Monday, September 09, 2013

Sit down first and take counsel

It is remarkable how sometimes the scripture readings in the lectionary correspond to events unfolding in the world around us! It is a reminder that God’s Word always has something to say to us today.
In today's Gospel, Jesus said, “What king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel . . ." (Luke 14:31). The context of this statement was that Jesus was telling his followers that they should carefully count the cost of discipleship before committing. Following Jesus could very well mean the loss of a whole way of life or even life itself—it could cost you the comforts of social status, friends, and even family. This new commitment to Christ has to take priority even if it means following the way of the cross. “Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has," Jesus said, "cannot be my disciple.”

How ironic it is that just this week our president asked the congress to give counsel and authorization, considering the costs of potential war! The step was unexpected as the War Powers Act recognizes the president’s authority as Commander-in-Chief to take limited military action when needed and only then to come to the Congress for authorization for a resolution of war or more long-term military engagement.

So far, as public opinion is running against it, it seems that we face the distressing prospect of the Congress and the people saying "No" while the president may go on to engage military action anyway. Since the Word of God, which is “living and active—sharper than any two-edged sword,” I thought we might engage this intersection of the front page and the sacred page about costs of war. The church is often speaking out and praying about the cause of peace when such war is the topic of discussion in the public arena. Yesterday was a special day of fasting and prayer for peace as called for by Pope Francis and our own Archbishop Robert Duncan.

One might think that the only word the church has on the topic is “No.” But in Christian moral theology, beginning with St. Augustine in the fourth century, there is a whole tradition of criteria for ascertaining a “just war.”
Wars by their very nature will involve material evils—death and destruction—so Christian moral theology has an automatic disposition against war, but sometimes Christians can morally (or even should) engage in warfare. Since this is what so many are thinking about, talking about, and praying about, I thought it would be helpful to review the just war theory today.

But first, let’s get a common misconception about just war out of the way. It can be summed up in the phrase, “Somebody ought to do something!” Most of us feel that urge to get involved when we see news about some dictator being cruel and committing atrocities.
The problem is that we are not the world’s policemen. We can't solve every problem. If we went to war every time a petty despot was naughty or people were being killed, we would ALWAYS be at war. We tend to look for military solutions to human problems.
So then what should be our concerns when considering military intervention? What does Christian moral theology have to say? The just war tradition looks at least five basic criteria in evaluating whether warfare can be just, and they all have to be satisfied: cause, legitimate authority, probability of success, last resort, and proportionality. The burden of proof is on those arguing for war to make their case in each of these areas.

1. A “just” or “righteous” cause for fighting. A just war is always defensive in nature. That is generally considered to extend to the defense of allies. Indeed, mutual protection treaties work against the likelihood of war. It is hard to see how our involvement could be seen as defensive in nature. In fact, getting involved in the Syrian Civil War might be more of a threat to our regional allies and to our own national interests than staying out of it. The protection of human life is a noble cause for intervention, but why is the killing of several hundred by use chemical weapons more imperative than the tens of thousands killed since 2011? If we got involved, would we be saying that killing is alright as long as it's not done chemically.

2. Legitimate authority to wage war. Because the US was not directly attacked, an American attack on Syria would actually violate international law—unless we obtain UN backing (which has not and will not be forthcoming). So if we did this, we would be breaking international law by attacking a country that broke international law by using chemical weapons to teach them that breaking international law is wrong. That's problematic at best.

3. Probability of success. War cannot be just if there is no likely achievement. You wouldn’t plan war strategy that way anymore than football strategy. What is the strategic objective in this case? Is it depleting arsenals? Is it regime change? What are we trying to accomplish and is that a viable goal? What assurance do we have that the situation would not end up being worse with our involvement? These are tough questions that deserve answers.

4. Last resort. This civil war has been going on since the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. But our country has not shown a major concern for resolving it until now. The problem is not that peacemaking has been tried and failed. Where are the diplomatic negotiations? the economic sanctions? Nonviolent strategies have hardly been tried at all and alternative measures need to be exhausted first.

5. Proportionality. Any direct action (even limited engagement) by the US could escalate the war and involve Russia, China, Iran, and Israel. Would the strategic damage done with a military strike likely be proportionate to any good that might be accomplished? Would this action stop the war and ultimately save lives? These questions deserve answers.

As we approach the 100 year anniversary of the so-called “war to end all wars,” we need to stop and consider the cost and the best way to serve peace. We will always have tough decisions to make.
As Moses said: “Behold, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil” (Deuteronomy 30:15). As individuals and as a nation, may God give us the grace, the wisdom, and the guidance to always choose life.

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