Just War, Syria, and the Ethics of Doing Nothing

Have you ever done something just because a situation seemed to demand, “Do something!”?

How did that work out for you?

In my experience, not very well.

Before I was a pastor, I worked with young people in trouble and their families.  A lot of those families experienced crises.  When I was new to that type of work, every crisis seemed to cry out for me to make it better, to “Do something!”.

But often those situations were traps, not opportunities for valiant intervention.  There really was nothing I could do to make it better . . . in fact, my intended-to-be-heroic actions would just intensify the chaos.

Our response to crises should be predicated upon the likelihood that our intervention will make things better, not on our often well-meaning gut impulse to “Do something!”.

This principle should guide us not just in responding to family crises, but in foreign policy as well.

In fact the Just War Theory, a guide for exploring the ethics of military intervention that originated with St. Augustine, says we should do just that.  One of the tenets of the theory is that there must be a reasonable expectation of success before military action is undertaken.

Unfortunately, warfare decisions often appear to be grounded in our need to “Do something!”.   Not only is the chance for success undetermined, but “success” is not even, or inadequately, defined.

It is clear from the teaching of Jesus that for Christians peace should always be our default position.  Exceptions to that default require extraordinary circumstances.  Military action is not simply a “last resort.”  Deadly force is not something to unleash when everything else has been tried.  Destruction of people and property should occur only after everything else has been tried AND we are awfully sure that it is going to make things better.

How many times has the United States committed people and materiel around the world with the stated goal of making things better, only to ultimately increase the chaos?  The argument has been, as it is in the current situation in Syria, that we have to “Do something!”.  This pattern, which transcends political party, stems from our national desire to Make the World Better.  And from our perhaps inflated belief in our ability to do so.

What if we can’t always make things better?  What if there are some situations where there is nothing we can do – nothing within our power – to improve things?

Do we then rain down death and destruction because, by golly, we need to “Do something!”?  

Sure, we are told it can be done “surgically,” like removing a gall bladder.  Take out the diseased organ, stitch the patient back up.  Good as new.  Except that even smart bombs aren’t that smart.  There’s always “collateral damage” – a euphemism for actual men, women, children, houses, businesses, and on and on.

Just War Theory leaves open the possibility that sometimes military action is indeed just.  But war should never be entered into joyfully or triumphantly.  Mourning is the appropriate response to war; it is always a tragedy when lives and property are destroyed, whether they are “ours” or those of our “enemies.”

War is a symptom that we live in a fallen, sinful world where sometimes there are no good options, only less bad ones.

And in that world, often doing nothing, at least nothing that involves violence, is the least bad option.

I am no expert on Syria or on chemical weapons.  But before our nation unleashes a torrent of destructive force, I hope we will consider the option of nonviolence despite our understandable desire to “Do something!”.


(My denomination, the ELCA, has a thoughtful Social Statement titled “For Peace in God’s World” that contains a great deal of helpful background and discussion about Christian ethics regarding war and peace.  You can read the Social Statement here.)

About pastordavesimpson

I'm an unexpected pastor. Why unexpected? Because no one is more surprised than me that I'm a pastor. See the "About" page on my blog for more info.
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2 Responses to Just War, Syria, and the Ethics of Doing Nothing

  1. I am praying that we don’t do anything. I wish President Obama could read this blog


  2. gsimpson2481 says:

    Thanks, Dave, I think that the Obama administration, and other countries as well including the UN, has been doing the other options, as you put it, for some time now. And by the way, those other options, I would argue, need to continue to be pursued. It’s not either/or (see THE RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT). H. Richard Niebuhr, within whose responsibilist ethical tradition I happily stand, made the argument back in the early 40s for “the grace of doing nothing,” unconvincing in that circumstance in my estimation.


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