There’s a catch phrase that comes to the fore when people start looking for religious reasons not to enter a war like the one now raging in Syria: “Who would Jesus bomb?”
Jesus would not have bombed anyone, of course. Bombs were not weapons of choice in his day. But the cruelty of war was no stranger to his era. The Romans could be every bit as cruel as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. They executed dissidents like Jesus himself with ease. They leveled the city of Jerusalem.
But if it is hard to imagine Jesus targeting a cruise missile aimed at another nation, it is not hard to imaging him encouraging his followers to stand with those who are most vulnerable, to seek ways to defend others from cruelty, to come to the aid of those refugees displaced by war. The question is how best to do that.
Yes, it is horrifying to look at what al-Assad has done to the people in his country. But then that is that nature of war. As William Tecumseh Sherman wrote to the leaders of Atlanta in 1864 as he led the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War on a scorched earth march across the South, “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”
The civil war raging in Syria is deeply rooted in ethnic and religious divisions among the people there. It has pitted very bad actors against other very bad actors. Citizens are being caught in the crossfire, 100,000 Syrians killed since the war began, nearly 1,500 killed last month in the sarin gas attack that is now at the center of the debate, and some 2 million have fled as refugees to adjoining nations.
And now Syria lives with the threat of missiles raining down out of the sky launched from U.S. cruise ships. Yes, the missiles may be intended for military targets, but missiles are not foolproof. They miss targets, they kill civilians. And, in this case, they may well just escalate the hell in which the people of Syria are living.
Modern warfare now makes it easy to kill from a distance. The promises of “no U.S. boots on the ground” in Syria reduces the risks to our military, but ratchets up the violence for those living in that devastated land. It makes killing antiseptic.
When people respond to violence with more violence, they keep that cycle of retribution spinning higher and higher. Oh, just a few well-placed missiles will teach Assad a lesson and he’ll ramp down his attacks, the argument goes. Really?
As we become involved once more in escalating violence in response to violence, what does that do to America? Where does it leave us as a people?
For those who embrace the message of Jesus, it takes more than blithely saying Jesus would not launch a cruise missile. It takes a commitment to seek creative ways to change the calculus of war and to embrace those who suffer its consequences. It takes continued international effort to isolate those who whose brutality knows no bounds and to get aid to those driven into exile.
That’s not what is in the measure moving through Congress. That is where the world needs to put its energies.
Phil Haslanger is pastor of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wis, just outside Madison. This column first appeared in The Capital Times of Madison, Wis.
Image: Combat missiles pointed to the sky, vician / Shutterstock.com