Yesterday, the US, Britain and France launched a military attack against Syria in response to chemical weapons attacks against Syrian civilians believed to have been perpetrated by the Assad regime? Military action has divided public opinion here in the UK. Gone are the days when war and airstrikes were a convenient way for beleaguered governments to galvanise public support and distract attention from domestic politics.
How are Christians to respond? Well to know that, we have to start by looking at what the Bible says about war. It is important that we get the whole picture of Scripture and don’t simply seek out those Bible verses that seem to fit our own position.
So, here are the key things.
1. This World was made good and that goodness included an absence of death. It was through sin that death entered the world. Our starting point is that war is never a good thing in and of itself. Our first response to war as Christians is sadness and even anger at the cruel cost of sin.
2. That the Bible tells us that this World is fallen and therefore that war is a reality of that fallen world. Just as God loves marriage and hates divorce but there is permission for divorce in certain circumstances, so that the one who divorces the adulterer is not in the wrong, so, it is clear that Scripture permits states to use military force. This is seen, first of all in the history of the people of Israel and secondly when Paul in Romans 13:4 says that “rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.” The immediate point Paul is making there is about civil justice but it is important because of two reasons
– First because the wider context is an acknowledgement of the role of the state generally and the tools that it has to do its duties. This includes defending a country from threat.
– Secondly because sometimes it is argued that the commandment “You must not kill” prohibits war. It is important that we understand the command in the context of wider scripture. Wider Scripture shows that there are situations where death is lawful. The command is against unlawful killing specifically (i.e. you must not murder).
3. That we look forward in hope. God’s purpose is peace. Scripture looks forward to a time when swords are turned into ploughshares and war ceases. Our actions should be in response to this hope. Christians should pray for peace and work for peace. Jesus said “Blessed are the peace makers.”
So, the basic principle is that Christians should love, pray and work for peace. We should mourn the cost of war and see it as a last resort whilst recognising that it may sometimes be unavoidable. This means that Christians will also reach different conclusions about how best to do that. Some, as members of my family have concluded will believe that because sometimes war is necessary and states should be able to defend themselves will think it right to join the armed forces or (as in my case prior to pastoral ministry), work in the Defence industry. Incidentally, it is often those who serve in these areas who are the least gung-ho about war. Others choose a pacificst route believing that they could not, in good conscience participate in conflict. A lot of the Brethren (which is our church background) were conscientious objectors during the Second World War. This was often a brave and costly decision, not only were they looked down on but they often then volunteered for dangerous non-combatant roles, for example as stretcher bearers and ambulance drivers.
We also need to recognise that decisions are tricky and complex. Was our government right to act in this situation? I honestly don’t know. There are huge questions about he effectiveness of the air strikes and whether they will escalate conflict. However, there is also the desperation, the intense provocation, the reality that they are seeking to protect innocent lives. Part of our response needs to acknowledge this so that we do not resort to attacking the motives of those who disagree with us. Just because someone is in favour of action does not make them a warmonger and just because someone else opposes it does not make them an appeaser, or worse still a supporter of brutal regimes.
Finally, we need to remember that human governments are finite and that war and suffering will sadly continue until Christ returns. This means that we are realists about the present situation. There is no guarantee that Syria will be resolved or that we can prevent further bloodshed, though tat does not mean we shouldn’t try. Even if the Syrian civil war is brought to a peaceful conclusion, trouble will erupt elsewhere. We are realists about the here and now but we are not pessimists. We are optimists because we know that the story of this world is not tragedy but “Deep Comedy” peace will come. Christ will return, war will end.