The Common Good
November 2013

Waging Peace in Syria

by Jim Wallis | November 2013

The words of Jesus are either authoritative for us or they are not.

IN EARLY SEPTEMBER, President Obama told the American people that the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad of Syria was a moral atrocity that required international consequences.

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Religious leaders agree with the necessity of a determined response to the Assad regime, which is responsible for the deaths of 100,000 of his own people, including the brutal use of chemical weapons on civilians. But many faith leaders are asking tough moral questions about what that response should look like.

We fundamentally reject the assumption that refraining from military action is “doing nothing.” We need more imagination and a deeper response than the traditional one of military strikes, which haven’t proven effective and almost always have serious unintended consequences, risk dangerous escalations, and consistently create more suffering for innocent civilians.

As religious leaders, we are called to peacemaking, not just peace loving, which requires harder and more imaginative work than merely falling into old habits of military “solutions.” Our priorities should be to mobilize global support for the many vulnerable Syrians—including the millions of refugees—and to do the hard work of conflict resolution that could lead to a political solution.

BUT THE CRISIS in Syria also gives us an opportunity to rethink how we respond to conflicts. The “war fatigue” in America is deeper than just the national tiredness of war. It is also the result of the failure of military responses in answering the real threats of terrorists and brutal dictators such as Assad.

It’s time for more creative and courageous “prophetic imagination” in terms of nonviolent solutions. What does it look like to wage peace? As we learned from Secretary of State John Kerry’s remark about Assad turning over chemical weapons, there are often diplomatic solutions to the problems that war pretends to solve—but how can governments foster this type of creative problem-solving? And how can faith communities challenge them to do so?

Pope Francis was one of the first to speak out against the use of chemical weapons in Syria and also one of the first against military strikes. The pope said, “Violence begets violence.” That is not merely an idealistic religious statement; it reflects the reality of failed military responses to terrorism over the past decade.

Investing early to prevent conflicts from escalating into violent crises is, on average, 60 times more cost effective than intervening after violence erupts. But the world spends just $1 on conflict prevention for every $1,885 it spends on military budgets. That stems from the habit of war, not from any demonstrated effectiveness—a habit we need to break.

While governments often turn to force to maintain security and bring perpetrators to justice, it will take much more creative strategies to defeat terrorists. This goes back to Paul’s strategy of feeding one’s enemies to “heap burning coals on their heads” (Romans 12:20). For example, the Muslim world needs assistance from the West in education, especially of its young women, the building of technology and infrastructure, and a focus on economic development—not more weapons and money poured into the coffers of corrupt regimes.

In a world wracked with violence, the words “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9) are not only challenging, they are daunting. The hardest saying of Jesus, and perhaps the most controversial in our post-9/11 world, is “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). How many U.S. churches have heard sermons preached from either of these texts in the years since America was attacked? Shouldn’t we at least have a debate about what the words of Jesus mean in our world of terrorist threats and wars of occupation?

The words of Jesus are either authoritative for us or they are not. They are not set aside by the threats of terrorism and dictators or by our habits of war. Other alternatives have proven to be effective, such as responding to crisis early, promoting preventative actions, using diplomacy, strategically deploying development aid, strengthening civil institutions, and prioritizing international actions, especially in working together to prevent atrocities.

The civil war in Syria, with its ethnic/religious and geopolitical roots, clearly will not be easily resolved by U.S. missiles. Understanding such conflicts and employing the tools of conflict resolution is much more likely to be effective than the old, simplistic habits of military actions.

Modern warfare with missiles and drones makes it much easier to kill from a distance without “boots on the ground,” but the violence continues to destabilize societies already devastated and unstable. When we respond to violence with more violence, the cycle of retribution continues to grow. It’s time to challenge the calculus of war with a deeper and smarter moral equivalent to violence. 

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine.

Image: peace, Sabine Schmidt /

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