In Theory: Faith and the decision to fight

President Barack Obama this month asked Congress to authorize punitive military action in Syria. He made the request in response to the Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons near Damascus.

Q: How would your faith and/or worldview guide you in such a decision?

In the late 1930s, in spite of atrocities being perpetrated against the peoples of Europe and Asia, the United States was reluctant to become involved in European/Asian affairs. The U.S., like the rest of the world, was reeling from worldwide depression. Refusing to differentiate between aggressor and victim, the United States passed several Neutrality Acts, leaving people to fend for themselves against terrorism. All of that changed with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

In 1948 South Africa initiated a strict policy of apartheid where Afrikaners dominated indigenous people for many generations. Nelson Mandela and many other courageous leaders who spoke out against such policies were jailed, tortured or killed. It took 38 years for the U.S. Congress to override the U.S. president’s veto of sanctions on South Africa and participate in the liberation of its people.

The book of Genesis tells the story of Abraham’s rescue of his nephew, Lot, from unprovoked captivity (Genesis 14:14-16.) All humans are related. I believe the good Samaritan would have done more than just aid the wounded man found on the side of the road (Luke 10:25-37.) I believe he would have tried to stop the ambush. I know that our beloved country is overloaded with concerns in Egypt, Afghanistan, North Korea and other places, but in Syria, people are suffering and they need us to do something and do it quickly.

The Rev. Dr. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel


Benjamin Franklin said one time that there is no such thing as a good war or a bad peace. And right this moment I think I am leaning toward the no-strike position, although I can certainly understand the reason for hitting Syria. But as one of my parishioners said to me, what good will come of some rockets hitting Syria? Innocent people will die and the Assad regime will remain in power.

And I can't forget the pacifistic nature of Jesus. He certainly spoke sharp words to those who needed to hear them and I'm sure he scared a few people when he overturned the tables of the money-changers in the temple (Matthew 21:12). But when he was arrested and one of his disciples drew his sword, Jesus told him to put it away. He said that those who take the sword will perish by the sword (Matthew 26:52). What's more, Pope Francis is calling for peace. So my faith, and some parishioners and religious leaders, are calling for no war on Syria — and a military strike is an act of war, regardless of what Secretary of State John Kerry says.

And if I think practically, as a majority of the American people seem to be thinking, there seems to be more chance of unforeseen bad happening than good.

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge


The late Irish statesman Edmund Burke is often loosely quoted as saying, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” This quote perpetually lives because we Americans believe its sentiment. When our troops liberated Nazi Germany’s Dachau concentration camp, they rounded up the entire neighborhood and made them walk through the conquered camp to witness the horrific aftermath of something to which they had all turned a blind eye. We were apoplectic at their apathy.

The Bible says, “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?” (Proverbs 24:11-12). I think the Bible and Burke agree, and so should we. If there is a foreign power massacring innocent people with chemical weapons like someone might eradicate rodents with rat poison, then we need to intervene. How can we simply console ourselves saying, “Well, it’s not here, it’s there, and we shouldn’t get involved.” I don’t think we can, and as the premier power on the planet, we have an obligation.

Spiderman’s uncle told the boy superhero, ala Voltaire, “with great power comes great responsibility.” It echoes another Christ-quote; “from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). That responsibility is ours and if we wring our hands and put our heads in the sand, we relinquish that responsibility and essentially endorse the evil of Syria. I don’t want to be included in such a milquetoast group. Do you?

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church


How do we respond, if at all, to Assad’s atrocities against his own people? The issue here isn’t oil prices or politics or which form of government we wish to promote. The issue is human suffering that we have the ability to end — and we should. The need exists. We have the ability to meet it. Few others, if any, can or will meet it. So we are obligated to act. To what degree and in what manner may be subject to debate, but our responsibility is clear.

In Jesus’ parable, a priest and a Levite came upon a man who had been robbed, wounded and left on the side of the road. Though they saw him and were able to help, they instead passed him by. Their condemnation isn’t explicit in the story but it’s certainly implicit and obvious to any who hear it. How can we pass these Syrian citizens by?

Inactivity is inexcusable. “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin,” says James 4:17. By virtue of the ability and the opportunity God has given us we must, by his grace, “vindicate the orphan and the oppressed, that man who is of the earth may cause terror no more” (Psalm 10:18).

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church


This has got to be one of the most difficult foreign policy dilemmas that an American president has faced in decades. It has become very evident that both sides in the Syrian civil war have terrorist proclivities and support extremist positions. Viewed broadly, this is essentially a fight between two horrible systems. To attack one side would effectively support the other and that is an extremely unnerving situation to be in.

What would ultimately guide my decision is the line that President Obama drew and that the Assad regime crossed. Both sides have committed gruesome atrocities. However, gassing your own citizens takes the conflict to a horrific, ghastly level. The use of chemical weapons compels a forceful response by the community of nations to severely punish the perpetrators. I find it shocking that a mere 70 years after the gas chambers in Auschwitz, Syria gassed its children in their own homes, beds, and cribs — and the world’s response is almost non-existent.

What is even more frightening is that the maniacal leaders of other rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea are watching this spectacle very carefully. They are observing how we treat Syria and will undoubtedly factor our action, or lack thereof, into how far they take the next conflict they foment. If we don’t respond to Assad’s sickening use of chemical weapons, can we for a moment doubt Iran or North Korea’s further pursuit — and possible use — of nuclear weapons?

The unfortunate fact is that all other nations of the world have shown that they will do little more than offer words of condemnation. And some countries, such as Russia, seem to be playing games to shield Assad and have even hinted that they may intervene on behalf of the Syrian regime.

America is the sole superpower today and we have a moral responsibility to uphold humanity’s basic code of conduct. I believe that if we don’t act now and teach Assad a painful lesson, nobody else will. The tragic result is that we may eventually be pulled into larger and graver world conflicts.

Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Center


Like the majority of Americans, I am war-weary and hesitant to see this country engage in any course of action that might put us in another Afghanistan/Iraq situation. However, as a Christian, I cannot ignore the fact that God has put the responsibility for justice squarely at my doorstep.

Scripture is full of numerous injunctions from God to his people to “Defend the weak and the fatherless, and uphold the cause of the poor and needy” (Psalm 82:3); “Learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, and bring justice to the fatherless. Plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17). God makes it clear that if we shut our eyes to the plight of others, his love does not dwell within us.

Christ described his own mission in quoting Isaiah 61:1, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free....” (Luke 4:18–19).

My faith compels me to seek redress for the injustice done to the Syrian people with the use of chemical weapons. I think we have learned from earlier generations that ignoring gross human rights violations invites escalation to an even greater holocaust.

For me, it is not a question of if we should respond, but how we should respond. It is a complex situation and I'm not sure the proposed military action would resolve anything. I’d prefer to pursue a more diplomatic solution, preferably with the backing of the U.N., or at least some nations in the region. Developments in the last few days have given me hope that this type of a resolution might occur.

Pastor Ché Ahn
HRock Church


“O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for God can best protect both....” (Koran 4:135).

Within Muslim circles, this verse is often referred to when discussing the need for accountability among fellow Muslims. The demands of justice should override any sense of familial, community or national loyalty.

How this verse intertwines with current events in Syria, and whether the United States should act against the murderous dictator Bashar Al-Assad, is a difficult question. It is one where there are geo-political ramifications for either taking action or not taking action.

And to be honest, like many Americans, there is a debate in my mind. Part of me gives a resounding “yes!”; that Assad is genocidal murderer and should suffer consequences for his acts. Whether we like it or not, we are the world’s superpower and with that comes a moral responsibility. The flip side says it’s not our nation’s job to be a global police officer, interfering in the affairs of another country, no matter how bad they are, if there’s no nexus to U.S. national security interests.

That said, from a moral perspective, I believe the situation in Syria demands action. The degree of evil has risen to genocide. From a U.S. national security interest standpoint, if the chaos and murder isn’t addressed by responsible powers, al-Qaida-like groups will continue to fill the void. Logically progressing that scenario, that could lead to the unacceptable case of a Taliban-like regime.

These situations are never neat and tidy, and are complicated by global issues, domestic and foreign politics, etc. But the image of a child twitching from the torture of sarin gas should cut through that all.

Omar Ricci


Cue the dreamy music and swirly effect for a glimpse into my fantasy of being Chaplain-in-Chief — you know, the clergy person invested with absolute power over the spiritual preparation of every person with a voice in this decision.

Before there was a single discussion or debate on the appropriate response, we’d have a five-day retreat — a real retreat, away from home, someplace beautiful, with all mobile devices confiscated.

People would sleep in bipartisan dorms and spit in the same sink, with no perks or privileges of rank. Additional participants in the retreat would be Syrian Americans, at least two to every dorm room, and visiting experts on Syrian life, culture and history.

The first 24 hours would be rest only — naps, walks, massages, spas and saunas. You can’t make a good decision if you’re exhausted.

Days 2 to 4 would all be a similar dual-approach format: Morning chapel would be devoted to the theme of peace and to love for our enemies; a passage of Scripture would be given for private reflection during free time mid-morning. Lunch would feature a slide show or other presentation on Syrian history, economics, religion and politics, followed by small-group discussion of same in the early afternoon. After a siesta break, evening chapel would feature prayers for justice and protection of the innocent, and readings from Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer, Augustine and other theologians eloquent on the appropriateness of war to defend the oppressed. Dinner would offer entertainment featuring Syrian musicians, artists and poets; then early to bed for more rest.

On the morning of Day 5, options for various responses would be presented without commentary or discussion, to be prayed about privately during free time the rest of the day. The closing meal would be a Sabbath supper, with all breaking bread and praying together.

The following morning, the decision-makers would return home and be given several hours to discuss and plan an appropriate response to the situation in Syria.

The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George’s Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge


Whatever our individual approach to handling decisions related to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, we can always be guided by the ideas that come to us from a higher source than ourselves, pointing out the way that the requisite decisions ought to be crafted.

I am reminded of the “still small voice” heard by the Old Testament prophet Elijah when fleeing the forces seeking to kill him (I Kings 19:12). He listened and went on to accomplish much. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, wrote in her book, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” that this little voice “reaches over continent and ocean to the globe’s remotest bound.” It speaks to each individual, whether they be Christians or not, religious or otherwise.

Eddy was pragmatic in her prayerful approach to world events. She wrote in the Christian Science Journal in 1908, “It is unquestionable ... that at this hour the armament of navies is necessary, for the purpose of preventing war and preserving peace among nations.” In the same article she balanced this with the statement, “For many years I have prayed daily that there be no more war, no more barbarous slaughtering of our fellow-beings.”

She saw the need for nations to be appropriately armed but recognized the real solution as a higher one, an inspiration of peace that unfolds when we listen for the divine intelligence that naturally speaks to the spiritual side in each of us. Thus at the time of the Russian-Japanese war in 1905, Eddy requested church members to “pray each day for the amicable settlement of the war between Russia and Japan.” (President Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for negotiating the ending of that war.)

To decide who is right or who is wrong, or whether and how to punish the wrong-doer, challenges us to realize the innate peaceful substance in the spiritual side of mankind’s being. Physical force may sometimes be appropriate, although probably less frequently than we generally think. Ultimately peaceful solutions must be seen as natural and attainable.

Graham Bothwell
First Church of Christ, Scientist
La Cañada Flintridge


There, was that so hard?

Overnight the headline went from “U.S. Ready to Attack Syria” to “U.S., Russia Agree to Secure Syrian Chemical Weapons.”

Our fearless world leaders seem to have bumbled into this positive development. Picture the headlines if they actually tried.

During the saber-rattling, my realist world view guided me to scoff at the notion of a “limited strike” punishing Assad. He would be well protected, unlike his citizens. Ditto hurting his conscience or scaring him into better behavior. Please! He just gassed his own people and faces down Israel daily.

Here at home, President Obama revisiting middle school with his line-crossing made me cringe.

The bright spot was Secretary Kerry going from water-carrier to smarty-pants. He should keep extemporizing to come up with further doable, if admittedly difficult, diplomatic attacks on violence and injustice.

Brother Kerry, in 1971 you inspired the peace movement by sending your Vietnam hero's ribbons sailing back at the White House, vividly rejecting that pointless war. You asked a trenchant question that echoed in Iraq and saddens afresh about Afghanistan: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Now you are “the Man,” man. Give peace a chance.

Roberta Medford


Had I written my response earlier, it might have had a much more somber tone. At that time, President Obama was poised to ask Congress for an imminent vote authorizing our military attack on Syria. And I, along with others in the congregation I serve, had sent a number of pleas to the president and members of Congress encouraging them to abandon that plan. Now it appears that there may be another option, one brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. And for that I am very thankful.

I am not saying that the Syrian government’s alleged killing of hundreds of men, women, and children with chemical weapons should be ignored. There certainly needs to be some sort of consequence for such a horrendous crime against humanity. However, the idea of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is far too simplistic for this situation. And I don’t believe that the killing of more Syrian people with our missiles is the best way to bring about justice. In fact, deployment of weapons by our country in the Middle East might well bring about a series of reactions from other countries that could escalate the current predicament to crisis proportions.

Once again, I would turn to one of our Unitarian Universalist Principles to provide guidance in this situation. In our Sixth Principle, we agree “to affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.” In this situation, that would mean that the countries of the world would negotiate a settlement that provided restitution by the Syrians and safety for their people and those in surrounding countries. I recognize that such an effort is fraught with danger, but I believe that it is the best way to reconciliation with integrity.

The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta

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