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Theologians weigh in on whether war with Syria is justified

Published: Saturday, Aug. 31 2013 10:00 a.m. MDT

Members of the local Syrian community march in protest against the United States' involvement in Syria, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013, in Allentown, Pa. President Barack Obama says he hasn't made a final decision about a military strike against Syria_but is considering a limited and narrow action in response to a chemical weapons attack that he says Syria's government carried out last week. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Matt Slocum, AP

Theologians have voiced their views this past week on whether a U.S. military strike against Syria is justified — and many are saying no.

The Associated Press reported Friday that President Barack Obama is poised to become the first U.S. leader in three decades to attack a foreign nation without broad international support or acting in direct defense of Americans. Only France has indicated it would join a U.S. strike on Syria.

The turning point for the U.S. was Syria's use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians. But some theologians and policy experts have asked what is the difference between chemical weapons and the conventional weapons that have killed thousands in Egypt.

"I don’t know why there would be any distinction," Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University, told Religion News Service. "Egyptians who are killed are just as dead as the Syrians who were killed, and though it appears that dying of a chemical weapons attack is an awful experience, frankly bleeding to death from a gunshot wound to your chest or stepping on a mine that blows off your leg is equally awful. So anyone who makes an argument that there’s a moral obligation to act has to address that question: Why here and not there?"

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, wrote in the Washington Post that chemical weapons do carry an image of the most insidious nature of war. But she argues that the nature of the weapon shouldn't justify escalating an existing war.

"The truth is, war is the moral obscenity," she wrote. "It is war that must be stopped and bombing campaigns do not end war. In fact, military interventions normally make things worse for civilians, a 2012 study has concluded."

Those religious thinkers and policy experts voicing their opinions on whether attacking Syria is the right thing to do are filtering their thinking through the Christian Just War tradition. Matthew A. Shadle, an associate professor of moral theology at Loras College, wrote in the Post that Just War theory originates in two fundamental principles: "First, political authorities have the responsibility to promote justice and protect innocent life, even using force if necessary. ... Second, the tradition insists that any sort of violence, because it involves the taking of life, is tragic (and) is to be regretted."

But modern times demand additional criteria be considered to justify war, wrote Rabbi Michael J. Broyde, a law professor and senior fellow at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion. He told RNS that the decision must also be based on the likelihood of success and whether stepping in to protect the innocent will make matters worse.

"In the real world, just war theory has to actually work, and not just theoretically work," Broyde said. "Doing nothing is a moral option when doing anything makes a bad situation worse. Options that bring peace and protect the innocent are to be favored when reasonable people think that they are likely to work in fact."

Among the situations that could be made worse by American intervention is the circumstances of minority Christians in Syria, military experts told the Christian Post.

Lt. Col. Robert L. Maginnis, now a senior fellow for National Security at Family Research Council, drew similarities to Iraq, where former dictator Saddam Hussein protected Christians. "But once Saddam was replaced the American-installed Shiite government sat back while Christians were run out of the country."

"Should Islamists take over Syria, with or without American help, Christians will face increased persecution and thus will flee in greater numbers," Maginnis predicted.

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