A Christian Pacifist’s Lament for Syria, with help from Quakers


{summary: Though I consider myself a pacifist and consider force as something that goes against the Kingdom of God, I feel that governments, because they are not the Kingdom of God will always fall short of that and have a necessary level of sin in them. And so, for the sake of a greater good, I would not speak against my government using military action in Syria (though I wouldn’t say I’d explicitly “endorse” it).}

As many people have been doing, I have been snarkily criticizing President Obama’s pursuit of making an attack on Syria. It seems too pointless, too risky, too naivetoo counter-productive, and too lonely. I had felt sadness over the plight of Syrians, but while the rebel forces are over-run by Islamic radicals and terrorist groups, I haven’t thought that empowering, arming, or making their victory certain was better in the long-run. (If you need a refresher on the details of the Syria situation, this is a great one.)

But then, on my way to work on Friday, I heard this report on the BBC Newshour. It’s about an attack by government forces where they dropped some sort of incendiary, napalm-like device on a school. The audio is horrific, graphic, and I spent my commute in tears, hurt, and anger. Here is the audio piece below (or you can download it). Please listen to it if you can. (An alternate video edit of the report is at the bottom of this post. Once again, warning: it’s graphic.)

Also, later that day, Secretary of State John Kerry revealed that the total death toll of Assad’s chemical attack last weekend wasn’t the 300 to 400 that was initially reported, but over 1,400. And then I stumbled across this article recounting the Assad regime’s systematic torture and killing of children in his country. Even now, just writing about it, it’s hitting me pretty hard.

What are Christians supposed to do when faced with these horrors, evils, and injustices? Historically, Christians have cited Augustine’s “Just War theory“, but even in this, our potential Syria strikes don’t stand up to scrutiny.

I don’t pretend to know the answers. Hell, I don’t even pretend to have absolute confidence in my own current thoughts. I feel so helpless. I’m in one of those exasperated places, where you feel absolutely empty-handed and incapable of doing or thinking anything clearly about something, all while it begs for you to have a solid opinion.

And so I’m writing this more for therapy in the community of thinkers and believers out there. I write to commiserate and mourn and lament together.

I’ve written before about my fondness of Anabaptist pacifist thought. I have a strong conviction that Christians, if the life and words of Christ are to be our guide, should be willing to risk suffering, life, and injustice rather than act violently against another human being. In the “ideal” situation, Christians should be willing to take someone else’s suffering/death on themselves rather than exert it on the person who is dishing out the suffering/death.

I have known that it all sounds (and even feels) absurd, but I have found myself in agreement with Quaker sentiments like this:

If ever truth reaches power, if ever it speaks to the individual citizen, it will not be the argument that convinces. Rather it will be his own inner sense of integrity that impels him to say, “Here I stand. Regardless of relevance or consequence, I can do no other.” This is not “reasonable”: the politics of eternity is not ruled by reason alone, but by reason ennobled by right…

Our truth is an ancient one; that love endures and overcomes; that hatred destroys; that what is obtained by love is retained, but what is obtained by hatred proves a burden. This truth, fundamental to the position which rejects reliance on the method of war, is ultimately a religious perception, a belief that stands outside of history.

In other words, these truths of the peaceable methods and pursuits of Christians stand outside of “reason” and common-sense. They are ultimately religious convictions, even if they are not reasonable ones. We are meant to live now as if we live in the world to come–a world with no violence, where all evil has been taken on the literal Body of Christ.

But how do we do that with Syria? We can’t take the slaughtering of those innocents on ourselvescan we? We can’t simply “love” Assad enough so that he will just stop killing his people, can we? What do we do?

Here’s where I’m at right now. Since I first became an all-out “absolute” pacifist a few years ago, I’ve recently adjusted some of the specifics of my view. And honestly, it all changed with an episode of The West Wing.

In that episode, President Josiah Bartlett is faced with public pressure to stay the execution of a convicted murderer after the Supreme Court denies his last appeal. Bartlett is a Catholic Democrat, and is strongly opposed to the death penalty, especially on deep religious grounds. But, to stay the execution would have a lot of implications and set a lot of precedents Constitutionally. And so, the episode is full of a lot of discussions about religiously-minded individuals in politics.

The final scene is what did it for me. The President is in the Oval Office with his priest around midnight, the time of the man’s execution. He has decided to let the process run its course and let the man be executed. At 12:04am, the President is notified that the man is dead. President Bartlett then pulls out his rosary, gets on his knees as the priests lays his hands on his head, and he says, “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.” The episode fades into darkness as the President continues his confession.

This is what that showed me: the government, because it is not the Kingdom, and is not capable of being a “Christian” institution, necessarily must have sin within it–simply to function, even. And so, if Christians want to be in politics, they must be resigned and willing to take on the stains of sin and acting against “Kingdom principles” (like non-violence) in their pursuit of the greater good (hopefully). Like Jesus, they take sin upon themselves for the sake of the world.

And so I find myself in line with a particular strain of Quaker pacifist thought that says (I’ve edited the arcane language for clarity):

I do not speak against any magistrates’ or people’s defending themselves against foreign invasions, or making use of the sword to suppress the violent and evil-doers within their borders. For in this present state of things, this may be–and often is–required. And a great blessing will attend the sword where it is borne uprightly, and when its use will be honorable. And while there is need of a sword, the Lord will not despise the government, or those governors, who want to manage this sword in that way, and who wait on him in his fear to have its edge rightly directed.

Though yes, this quote only speaks of using violence in the case of imminent, physical threats against a nation, I’m starting to wonder if the good of others (like the Syrian people) wouldn’t be a more “Christianly” motive to act than ones own national security. At the same time, though, I recognize that idea is meant more for individual Christians than governments, and that this interventionist justification could be used (and had been used) to justify terrible things in the world. And yet, I wonder if there are not still times when governments should be allowed to sin for a greater good.

And so, though I would refuse as an individual to fight or cause violence against anyone–including the Assad regime, I think I would be willing to not speak against military intervention by my government. I would not proudly and triumphally advocate for it, and these interventions would have to do everything possible to ensure the greater good actually being accomplished rather than inadvertently making things worse (and so far I’m not convinced), but I would–with all the sadness, lament, and gravity that is appropriate–consent my conscience to military action by my government.

And I would do this while I maintain this hope, which comes right after the previous quote above:

Yet there is a better state, which the Lord has already brought some into, and which nations are expected to travel towards. Yes, it is far better to know the Lord to be the defender, and to wait on him daily, and see the need of his strength, wisdom, and preservation, than to be ever so strong and skillful in weapons of war.

And also the continuation of the quote before that (again, edited for clarity):

We realize only too clearly that the Kingdom of God has not yet come, but we have an inward sense that it will never come until somebody believes in its principles enough to try them in actual operation. We resolve to go forward then, and make the experimental trial, and take the consequences. So we believe and so we advise.

Yes. Let us mourn and pray, even as we go forward.

Here’s that video of the BBC piece I mentioned above. Again, it’s graphic.

[image credit: drawing by William Godwin]


2 thoughts on “A Christian Pacifist’s Lament for Syria, with help from Quakers

  1. Quite a long post there paul and much to talk about. For brevity I would simply note that I disagree with your “necessary sin” being inherent to running a government. It may often seem that way, but in reality the people in power can in fact take a stand. Getting all of the necessary ones to do so however is the hard part, especially in a government split up how ours is. I suggest that you go back to the absolute pacifist view and stay there, as people of that view will never get anywhere until a critical mass of such people develop such that something can be meaningfully done politically. That is something that the world definitely needs.

    Other things, like where you feel helpless, just as the US more or less is, is totally because of Allah (or if you prefer his old name, Yahweh). It’s the religious separation, and the religious fanaticism that makes the Syrian conflict such a ridiculous mess. If the rebels weren’t so fanatical, and could come together despite their religious differences, then we’d simply side with them, as in other countries, to topple the dictator. The conflict would have been long over with a dictator toppled by now if they weren’t religiously fanatical and all of different beliefs about an imaginary being (which happens to be excellent evidence for the “god is a part of the person” theory since differing people all subjectively think god is on their side and has established their beliefs as “true”, but I digress). But, the world continues to suffer, with people dying constantly, under the weight of religiosity. It makes me wonder sometimes, just how many of the Syrians that have died would have voluntarily died for their religion at the outset? I would guess that a lot would say they would, though far fewer would actually go through with it.


  2. Pingback: Injustice & The Human Jesus (and some more Syria thoughts) | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

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