I do not like that I’m writing this post.
I just had a lovely few weeks. I was in the office for a week, excited about upcoming publications. I had great conversations with colleagues. Then after some work time at home, I had a long weekend in California celebrating the marriage of two friends, catching up with friends and family, and throwing a baby shower for my brother and sister-in-law. Instead of blogging about family, babies, weddings, wine, and beauty, I’m writing this blog. As one of my uncles once told me, I’m just so focused on suffering: human suffering, animal suffering, suffering-suffering.
The nagging sense I had over the past week over the state of the world is caused not only by my focus on suffering, but by the very real drumbeats for war from within the U.S.
I don’t know enough about current international policy, and specifically about the civil war in Syria, to provide a well-reasoned opinion. I do not believe I hold a particularly unique perspective. I’m writing this because I don’t know what to do, but I do know the current discourse nags at me.
I am of the opinion that war is, as the bumper sticker says, bad for children and other living things. War leaves a swath of ecological, cultural and psychological damage. War is good for others who are markedly less vulnerable. I know war is profitable for arms dealers, defense companies, and many U.S. government contractors. I know war can be positive for politicians.
Policy-makers who are pushing for military action against the government of Syria cite the use of chemical weapons as the reason to impede on that country’s sovereignty now, as opposed to when the first million refugees were displaced, or when the first group of protestors was slaughtered. As President Obama said in 2012, and again on September 4th, the world set this “red line” over which the government of Syria stepped. On this international stage, chemical weapons use is more horrific than killing children through hunger or bullets or bombs or drones. There is an international treaty (of which Syria is not a signatory) declaring the use of chemical weapons illegal.
Here is what I do not understand. How is it that some kinds of violence are worse than others? Dying by gunfire appears to be more acceptable than dying by chemical or biological warfare. Dying of a shortened lifespan due to hunger and oppression appears to be more acceptable than death by terrorist.
We in the U.S. have a spotty human rights record, at best. At worst, we are known for toppling democratically elected governments, propping up dictatorships, turning a blind eye to crimes against women in other countries by our own troops, and interfering in the lives of sovereign nations on a regular basis. We have a culture that enables high rates of sexual assault, and policies that allow hunger to flourish. Why is it that we get to be the human rights police?
I could speculate on the answers to these (mostly rhetorical) questions. I have lots of theories. No matter. It is a fact that chemical weapons are considered to be more heinous. It is a fact that the U.S. often steps into situations in other sovereign nations.
My religious tradition has room for what is known as the “just war theory.” The Allied cause in what became known as the First World War was believed to be just. Certainly World War II provided plenty of reasons to think the cause of war could be just. By the end of World War II, my denominational tradition moved away from just war theory, supporting instead an international body for conflict mediation. Instead of looking for reasons to justify going to war, or supporting war, Presbyterians began to work towards a proactive theology of peace (“Peace” entry from the Westminster Handbook to ReformedTheology by Donald McKim).
This bent toward peacemaking shows up particularly when it appears we as a country might head toward military actions. The head of communion for the Presbyterian Church (USA), known as the Stated Clerk, has sent letters to elected officials cautioning against rushing into the use of military tactics. The most recent statements urged the use of other (non-military) tools against Iran (in 2012) and Syria (in 2013).
Some people scoff at these statements. I am so grateful we as a church are taking a stand, and communicating that stand to our international partners. Words do sometimes matter. The National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon wrote a letter expressing gratitude for the words of the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA).
What accompanies these statements and amplifies their power are all the Christians who are taking action, who are calling their elected officials asking them to oppose military action against the government of Syria, holding vigils, and educating themselves. More information about asking your representatives to support an alternative solution is here.
I do not like war anywhere. I know this national and international conversation is more complicated than I understand. I want to know what it means to be a Christian in these moments. I do not like that I am writing this blog post.