Posts Tagged ‘The Orthodox Justifiable War position’

Orthodox Christian Statement Opposing Military Action Against Syria: Supporting narrative

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

Supporting narrative

The following offers some narrative support for the Statement. Whereas the narrative supports the succinct text of the Statement, it too is necessarily brief; however, numerous supporting materials are offered as background to help broaden understanding (we will begin adding these shortly).

Please bear in mind, this is offered as support and background, not dogma. Mistakes are mine and you are invited to bring them, and dissent or support, to my attention. The supporting documents and our website hopefully fill in many blanks that may exist in the narrative.

Pieter Dykhorst

Editor, In Communion
journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship
[email protected]

1.  The OPF foundation of the Statement:

In blessing peacemakers in the Beatitudes as the children of God, Christ makes the vocation of  healing damaged relationships a hallmark of authentic Christianity. Yet, the path of peacemaking is as messy and conflicted, individually and collectively, as is any aspect of Christian faith and living. What follows is a general summary of what we believe and how we apply it to the current situation. It cannot be taken as a dogmatic or binding statement on anyone’s conscience. We are children of the Church working out our salvation within its sanctuary; this is no exception.

a.  While not all OPF members are against all war at all times, we believe war is always an evil that comes about as a consequence of human weakness and that the good we pursue is less a negative avoidance of war but a positive, robust, and broad pursuit of just alternatives that end current wars and make future wars unnecessary. Thus, before we are “anti-war,” we are “pro-peace.”

However, the Christian peacemaking vocation is not passive. True peacemaking requires foresight and is a preventative work requiring wisdom, faith, compassion for all, courage, and a commitment to justice as well as mercy. Preemptive peacemaking undercuts the foundations of violence long before unavoidable crises that produce violence and war result.

Once war comes, violence always breeds more violence, presently or in the future as the roots of pain and suffering, bitterness and anger, revenge, division, and fear take hold and eventually bear the fruit of more violence. The Gospel is anathema to violence as a legitimate conflict resolution strategy.

b.  We believe when war seems unavoidable and does come, it is always a failure and must be terminated at the first possible opportunity and repented of after. Victory in war can never be celebrated but may sometimes be a least-bad outcome that must still be mourned: we should beg God to show us other means to resolve differences with our enemies.

There is sometimes debate among OPF members about when a war might in fact be unavoidable, when some understandable resort to violence seems necessary. We will not enter that conversation here except to acknowledge its legitimacy and to affirm our consistent opposition to violence as an acceptable conflict resolution strategy; however our website is replete with resources addressing this issue. We are united, however, in our conviction that war must never in any case be other than a truly unavoidable last resort.

We do not believe in this case that the current call to military action can possibly, in any rational framework, be considered necessary or an unavoidable last resort. Thus, we not only oppose this action but we believe there is no “economy” possible for it. Too many viable non-violent, political, legal, and humanitarian alternatives exist: they may fail, but they must be tried.

c.  We do not weigh one side’s actions against the other to make some qualitative or quantitative judgement of who is more evil and who less. Obviously, if we deem war always evil, all sides engaged in the Syrian civil war have resorted to evil solutions.

We do not base our opposition on political considerations or on party affiliations.

To be clear, we are not naive or without personal and even collective judgements: our appeal, however, rests on none of them. Active pursuit of all viable non-violent solutions requires a proper understanding of the problem. Our Statement must be understood to go beyond opposition to military action to engaging in finding and implementing just solutions.

d.  We must acknowledge that persuasive ideological, pragmatic, and sometimes impassioned arguments are being made for and against military action and that OPF members struggle with them as much as anyone might. Supporting documents address these arguments as broadly as possible.

The current situation in Syria and the region is extraordinarily complex and volatile, and we appreciate honest debate as Christians struggle for understanding and solutions. Many international actors have conflicted interests in Syria. Syria’s civil war does not consist of two monolithic entities pitted against each other: history, culture, religion, language, and ethnicity combine in a way outsiders cannot easily understand, creating a confusing mixture of loyalties and interests. Too many simplistic views are being presented in the US media and are grossly misleading because of their misunderstanding.

We make this acknowledgement and offer supporting arguments out of sympathy for those reading here who, like many of us have, may come to a similar vocational commitment through long and conscientious struggle and who value thoughtful and prayerful consideration of other views.

e.  Finally, we simply state that legal options exist for dealing with the crime of chemical weapons use. As, for many, this is taken as sufficient grounds for war, please consider that whoever–Assad, other officials, generals or lower commanders, and/or opposition forces–has used chemical weapons, this war will end and avenues for justice exist and will be viable.

The wight of evidence for guilt for the attack on 21 September may point to the Assad regime, but please consider dissenting opinions and evidence that suggests some rebel factions may also have used chemical weapons on other occasions. As a basis for war, none of this is sufficiently clear or conclusive.

2.  The Orthodox Justifiable War position:

a.  For many within the Orthodox Church there exists some uncertainty about when war may be a lesser evil or lesser good or when war may be otherwise justifiable. The OPF’s position is clearly stated in the first section above. We would not, therefore, base our opposition to any war on a conditional framework like Just War theory although we appreciate the robust debate among some Orthodox on the subject.

Our website contains many fine resources dealing with the questions of “lesser evil,” “lesser good,” and other problems created by real-world conflict scenarios.

Our comments here are restricted to the “justifiable war tradition,” as articulated and defended by Fr. Alexander F. C. Webster in his book The Virtue of War because he argues strongly that the contemplated military attack on Syria would not be justifiable. His books are listed in the bibliography. Any further supporting comments from him will be linked as we are made aware of them. He makes a distinction between Western Just War Theory and what he considers to be an Orthodox justifiable war tradition, an argument developed in his book. he has also written an excellent book on the pacifist tradition within Orthodoxy called The Pacifist Option.

b.  Obviously, our consistent opposition to war would not always find common cause with opposition from within a conditional moral framework. But in this case, the OPF finds it helpful to include in our statement an appeal to those who adhere to justifiable war principles. Fr. Alexander argues a “dual trajectory” (of pacifism and justifiable war) within Orthodoxy, and we feel that when we can agree in opposition to a particular war, it only strengthens our appeal and Orthodox unity to do so.

We thank Fr. Alexander for his contribution to crafting a clause in the Statement that allows us to include his “rail” in the dual trajectory, thus allowing him to support us and broaden our appeal to all Orthodox who are concerned about principled approaches to war within Orthodox moral tradition.

c.  We are concerned about the trend among some Orthodox to base their support or opposition to this or any war on purely political, prudential, or other transient moral/ethical grounds. This narrative with supporting documents, not to mention our entire website, intends to help Orthodox who are seeking moral clarity by furthering healthy and informed discussion.

d.  Additional considerations of justifiable war principles applied to the current situation regarding possible US involvement in Syria will be added to our supporting documents. Good sources to include are welcome. Please send these to me at [email protected]. Important points include:

  1. Consideration of punishment for crossing a “red line,” violating an international humanitarian norm, ignoring a US threat, committing a war crime;
  2. Considerations of deterrence against future use of WMD;
  3. Considerations of how this would be a defensive war from the US perspective;
  4. Considerations of what US involvement would look like in a defensive war from the Syrian perspective (including the government’s perspective and Syrian civilian’s perspective);
  5. Considerations of rules of proportionality;
  6. Considerations of non-combatant immunity (re: collateral damage);
  7. Considerations of prompt termination when a clear and just goal is met;
  8. Considerations of last resort;
  9. Consideration of whether doctrines of “Responsibility to Protect” accord with the Justifiable War tenet of just cause.

It is our contention, aside from the OPF’s clear and consistent opposition to all violent conflict resolution strategies, that the contemplated US action would not be merely problematic under a justifiable war framework but would clearly violate all its basic tenets.

We anticipate robust disagreement on one or more points but welcome honest and careful argument in opposition.

3.  Other Orthodox and Christian non-Orthodox positions being discussed:

a.  The OPF locates its opposition to war in the positive and robust vocational peacemaking principles of the Gospel as articulated by Christ, the Apostles, Fathers of the Church, Saints, and contemporary Orthodox writers as well as in numerous writings and icons found throughout our tradition and history. As such, our position seeks to preclude what might otherwise be self-serving, rational, or prudential arguments.

We do not reject those but rather believe them to be transient and reversible and thus not sufficient alone, certainly not foundational.

There are many such arguments currently circulating. We will address as many as is reasonable in our supporting documents; we briefly address two here:

b.  Those whose lives, loved ones, property, and way of life are existentially threatened as the Christians’ are in Syria cannot be considered self-serving in their cry for help from harm. We stand in prayer and tears with all Syrian’s particularly our Christian friends and family, praying daily for prompt peaceful resolution to the conflict. We ask God for wise and courageous leadership to show us how this may be accomplished and for the strength to follow.

Nevertheless, we see no help in the US plan to intervene. Those who disagree are invited to include their views in our conversation. We hope to include these in our supporting documents.

b. Last, we suggest recent polls in the US showing unprecedented opposition among the electorate must surely carry some weight. We do not base our position on transient popular sentiment, but this might be a convergent moment when the sheer weight of dissent from diverse quarters must give pause. We acknowledge minority voices are often lonely prophetic voices and the current majority view does not imply the minority is wrong. We merely take pause.

A concluding statement

Nothing thus far should be taken as an exhaustive or exclusive presentation of important issues and points. We are acting under time constraints and wish to get this posted and to begin adding supporting documents. All feedback is welcome.

Things not mentioned here may be found under categories in the supporting documents.

Thank you,

Pieter Dykhorst
Editor, In Communion
journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship