THE MOST CRITICAL priority for the international community regarding Syria—in addition to addressing the immediate humanitarian needs—is to implement a cease-fire in as much of the country as possible. An arms moratorium on both the regime and rebel groups must be implemented and strictly enforced. And negotiations for a more democratic and representative government should move forward, even if it initially includes important foreign and domestic elements who do not share those values.
Especially in response to Russian military actions in Syria, President Obama is being pressured by both Republicans and Democratic hawks to militarize the situation further by sending more arms to rebel groups and increasing direct U.S. military involvement. As problematic as such military responses may be, the diplomatic alternatives aren’t much better.
Some of the most powerful opposition forces—the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and other hardline Islamists in the al- Nusra Front—appear to have little interest in negotiations. And the prospect of working out an arrangement that would keep in power Assad’s brutal regime, which has been responsible for the vast majority of the more than 100,000 civilian deaths in the nearly five-year conflict, is extremely hard to accept.
Unfortunately, unlike most dictatorships that have been overthrown by armed or unarmed struggle in recent decades, the power in Damascus does not rest in the hands of a single dictator. Assad heads a longstanding ruling apparatus led by the Baath Party and the military that, despite its corruption and brutality, still has a social base. A fairly large minority of Syrians—consisting of Alawites, Christians and other minority communities; Baath Party loyalists and government employees; the professional armed forces and security services; and the largely Sunni crony capitalist class that the regime has nurtured—still cling to Assad’s government.
They constitute a large enough segment of Syrian society so that no anti-regime struggle can win without cascading defections, which is unlikely when the alternative is perceived to be rule by totalitarian Salafists such as ISIS.
During the first six months of the uprising in 2011, when the anti-regime movement was largely nonviolent, pro-democratic, and more diverse in terms of support, it appeared the regime could be eventually toppled. Now, in the context of armed struggle and the rise of Islamist extremists, many who once were working to topple the regime see it as the lesser evil.
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It's hard to see it, but I truly believe we'll get there. This, I think, is one of the great gifts of our world religions. Each religion's prophets helped to paint a vision so that adherents might be able to live in a new way, and a new world, of peace, salvation, enlightenment, and holiness — even while still inhabiting this world. In my own tradition, Jesus came not only to save and give eternal life, but also to invite believers to take up residence in what he called the Kingdom of God. This was a profound calling — to move to a world where enemies were loved, where peace reigned, and where all were valued equally as children of God, even while still living in Rome.
This notion of moving to a gun-free world is not a new religion. In so many ways it's simply a reminder of the invitation(s) already extended. We too can move to a different world even while still living in this one. It's just over there. I believe we will get there.
The Syrian crisis is escalating in unnerving ways with the arrival of Russian troops and the beginning of direct Russian military intervention. What had been a local and regional humanitarian disaster now risks becoming a superpower confrontation between Russia and the United States. Undoubtedly the introduction of Russian firepower on the scene will bring more civilian suffering, dislocation, and death.
If I were looking for handles for prophetic preaching on the Syria situation, I might select the following.
The Great War that engulfed Europe from 1914-1918 was a bitter disappointment for the peace movement. As the 19th century came to a close, the promise of progress that accompanied Darwin’s discovery of the evolution of life on earth seemed to put peace within our grasp. “Progress” was the popular byword and always meant a movement toward something better. It was the age of invention and industrialization. Human beings were overflowing with strategies to improve the lives of the poor, the uneducated, the working class, and the least and the last among us. The women’s rights movement was flourishing as well, and Dr. Maria Montessori, the first woman in Italy to receive a medical degree (1896) was an outspoken and popular representative of the cause. But 1914 dashed all that hope.
Many are the disappointments in the world today, as well, if your goal is peace. We are witnessing the greatest number of people displaced by violence and war since the second Great War in Europe. Even so, much progress has also been made by movements advocating for the rights of groups excluded from privilege and power. Women, labor, the disabled, LGBTQ, the poor, and the sick have all witnessed their rights expand. And yet war continues. We are living in the best of times and the worst of times, it seems — a paradox that causes many of us to careen between hope and despair, unsure of how to move beyond the motion sickness.
Pope Francis is not an innovator in his approach to the topic of nuclear weapons (though he did extend the logic of earlier ethical thought). The consistent teaching of the Roman Catholic Church since Pope John XXIII has been that the use of nuclear weapons in war is immoral because it conflicts with the principles of just war theory. Problematically for the principles, the violence wrought through nuclear war is extensive enough that there can be plausible victor in a nuclear exchange, and no chance to protect noncombatants from becoming involved. In short, the church teaches, the use of nuclear weapons is indiscriminate and always disproportionate to the good that can be hoped to be achieved.
Pope Francis' whole papal agenda was brought into focus by Dr. Love when she summarized his mission as care for the three 'P's — his concern for the poor, for the planet, and for peace. Various elements of this are obvious from his Laudato Si', among other addresses and initiatives, but all three of these come together in Francis' concern to see a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons and potential of nuclear catastrophe.
My friends and colleagues are generally aware that before I began working at Sojourners, I was a patent examiner at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for six and a half years. What most of them do not know, however, is that I interviewed for that job — a five-minute drive from the Pentagon — on September 11, 2001.
Early that morning, I decided to take the Metro rather than drive to the USPTO’s offices in Crystal City, Va. I reasoned that if I got the job, I would want to get some idea about my future daily commute. This would prove to be a fortunate decision later on.
Even before the end of my trip to Crystal City, I had already heard news of the first World Trade Center tower being hit. When I arrived at the office, I hoped the interviewer would remember me after our conversation. He did — but considering the significance of all that happened that day, my concerns about employment now seem minuscule in hindsight.
Without a commitment to having hard conversations, and without healthy outlets for them, disagreements can be terrifying. They can seem like the end of the world, especially in the rarified atmosphere of our churches.
Unfortunately, Christians often deal with disagreements in their congregations in one of a handful of ways. We might disagree only in public, or only in denominational forums; we might talk only to our pastor, or only to the people who agree with us; we might let our money do the talking for us; we might not say anything at all; or we might split — leave, get kicked out, break fellowship.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can create a culture of rich dialogue, even around our disagreements. We can cultivate community conversations marked by gracious space and spacious grace. This unity is possible because we are bound by a covenant
We have nurtured an enemy mentality that pits us against the world — even as we justify it by claiming to be a force for protection of the world. And the violence we export abroad is taking its toll on us. It’s been taking its toll on us for a long, long time — eroding our souls with every weapon made, let alone used, to destroy another child of God half a world away or right next door. How could a nation that spends more money than any other in the world on the military not be infected by a culture of violence? How can we spend billions on bombs and guns and drones and missiles while neglecting the necessary funds for education and housing and healthcare, and yet claim to respect life? How can our leaders instruct us to kill abroad and be surprised when we find no other way to handle our problems here at home? How can we demand respect for human dignity while we continually glorify violence that tears human beings apart? How can we respect life while waging death?
We live in a deadly world, and we keep making it deadlier. So we are afraid, and we cling to our guns, and when someone poisoned by the idolatry of violence fires one of those guns, fearful people cling ever more tightly to their guns. When our own government clings to its nuclear arsenal in the name of "deterrence," how can we expect anything less of citizens?
As long as we live in fear and glorify violence, we can’t be surprised that efforts for gun control go nowhere. Of course we need gun control, but we also need to control our addiction to the myth that peace can be waged through violence. I can’t think of any myth that has so thoroughly duped humanity as the satanic lie that peace can be bought from sacrifice — from murder and war. The notion of a war to end all wars, a permanent peace arising from the rubble of destruction and death, is so demonstrably false. The house divided against itself is our own world, and we cannot stand like this. Will we keep hurtling ourselves headfirst toward our own destruction, putting our faith in instruments of death?
While I do think there are situations in which violent conflict can be justified (the classic example being fighting to bring down Nazi Germany in WWII), I don’t think it can ever be done so in Christian terms. Theologically, we cannot agree if you assert that killing of any kind can be justified in the name of Christ. I believe this for the reasons given above, namely that Jesus lived, died, and lived again to affirm the blessedness and the sanctity of the lives we live together.
The Christ I know is one of life and peace, even in the face of death. Christ shows us that even if we can’t avoid death, much as we might like to because we are human and a fear of death is natural, we know that life wins out. This is what we’re asked to affirm in when faced with the empty tomb. Losing our fear of harm and death, and lifting up a savior who delights in lives lived fully, is our Christian call. Why can’t we trust in that more than a gun?
Teens across the world are still flocking to monks in France to deepen their Christian faith? Yes — and my family and I remained in awe of its tent-dotted fields and large scale kitchens staffed all by volunteers.
The Taize community of brothers from across Christian traditions — alongside sisters from a Catholic order — host religious thinkers, leaders, practitioners, and especially youth who want to engage biblically around issues spanning peace, justice, the arts, service, and Christian practice. We came to Taize as a spiritual "vacation-pilgrimage" during their 75th anniversary celebration and the 10th anniversary of Taize's founder’s death, joining religious leaders from around the world.
For American Christians who may be stuck in habits of religious thinking that promote "all or nothing," "left and right" interpretations of the Scriptures, Taize invites us to sing together and investigate the scriptures from a fresh global perspective.