A Christian case for military action against ISIS

11 minute read

Over the last few days, I’ve seen a lot of people writing very strongly against military action in Syria against ISIS (ISIL/Da’esh) forces. Lots of my friends are clergy or otherwise churchy people and a lot of them have suggested that the only possible Christian action is to oppose military action. That “bombing Syria” (an inaccurate form of words that I’ll return to) is ipso facto opposed to the Gospel. I have engaged in conversations on Twitter on the same subject, with several people saying “You’re a priest. How can you support killing people?” I had one person say “you are very disturbed young man - you should not be a priest” because of my comments, which were at that point agnostic on the question.

Since then, I have become convinced that MPs were right to vote in favour of the motion in the House of Commons on Wednesday night. I am writing this post as an explanation of how it is possible to be a Christian and support this military action.

I don’t expect it to convince everyone - or perhaps anyone! But perhaps I can suggest that knee-jerk pacifism (or the “anti-imperialism” of the odious Stop the War Coalition – see note below) is not the only Christian answer.

Should Christians be pacifist?

The Christian case for pacifism is a strong one. It was almost universal in the early years of the Church, until the conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century. Some people say that all the Church’s woes and failings can be rooted in Constantine’s conversion and, they would say, his perversion of the Gospel. You can look at passages like the Sermon on the Mount (“if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”) or indeed the fifth Commandment (“You shall not murder”) as passages that strongly support this view.

I disagree. I do not believe that Christianity must be pacifist. Indeed, I personally would argue that pacifism is ultimately incompatible with Christianity.

Remember first that Jesus was not outlining political philosophy in what he taught. Yes, what he said has enormous political importance, but it is not fundamentally a political philosophy. You can be a good Christian on the Right as well as on the Left. (Personally I’m centre-left, though I often feel like I’m far-right in the Church!)

Look, for example, at the parable of the Good Samaritan. Now, this is not a parable giving a set of instructions about how to treat a stranger who’s been left on the side of the road. It’s really a parable told against the legalism/Pharisaism that seeks to define strictly who we should and shouldn’t love. But it also says something important about how we behave: we don’t stand on the other side of the road (a line Hilary Benn echoed on Wednesday night), but we get down and do our bit. We don’t stand far off and say “oh how awful” but we get involved and do it. That is essential to Christian ethics: it is about action, not about abstract theorising.

The classic example is Nazism. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Allies’ campaign in the 1940s (and goodness knows there were enough wrongs to go around), it’s hard to argue that that war was not just.

Once you have accepted that one war was just, you have accepted that wars can be just. After that the question becomes where you draw the line, rather than whether war is in itself unconscionable.

This is not, of course, to say that all wars are reasonable, right or just. Obviously not. But we can’t simply say “Christianity is against war” and expect that to be the end of the story. It’s always a difficult, pragmatic exercise, based on the actual conflict and what can and should be done. We can’t go around opposing every armed conflict on the simple unquestioned principle that “war is wrong”.

It’s also not to say that war isn’t sinful. But, as I will come to explain, there are other possible sins here.

(Self-)defence and Christian ethics

This is an important question to ask here. On the face of it, the quotation I gave above from the Sermon on the Mount (“if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”) suggest that we should never act in self-defence when we are in physical danger.

That isn’t what the passage in St Matthew’s Gospel is about. Jesus was specifically arguing against the legalism of first-century Judaism, which held fast to “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. Jesus was arguing that this strict legalism was a poor moral system. Extracting the maximum permitted under the Law was not a good moral approach. Instead, Jesus told his followers to pass over their technical legal entitlements and instead to act in love towards those who were doing them wrong.

He was not saying “If someone is punching you in the face, let them carry on.” He was not saying “If someone is shooting your citizens, let them carry on.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (a summary of Catholic teachings and frequently a valuable read) addresses the question of self-defence well:

Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow. (¶2264)

This is extended further when it comes to defending others and especially for governments:

Legitimate defence can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defence of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility. (¶2265)

Yes, of course wars of aggression are immoral and un-Christian. I don’t for one moment argue otherwise. But a war of self-defence or a war defending others are not only permitted under Christian morality but arguably mandated.

“Bombing Syria”

This is a distinction that needs to be made carefully, especially in the light of the House of Commons’s 2013 vote against military action against Assad.

There is no proposal to “bomb Syria”. That turn of phrase instantly conjures up images of the Blitz, of cities destroyed by vast fleets of bombers. Similar images have come out of conflicts such as Vietnam. That was not the proposal on Wednesday. It was not a proposal for unlimited carpet bombing. It was for deliberate and targeted action against a specific enemy. It was, in all reality, indistinguishable from what British forces had already been doing in what is theoretically Iraq.

And they have been doing it well. Specific, targeted military action is something that British forces are very good at. Not perfect, but hardly the bunch of clowns that they are presented as by some in anti-war circles.

What about Iraq and Libya?

This is one of the most common refrains. “Haven’t we learnt from Iraq/Libya/[insert other conflict here]?” It’s a fair question. There have been some disastrous military interventions. There have been rather more moderately successful military interventions that had disastrous aspects. It is fair to say that armed action can have serious negative repercussions.

But it is not fair to pretend that all would have been well had the Western powers not intervened. What would Iraq or Libya have been like now if we had not taken military action? The only honest answer is “We don’t know.” Anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves. But we do not know what the reality would have been if we had not taken action. It may have been less awful. It may, very conceivably, have been worse.

Likewise, we cannot say “We created ISIS”. Yes, the 2003 invasion had a large part to play in shaping the subsequent years’ events. But to say that the creation of the pseudo-state was solely due to the 2003 invasion is ridiculous and plain wrong. Apart from anything else, it has a bizarre racism to it in ascribing no moral agency to Arabs. That’s not to say that the 2003 coalition does not bear its share of the blame. Of course it does, and I would like the record to reflect that I opposed the action in 2003 (in my third-form RE class). But it’s more complicated than “we created ISIS”, which I have seen on multiple occasions online.

But the real rebuttal to the what-about argument is another one. What about Rwanda? What about Srebrenica? Those places where dreadful, terrible things were allowed to happen because the West did not intervene when it could have done. Or what about Kosovo? We know that more genocide was only prevented there because NATO took action. Or what about Sierra Leone? The list goes on and on.

Yes, military action has the potential to cause more problems. Yes, it can result in civilian casualties. (Though the equivalent action in Iraq has caused zero such deaths.) No, we do not know what the ultimate outcome will be.

But that is not a sufficient argument for inaction, because inaction also causes more problems and civilian deaths. ISIS’s existence allows for the murder, rape and sexual slavery of Syrian and Iraqi civilians. It allows for the murder of gay people by throwing them off buildings. Every day that ISIS is allowed to exist, it causes more suffering and more death. Inaction has its costs.

At this point we have alongside us one of the giants of twentieth-century theology and ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a prominent Lutheran pastor and theologian in 1920s and 1930s Germany. He was a strong opponent of Hitler and the Nazis. He founded the anti-Nazi German Confessing Church and campaigned relentlessly against the Nazi evil.

And he ultimately decided to take part in a murder plot against Hitler. He, a minister of the Church, decided to attempt to kill another person. He was caught between two dreadful options: to commit murder on the one hand, or to allow Hitler to carry on his evil on the other. Neither option was a “right” option. But he chose to go ahead with his part in the plot and, after its failure, he was executed in the final days of the war. Bonhoeffer is a hero.

Much the same moral quandary faces us. Do we take action, with all the associated consequences? Or do we remain inactive, with all the associated consequences? I believe that sins of omission are no less sinful than sins of commission.

I argue that remaining inactive is more comfortable but ultimately the wrong moral choice. We keep our hands clean, of course, and we can have a lovely sense of moral superiority. But we cannot escape culpability for inaction. If we take no action against ISIS, some (some!) of the blame for the tyranny in Syria or the next attack in Beirut or Paris or London belongs on our shoulders.

Miscellaneous points

A few details that need rebutting. I’ll add more if I think of any.

  • “We must go after their political/financial backers.” Well, yes, but ISIS gets most of its money through its territory.
  • “We must confront the ideology.” Of course, and denying the self-styled caliphate their territory is a major part of that.
  • “We need to take in more refugees.” No arguments there.
  • “The attacks are illegal: you need a Chapter VII UN resolution.” No, they are legal under Article 51 of that chapter.
  • “We should hold peace talks/a ceasefire.” Sure, but I’m not sure ISIS will be much of a conversation partner.
  • “We should take away their arms.” Great idea. Will you go and do the confiscation or would you like me to do it?
  • “Assad is the real enemy.” Well, actually there’s a symbiosis between Assad and ISIS: each needs the other as an enemy and, perversely, a trading partner.
  • It’s been suggested to me online that this post would be stronger if it recognised the validity of other opinions. I 100% absolutely respect anyone who believes that this intervention against ISIS is contrary to Christianity. It’s perfectly reasonable and, to be honest, it’s the easier case to make in theological terms. Lots of people I like and respect hold that opinion. I respectfully disagree. I don’t expect to persuade anyone who disagrees with me; I hope, however, that they might see that the Christian response is not a simple one. I watched a fair deal of the debate on Wednesday and genuinely struggled to make up my mind. It’s not a simple judgement.
  • With regard to the Stop the War Coalition… I recognise that there are all kinds of individuals in this coalition. Many of them are there for very good reasons, including principled Christian ones. The leadership of the group is decidedly unpleasant, cosying up to extremist figures. (George Galloway, for crying out loud.) I find it bizarre that a group called “Stop the War” only protests against British involvement in war and not against, for example, Russian or Syrian.

Updated: