NASHVILLE (BP) — The use of chemical weapons against civilians is a human tragedy with moral urgency, but the United States should not intervene in Syria because the conditions for a “just war” have not been met, according to two Southern Baptist ethicists.
Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said in an article on Religion News Service Sept. 3 that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad is “lawless and tyrannical,” and the first principle of just war — a just cause — has been met.
“That said, there are other principles missing here, both to justify action morally and to justify it prudentially,” Moore stated.
Daniel Heimbach, senior professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, offered a slightly different take on Syria, stating that the United States lacks a basis for intervening “in the internal affairs of a distinctly sovereign and separate state.”
“I see here no legitimately interpreted just cause sufficient to justify the United States going to war with Syria merely because parties in a civil war are doing bad things to each other,” Heimbach said in comments provided to Baptist Press.
“No one is attacking or threatening to attack the United States or any ally of the United States. In fact, should the U.S. go to war with Syria it will vastly increase the risk of Syrian attack on U.S. allies in the region,” said Heimbach, who was instrumental in developing President George H.W. Bush’s just war ethic for the 1991 Gulf War when he served as deputy executive secretary of the Domestic Policy Council.
Heimbach noted, “The meaning and interpretation of a just cause for war (in a just war ethic) requires the nation being attacked (Syria) to have done, or to be doing, or to be moving toward doing some terrible wrong toward the attacking nation (United States) — not merely doing something bad within their own borders against their own people.”
The Christian just war ethic referenced by Heimbach dates to the days of the fourth-century bishop Augustine of Hippo. Faced with barbarian invasions, Augustine developed criteria for the participation of Christians in warfare.
The theory was developed through the early 20th century and now includes the ideas that wars must have a just cause; be declared by a lawful authority as a response to an imminent threat; be a last resort; be prosecuted according to principles of proportionality and non-combatant immunity; and have a reasonable probability of success.
“I do not see, from President Obama, a reasonable opportunity to prevail,” Moore said in the RNS article compiled by culture writer Jonathan Merritt, “or even a definition of what prevailing would mean.
“Regime change is not the point of this action, and even if it were, we don’t yet know who the good guys are,” Moore said. “Replacing one set of terrorists with another does not bring about justice or peace.
“I agree with the President on the moral urgency of Syria,” Moore said, “and I morally reject the crypto-isolationist voices that tell us, in every era, to tend to ‘America First’ and leave defenseless people around the world on their own. In this case, though, the administration is demonstrating neither an imminent threat to national security nor a feasible means to alleviate the very real human rights crisis in Syria.”
The debate over a military strike on Syria stems from a gas attack when an estimated 1,400 civilians died Aug. 21 in a rebel-held area. President Obama said in a White House press briefing that military intelligence had linked the Assad regime to the attack.
“This attack is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security,” Obama said in comments on Aug. 31. “It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm.”
Should the United States attack Syria, it may well be acting alone. Russian President Vladimir Putin has blamed Syrian rebels, many of them linked to al-Qaeda, for the gas attack and has ordered Russian warships to the Mediterranean Sea. Great Britain’s Parliament, normally staunchly allied with the United States, voted against intervention and France’s Parliament currently is debating the possibility of a strike on Syria. China also has urged the United States not to attack Syria.
Moore and Heimbach both acknowledge that the Obama administration is in a deep hole in the court of world opinion. Both, however, say military action to improve the reputation of the president or to prove something about the United States is the wrong course.
“Saving national credibility is important but it does not make a war just,” Moore said. “The President must use his bully pulpit to make the case that what he wants to do here is more than a symbol, a symbol that will leave blood and fire in its wake.
“Right now, it seems the administration is giving an altar call for limited war, without having preached the sermon to make the case,” Moore said.
Heimbach said he sees Obama as “an international idealist who views war through the lens of crusade idealism.”
“Going to war to promote or enforce social ideals within the borders of another sovereign nation that has done or is doing nothing wrong toward you (the attacking nation) crosses the line from employing a just war ethic to employing a crusade ethic,” Heimbach said.
“I do not believe any human ruler ever is justified in launching any war on crusade terms no matter what ideal makes it seem attractive,” Heimbach said, adding, “This does not mean we do nothing. We can and have called for international sanctions. We can and have sought international censure. But the U.S. does not have moral justification to attack Syria, and if we do, the Muslim world will be right to condemn Obama as a crusader.”
Moore also said he fears what war will mean for Christians in Syria who have been able to practice their faith under Assad’s regime. Many may fall prey to al-Qaeda, as the Christian village of Maaloula did Sept. 5. Terrorists attacked the village, the oldest Christian settlement in the country, killing dozens and, according to some reports, beheading Orthodox priests. Videos also have surfaced showing so-called rebels executing prisoners from the Assad regime while shouting “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is greater.”
“Could it be that an anarchic regime of al-Qaeda sympathizers could do to the church in Damascus what Jesus prevented Saul of Tarsus from doing?” Moore asked. “Those are questions worth answering, and that means the President and the Secretary of State must communicate to the country not just the moral condemnation of the Assad regime (most of us agree), but the more difficult task of communicating the moral case for American intervention in this civil war, making clear how such wouldn’t make the situation worse.”
Gregory Tomlin is a writer in Fort Worth, Texas. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).