In recent weeks many people, including students, have asked me what I think about armed intervention in Syria. I must confess that the deaths of the Syrian people at the hands of their government’s troops (UN estimates are currently at around 8,000 deaths) makes it hard for me to sleep at night–especially since many of the dead are children. As a father of two young daughters, I mourn and am angered by the unjust deaths of others like them in another country. There is definitely just cause for intervention in Syria; however, there are also other criteria of the just-war tradition (which is the mode of moral reasoning behind the emerging international norm known as “the responsibility to protect” or R2P) that also must be satisfied before armed intervention is justified. On this point, Howard Rhodes has posted a relatively short but very thoughtful piece “On Syria: Just War, Acceptance, and Regret” over at Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. I encourage you to read it.
Christian pacifist Stanley Hauerwas often says, “Of course living a life of nonviolence may be harsh. Certainly you have to imagine, and perhaps even face, that you will have to watch the innocent suffer and even die for your convictions.” My students often cringe when they read that–especially, they say (and I agree), in view of atrocities such as those happening in Syria right now. However, sometimes Hauerwas also–and I think rightly–observes that the same may be true for a just-war Christian. The example he gives is that a serious just-war Christian (or non-Christian) should refuse to intentionally target civilians, even when ordered to do so (e.g., to nuke a civilian population center). Similarly, Christian pacifist John Howard Yoder pointed out, both the great Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray and the Methodist theologian Paul Ramsey similarly used to note that there may be a moral imperative for just-war people to surrender if the only way to win a war is to intentionally destroy innocent lives (as in an all-out nuclear war). As Rhodes above notes, the inability to adhere to or meet the other criteria (e.g., proportionality) may mean that we just-war Christians too sometimes have to imagine, and perhaps even face, that we will have to watch the innocent suffer and even die for our convictions.
This doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that we must slip into despair and passivity. In addition to prayer for the victims (and for the perpetrators), all Christians (pacifist and just war) should continue to support, as Bennett Ramberg helpfully outlines, non-military means of intervention as recommended under R2P and, as Baptist ethicist Glen Stassen and others have proposed, just peacemaking practices.