Should America Have Attacked Syria? A Christian Response
According to news reports, U.S. President Donald Trump virtually unilaterally (i.e., without Congressional approval) ordered the U.S. military to attack and destroy a Syrian air base that was allegedly used by Syria to kill its own people with deadly chemical (gas) weapons banned by international agreements. The news is trickling out—in print and by broadcasts—and more information is needed. So, here I will only respond based on the limited information that seems so far generally agreed on. (And I will here set aside the question of the legality of the act which will have to be worked out between the three branches of the U.S. government.)
Why am I writing about this event here? Because I am a Christian ethicist and I have dared to wade into the debate between followers of Reinhold Niebuhr and followers of Stanley Hauerwas and I have said here that there is truth and error in both perspectives. Of course, passionate followers of Hauerwas accuse me of being “Niebuhrian” and passionate followers of Niebuhr are not pleased with my criticisms of that perspective (called “Christian Realism”).
So this is a case study, as it were, for testing my envisioned “bridge” between the two perspectives. Can a Christian look at this extremely violent strike against a Syrian airbase both critically and cautiously approvingly? I believe that is possible.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
I will begin critically.
No violence is ever righteous; there is no cause for celebration after any act of aggression. At best our American response to this strike, an act of war, should be deep grief for those who were killed (“collateral damage”). Syria is saying even some children died in the attack. Whether that is true or not may never be known, but just the risk of it should give us great pause and deep concern. We should demand clear justification for this and any similar violent act of aggression and we should ask why there and then? Why do we use sixty missiles in Syria but not in… (fill in the blank)? Terrible acts against their own people are perpetrated by dictatorships around the world. When did we intervene militarily in, say, Latin America to protect and defend weak and helpless populations being killed by their own governments? We have intervened militarily in Latin America many times, but, to the best of my own knowledge, never with the sole intent of protecting and defending harshly treated indigenous populations being slaughtered by their own governments. When have we intervened militarily in, say, Africa to protect and defend weak and helpless populations being killed by their own governments (or as their own governments did nothing to protect them)? We (America) seem to care more about such horrible acts in the Middle East than elsewhere. Why?
Continuing in a critical vein…. One justification President Trump is giving for the attack on Syria is America’s own defense of national interests. Really? How so? How does this attack on Syria protect American interests in any crucial way? How is Syria a threat to the U.S.? Also, did the U.S. government, President Trump and his advisors, give careful consideration to the wider implications of such a violent intervention in another country or did they just say “We have the power, so let’s use it”? Especially Christians, devoted to the Prince of Peace, should look at this attack with a somewhat jaundiced eye, seriously questioning it, not celebrating it, and pointing out that it is not a kingdom of God act; it is not righteous.
However, I believe it is possible to be a Christian and support, if not applaud, this aggressive and even very violent act—not as something righteous but as something necessary and therefore right.
Let me begin with a hypothetical analogy in which is embedded a question. Imagine an off duty police officer walking down a sidewalk in a town where he does not serve. (He’s on vacation.) Because he knows this particular neighborhood where he is walking is dangerous. He absolutely abhors using his weapon lethally, but is carrying it “just in case” and legally so. He has no intention of using it unless…. As he walks in this very dangerous neighborhood he happens to see a violent altercation in a nearby park—between a two gangs. He watches. One gang member pulls out a gun and begins shooting at women and children he suspects of being somehow allied with the other gang. What should he do?
Yes, it’s complicated—purposely so. Should he call the local police on his cell phone and wait for them to arrive? Should he drop to his knees and pray for the victims? Should he run for his life—just in case? Or should he do all of that?
My questions are for pacifist Christians (especially) who hypothetically can imagine themselves seeing that situation. What advice would they give the man if he asked? What would they think about him if he did pull out his weapon and shoot the gangster with the sole intention of protecting the women and children but obviously knowing some of his bullets might accidently hit some innocent bystanders?
I intentionally did not say whether the off duty police officer is a Christian because I don’t view the U.S. government as “Christian.” It happens to be a government with the power to intervene in horrible situations where innocent victims are being slaughtered. How should it use it?
So, my own conclusion as a Christian ethicist is that, should it turn out that the U.S. government is telling the truth (and not “alternative facts”) about its military intervention in Syria, it is justified—because necessary to protect weak, vulnerable and defenseless people–even if not righteous.
Now I can just hear some Christian pacifists saying “That’s Niebuhrian—pure and simple!” Well, not quite. Niebuhr sadly and notoriously neglected the church in his Christian realism. The church should not actively support or applaud any government’s violent aggressions. It should be an alternative community to the violence of the world. So what should the church’s response be to America’s violent and aggressive attack on Syria? Neither celebration nor condemnation but prayer and witness—prayer for peace and witness by example of how it is possible for people of extremely different kinds to live in peace with each other. But it should realize that violence is inescapable in this fallen, broken world and give spiritual aid and comfort to those Christians who must reluctantly use violence when necessary—to protect and defend the weak and helpless.
*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment solely to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).