Last week saw an ebbing tide in the desire for military intervention in Syria. The British Parliament voted against a proposal to support intervention, a Reuters poll revealed that 53 percent of the U.S. oppose military action, and President Obama decided to ask for congressional approval before acting.
This week has seen the tide shift considerably. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi endorsed the president’s call for intervention. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) both spoke in favor of military action after meeting with the president. House Speaker John Boehner’s endorsement soon followed, along with that of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
While voices on both sides have called for more investigation and for further efforts to obtain international partners before acting, support for a U.S. attack on Syria appears to be quickly rising.
On Tuesday, Sept. 3, Robert Parham’s editorial focused on the rules of “Just War” as a needed lens through which to interpret and make decisions regarding Syrian intervention.
These rules offer “high moral hurdles to cross,” Parham noted. “Yet better to cross them than to rush into war.”
Those who are advocates of “Just War” ought to join their voices with Parham’s in calling the leadership of the United States to consider these standards before acting.
Even if you do not believe war or violence of any kind can ever earn the label “just,” these rules can provide a framework for urging those with the power to enact war to further reflection.
Some may see this as a call to compromise one’s principals, but I do not believe it to be so.
In Matthew 5:38-48, Jesus taught his disciples to resist evil through nonviolent means. I believe his intent was to transform the perpetrator of violence by offering them the opportunity to repent.
I also believe that this didn’t apply to personal piety alone but was intended to be a model for the way individuals should lead their communities and nations to act.
In addition to Jesus’ teachings, I have been strongly influenced by the ideas of Gandhi, MLK Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh, AndrÃ© TrocmÃ© and other practitioners of nonviolence.
And I would affirm, with Walter Rauschenbusch, that few wars “have ever been fought for the sake of justice or the people” but rather because of “personal spite, the ambition of military professionals, and the protection of capitalistic ventures.”
My sympathies are clearly with those who advocate for nonviolent means of resolving differences, so why do I believe promoting the principals of “Just War” is needed and necessary at times such as these?
Simply put, U.S. and international leaders are not engaged in a debate about whether or not military action is acceptable, but when it is acceptable.
So, rather than seeking to engage them in a debate that they are not having – nor willing to have right now – would it not be better to set before them the “high moral hurdles” of “Just War” principals rather than to simply decry military action at any point?
I can still speak against war and violence, but I can also advocate for a framework that is able to engage politicians in their debate regarding when military action is acceptable.
The former is what I perceive to be the ideal debate; the latter is what I perceive to be the real debate. Should I not engage in the real debate that is being had simply because it is not what I believe should be the topic of debate?
While I need not let go of my view of the ideal, and while I should seek to convince others that the debate needs to be changed, to refuse to engage in the real debate is to lose an opportunity to offer a prophetic witness.
Reinhold Niebuhr, a former pacifist himself, noted this dynamic in commenting on the role advocates of nonviolence can play. “We who allow ourselves to become engaged in war need this [pacifist] testimony of the absolute against us, lest we accept the warfare of the world as normative.”
I believe this offers a clear perspective on how (and why) an advocate of nonviolence can (and should) engage the real debate over when it is acceptable to engage in military action using a “Just War” framework.
Doing so allows the advocate of “just peacemaking” to offer a clear reminder that warfare and violence is not normative, to raise the standards for those who are engaged in the debate and, ultimately, to urge others to consider reframing the parameters of the discussion.
But this requires engaging in the real and ongoing debate, rather than sitting on the sideline bemoaning the fact that the present reality does not match one’s perfect ideal.
Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com.