Some of the Questions Christians in the U.S. Should Consider about Syria

This is the third in a series of articles covering the United States' recent bombing of a Syrian military airbase.

Since the White House announced Thursday night that the U.S. had launched missile strikes against a Syrian military air base, our airwaves and newsfeeds have been clogged with reports and articles attempting to explain the situation and editorials and jeremiads attempting to ensure you react to the situation in a particular way.

Because Christians should be people who honor the image of God even in people who make decisions we disagree with, and who recognize that the fall means we don’t reason and argue with perfect moral clarity, we want to take a few minutes to offer a few questions to ask as you form your reactions to this week’s events.

When is force justified? What are acceptable reasons for the U.S. to use its military?

Scripture concedes that governments have the power of the sword, but it is up to rulers and those in authority to wield that power justly–which means that when we vote and when we interact with our elected representatives, each citizen in the U.S. has to think about how we want to see our military force used.

For many Christians, the command to be peacemakers and to beat swords into ploughshares, as well as Jesus’ rebuke of Peter in Gethsemane, all read as a call to pacifism, and giving our consent to any use of force seems sinful. To others, Jesus’ warning that his disciples will need to carry their swords with them when they travel after his death muddies the waters, leading to the conclusion that, while we shouldn’t seek out opportunities to use force, we should be willing to use it in some circumstances. (This has led to an entire branch of political philosophy in the church called Just War Theory.)

If you believe that Christians should be willing to condone the use of violence in some circumstances, what are the circumstances in which you are comfortable seeing the U.S. military used? Strictly for defense against threats to the homeland? For defense of U.S. citizens overseas? Would it ever be acceptable to use force against potential threats that haven’t yet developed? If so, when? Should force be a tool of diplomacy, used to protect our country’s strategic interests or advance our goals? How willing should we be to enter into conflicts that don’t already directly involve U.S. populations but seem to be blatantly unjust?

Christians of good faith can likely have a number of different answers to the above (and below) questions, but part of maintaining a faithful presence in our country is demonstrating that we take the responsibilities of citizenship seriously. We were entrusted with them by God when he put us in this time and place, and we want to work them out the same way we do anything else in our lives–in light of the love and mercy that he has shown us.

Why did this operation take place? What is our official policy on the Syrian civil war and why?

In the hours following the military strike, two different narratives began to be shared about why the President decided to deploy this strike, both coming from official sources making public statements:

The first was that the use of force was a direct response to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, which are banned by international law. If this is the case, then the strike was an effort to contain the use of these weapons and curtail their expansion, ensuring that what happens in Syria doesn’t become a threat to the U.S.

The second was that the President was moved by the images he saw of the aftermath of the attacks, particularly the photos and videos he saw of injured children. This could be the case. But, given that the public has deeply mixed levels of trust in the President’s ability to safely manage military strikes, this could also be an attempt to justify the attacks in a way that appeals to more people’s sympathies.

Either way, it raises major questions about our federal government’s current approach to the use of force and the Syrian civil war. This use of chemical weapons was not substantively different from earlier attacks in Syria, most notably the attacks in Ghouta in 2013. In response to those attacks our current President repeatedly said that any U.S. military intervention in Syria would be a mistake. If this is exactly the kind of horror that has marked the Syrian civil war for years, what has changed about the circumstances on the ground to make a U.S. airstrike less of a mistake in President Trump’s estimation than it would have been in 2013? If the circumstances haven’t changed, what has changed about his understanding of them? If neither of those things have changed, then what are the strategic goals and moral or philosophical guidelines shaping the decisions about how our country uses force?

Were non-violent actions available?

Even in the Just War tradition of Christian thought, military action is to only be pursued after all other options have been exhausted. In this situation, can you think of other ways our country could have pursued our goals without using violence?

How much power to command violence am I comfortable with one person having?

As we’ve already explored together this weekend, the rules governing the President’s obligations to Congress where military actions are concerned have been in flux in recent generations, and whatever balance is struck by the laws at any given time is also subject to whether the President or Congress are actually willing to exercise their rights over one another. Given that all people are fallen and prone to errors, are you more comfortable when Congress exercises its rights to set limits on the duration of military activities, trusting that the relevant committees can provide another set of eyes to check the President’s blind spots? Or do you think that the value of being able to make decisions quickly and freely as circumstances change is too important to leave military strategy subject to review?

Who is my neighbor and what is my responsibility to them?

International politics is incredibly complicated, and its problems are often difficult to understand even for people who spend their whole lives studying them. For those of us who don’t spend our lives thinking about these things, trying to develop a deep enough understanding about them to be sure that we know the best moves for our country to make can be overwhelming.

Reframing some of these conversations can probably be helpful. While we might not be able to explain the precarious dynamics between factions in the Syrian conflict and how each faction’s success or failure impacts U.S. interests, we do know that the Lord commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. When we approach the questions raised by the Syrian conflict, we can approach them with this guiding question in mind: Who is my neighbor and what is my responsibility to them?

What does loving our neighbor lead us to do, to stand for? Certainly this includes what we expect of our federal government, but it also goes far beyond that. We are implicated in the command to love our neighbors not just as a country but also as individuals. Our posture in conversations about national and international issues should always reflect our primary commitment to love God and to love our neighbors.

To what degree am I willing to take part in healing the wounds this conflict has caused?

Even if Christians support military action in Syria, we cannot be satisfied with only military action. Our responsibility to love our neighbors, even those on the other side of the globe, demands something more of us. Who is doing good work on the ground and how can Christians be supporting them–whether it is through the U.S. government, through our churches or through our actions as private citizens? What moral responsibilities does the U.S. have to support the Syrian people? In a fallen world, Christians can not take for granted that our government officials have righteous motivations, especially in a country where citizens have the responsibility of oversight! What pressures need to be put on Congress and the present administration to act with moral concerns of justice rather than simply pragmatic self-interest?

Does this change the way I think about the debate over refugees?

As mentioned above, this week’s use of chemical weapons was nothing new in the Syrian civil war. Many people who were advocating for the U.S. to offer sanctuary to more Syrian refugees pointed to the fact that potential refugees had already had to live within that violence for years while the background check process took place. But the debate over military intervention has helped many of our fellow citizens understand the nature and degree of violence taking place there with new clarity. If you are comfortable using our country’s military strength and military resources to try to curb the horrors being inflicted on Syrians, are you also comfortable using our country to provide shelter or hospitality to those who are trying to flee the violence? Why or why not?

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  • Brian A. Smith is a Contributing Editor at the Center for Christian Civics, the Managing Editor of Law & Liberty and the author of Walker Percy and the Politics of the Wayfarer. He taught political philosophy and international relations at Montclair State University in New Jersey from 2009-2018.

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