Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Obama channels St. Augustine in Iraq

St. Augustine in his study, by Botticelli
St. Augustine in his study, by Botticelli

St. Augustine in his study, by Botticelli

Last Wednesday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued a statement condemning the attacks of ISIS again the Yazidis and other religious minorities in Northern Iraq and calling on the U.S. and its allies “to work together to defend Iraq’s peaceful religious communities against ISIL’s violent religious repression and provide humanitarian assistance to the many thousands of civilians who now are displaced,” in the words of USCIRF chair Katrina Lantos Swett.”

On Thursday, President Obama announced that the U.S. was intervening both militarily and with humanitarian assistance to help the Yazidis. One can hope that USCIRF, which too often acts like a common scold, will soon issue another statement expressing its appreciation.

As for the president, his announcement of “targeted airstrikes” to protect the Yazidis and defend American personnel in the Kurdish capital of Erbil closely tracks the allowance made for use of deadly force by St. Augustine in perhaps the earliest expression of the Christian concept of just war: “As to killing others in order to defend one’s own life, I do not approve of this, unless one happen to be a soldier or public functionary acting, not for himself, but in defense of others or of the city in which he resides, if he act according to the commission lawfully given him, and in the manner becoming his office.”

Just as Augustine’s emphasized the importance of a lawful commission given to those charged with military office (as opposed to, say, a “stand your ground” rationale), so Obama justified his action as responding to a request from the Iraqi government. Likewise, Augustine’s Christian reluctance to sanction killing is mirrored in Obama’s declared reluctance to engage in anything more than limited violence in defense of “innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale.”

It is telling that, as the Boston Globe‘s John Allen notes, in this case the papacy has not issued its usual condemnation of military action, but by its silence taken the position that, in the words of a senior Vatican official, “when people are at risk, they have to be defended.” For his part, Pope Francis, who has sometimes sounded like an outright pacifist, seemed to lay the blame for the situation on the persecutors of the Yazidis and other religious minorities, saying at yesterday’s Angelus, Hatred is not to be carried in the name of God! War is not to be waged in the name of God!”

Obama is catching flak from left and right for his cautious intervention. I’m inclined to think, however, that St. Augustine would have approved.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service