We have been so saturated with talk about Syria in recent days that it has almost become background noise, but something I heard yesterday morning brought it screaming back into the foreground for me. A well-known political commentator was reflecting on President Obama’s efforts to convince Congress to support a military strike against the Assad regime. There was the usual litany of reasons given for why the President deems such an attack necessary. But rather than discussing what the strike would or would not accomplish in Syria, the commentary focused more on the political implications at home.
In particular, the commentator addressed what would happen if Congress ultimately does not vote to support the attack given that the President has lobbied so strongly for it. Her analysis was that such a scenario would so weaken the President that it would “have disastrous consequences for Democrats going forward. Their entire legislative agenda would be stalled.” Alternatively, she said that if Congress does approve a strike against Syria it would strengthen the President’s position and give the Democrats great leverage going into the next presidential election.
So this is what it comes down to? Decisions about war are now weighed on a scale of electoral viability? For centuries the Christian tradition has wrestled to work out a disciplined understanding of just war theory, which attempts to articulate the conditions under which it is appropriate to go to war, and the manner in which such a war must be conducted. Promoting a certain party’s domestic legislative agenda is never discussed under either set of criteria.
In fairness, I should point out that the commentator to whom I was listening was not suggesting that we should make our decisions about Syria on these grounds. But the way she talked suggested that we already are thinking in these terms. It only shows how undisciplined we can quickly become in our moral reasoning. I don’t care to which political party you belong: when life and death decisions are made on utilitarian grounds instead of being based in some objective measure of truth and justice, then the war is already lost.
The creation account in Genesis gives us a radical view of the nature of God and of his intentions. Other creation myths from the ancient world say that the world came into being as a result of war being waged between various gods. This would suggest that violence is inherent to the creation – that the waging of war is a necessary condition to sustain life. But the Genesis account tells us that the creation came into being as the result of the good and loving purposes of a good and loving God. The very existence of the universe is a sign of God’s peaceful intentions towards us.
That there is something called “just war theory” shows that the Christian tradition acknowledges there are times when the use of force is necessary and justified. It is a concession to the reality of sin, which puts the creation at odds with the Creator. But it also puts great restraints on when and how that force ought to be used, because God’s intentions are as peaceful now as they have ever been.
No amount of political calculating will ever change that.