St. Augustine on Syria

Christianity has concerned itself with matters of war and peace for almost its entire history. The one unifying assumption of the faith has been that war is terrible and is to be avoided assiduously. There has always been a part of Christianity that has rejected war absolutely, considering participation in it to be completely contrary to the teachings of Jesus. But alongside it has been a strand of the faith that recognizes that war is morally justified in certain circumstances. “Just war theory” dates back to St. Augustine in the early days of the church. I think it still is a useful way of prayerfully considering whether or not a war, and/or one’s participation in it, is appropriate.

Now is a critical time for all of us as American citizens to consider whether or not there is a moral basis for our country to attack Syria. It’s time to take ourselves seriously as citizens, inform ourselves, prayerfully come to conclusions, and let our politicians know our views.

According to Augustine, a “just war” is one that meets all of these criteria:

Just cause: The reason for going to war needs to be just and can therefore be recapturing things taken or punishing people who have done wrong.

Comparative justice: While there may be rights and wrongs on all sides of a conflict, to override the presumption against the use of force, the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other.

Legitimate authority: Only duly constituted public authorities may use deadly force or wage war.

Right intention: Force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose—correcting a suffered wrong is considered a right intention, while material gain or maintaining economies is not.

Probability of success: Arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success.

Last resort: Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted.

Here I will share my “moral reasoning” about the war in Syria, based on these criteria:

Just cause: There’s no question that the Syrian regime is responsible for killing civilians with poison gas. This is a clear violation of international norms that have been codified since the First World War. There must be consequences for this crime against humanity. There is just cause for military action.

Comparative justice: War is always unjust, but the injustice of war against the Syrian regime is outweighed by the gross injustice and unacceptability of its use of sarin gas against civilians.

Legitimate authority: The use of chemical weapons is a crime against all of humanity and specifically against international conventions. This was not an act directed against the United States. So the legitimate authority to respond militarily would be international in nature. However, for various reasons, the United Nations and other international bodies with wide representation are not able or willing to respond to this incident with military force. So there is a serious problem of legitimacy should the US choose to respond unilaterally or with few international partners.

Right intention: The intention of President Obama to attack Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime is a righteous one: to deter such attacks in the future.

Probability of success: It is highly questionable whether or not a military strike against Syria’s regime would succeed in the right intentions that President Obama has expressed. Civilian casualties would be likely, as would be the creation of more refugees. The attack might cause further serious instability in the Middle East. It might result in further desperation by the Assad regime, and it was desperation that led to the chemical attacks in the first place. Also, it’s very uncertain that Iran or North Korea would base their decisions regarding nuclear weapons development on the course of action America might take in Syria. The probability of success is not clear enough to pass this part of the test.

Last resort: An alternative “last resort” is for the international legal system to bring Assad to justice for war crimes, even if it takes years to apprehend him. America can work now to help create the legal case for this action, in cooperation with other nations.

Applying this ancient Christian moral calculus, I conclude that a US attack on Syria flunks the test. How would you apply St. Augustine’s criteria to this current crisis?

JIM BURKLO
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

About Jim Burklo

Rev. Jim Burklo is the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. An ordained United Church of Christ pastor, he is the author of three books in print, OPEN CHRISTIANITY (2000), BIRDLIKE AND BARNLESS (2008), and HITCH-HIKING TO ALASKA: THE WAY OF SOULFUL SERVICE (2013). See more about him at jimburklo.com .