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Theologians weigh in on whether war with Syria is justified

Published: Monday, Aug. 31 2015 10:57 p.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) 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?"

Palestinians hold signs and Syrian flags during a protest against a possible military attack by the United States on Syria, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. The Arabic on the banner, center, reads, Palestinians hold signs and Syrian flags during a protest against a possible military attack by the United States on Syria, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. The Arabic on the banner, center, reads, "What a shame. Arab League equals dollars." (Majdi Mohammed, Associated Press)

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."

Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr chant slogans against the U.S. and wave Iraqi and Syrian flags during a demonstration in Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr held rallies in Baghdad and the southern Iraqi city of Basra to denounce any Western strikes against Syria.  (Hadi Mizban, AP) Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr chant slogans against the U.S. and wave Iraqi and Syrian flags during a demonstration in Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr held rallies in Baghdad and the southern Iraqi city of Basra to denounce any Western strikes against Syria. (Hadi Mizban, AP)

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."

U.N. experts arrive at the entrance of the private jet terminal at Beirut international airport, Lebanon, for the departure, after their convoy of U.N. experts left Syria into Lebanon Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. The U.N. experts investigating last week’s alleged chemical weapons strike outside Damascus left Syria early Saturday and crossed into neighboring Lebanon, departing hours after President Barack Obama said he is weighing “limited and narrow” action against a Syrian regime that the administration has bluntly accused of launching the deadly attack.  (Hussein Malla, Associated Press) U.N. experts arrive at the entrance of the private jet terminal at Beirut international airport, Lebanon, for the departure, after their convoy of U.N. experts left Syria into Lebanon Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. The U.N. experts investigating last week’s alleged chemical weapons strike outside Damascus left Syria early Saturday and crossed into neighboring Lebanon, departing hours after President Barack Obama said he is weighing “limited and narrow” action against a Syrian regime that the administration has bluntly accused of launching the deadly attack. (Hussein Malla, Associated Press)

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

Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, wrote that the situation in Syria provides an opportunity to consider other options besides military intervention: "Can a head of state be proven guilty of committing an act of terrorism against innocent people? How might that galvanize and unite international opinion against him and in defense of the Syrian people who are suffering so much? Could new levels of isolation and rejection be used to surround him with united international pressure to weaken his regime? And if the use of force is necessary as part of that pressure, how can we begin to move away from the unintended consequences of war to a new and focused strategy of policing the world of its terrorist threats?"

An NBC poll released Friday found Americans divided over the scope of intervention in Syria. Fifty percent of Americans believe the United States should not intervene. "But the public is more supportive of military action when it's limited to launching cruise missiles from U.S. naval ships — 50 percent favor that kind of intervention, while 44 percent oppose it."

Syrian refugees pass through the Turkish Cilvegozu gate border, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. U.N. chemical weapons experts have left Syria and crossed into neighboring Lebanon. The team on Friday carried out a fourth and final day of inspection as they sought to determine precisely what happened in the Aug. 21 alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus. The team took samples from victims for examination in laboratories in Europe.  (Gregorio Borgia, Associated Press) Syrian refugees pass through the Turkish Cilvegozu gate border, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. U.N. chemical weapons experts have left Syria and crossed into neighboring Lebanon. The team on Friday carried out a fourth and final day of inspection as they sought to determine precisely what happened in the Aug. 21 alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus. The team took samples from victims for examination in laboratories in Europe. (Gregorio Borgia, Associated Press)

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released over the weekend found about 60 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States should not intervene in Syria's civil war, while just 9 percent thought Obama should act.

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com Twitter: @deseretbrown

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