CNN reported on April 7th, 2017, that “The United States launched a military strike Thursday on a Syrian government airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of civilians earlier in the week. On President Donald Trump’s orders, US warships launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the airbase that was home to the warplanes that carried out the chemical attacks, US officials said.”
What are Christians to make of this? Does the Bible give objective directions concerning just war? Indeed it does, but we have to lay some groundwork first in order to answer this question in a fully biblical way.
One of sine qua non’s of a biblical civil ethic is equal weights and measures (Prov. 20:10). The demand of God is justice (Mic. 6:8), but we must let God define what justice is and is not. As an example of this, one of the things the Bible clearly prohibits is “favoring a poor man in his cause.” (Ex. 23:3) Thus, the Bible requires that justice be blind, and we are not to give favorable treatment to someone based on their socio-economic status. Justice must be equal across the board
Thus, whatever judgment we make on Trump’s use of Tomahawk missiles must be the same standard we apply for any president. Individual circumstances may vary, but the standard we use must be the statutes of God, as we are commanded to neither add nor subtract from those statutes (Deut. 4:2). Our faithfulness to God is tested on just this point. The Holy Spirit will cause us to walk in His written statutes (Ezek. 36:27) and our sanctification can measured in terms of faithfulness to those written statutes (Lev. 20:8).
So what statutes does the Bible give concerning just war? The relevant passage in this case would be Deuteronomy 20. The last portion of the chapter has to do with instructions to Israel for fighting the specific tribes of Canaan that were around at that time (v. 15-18). Every human being of those tribes was to be destroyed (v. 16-17). But Moses distinguished between the principles of war in general and the specific act of God destroying the tribes of Canaan with Israel as the instrument of vengeance (v. 16). The general instructions for warfare are given in v. 10-15 and v. 19-20.
The relevant portion for our purposes is v. 10. “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it.” Thus one of the first principles of Just War is this: only engage in defensive warfare. No image bearer has the right to pick a fight with another nation. This same sort of injunction is found in Rom. 12:18.
Thus, we Christians can confidently say that Trump’s airstrike in Syria was most certainly unbiblical. CNN reports that six people were killed because of the strikes and there was plenty of destruction. What ethical category does Trump’s killing of those Syrians fall in, then? The Westminster Larger Catechism, reflecting a biblical ethic, gives only three exceptions to the taking of life: “Q. 136. What are the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment? A. The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves, or of others, except in case of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defense.” Those killed in the strike clearly had not themselves been proven to have murdered anyone, not to mention that US courts have no jurisdiction in Syria; Congress, the magistrate who has the lawful right to declare war, has not declared war (Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution); and Trump himself was not in any immediate danger for his life.
Thus we can confidently say that Trump has thus committed property damage (Ex. 22:6), and murder. (Ex. 21:14) This is quite a serious indictment of the president, and biblically speaking, would require Donald Trump’s execution, assuming this was investigated (Deut. 19:18) and he was found guilty (Ex. 21:12). But in all this we must keep in mind, again, that the law of God applies to all men, even the rulers of nations (Deut. 17:19).