Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Syria: America's Response?

Scripture for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost includes Jeremiah 18:1-11;Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Before I’d had a chance to read these propers, I’d been wondering how we would move from Gospel to sermon, given the preoccupying subject hanging overhead: America’s response to Syria. There’s barely a need for segue from this portion of Luke, where kings wage war with kings, but not before considering the cost. Who could have expected the Revised Common Lectionary to provide such a platform today?

What does need noticing is the rather puzzling summary teaching, insisting that no one can become a disciple of Jesus without giving up what he or she clings to. Including, it seems, the expected primacy of one’s own nuclear family and the status quo of the settled life.

Equally deserving of attention is what our therefore empty hands are free for, and that is carrying the cross of Christ.

Before we are done with this sermon, we will need to consider whether these themes of giving up what we naturally cling to, and carrying the cross of Christ, help us see what is at stake in our engagement with Syria’s civil war.

Engagement with any country’s civil war, especially any country in the Middle East, can be a fool’s errand, especially if it’s done with the assumption that any state or head of state outside the war zone can influence the outcome. In his news analysis last Sunday, David Sanger wrote, “No United States intervention would alter the long-term balance of power in the Syrian civil war. That was the bitter lesson of the Iraq and Afghan wars for Mr. Obama: any American president who thinks that, by dint of force or example, he can change the nature of societies is bound for a comeuppance…

“Thus Mr. Obama’s insistence that any action in Syria has to be divorced from the civil war that has torn the country to shreds. Instead, the president wants to fight on territory more directly linked to American interests: the notion that once weapons of mass destruction are used in ordinary conflict, the potential for disaster—for America, and certainly for its allies and partners on Syria’s borders—rises dramatically.”

“What is the source of our first suffering?” This foundational question, asked by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, was answered by the poet Seamus Heaney: “It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak.” Our first suffering lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. Unless we speak up, unless we pursue what Heaney called “the silent things within us,” tyrants and tyrannies go unnamed, unopposed, and dangerous.

“It matters if nothing is done,” insisted Secretary of State John Kerry, “not least because of the signal it sends to the Iranians, the North Koreans and others who are measuring Mr. Obama’s willingness to enforce other red lines on far worse weapons.”

And so, says Sanger, our President identifies a policy explainable to a war-weary America, and announces a way to exercise his “light footprint” strategy, fighting from a distance with drones and cyberweapons and one-time “shock and awe” missile strikes that are designed to not get us mired in another Middle East nightmare.

How convinced are you that bombing selected targets in Syria will get us anywhere good? Will it be a symbolic use of power that Syrian President Assad can hijack simply by surviving and so look all the stronger to his constituents and his allies?

Will a “light footprint” intervention send the right message while keeping us out of Syria’s civil war, or will our act of war catapult this internal fratricide onto a world stage? And might that describe the objectives of Middle Eastern militarists who would love to see the United States drawn in, bankrupted, and isolated—in high drama, for all the world to see?

It is never the wrong moment to ask, What would Jesus do? In this season commemorating the power of peaceful protest, what would Dr. King do?

But let’s get the tenses right. What did they do? Neither of them inflicted violence. Both of them absorbed it in their own lives.

And another change in tense is important: What does Jesus do? There is no light footprint in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ: he comes to stay. And he deals with our realities, accompanies human beings as they deal with their realities. While we’re not likely to imagine him condoning violence, he doesn’t seem shy illustrating his teaching about his kingdom by asserting that a king’s command must marshal enough readiness and enough support to accomplish the king’s purpose.

It is no accident that in the history of redemption neither Jesus of Nazareth nor Martin Luther King was given an earthly kingdom to rule. Theirs is a kingdom in but not of this world, a gracious arrangement that frees them to give us all that we treasure about them. It is Barack Obama who occupies the Oval Office, and sits in the situation room of the White House as Commander in Chief.

He has made his decision, and now calls upon an enormously dysfunctional Congress to ratify that decision. I assume he does this to flush out into the open and resolve once and for all questions about the authority and funding necessary to bomb Syria.

So he turns to the legislative branch of government and urges them to debate. He knows that this opens the door to counter-proposals that would amend the action he has decided on. When the houses of Congress debate, they have on the table before them legislation, and at least in theory the purpose of debate is to perfect the resolution before them, making a law or an action fit the realities, the exigencies, that govern how those legislators perceive the world.

Columnist Thomas Friedman has a two-part counter-proposal: First, increase the training and arming of the Free Syrian Army, including the anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons it has long sought. Second, put Assad, his family, and his Cabinet and military on notice that they will be brought before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, and cause them to consider a future in which their only international travel will be to North Korea and Russia. Friedman calls his proposal “Arm and shame.”

Here is his argument: “A limited… cruise missile attack meets (President) Obama’s need to preserve his credibility. But it also risks changing the subject from Assad’s behavior to ours and—rather than empowering the rebels to act and enlisting the world to act—could make us owners of this story in ways that we do not want. ‘Arm and shame’ is how we best help the decent forces in Syria, deter further use of poison gas, isolate Assad and put real pressure on him or others around him to cut a deal. Is it perfect? No, but perfect is not on the menu in Syria.”

In a similar spirit, another syndicated columnist ends his recent piece, “May God bless—and, if necessary, forgive—the United States of America.”

There’s humble acknowledgement that any military option—launching the weapons or shipping the weapons—appeals to us as being what Jesus would do, or what Dr. King would do.

Let’s go back to the teaching we’re given today. No one can become a disciple of Jesus without giving up what he or she clings to. Including, it seems, the expected primacy of one’s own nuclear family and the status quo of the settled life. And what our empty hands are free for is carrying the cross of Christ.

In our face-off with Assad’s Syria, are we called to give up something we cling to? Surely not our contempt for the use of weapons of mass destruction, and surely not our commitment to preventing their use. For some, perhaps for many, it may be a newly-honed isolationism that must be given up. For some, perhaps for many, we may need to give up the fear of making a mistake in the calculus of the Middle East (where every option appears to be a mistake), and pray that at least we make a creative mistake, surrendering our distaste for ambiguity and praying for courage to see and make the best choice from among those few which our real world presents. A certain sacrifice of certainty may be the shape of the cross we must carry.

As Congress returns from its August recess, we will be challenged to give up our bleak pessimism about our democratic institutions and dare expect them to function on our behalf, and on our behalf as global citizens who recognize the urgent value of international law in creating what essayist Ross Douthat calls “a stable, rule-based, multilateral world order.”

He says that President Obama must remind us that, even with the mistakes that have been made, his predecessors have bequeathed him “a world that—no matter what the headlines suggest—is more at peace than at any point in human history… a world with fewer invasions, fewer war crimes, fewer massacres than in the past. And if we want to keep it that way, there has to be a price for crossing lines.”

Now, this week, the Congress—and, indirectly, we the people—must discern what lines we ourselves must, or must not, cross, and why. To imagine that there will not be a price to pay for doing so (for doing either) is neither realistic nor in touch with the Gospel call to be open to truth, including hard truth. But gracious also is truth that makes us free to confide not in our own pretended strength, but in the strength of God (the only true superpower in our universe), free to allow the reshaping of our obedience on the spinning wheel of history where God the potter reforms, reworks spoiled vessels to new purpose.

I will never forget the Christmas when the camel, a recumbent camel made of plaster of Paris many decades before, fell and shattered into a hundred pieces. And there, in the largest chunk, was a perfectly recognizable angel, kneeling. It hadn’t met the maker’s mark, but rather than waste it he built upon it a magnificent camel.

We want to be on the side of the angels. It may be our calling to be the camel.

By the very nature of debate, we will feel divided in the days ahead, perhaps broken and shattered. We must pray for grace to find our greater unity, not a conformity of opinion but a comprehension of truth and justice and love and mercy, and carry that unity into our thinking, our conversations, and our actions, and be bound together by its thick strength.

(The several op ed pieces cited here—and Francis X. Clines’ reflection on Seamus Heaney-- appeared in the September 1st Sunday Review section of The New York Times.)