or conservative one. I suppose some people would think the Just War theory offers a Christian perspective — but it is so derivative it is hard to see what’s Christian about it. It looks like a really well reasoned ethical argument — my neighbor the atheist might argue the exact same points. As you say, it borrowed from the Stoics.

    If you’re a pacifist, this might not matter, but the Just War theory ran aground in trying to explain Latin American resistance movements — when the so-called legitimate state is oppressing its people, is it really ethical to rule out those movements simply because they are not states?

    So long story short, I don’t know how you reason this question simply as a Christian unless you say, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” covers it. I’m not completely satisfied with that answer. I think the Bible is not an encyclopedia of ethics, and we have no choice but to borrow from other ethical systems of reasoning. And therefore end up in the ideological framework of liberals or conservatives.

  2. You kind of hinted, but didn’t really answer the question posed in the title of the post. I think the unpopular answer as Christians to that question is “no.” It seems so easy to just send in an airstrike or two and inflict a little punishment. It’s not even a war really. But that solution is a detached reaction that cares nothing for the difficult work of exploring nonviolent options.

  3. Bob Oelschlager August 30, 2013 at 12:40 PM

    John Wesley’s three simple rules for Christians begin with “First, do no harm.” So after all the different pros and cons and nuances, the answer for me remains a pretty clear “No.”

  4. Leave off the last two words of the question and this is Charles Spurgeon’s answer:

    “I wish that Christian men would insist more and more on the unrighteousness of war, believing that Christianity means no sword, no cannon, no bloodshed, and that, if a nation is driven to fight in its own defence, Christianity stands by to weep and to intervene as soon as possible, and not to join in the cruel shouts which celebrate an enemy’s slaughter.”

  5. It would appear that Obama’s plan involves missile strikes and nothing more. So this would violate the “reasonable chance of success.” Why? Assad isn’t going to leave his chemical weapons out in the open for us to destroy. He likely has them hidden under schools or hospitals, so either we strike those locations and risk killing more civilians, or we don’t hit them and just go after mundane military targets that won’t affect Syria’s chemical weapons program at all.

    Of course, assuming we do a more aggressive action, what happens after Assad? Won’t we end up doing more harm than good? There’s no indication that the Syrian rebels will just make nice and come together like some version of the Constitutional Convention we had. The civil war will likely continue after Assad and instead of one boogeyman, we’ll have several…with chemical weapons.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Just War, Pacifism and Paul Jones | books, BBQ & bow ties - September 4, 2013

    […] the other hand is the just war side, for a more coherent look at just war see Should Christians Support the War Against Syria? from Jason Micheli. Just war is emotionally enticing, how could it not be? It’s hard to […]

Leave a Reply to Tracy Cancel reply

Text formatting is available via select HTML. <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.