Those of us writing here at Providence share a common conviction about politics, namely that we should take human beings and human communities as they are and not how we would wish them to be. Human beings are broken creatures who are often driven by fear and greed. In political community, these propensities only become magnified and more volatile. This realism means that when we face problems such as aggressive nations and terrorism, we do so with sobriety that in order to stop certain people or groups from carrying out their harmful designs we must sometimes use military force. No amount of rational discussion or incentives will deter them from seeking to harm the innocent. Christians however bring to this sober realism the commitment to love their neighbors. To protect the innocent from the aggressor and to punish the aggressor is an act of love, not purely national interest or strategic benefit. This is what separates those who are realists from Christian realists.
As of late, I reckon, this take on politics has fallen on hard times. It’s hard to hold Christianity and realism together. We have Ted Cruz and Donald Trump preaching indiscriminate bombing campaigns to the applause of many. Bernie Sanders thinks that the Middle East is not a problem for Americans and that we should just let Syria burn. Most Christian voices in America are focused on the immigration crisis, with remarkably few Christians talking about intervention in Syria to protect the Syrian people and stabilize the situation. Marco Rubio has been one of the more nuanced and realistic candidates, and still his discussion of issues tends toward a more thoroughgoing realism than a Christian realism.
Into this current vacuum steps the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to deliver what might be one of the most rousing calls to a truly Christian realistic approach to the current civil war in Syria and the rise of Islamic radicalism in recent memory. The Archbishop delivered the brief speech at the General Synod of the Church of England at Westminster on November 24th. It should be noted that the Archbishop delivered this speech in a resolution that was unanimously approved by the Synod on the current immigration crisis in Europe, primarily calling for protecting immigrants and welcoming a portion to the UK.
That Archbishop Welby delivered this speech during a discussion of the Church of England’s response to the immigration crisis is important. His speech emphasized that while it is good for the church to advocate for the “welcome” of refugees to the United Kingdom as central to the very heart of the gospel, that welcome meant more than just accepting immigrants. I quote his remarks here at length:
I think we need to recognize [this Syrian resolution] essentially commits us to use armed force overseas. The reality of working in those areas to create safe ways of routes to places of safety must include some kind of forceful response. It almost is impossible to see how it can be done otherwise…It seems to me that where the church is talking about welcome, we must also listen carefully to the powerful words Bishop Angaelos and the bishops in that part of the world that the ideal situation is not simply, as one of them put it to me, to create a drain to allow those people to escape but also to create the means by which they can stay in prosperity, in flourishing, and in safety. The implications of that for the commitment of this country and the others in the coalition are absolutely enormous. What we have not seen at the moment is a sufficiently coherent response that brings together all the forms of action that are required if indeed we face what the Prime Minister [David Cameron] has described an existential crisis. Therefore, I support the motion, but I think we need to bear in mind the implications of us taking it onboard. Not only does the church need to be willing to put its own money where it’s putting its mouth. Not only must we be deeply committed to the welcome and private sponsorship of people coming in. But we must also recognize in much of the Levant and the Middle East, and in many other parts of the world including Northeast Nigeria, including Burundi, and other places, the forces that are driving people out into being refugees may need to be confronted. In same way as the French police on that dreadful night so recently had to go in the Bataclan theatre and deal with those who had taken it over, the international community has to face the necessity that it may in certain parts of the world need to challenge equivalent people who have not taken a theatre but taken a whole section land and are using it to wreak the most terrible havoc and cruelty. Let us indeed support this motion, but let us do so utterly realistically about its implications. (emphasis added)
Much could be said about the Archbishop’s powerful comments, but let it be sufficient for me to highlight a few points. First and foremost, the Archbishop touches on the fundamental notion within Just War thinking that neighbor love, in this instance framed as gospel hospitality, requires us to use force to stop those who are killing our neighbors. We not only must act to provide safe passage and a place for refugees to flee to but also actively stop murdering, oppression, and tyranny at its source, to challenge those who “wreak the most terrible havoc and cruelty.” Neighbor love is not restricted to dealing with victims fleeing injustice but includes attempting, to the best of our ability, to stop the injustice at its source.
Secondly, creating the peaceful conditions for living “in prosperity, in flourishing, and in safety” means Christians must consider “all forms of action.” Not merely the passive reception, but the active punishment of those who are needlessly murdering innocents, starving families and children, and bringing massive instability to the Middle East. What the “no boots on the ground mantra” coming from Obama and segments of the American public is a limitation on action that prevents us from using all the means necessary to protect and return Syria to a state of relative peace.
Lastly, the overall tenor of the Archbishop’s comments and closing words counsel us to view things realistically, that is, to truly love our neighbors in Syria we must be willing to meet violence with violence. Our hands will become dirty. We shall lose American lives. But the Just War tradition teaches that the use of force is justified when we seek both the punishment of wrongdoers and the protection of innocents. To watch at a distance without lifting so much as a finger is akin to the priest and Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan passing by their wounded neighbor in order to stay ceremonially clean. Jesus condemns such acts as morally callous, and so is our current policy. Let’s face it: to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees is relatively pain free and costs us little. To actually put our own troops into harm’s way costs us much. But true neighbor love requires sacrifice, and any foreign policy that promises otherwise must be questioned.
Leadership within the churches in America on this issue has been weak and tepid at best. The death toll rises daily, and all Obama can do is make terrible analogies to Vietnam (see the State of the Union). Christians have mostly been silent. We should allow the Archbishop’s sober words bring repentance and a change of course in American churches and foreign policy.
Daniel Strand is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: Via Anglican Communion. At the beginning of the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s “enthronement” ceremony, he initially stood outside the Canterbury Cathedral’s west door as the cathedral’s dean delivered a message from the Queen to the audience. Then the archbishop used his “crosier” (the shepherd’s staff that symbolizes his responsibility to guide the church flock) to knock on the west door three times (shown in photo above). The dean let the archbishop into the cathedral and lead him to the altar, where Welby swore an oath to the Church of England and the Queen. Read more about the enthronement ceremony here.