So here we are again (or so it feels). Cameron and Obama are talking on the telephone. Military options are being reviewed. Parliament has been recalled. Once more the UK and the US seem to be on the brink of military action in the Middle East.
I remember the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when I felt unable either to join the demonstrations against (with their apparent indifference to the awfulness of the regime and their visceral hostility to those leading our own country and its allies) nor to support the proposed action (with its transparent lack of any real vision for what would be achieved). I was against the invasion but unable to lend my support to an opposition with which I could not identify.
Given the distance from those events I would probably now be more inclined to support the demonstrations but still uneasy about doing so. I subscribe to Just War Theory and would be willing to lend support to military action that meets its criteria. The invasion of Iraq seemed to me to fail on the grounds of probability of success and on last resort. Much was made of the competent authority argument in relation to the UN but I’m far from convinced by that. I’m not at all clear that the UN is an effective enough body to be regarded as a legal authority, valuable though it is.
At any rate we’re now facing many of the same arguments in regard to Syria, albeit nobody is seriously advocating or considering a ground invasion. Whatever military action might be taken is likely to be more demonstrative than really decisive. The arguments in favour seem to amount to “we can’t do nothing” more than “we should do this”. It’s even uncertain whether any state actor really wants Assad overthrown given the uncertainties and dangers attendant on this outcome.
So what, if anything, do Christians have to say that is distinctively Christian on all of this?
It seems to me that the moral and political questions are ones where we are unlikely to have much to add. We are likely to say “war is a bad thing” and to link this to the gospel, but we’re very far from being the only ones opposed in principle to violence. Where Jesus’ teaching is distinctive is in its radicality: “offer the wicked man no resistance”. This, though, would apply not only to intervention from outside but to the Syrian opposition and indeed to Assad. This teaching of Jesus would urge all involved to let the others do whatever they would.
While this accords with the gospel teaching I don’t hear many voices raised saying the the Syrian opposition “lay down your weapons and offer the wicked man Assad no resistance”.
We all understand, at some level, that this teaching is inappropriate. It may be that as individuals we are called to try to reach this level of self-surrender and Christ-likeness, but to choose it on behalf of others is not right. This kind of insight is part of what lies behind Luther’s two regiments approach to politics and to ethics. We have responsibilities towards others in this fallen world that mean that sometimes we are called to do and be things that sit uneasily with the kingdom teaching.
Often moral choice is more a matter of choosing between a set of wrongs rather than holding our for an unachievable right. This is what Just War says. War is always a bad thing but it may be the least bad of a set of bad options.
Again you don’t need to be a follower of Christ to recognise this. What you do need to be a follower of Christ for is to hope for something beyond the sets of compromises this world allows.
What Jesus announces is the coming near of the Kingdom of God, a direct and unchallengeable rule of the loving God. A state of affairs in which war and violence, injustice and abuse, even sickness and death are a thing of the past. In the redeemed and transformed creation into which we are to be resurrected all these consequences of sin will cease to be.
The Christian message is not “be nice” (although we should be nice) or even “be good” (although we should be good). It is that God is acting and will act to make sin and death things of the past. We are called to represent that kingdom in the here and now. We are called to live and act as if God’s rule has already been fully enacted (no possessions, complete non-violence and so on) but we’re also promised God’s gracious forgiveness for the ways in which we fall short.
This dual existence, in God’s kingdom and in the mess of our fallen world, is the core problem of Christian discipleship and is sustainable only through faith in that forgiveness, in the promised return of Christ to rule in glory and in resurrection to eternal life in him.
We shouldn’t try to short-circuit all this by looking for the perfect Christian answer to the pressing ethical and political problems of today. We have to live with the knowledge that there is no way to live in this world without sin, without really doing things that make us guilty, in our eyes and in the eyes of God.
Our only recourse is to throw ourselves on God’s mercy and pray for the guidance of the Spirit to lead us on the path Christ has laid.