Recent developments in Syria have got me thinking.
It’s a terrible situation, with a regime led by an avowedly wicked dictator engaged in a bloody civil war against a variety of loosely organised rebel factions. Recent reports and images of large numbers of civilians apparently slaughtered in a chemical weapons attack are distressing to say the least. That any person with a modicum of humanity should be horrified by such events goes without saying.
The political tone is hardening very quickly. In the US, senior politicians say there is “no doubt” who is responsible for this attack, and the country’s armed forces stand ready to go into action at the President’s word. In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron says the world “cannot stand idly by” and is calling MPs back from their summer recess early to vote on possible military intervention. Yet British military planners have been quoted as saying that, while they can map out a number of scenarios for getting into Syria, they are unable to come up with a credible exit strategy.
I wonder whether we’ve learned anything from our forays into Afghanistan and Iraq. Our intervention in Iraq, in particular, was based on supposedly undeniable evidence and near-universal agreement that Saddam Hussein was an evil despot whose passing no one would mourn. Yet, in spite of assurances to the contrary, it seems all we have achieved is to exchange one set of appalling circumstances for another: few would argue that Iraq is less chaotic, violent and unstable today than it was a decade ago. And all the West has managed to do is get blood on its hands and add to the confusion and complexity.
So, even from a purely pragmatic perspective, there are plenty of reasons to be extremely wary of calls for military action in Syria. But for those who claim to follow the Jesus way, there is an even more compelling reason to shy away from the use of force.
Simply put, I cannot find any justification in Jesus’s life and teachings for the use of violence in any form, in any context. In fact, quite the contrary. Even a cursory reading of the sermon on the mount – arguably the centrepiece of Jesus’s ethical and moral teaching – reveals that the Jesus way is one of turning the other cheek, of non-retaliation, of meeting violence with non-violence. And this is not an isolated bit of teaching*; more of the same can be found throughout the gospels. And, of course, Jesus lived out what he taught: he did not resist his own arrest, torture and execution, and he admonished his disciples not to do so either. Later, the apostle Paul continues this theme, clearly instructing the Christians in Rome never to repay evil for evil to anyone (Romans 12:17).
It seems to me that, when we justify the use of violence, no matter how compelling the reasons, we turn our backs on the Kingdom of God and espouse the very principles and patterns upon which the kingdom of this world is founded. As Christians, I believe we (and I include myself in this) have for too long chosen to ignore or rationalise away Jesus’s strong, clear teaching on non-violence. I believe this teaching is central to Jesus’s vision of the Kingdom he came to usher in, and we cannot easily set it aside and still claim to be those who seek that Kingdom.
I am not proposing that we should, in David Cameron’s words, “stand idly by” while atrocities are committed. But it is a false dichotomy to suggest that the only choice is between inaction and military intervention. Every avenue of diplomatic and political persuasion should be explored. Meanwhile, as believers, we should mourn with those who mourn, and we should certainly pray that those who are suffering will find comfort and that a way to peace will be found. But in the end, even if military intervention appears to be the only practical option (which is rarely the case), as followers of Jesus we should renounce it, calmly but firmly. This is the way of the cross, and of the Kingdom.
* For a thorough but concise overview of the Bible’s teaching on non-violence, see this excellent post by Greg Boyd.