On Syrian conflict, three Christian perspectives

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Supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad gather in Damascus's Bahrat Square - Courtesy of FreedomHouse (http://bit.ly/17lre46)

Supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad gather in Damascus's Bahrat Square - Courtesy of FreedomHouse (http://bit.ly/17lre46)

Supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad gather in Damascus's Bahrat Square - Courtesy of FreedomHouse (http://bit.ly/17lre46)

Supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad gather in Damascus’s Bahrat Square – Courtesy of FreedomHouse (http://bit.ly/17lre46)

The Syrian civil war has become a humanitarian hell. More than 100,000 are dead, images of a state-sanctioned chemical weapons attack have evoked a global protest, and most Western leaders agree that Syrian President Bashar Assad is an all-around bad guy. But enacting another bloody and expensive war against an unstable Middle Eastern country, particularly one with the backing of Russia and Iran, is something many Americans have little stomach for.

So which position should Christians support?

Traditionally, Christians have viewed war through one of two lenses. Those who hold to just war theory believe that war is often right if the violent conflict meets certain criteria. This is the view held by most Catholics and conservative Protestants. On the other hand, Christian pacifists believe that violence is incompatible with a faith that is patterned after the one who blessed peacemakers and urged his followers to “turn the other cheek.”

But in recent years, a third view called just peacemaking has gained traction among some Christians. It has been promoted by evangelical theologians Glenn Stassen and David Gushee, and supports the prevention of war through nonviolent direct action and cooperative conflict resolution. Stassen and Gushee point out that just peacemaking theory is not intended to be a substitute for just war or pacifism, but rather a supplement and corrective.

Below are position statements on the Syrian conflict from Christian thought leaders representing each of these perspectives:


Just War | Russell Moore,
President of The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission

The first principle of a just war, that of a just cause, has been met in this case. Assad’s regime is lawless and tyrannical, and rightly provokes international outrage. That said, there are other principles missing here, both to justify action morally and to justify it prudentially.

I do not see, from President Obama, a reasonable opportunity to prevail, 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. 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, 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.

Moreover, there is the very real threat to religious minority communities in Syria. How will an attack further jeopardize the Body of Christ in Syria? 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? 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.

Saving national credibility is important but it does not make a war just. 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.

If I were in Congress, I would vote “no” on this war.


Pacifism | Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove,
author of Strangers at My Door

The news this weekend feels to me so much like Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN in 2003. We always want to go to war for a moral reason. But as a Christian, I have to ask, “How is Assad’s violence toward innocent civilians morally different than our ‘shock and awe’ bombing of Baghdad?” When I see the images from Syria, my gut wrenches. But I don’t ask, “How could anyone do that?” because I was in Baghad in 2003. I know that we did that–and did it while we were telling our citizens we weren’t.

Of course, that was the Bush administration. But I cannot forget the stories I’ve heard from friends in Afghanistan about drone attacks under the Obama administration. We love drones because they don’t put US soliders at risk. But when they hit the home of a known Al Qaeda operative, they kill indiscriminately.

Obama is trying to maintain credibility by meeting force with force. But Jesus showed us a better way–that we can only overcome evil with good. We are in no position to do this as a nation because we’ve invested all of our resources in the overwhelming power of military machines. But these technologies cannot bring peace. Indeed, I fear our investment in them has catapulted us into a policy of perpetual war. If troop numbers are down in Iraq and Afghanistan, then the Pentegon needs somewhere else to do its business. If not, contractors would be out of business. This is a cruel economic calculus.

Our only hope is to refuse cooperation with a system that demands violence and begin investing our lives and resources in things that make for peace. Of course, someone will ask, “But what about the innocent victims? Don’t you care for them?” As a disciple of the nonviolence of Jesus, I have to admit that some people may die because of my refusal to fight with violence. But people also die when we fight with violence. Nonviolence is not passive. It seeks to devote our resources to a better way. In our present public policy framework, this looks like opting out. But it is not disengagement. Christian nonviolence is engagement of the most serious kind. I give thanks for small experiments like the Christian Peacemaker Teams, Muslim Peacemaker Teams, and the Global Nonviolent Peaceforce. We won’t have better options on the global stage at a time like this until we invest seriously in these approaches to intervention.


Just Peacemaking | David Gushee,
author of The Sacredness of Human Life

From all indications, President Obama has never been contemplating more than a relatively small punitive strike on Syrian military targets, so we are not really talking about a “war.” The question is on what basis might a punitive strike by the United States (and possibly some group of allies) be morally justified, and whether there are any alternatives that are morally preferable.

In the world envisioned by the official declarations and principles of the United Nations, the world community, acting primarily through the UN Security Council, would long ago have intervened in the Syrian civil war. Proven use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would certainly have triggered the condemnation of the world, and the UN would have stepped in with various steps to protect civilians, separate the warring parties, and isolate and possibly remove the Syrian regime. Sadly, we do not today live in the world envisioned by the United Nations, because power politics and alliances and resentments continually prevent the five powers of the UN Security Council from acting in concert.

Just peacemaking theory would suggest that the United States should first test the UN’s own principles by taking a case for rigorous international intervention in Syria before the UN Security Council. Show all the evidence. Call for the UN to live up to its own principles. Draft a strong resolution. Only if such a resolution should fail would the US have a case for going it alone. The president could say that international moral and legal norms and humanitarian concern demand international action, but failing that, the United States is acting in the stead of the international community. This is a case that could be far more effectively made after an effort at the UN.

But in this case, so far, anticipation of failure has led to a preemption of a UN effort. This has led the US out onto a very shaky limb. And the weakness of the President’s isolated position is reducing the likelihood that the United States (or anyone else) will end up doing anything at all. Meanwhile, civilians continue to die in large numbers, and the threshold against using chemical weapons has been breached without penalty by Syria.

  • Thanks for sharing these different perspectives. This is by no means an easy issue to take a stance on, but it’s refreshing to see the various options set out in a balanced way. We hear so many strident voices, even in the Christian community, aggressively pushing their particular stance.

    For what it’s worth, I tend to come down with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I find it difficult to make a case for violent intervention that accords with my reading of Jesus and his teachings. (I confess that this is a fairly recent change for me; a few years ago I would have adopted a much more conservative position, almost without thinking. That was before I started reading the Bible through my own eyes, rather than just listening to how I was told to interpret it…)

  • Thanks for the comment. I think Christian pacifists lean heavily on Jesus. Just war theorists lean heavily on Paul. Both pull from scripture, but the emphasis is different.

  • Good read – it’s very difficult, sometimes, to apply Scripture to present-day events, and I think this is a great example. John Piper’s four part sermon series on Romans 13 has been a great read for me recently in attempting to increase my understanding of how government (even those obviously cruel) play into God’s plans.

    I think that’s possibly the most trying thing that requires faith: Knowing God is still in control (Revelation 3:20, Proverbs 16:4, Isaiah 45:7, among many others), even when tragedy spreads across the landscape. And this applies to all people when trials come – easier said than done, of course, and much easier when I’m not facing possible chemical attacks.

  • andrew mook

    it’s so funny to me to think just-war folks lean on paul when they ignore his robust words of enemy-love and shrink his testimony to one part of one chapter of romans (which as yoder and others have pointed out is not what it seems).

    it confounds.

  • Mollie

    Just a note to say I enjoyed reading these perspectives.

  • Thanks, Mollie!

  • Dexter Van Zile

    David Gushee states that the Obama Administration should go to the UN and that “anticipation of failure has led to a preemption of a UN effort.”

    “Anticipation of failure?” Reuters reports the following: “Russia, Syria’s main arms supplier, as well as China, have already vetoed three resolutions condemning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and threatening it with U.N. sanctions.”

    I think Dr. Gushee is stacking the factual deck in his favor in an untenable manner.

  • Jill Schaeffer

    I’m much closer to David Gushee’s position than to the others but still pull back from going all the way…to the UN, again? I don’t believe that The UN has any intention of losing ground with China and Russia. Geo-politics runs the show, and any ethical or moral dilemmas governing debate are ornamental or discarded. I am for going in, in the same way that Americans went into Bosnia, and while Europe wrung its hands, the slaughter of Muslims stopped. Just because the United States is spotty on its conduct of war or even its human rights record, to automatically decide on no action may very well, in this situation, not only create victims but encourage the further destabilization of the Middle Eat which inevitably will involve our national interests, and risk the lives of Americans at home. Two oceans no longer protect us, nor do empty skies, as 9/11 showed. I think we have become more like the rest of the world because we, as they, are vulnerable. Out of that genuine vulnerability not delusions of inviolability should are decisions be made. Non-violence may not be an option either for the Syrian people or, in the long run, for ourselves.

  • The issue is really simple. The only kind of war God sanctions is a war of true self-defense. Syria has not attacked us. Thus, there should be no war where our national civil government attacks Syria.

    John Lofton, Director

    The God And Government Project



  • nathan

    To be fair to Paul, just war theory…a theory designed to facilitate EXCEPTIONS to an assumption of nonviolence as the overiding assumed most discernably christian default position in general…was developed by Augustine. Its not coherently presented in the Bible the way Jesus’ teaching is. If people think turn the other cheek was a call to passivity, then Walter Winks Jesus and Nonviolence would be a great place to grasp what scripture actually says on this point.

  • Jim Fletcher

    Regarding Gushee and Stassen on “the prevention of war through nonviolent direct action and cooperative conflict resolution”—how would one do that? Practically speaking, how would this work with butchers like Assad or Al Qaida?

    This was an interesting blog, but I wish there had been another perspective sought, rather than the three who appear, who are more center-left. Why not ask someone like Oliver North, Jerry Boykin, or perhaps British Col. Richard Kemp?

    I also tend to dismiss perspectives from Gushee and Stassen, who seek to demonize and marginalize Israel’s Christian supporters. In allegedly promoting tolerance and peacemaking for everyone else, they display an unfortunate animus for more conservative Christian brothers and sisters.

  • Russell Moore isn’t center-left.

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  • nathan

    Apparently any no vote for any reason makes one a leftist.

  • William Dieckmann

    Picture: Looks like a Hitler salute, you choose Chamberlain or Churchill???

  • Whatever JM! I’m tired of flaming liberals like Russell Moore infiltrating the inner workings of the SBC!! 😉

  • Lee H. Lybarger

    Reinhold Niebuhr, John Swomley, John Howard Yoder! Where are when we need you?!!

  • Beautifully and refreshingly written. Thanks so much, Jonathan. A few months ago I had an opportunity to travel to Jordan and visit the Zaatari Refugee Camp. No words. I live in Ethiopia and am also friends with some Syrians who have fled their country. One of my friends here witnessed his cousin’s murder (he was shot and killed in the street for no reason just after they had finished an early breakfast together during Ramadan.) I also recently visited the West Bank where I saw with my own eyes what past wars (and the occupation) have done to people that God loves living behind the wall. I can relate to Rob Grayson’s comment: I, too, have been questioning and rethinking (for a while now) all I’ve ever thought/known about war. I feel the Holy Spirit’s patience, His gentle guidance, and His encouragement as I learn and consider things I’ve rarely considered before…non-violent resistance, what real justice looks like, and more.

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  • Marcus Johnson

    That’s the only kind of war God sanctions? Let me introduce you to a little known section of the Bible called “the entire Old Testament.”

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  • Let us also not forget that we will be replacing one villain with another – Islamic Fundamentalists who will be happy to ethnically and religiously cleanse Syria of all Christians, Alewites and Yazides. This is not a just war.

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  • Paula

    Just a suggestion – a print option would be helpful on your articles. I tried to print this and it came out to 14 unwieldy pages.

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  • James Turturro

    Mr. Merritt interesting viewpoints. Just war theology is far more complex than presented here. It begins with Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and so forth up to philisophical just war questions of proportionality. Although each writer in the Christian Thought offers something new the foundation is Augustine. Thus there is Cathlic Just War and Reformed Just war. Luther sets the stage for punishment of offenses and Calvin grounds the legality and authority aspects. It is my view that the Syrian Government of Assad has committed the most serious offense against humanity and that the offense must be Punished (Luther) or chaos will ensue at even greater levels that at present. President Obama is rightly asking for Congress to pass the resolution that will make the limited military action legal and with authority moral. (Calvin) To do nothing is not a moral act. From the gospel: if a child ask for bread you would not give him a stone? Syria is asking for our help, the children of Syria…It is not a moral option to do nothing. The criminal act of using gas on your own people can not go unchecked. I do not support intervention in the Syrian Civil War because there is no proportionality to that involvement. I do support punishment by the US for the crime against humanity by Assad, gassing children, women and civilians.

  • James Turturro

    The US Secretary of State and the President of the United States Barack Obama together with House Speaker John Boehner are making the case for punishment of the Syrian Government for a crime against humanity.
    For thirty months the UN and the US state department have made every opportunity to resolve this conflict. The offender is Mr. ASSAD and the consequence of that offense will be punishment/judgement for the criminal intent and action. To do nothing given the long range of Christian thought from Jesus, the apsotles, Augustine would be immoral. I support the House Resolution to act with in the limits Congress sets forth.

  • James Turturro

    Jill you are spot on target. Good moral reasoning and realistic/pragmatic.
    Reinhold Niebuhr would be prous right along with God.

  • James Turturro

    The attack with chemical agents on the children of Syria is an attack on all humanity and must be answered. To turn ones eye away because of denial is to share the guilt.

  • Joel

    None of the alternative voices you suggested are Christian pastors or thinkers – Oliver North, seriously?

  • Joey

    Where do you see anyone saying do nothing?

    Please don’t confuse non-violence with pasivism.

    We desire to overcome violence with non-violence. Overcome evil by doing good. No one is suggesting doing nothing.

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  • The Apostle Paul, leaning on Jesus, wrote one of the great pacifist passages of the New Testament. http://textsincontext.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/romans-13-in-context-sword-pacifism/

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  • Well put. The view given here of just war is simplistic in the extreme, drawing more from the American myth of redemptive violence than anything resembling the just war theory which is a list of carefully proscribed limitations to prevent war rather than jump to its easy justification.

    Worse, the writer makes the case that taking this action would somehow benefit the Christian community. In fact, Christians have generally fared well under the Assad regime. If the rebells win we could see a repeat of the effects of our invasion of Iraq – the empowerment of a radical element that to date has led to the flight of 800,000 Christians. Choosing to deal with this complicated situation with more violence is a bad decision politically; an ever worse choice theologically and morally.

  • The view given here of just war is simplistic in the extreme, drawing more from the American myth of redemptive violence than anything resembling the just war theory which is a list of carefully proscribed limitations to prevent war rather than jump to its easy justification.

    Worse, the writer makes the case that taking this action would somehow benefit the Christian community. In fact, Christians have generally fared well under the Assad regime. If the rebells win we could see a repeat of the effects of our invasion of Iraq – the empowerment of a radical element that to date has led to the flight of 800,000 Christians. Choosing to deal with this complicated situation with more violence is a bad decision politically; an ever worse choice theologically and morally.

    – See more at: http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2013/09/03/on-syria-three-christian-perspectives/#comment-59456

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  • ron

    Don’t forget Jesus was the God of the Old Testament too and he destroyed Sodom. People take only one part of the bible and not the whole to their own foolishment. Jesus will show he is a man of war when he returns!

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  • Most Christians in Syria prefer the government of Assad. As far as a chemical attack by Assad it’s possible but its also possibly the work of rebels. We know at a time he was winning right in the middle of Damascus would not be the Assad style.

  • Mr. Merritt,
    Did you know Assad controlled areas are relatively the most free for Christians in the Middle East?