That Was The Week That Was: Syria

When I started to put together this week’s edition of my Saturday links post, I realized that I’d flagged so many links related to Syria that I should just go ahead and present them as a separate post… The standard edition of That Was The Week That Was will go up later today or tomorrow.

Wounded civilians in Aleppo, Oct. 2012
Wounded civilians last fall in Aleppo – Voice of America

I’ve been silent so far about what’s happening in Syria, and what response might be coming from the United States and other countries. But others have been more than happy to comment:

• It’s hard to know what to think about American military intervention in the Syrian civil war when one can identify thirty-two relatively distinct positions (for, against, and fence-sitting) being articulated by members of the U.S. Congress.

• Or when human rights groups oppose each other on the right course of action. One indicator of how messy the situation is for such groups… In an August 22 oped Amnesty’s researcher for Syria wrote an oped about suspected chemical weapons attacks that concluded, “We are beyond hand-wringing on Syria. Civilians continue to be targeted or killed indiscriminately. The time for action is now.” One week later its report on Syria used the phrase “neither condemns nor condones” three times to describe the official Amnesty position on the use of force against the Assad regime.

• And if it’s not confusing enough… Guess who’s seizing this moment to emerge “as the surprise bellicose mascot of the free world”? Hint: he’s a socialist. No, Tea Party readers, not the president of the United States. It’s this guy.

• After spending most of his Thursday column criticizing what he saw as the clumsiness of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, Michael Gerson nonetheless wound up backing the president: “A limited military strike may be symbolic. But for Congress to block that strike would be more than symbolic. It would undermine a tangible element of American influence: the perception that the commander in chief is fully in command…. I would prefer to defend a form of internationalism less conflicted and hesitant than President Obama’s. But even so, it is better than the alternative of seriously compromising the credibility of the presidency itself.”

• Conor Friedersdorf shot back: “What the U.S. should signal to the world is that U.S. credibility does not rest on doing any fool thing uttered by the person who happens to be president at a given time. He or she doesn’t speak for all Americans, and lacks the power to act in ways that the people and their elected representatives judge to be foolhardy. Unlike the perception Gerson wants to create, this has the virtue of being true.”

Nicholas Kristof at the 2010 World Economic Forum
2010 photo of Nicholas Kristof – Creative Commons (World Economic Forum)

• Sheerly in terms of foreign policy making, I suspect that Nicholas Kristof will end up being closest to right: “A decade ago, I was aghast that so many liberals were backing the Iraq war. Today, I’m dismayed that so many liberals, disillusioned by Iraq, seem willing to let an average of 165 Syrians be killed daily rather than contemplate missile strikes that just might, at the margins, make a modest difference…. how is being ‘pro-peace’ in this case much different in effect from being ‘pro-Assad’ and resigning oneself to the continued slaughter of civilians?….on balance, while I applaud the general reluctance to reach for the military toolbox, it seems to me that, in this case, the humanitarian and strategic risks of inaction are greater.'”

But as a Christian who spends a fair amount of time observing my co-religionists, I have to take note of how hard it’s been to find Christian voices making the case for an intervention, even one so limited as what’s before Congress.

• Jonathan Merritt offered a helpful array of perspectives from Russell Moore (just war), Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Christian pacifism), and David Gushee (just peacemaking). None responded positively to Pres. Obama’s resolution, but Gushee was perhaps the most circumspect, focusing more on the problems with unilateral action than the morality of military intervention itself.

• Merritt also got a quote from National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson (the Minnesota pastor and former chair of my employer’s board of trustees) after five in eight evangelical leaders surveyed by the NAE opposed Congressional authorization for direct military action: “Our world has so many injustices and some of the worst are initiated by governments. These injustices should be confronted. Someone must speak up and stand up for the poor and suffering who cannot defend themselves. Since the United States is the most powerful and prosperous nation on earth, there is an expectation that we lead against unjust and cruel regimes. Yet, we know that we are not big enough, powerful enough or prosperous enough to police hundreds of nations with billions of people. The difficulty is deciding when we will intervene and when we will allow injustices to go unchallenged.”

• Anderson alluded to the plight of Christian minorities in Syria and neighboring countries… Likewise,  Geoff Tunnicliffe, head of the World Evangelical Alliance, wrote to American and UN leaders that “There is major consensus amongst the Christian leaders in this region that any military intervention would have a detrimental effect … on Christians in Syria.” This after being at a conference in Jordan that brought together evangelicals like Tunnicliffe and megachurch pastor Rick Warren with Middle Eastern Christian leaders. Tunnicliffe said that he “couldn’t find a Christian leader at the conference who supported military intervention.”

Philip Saliba
Metropolitan Philip – Orthodox Wiki

• The argument was made even more bluntly by the Metropolitan of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. In an open letter to Pres. Obama, Philip Saliba lamented recent attacks on Christian by the anti-Assad rebels (“Apparently there is nothing that is sacred to these people, and it is very disturbing that these same people are being supported by our government”), cast doubt on reports that chemical weapons had been used against civilians, and urged the president “to halt consideration of any U.S military action against the Syrian government.” (H/T Michial Farmer)

• Another Christian leader, Pope Francis, wrote to the G-20 leaders to argue that military action would be “futile,” while the Vatican briefed over seventy ambassadors to make that position clear.

• From my perspective, the most interesting intra-Christian debate about Syria took place within the Anabaptist camp. It revealed yet again that that tradition is far less monolithic than some of its less subtle advocates would insist.

It started with a post by Greg Boyd. While Greg has moved his megachurch in an Anabaptist direction and describes himself as a pacifist (and he didn’t exactly end his post with a ringing endorsement of the wisdom of military intervention), he drew a clear distinction between what the New Testament teaches about individuals and governments:

I don’t believe Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching on the need for disciples to adopt an enemy-loving, non-violent lifestyle was ever intended to serve as a mandate for how governments are supposed to respond to evil.

…Paul forbids disciples to ever engage in the very activity he says God uses governments to accomplish – namely, taking vengeance (ekdikēsis). We are to leave “all vengeance to God,” in other words, and one of the ways God takes “vengeance” is by using sword-wielding governments. This doesn’t mean that God wants governments to be violent. It just means that, since the governments of this fallen world are going to be violent, God is willing to get involved in them by “ordering” (tassō) their violence to bring about as much good as possible. And the good he works to bring about is keeping evil in check by punishing wrongdoers.

I believe this teaching implies that there are “sword-wielding” offices in government that disciples simply can’t hold. But I think it’s a complete misunderstanding to think that kingdom pacifism entails that disciples should try to get their government to adopt a pacifist position. This is treating the government as if it were the church!

Greg’s careful analysis and exegesis were then casually dismissed as “not very unique, not very distinctive, and not all that insightful” by another Anabaptist living here in town, Ry O. Siggelkow, who argued in the Mennonite World Review that those who follow Jesus are “called to head to the streets to protest a U.S. attack on Syria, to say a radical ‘no’ to this war and to our government, and to give ourselves over unreservedly to work with and among those for whom ‘war’ always means dispossession, exile, poverty, sickness and death.”

In any case, I’m quite sure that Greg is right about at least one thing. Imagining a conversation with Pres. Obama, Greg said, “I’d end by promising to pray for him – and Assad – and the US – and the Syrian people. For at the end of the day, I have far more confidence that prayers like this will accomplish more in the long run than bombing ever will.”


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