Difficult Syria decision will always be about religion

-A A +A

By Dave Charlton

Should we or should we not intervene? While it looks inevitable that the United States will take some kind of military action against Syria, and may have done so by the time this column is published, the question remains – is military intervention the correct course of action?

Military intervention, and the questions of when and how such intervention should occur, is one of the most important moral questions confronting a nation and its leaders. The question of whether or not to intervene in Syria looms even larger because of the war-weariness of the American people. Reuters News Service reports that 60 percent of the American public opposes intervention in Syria, in spite of the evidence that the Assad regime may have used chemical weapons on its own people. How often does 60 percent of the American public agree on anything?

There are, certainly, some very practical questions to confront in this issue. Is this a matter for Syria to work out on its own? Is it wise to wade into the middle of what is turning into a full-blown civil war? Do we need to become engaged in another conflict that may become a quagmire? (We only have to look at Iraq and Afghanistan to see that once we begin a military action it almost inevitably draws us in deeper than our original intentions.)

If we help to force Syrian President Assad out of power will life improve for the Syrian people, or will it only be a matter of one oppressive regime being replaced by another that is equally oppressive? What are the moral repercussions of military intervention? Do we have a moral responsibility to intervene, especially when the Assad regime is killing innocent civilians?

And on and on the questions go, none with easy answers.

There is also another element to be considered when dealing with Syria – that of religion.

Any intervention on the part of a Western nation carries overtones of the Crusades, and while such a comparison might not be in our minds, it is certainly in the minds of many Syrians. Centuries after the final Crusade, intervention by the United States could be seen as the provocation of a holy war, which would certainly bring a greater set of complications to the situation.

There is also a religious element from our perspective as well, and it relates to language used by President Obama on several occasions. One of the guiding principles used for centuries by Western nations, when it comes to the question of military force, has been the Just War Theory.

President Obama has referenced this theory on several occasions to solicit support for some of his decisions, but has generally done so incorrectly. The Just War Theory was developed centuries ago, primarily by theologians who sought to provide a moral framework for the use of military action and has continued to give guidance to those leaders who make decisions related to armed conflict.

The Just War Theory was solidified in Western culture primarily by Augustine (354-430 AD), one of the most influential theologians in history, and whose teachings and writings have shaped our culture to the current day.

The tenets of the Just War Theory are:

1.    There must be a just cause.

2.    There must be a just intention.

3.    There must be comparative justice, meaning the act of war cannot inflict more harm than the offense that led to the military response.

4.    There must be a legitimate authority declaring the war.

5.    There must be discrimination, which means that all attempts must be made to guard against harm to civilians, and civilians must never be targeted, and 6. War must be waged only as a last resort. All other options must be exhausted before going to war.

When President Obama has relied upon the Just War Theory, it has generally been to provide justification for the use of drone attacks, saying such usage is an action of self-defense. What President Obama defines as self-defense, however, comes closer to preemptive action, which is an incorrect use of the Just War Theory, as are the civilian casualties that come with the use of drones.

In short, if you are going to use the Just War Theory as a basis for your actions, use it correctly or find another way to speak to the morality of your decisions. The Just War Theory is more than simply a political tool to be used to justify military action; it is a philosophy with roots in religious faith.

Using this type of reasoning, especially in relation to a military action in the Middle East – against a Muslim population – carries religious overtones that cannot be ignored. Invoking the Just War Theory is using language that has its roots in religion and by its use comes perilously close, I believe, to the implication that warfare has the sanctioning of the divine.

While it certainly wouldn’t be the first time faith has been used in our history to undergird military action, it would be a most unfortunate way to approach the possible use of military force, especially in relation to a country in the Middle East.

Syria will certainly see such action as being religious in nature, and any implication that we are injecting God into military action would lead us down a very dangerous road, one that is already possessed of enough danger.


Dave Charlton is pastor of First Christian Church. His column will appear every other week. You can reach him at davidpaulcharlton@gmail.com.