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Christian Ethical Responses to War in Syria

s_s01_0RTXY6MKThis page summarizes a few of the many resources for Christian decision-making in the midst of war in Syria.  As I write the situation is fluid, with a sudden move to have Syria give up its chemical weapons to an international body.  By Sunday morning (September 15, 2013) when we discuss this at our 8:45 AM Adult Study (Join us in the Parlor!) it could all be reshuffled.  But the violence and tragedy will continue in Syria and the resources for Christian understandings have been developed over centuries, so I think most of this will still be relevant.

First, here is the United Church of Christ statement from September 3, urging President Obama (a UCC church member for years) to forego missile strikes and seek a political solution.  It is important to note that we help Syrian refugees through our contributions to One Great Hour of Sharing.

As the U.S. government itself has recognized, there is no solution to the crisis other than a political one. Instead of pursuing military strikes and arming parties to the conflict, we urge your administration to intensify diplomatic efforts to stop the bloodshed, before Syria is destroyed and the region further destabilized.

Global Ministries has been active in supporting humanitarian relief efforts through several Middle Eastern partners. UCC and Disciples members are encouraged to support such work by their contributions to Syria relief through One Great Hour of Sharing.

"Millions of Syrians have been displaced and are in need of assistance, and a high percentage of them are children," Moos said. "Through our One Great Hour of Sharing appeal for Syrian Humanitarian Relief, we are responding."


The second resource I am sharing summarizes the differing historical Christian ethical positions regarding violence and warfare, including pacifism, realism and Just War theory.  I have included the Just War criteria here, and the whole article written by M.T. Davila, professor of Christian Ethics at Andover Newton, is available at the link.

Just War Tradition: Much of the considerations in the links below use the just war tradition to analyze the set of criteria that might, under extreme circumstances, justify the use of limited force for the purpose of achieving peace. While the brutality of the war in Syria, and the particular violation of international norms against chemical weapons, satisfies the criterion of just cause, careful consideration of some of the other criteria highlights why a military strike against Syria at the time is NOT an ethically viable decision.

Criteria FOR intervention:

  • Just cause: There is agreement that limiting or stopping the violence in Syria is a just cause.  However, this does not make military intervention a just war.
  • Right authority: Currently, unless a nation is directly attacked, "right authority" in cases of military intervention has shifted from individual nation states to regional bodies, or, preferably, international agreement. To date a military strike by the U.S. is not supported by the international community or even ally countries. A unilateral military strike is not permissible under international law, which follows just war criteria, or in the views of Christian ethicists coming from the just war tradition.
  • Reasonable hope for success: The consensus at this time is that the effects of any military strike at this point are unpredictable. President Obama speaks of the goal of bringing the war in Syria back to the limits of conventional war, which forbid the use of chemical weapons. However, the possibility that the violence will escalate and spread as a result is too high to consider that a limited strike would be successful in its goals.
  • Last resort: The current feeling among many is that without the moral will to come to the table to negotiate a peaceful resolution to this conflict there is no other recourse to slow down the violence in Syria than to use force to bend the arm of the Assad government and perhaps the rebel factions. But this is precisely one of the key places where religious imagination has much to offer. Nonviolent options to try to bring about peaceful negotiations include diplomatic visitations, working with NGOs on the ground (both religious and secular), and interreligious efforts. The use of force must always be seen as a failure of imagination, and the resort to force must always be accompanied by a dedicated effort at finding alternative solutions. The links listed below agree that all nonviolent options have not, in fact, been exhausted.

Criteria during intervention:

  • Proportionality: What are the possibilities that a "surgical" strike against military installations will in fact represent an overextension of U.S. military power? What insures that our use of military power will obey this criterion absent the support and supervision of the international community?
  • Non-combatant immunity: There is almost guaranteed certainty that any strike targeted at military installations and at weakening Assad's access to chemical weapons will result in civilian casualties. The nature of the scenario on the ground prevents any military operation where civilian safety can be guaranteed. Therefore, the criterion of discrimination or non-combatant immunity cannot be met.

The criteria of the just war tradition work in concert with each other as a whole to restrict or restrain the use of force, not as a checklist of individual conditions that make the use of force permissible. The links below present a wide range of Christian and other voices that have applied the just war tradition and have conscientiously determined a unilateral strike against Syria illegal.


Susan Thistlethwaite, President of Chicago Theological Seminary, wrote the original study materials in the 1980s for the United Church of Christ Just Peace Church designation.  She wrote this article in the Washington Post about things that can be done instead of military responses, including humanitarian support for refugees, working towards a ceasefire, holding Assad accountable for war crimes and others.


In the same vein, David Entin shared this article from a group in Vermont that is emphasizing the importance of vigorous refugee programs that mitigate the disaster for the people of Syria.


I am also including one defense of missile strikes in Syria.  Nicholas Kristoff wrote this piece for last Sunday’s New York Times, noting that the lessons of history are complicated and that some military interventions have worked and saved lives.

hi-852-syria-damascus-internet"When history looks back on this moment, will it view those who opposed intervening as champions of peace? Or, when the textbooks count the dead children, and the international norms broken with impunity, will our descendants puzzle that we took pride in retreating into passivity during this slaughter?

Isn’t this a bit like the idealists who embraced the Kellogg-Briand Pact that banned war 85 years ago? Sure, that made people feel good. But it may also have encouraged the appeasement that ultimately cost lives in World War II….

 To me, the lessons of history in this area are complex and conflicting, offering no neat formula to reach peace or alleviate war. In most cases, diplomacy works best. But not always. When Yugoslavia was collapsing into civil war in the early 1990s, early efforts at multilateral diplomacy delayed firm action and led to a higher body count.

Some military interventions, as in Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Kosovo, have worked well. Others, such as Iraq in 2003, worked very badly. Still others, such as Libya, had mixed results. Afghanistan and Somalia were promising at first but then evolved badly.

So, having said that analogies aren’t necessarily helpful, let me leave you with a final provocation.

If we were fighting against an incomparably harsher dictator using chemical weapons on our own neighborhoods, and dropping napalm-like substances on our children’s schools, would we regard other countries as “pro-peace” if they sat on the fence as our dead piled up?"

Nicolas Kristoff


Final Thoughts

There are no simple answers here.  I have opposed the missile strikes since President Obama announced his intent, because of the risk of regional warfare and setting off a tinderbox that could effect the whole world.  Syria is a geopolitical lynchpin in the ongoing Muslim conflicts between Sunni and Shia, and the old Cold War between Russia and the United States.  So many actors have much at stake, from their international credibility, to religious beliefs and the ongoing struggle for natural resources.  Unilateral action is dangerous here, and I think President Obama knows this. Who knows what he and Putin talked about during the recent G-20?  This may be there plan in action to remove chemical weapons from Syria.


I do not see any short-term solutions in Syria.  Thousands more will die.  Kristoff’s article moved me even though I disagree, because I think that Christian peacemaking must do more than say “No” to violence, (remember how we lambasted Nancy Reagan for this slogan as the solution to drug addiction?)  I think we need to start thinking of a long-term peace strategy, and the I am starting to think that Grover Norquist is on to something.  Norquist is famous for his anti-tax pledge and once said he wanted to shrink the size of the federal government to where he could drown it in a bathtub.  I think it is time to apply this strategy to the military-industrial complex.  We need to oppose weapons spending on all fronts and start dismantling the weapons of violence piece by piece (peace by piece?)


325px-Syrian_DesertSecond, I think working against global warming and decreasing fossil fuel dependence is also a peacemaking strategy.  So many conflicts are resource driven and climate driven.  Wars for oil will continue until we develop substantial new sources of energy.  Many studies are also starting to find climate related causes to violence and warfare.  The Arab Spring was proceeded by drought that created great hardships for people throughout the Middle East.  It is the most arid region of the world.  Look at the view of Syria from space  and what do you see?  That brown area is 200,000 square miles of desert.  That launches a new train of thought beyond our scope here.  I hope to see you Sunday morning, or see your thoughts here.

Rev. Todd Weir

First Churches UCC/ABC Northampton, Massachusetts

Luke 14:25-33 "Counting the Cost: In Honor of Viola Liuzzo"

Mom_custom-7013eb900ecbeb8c2c19b82dc9cdf1c574de325c-s3-c85It feels like the lectionary is one week off.  Since this is Gathering Sunday, the week that Church School, Choir and committee work begins again for a new year, it would be perfect to preach the preceding passage in Luke-The Great Banquet.  There Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a banquet where the usual guests refuse to show up, so the host starts inviting everyone, not just close friends and family, but the poor, blind and lame- anyone to fill the seats.   We strive to be a great banquet church that lives out the hospitality of God’s love and grace.   We do this by emphasizing an open communion table where all are welcome, by being and Open and Affirming congregation, welcoming GLBTQ people as full disciples.  We emphasize God’s extravagant welcome for a number of good reasons:

  • We believe in grace, that our loving God is a God forgiveness and second chances.
  • We want to grow and welcome more people into our community.
  • We also want to counter-balance loud Christian voices who are dogmatic, racist, sexist and homophobic.  

So I would love to start the new church year with a resounding, welcoming theme of the Great Banquet – but that was last week. 


 This week theme is count the cost.  Jesus says, “If you want to be my disciple, pick up your cross and follow me.”  So apparently the church potluck is over, there are no free lunches and it is time to get down to business.  I find this message of counting the cost difficult to preach, because I fear saying something to the congregation that I may not be able to do myself.  I am very much like the builder to which Jesus refers.  I carefully decide ahead of time if something is doable.  I like to start with small successes and gradually build to bigger challenges.  Like the king before the battle, I only take on struggles that I think I can win.  I am a pragmatist, the master of the Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can,  And wisdom to know the difference.”   I am not don Quiote, I do not charge windmills and I’m not interested in hopeless causes.  No one will mistake me for have a martyr’s complex.  I have a pragmatist’s complex.


“Pick up your cross and follow me,” are the most difficult words in the Bible.  What might I be called to do if I take these words seriously?  Some of my clergy colleagues are being arrested to resist the XL Pipeline, and I share their concerns about global climate change.  After spending hours on moving towards our new high-efficiency natural gas furnace, replacing all the light bulbs in the church, riding my bike to work, must I also practice civil disobedience?  And who do you think would get the newsletter out if I did that?  I might get fired.  Martin Luther King’s congregation in Montgomery, Alabama did not grow while he was a pastor there, and they mutually agreed it was more important that he leave their pulpit and be a leader in the civil rights movement. But perhaps global climate change is too important to wait for my pragmatic gradual approach to life.   


And what if Congress approves missile strikes in Syria, and the war in the Middle East escalates as Iran retaliates in against Israel, and Russia threatens Saudi Arabia?  There are so many causes and so little of me.  And when I count the cost, I really like to win. 


So I feel tension between the vision of the great banquet where Jesus welcomes everyone, and the challenge to pick up the cross and follow Jesus, which is a challenge few of us will follow.  This was raised in my mind during the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, especially in an NPR feature story about Viola Liuzzo, a woman who was killed during the civil rights marches:


The housewife and mother of five had been an active NAACP member in Detroit and was horrified at the violence she saw inflicted upon black protesters on television. So when she heard of a four-day, 54-mile walk from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to support voting rights, she packed a bag. Liuzzo told her husband: "It's everybody's fight." She kissed her children goodbye and began the drive south….


Led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Viola Liuzzo and thousands of other marchers walked to Montgomery, where King spoke on the Capitol steps, telling the crowd that freedom was imminent:

"How long? Not Long! Because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long!" King said in a now-famous speech.  That night, Liuzzo, tired but exhilarated, shuttled local marchers back to their homes. A car filled with Ku Klux Klan members tried to force her off the road. Finally, they pulled alongside Liuzzo's car and shot her in her head. The 39-year-old died instantly.

Liuzzo’s death sparked a national debate.  Unfortunately it was not the debate about Klansman violence and racism.  The July 1965 Ladies Home Journal published a readers’ poll asking if she was a good mother.  55 percent of the readers said “No.”  (I am surprised 45 percent offered their support in 1965.But no one asked these questions about men in the movement.)  The sinister side of this debate is that, according to FBI files, J. Edgar Hoover circulated rumors that she had gone to the South to sleep with black men, in order to discredit her.  I’m sure the Luizzo’s thought about the risks and the time away from her children, and decided it was worth it.  How can you count the cost when you can’t imagine, even in your wildest dreams, people would act with such malice? 


Luizzo’s life and death bring me face-to-face with my own dilemmas about what activist roles to take, what causes to join, what will be the impact on my family life?  When you believe in community and social justice, how do you sort out raising children, finding the time for competing demands, and deciding like Luizzo when she said “It’s everybody’s fight.”


Being a pragmatist, I like to have guidelines, so here are a few of my thoughts.

  1.  Raising children shapes the future and you are doing something important even if you are not on the so-called front lines.  Our kids our on the front lines of the toughest moral challenges our society faces regarding race, class, sexuality, the environment and life choices.   Having an excellent church school is one of the most important things we can do for a more just society.
  2. Our kids need to see us engaging in activism and making the world better.  My Mom took me on peace marches protesting the Vietnam War when I was 5 years old.  This has always been a touch stone event of my life.  (When I wore my black arm band to kindergarten, my teacher took it from me, cut it up with scissors, and told me I was bad in front of the class, for being insensitive to the boys whose Dad’s were off fighting the war.  One of them later whispered to me, “I want to protest the war too, and bring my Dad home.”) 
  3. Quaker activist Thomas Kelly often advised that our causes and concerns be few, but deeply held. 
  4. One way I try to follow the words “pick up your cross” this way.  Every day I try to do at least one hard thing I don’t want to do.  I make the phone call I don’t want to make, or don’t have to make.  Make an apology.  Write the letter.  Start the project I have been procrastinating.  Be willing to take the controversial stand and listen to someone’s pain.  Consider this daily discipline training for the day when you face your hardest dilemmas.
  5. The themes of the inclusive Great Banquet and the narrow path of picking up the cross may be paradoxical, but not mutually exclusive.  If we believe in the banquet where everyone is welcome, we will soon have to count the cost to protect the feast.  The forces of exclusion are powerful, and the ministry of hospitality will also need to demand justice.  There are times when we have to join the courage of Viola Luizzo and say, “It’s everyone’s fight.”