On the Brink of Bombing: A Just War?

United States Capitol

United States Capitol (Photo credit: Jack’s LOST FILM)

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached in the Pasadena Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, California, on March 16, 2003, four days before the war against Iraq began.  It was later published in “Reformed Word,” March 2003.  It applies equally well to our current situation with Bashar Assad of Syria.

We are on the brink of a military action against Syria very few people want, an act of war that will most likely have devastating consequences beyond our comprehension for decades to come.

In a time such as we face today, it is necessary and right for people of conscience in every faith to speak. The stakes are too great for us to keep silent. Let us be clear that Bashar Assad is an evil man. Let us be clear as well, that we want him neither to pull us unwittingly into actions that will cause additional evil of incomparable dimensions nor to continue his immoral brutality towards the people of his nation.  Nor do we want our inaction to provide rationale for other countries and groups to use weapons of mass destruction in the future.

In this context, we hear the words of Eli Weisel, a Jewish survivor of the German death camps, who reminds us that “silence is the friend of the perpetrator.”  We hear also, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German preacher and theologian–who, after every other means he could see at his disposal failed, sacrificed his life in a plot to assassinate Hitler–reminding us that “the church has been guilty of silence while evil was taking place.

Within the Christian tradition, Thomas Aquinas said, “For a war to be just, three conditions are necessary–public authority, just cause, right motive.” Just War Theory is a work in progress. Over the years, the criteria for a just war have expanded to include the following:

  1. All other means to a peaceful and just solution must have been exhausted.
  2. The cause must be just and on the side of the preservation of the human community against evil and injustice.
  3. Such a war must be carried out with the attitude of restraint or proportionality to the goal of peace and justice that is sought.
  4. War must be declared by a legitimate authority. (In recent years some have wanted that authority to be the United Nations.
  5. War should provide selective immunity for certain parts of the population, especially noncombatants.
  6. It is generally agreed that Just War never includes the right to a pre-emptive strike.

In making use of these criteria, it is important to note that just war theory requires all the criteria be satisfied in order for war to be considered an appropriate step.  It appears that as of 9:00 a.m. PST on September 10, 2013, not all these criteria have been met.

Most people in the United States have had the good fortune never to have lived in bombed-out cities and villages. We have not, for 135 years, had to recover from the total ruin left by war on our own land; the raping of our daughters, sisters, and mothers; the devastation of our crops; the destruction of our economy. It is easy for us to sanitize the impact of war.

Most of us have been fortunate enough never to have been awakened by air raid sirens, have not lived with the fear of whether our own house will be destroyed or our loved ones killed by a faceless terror dropped from the sky.

We weep with one another at the death of family members, but most of us have never been hopeless about how we will survive, nor had to see tens of thousands of orphans and widows weeping and numb at the death of their fathers and husbands.

Most Americans are, fortunately and unfortunately, insulated from the effects of warfare and terror with which much of the world lives daily.

Nevertheless, there are those among us who remember the agony of sending loved ones off to fight in World War Two, the Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. There are those who remember the telegrams and knock at the door to announce the death of a son or brother, daughter or sister, not in an automobile accident on the freeway, but on a distant battlefield. There are those among us who lived in England during World War II, in Africa and the Middle East, in Central and South America during war and know first-hand the terror and anger, fear and grief that we can never fully know who watch war only on our television and computer screens.

There are those among us who remember first-hand battlefields, IEDs and bombing runs, napalm and Agent Orange, comrades killed and the smell of death, who wondered if they would see their sweethearts again, or their children grow up. There are those who today struggle with injuries visible and invisible caused by war.  Each has seen the impact of war in a way many of us and our President have not, and not one of these with whom I have spoken is eager for us to go to war.

I am not a pacifist. I believe the world should ever acquiesce in evil. Just wars are necessary for a greater good.  The question before us today is whether President Obama’s proposed military actions fit the criteria of a just war, for I believe even a so-called limited air strike is an act of war–particularly upon those who homes and families will be destroyed as so-called collateral damage.

There is incontrovertible evidence that Bashar Assad is an evil man. But to believe that starting a war with Syria at this time is the way to prevent further calamity may be to allow ourselves to be blinded by evil and to escalate the very cycle of violence and terror we want to end.

Other possibilities may exist if we think outside the box of war, even at this late date.   Although we may disagree with one another on how best to reach our common goal of peace, we need to engage in serious dialogue and prayer with one another that we might recognize the words we are to speak, and the actions we are to take.

Our discernment is not easy.  Pray multiple times each day for our armed forces and for the people of Syria. Pray for leaders and negotiators. That we may avoid the devastation of war, is I am sure, the prayer of each of us. It is the prayer of the U.S. soldiers and families who await the command to begin a strike against chemical weapons.  It is the prayer of innocent children and adults, civilians and soldiers who already live with the sounds of bombs overhead and gunshots on the street.

On the eve of the beginning of the Iraq War, I closed my sermon with these words, “I no longer pray for peace”, by the Presbyterian poet, Ann Weems, written days before the war began.

On the edge of war, one foot already in,
I no longer pray for peace:
I pray for miracles.
I pray that stone hearts will turn
to tenderheartedness,
and evil intentions will turn
to mercifulness,
and all the soldiers already deployed
will be snatched out of harm’s way,
and the whole world will be
astounded onto its knees.
I pray that all the “God talk”
will take bones,
and stand up and shed
its cloak of faithlessness,
and walk again in its powerful truth.
I pray that the whole world might
sit down together and share
its bread and its wine.

Some say there is no hope,
but then I’ve always applauded the holy fools
who never seem to give up on
the scandalousness of our faith:
that we are loved by God……
that we can truly love one another.
I no longer pray for peace:
I pray for miracles.

(Ann Weems, Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2003, used with permission)

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