After an attempt by David Cameron to intervene in Syria that fell flat on its face and an Iraq war based on dodgy evidence, the House of Commons once again finds itself in a position to take us to war. This time though things are very different. Whereas the legal cases for Iraq and Syria were never fully proved, the Iraqi government’s request for support gives sufficient legality to join the alliance of nations who are attacking IS from the air and on the ground.
If ever there was a clear-cut case where the desire to intervene militarily was wholly acceptable, then this is it. And I don’t say this lightly. I strongly opposed our government’s intention to attack Syria last year believing that any action would do more harm than good.
Having read and thought through Jesus’ teachings on turning the other cheek, loving our enemies and being peacemakers as I was growing up, I developed strong pacifist tendencies. I still believe that war should be a last resort when all other options have failed and am naturally much more a dove than a hawk, but as time has moved on and my experience of life and understanding of my faith have grown, I have moved away from the ideological stance that would have caused me to oppose any vote in favour of military action by our government in Iraq.
When Jesus talked about turning the other cheek, I now know that he wasn’t telling us to stay passive whilst people attempt to take advantage of you. It was actually about shaming the aggressor and proving that they are not able to break your resolve. In doing so you turn the tables and become the one who exerts the power by depriving them of the ability to manipulate you in a way they crave to do so. It may have been in Sudan rather than Iraq, but when Meriam Ibrahim stood up to the authorities who had thrown her into prison and threatened to execute her, her voice began to grow in power as she held her ground in the face of their intimidation, until she had the world on her side and the authorities were pummelled into releasing her.
And what of the call to be peacemakers? Peace should always be sought through love – love for our enemies.
For several years now I have followed the incredible work of restoration and reconciliation that Canon Andrew White has conducted in Iraq bringing together warring sides and natural enemies to build trust and understanding. As a foreign Christian speaking mostly with Iraqi Muslims he has achieved more than anyone should rightly believe possible. He has repeatedly had to deal with attacks and murders of members of his congregation and yet he has risked his life and given his everything for the sake of the future of Iraq. Despite this he admits that the biggest obstacle he faces in his work is those people who refuse to forgive. ‘If there is no forgiveness, then pain, hurt, bitterness and anger incubate in the human soul’, he has said.
IS have become a living embodiment of what happens when this is taken to an extreme. Their corrupted ideology has obliterated any thoughts of love for others. Their bitterness against anyone who opposes their beliefs spills out as virulent hatred and has led to a tide of evil utterly engulfing them.
It would be a foolishly brave peacemaker who would risk attempting to negotiate with them. Based on what we have seen, the most likely outcome would be capture and a brutal murder further down the line. IS are not remotely interested in hearing any other view than their own, as their routine mass public executions have demonstrated. This is when the question as to whether killing those who seek to kill a much larger numbers is acceptable. If love for our enemies allows them to murder innocents, then what sort of love is this? Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’, but this is not peacemaking, it is capitulation and appeasement.
It is as we reach this point that we encounter the realms of just war. There is a significant difference between last year’s vote in parliament where the proposed intervention against Syrian forces would have dubious outcomes and today’s where UK armed forces will join a wide coalition who have been asked to defend a sovereign state from outside attackers. Whichever precise definition of just war we might subscribe to, this is a conflict that we can legitimately enter into. Our country, as a significant player on the international scene and one which has committed itself to upholding human rights owes it to the people of Iraq and especially those groups who have been so heavily persecuted to play its part in the fight against the terror of IS.
If our MPs are to move on from the serious mistakes of the past and address military intervention without fear or guilt, they will need to consider outcomes as much as the immediate impact in their debating. No matter what military hardware you may possess, weapons cannot defeat ideologies. Evil cannot be defeated by airstrikes and bombs; it can only be overcome by good. When it is safe to do so it will take foolishly brave individuals like Andrew White to work towards true healing and peace. This war that is engulfing Syria and Iraq has religion (in a dark and twisted form) at its heart , but without religion that brings lasting hope playing its part the war will ultimately never be won.
This article was originally published at Archbishop Cranmer. God and Politics is in the process of merging with Cranmer. Articles by Gillan will continue to be cross-posted on both sites for a short while during the transition phase.