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All war is sin.

This generation has seen enough of war to sense the truth of the declaration. Big wars and little wars forever fester around the globe, and the United States has been a vigorous contributor.

From My Lai to Abu Ghraib, the U.S. has also been unable to hide the atrocities its warriors have committed. More recent atrocities have been veiled in smoke when drones kill hundreds of innocents who happen to be near targeted terrorists.

Now the Syrian government has elevated the very definition of atrocity by attacking its own people with poisonous gas, flooding the world’s social media with images of babies dying in agony.

Even the U.S. government, often inured to war’s cruelties, blanched. President Trump abruptly abandoned his hands-off policy toward Syria and its President Bashar-al Assad and launched a missile attack on a Syrian air base. In the twinkling of an eye, and without any congressional approval, the President catapulted the U.S. into yet another war.

Even the New York Times’ liberal columnist Nicholas Kristof said Assad’s chemical attacks on babies were too appalling to be ignored and he approved the missiles of Trump.

But many questions remain, including whether Mr. Trump has a plan for what happens next. In a military sense, the missile attacks may have been more symbolic than punitive because the U.S. warned Russia an hour before the launch and the targeted base had reportedly started to evacuate before the missiles hit. Thus millions of Department of Defense dollars were spent without bloodying Assad’s nose. But were these missiles enough to teach Assad a lesson?

We must also ask why the babies of Syria had to be gassed before President Trump noticed them. He showed no compassion for them when they were potential refugees. While Mr. Trump is making precipitous shifts in his long-standing policies, let him consider this: if millions can be spent to blow up an empty air base, why can’t millions be diverted to bring suffering Syrians to safety in the U.S.?

One thing I’m fairly sure Mr. Trump will not consider is the Church of the Brethren declaration that war is sin. Mr. Trump has already told members of his right-wing church base that he doesn’t believe he sins, and he probably thinks of the missile launch as a godly act.

And perhaps to some extent it is. In 2007, the National Council of Churches recognized that stronger nations have a godly responsibility to protect innocent people who suffer in wars or at the hands of cruel despots. In a resolution named Responsibility to Protect, the Council endorsed a United Nations resolution to protect the innocent. Without side-stepping the idea that war is sin, the Council declared:

The National Council of Churches USA endorses the Responsibility to Protect and, recognizing that war is always a failure to find peaceful resolution to conflict, encourages the US Government and the international community always to first seek non-violent means of intervention, and exhaust all opportunities for peaceful resolution, as a means of protecting those threatened by genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.

The responsibility to protect should lead to interventions that are not impulsively chosen, and only after efforts are made to protect innocent people by nonviolent means.

Perhaps this could have been accomplished if Mr. Trump had not signaled to Assad that his removal is no longer a U.S. government priority and that getting involved in Assad’s war is not in the U.S.' interest. If that led Assad to think he had free reign to attack his people, then Mr. Trump must accept that he shares part of the blame for Syrian atrocities. But we know him too well to think his conscience is pricked.

Regardless of where Mr. Trump is going to take his new war on Syria, and regardless of whether it occurs to him that all war is sin, he should not ignore those he now has an even greater responsibility to protect. Millions of Syrian refugees are suffering the ghastly consequences of this war but are barred from safe haven in the United States by a cowardly policy that dismisses them as potential terrorists.

Mr. Trump is only human and he’s entitled to shed a tear or two over images of babies in agony — certainly the world weeps with him. But if he doesn’t reach out to the others who are suffering, he will have failed his moral responsibility to protect the innocent, and he will never escape the sin of the war he has now joined.

Philip E. Jenks

Philip E. Jenks is the retired news officer of the National Council of Churches.

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