Hope for Syria?

My last post about Syria was critical of President Obama, but let me give the man his due. When presented with an unexpected diplomatic option, he went for it. The possibility that the Assad regime might put its chemical weapons under UN control really is a game changer.

I know this won’t end the Syrian civil war. But right now there is nothing that will end that war, short of barbarically slaughtering one or both sides. This could beginning a real diplomatic process that could lay the groundwork for meaningful peace talks.

Even if it does nothing to hasten the war’s end, it still takes chemical weapons off the table. It goes without saying that enforcement will be the hard part, but it’s a good plan with a good chance of accomplishing something.

And if Assad changes his mind and rejects the peaceful option, President Obama’s in a stronger position for having tried diplomatic options. I’m not saying that everyone will suddenly be on board, or even that I will, but his position will be stronger and the skeptics will be at least willing to listen.

And there are other options, even if this fails. New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith proposed a human rights and war crimes tribunal to hold both sides accountable.

He’s worked on the Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda tribunals, and he thinks a Syrian tribunal could be a “non-lethal way of holding people to account.”

There are risks with all these options, and nothing is guaranteed. But the chance to do more than just pile more Syrian bodies onto the pyre is worth taking.

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Another Brick in the Wall (Kyklos, Violence, and Oppression)

Danielle, a good friend of mine, posted this George Carlin quote about education (the image is from “Knowledge of Today,” but I have no idea who owns the copyright on the quote or the photo itself. No infringement intended).

from "Knowledge of Today"

from “Knowledge of Today”

And I immediately thought of two things:

1) The industrial revolution, assembly-line origins of our American public school system. To vastly oversimplify, factory owners and big business owners favored and helped fund public education because they needed literate, competent workers. Critical thinking and independent analysis were not priorities.

2) Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” video.

Well, I hadn’t watched that video in a long time, and I have to say, it’s still pretty shocking. It’s a terrible, unsanitized exploration of two types of human dysfunction (or, if you will, two kinds of human evil):

Dehumanizing institutionalization (fallen, twisted order)

Blind, rioting rage (fallen, twisted chaos)

It seems we so often rush from one unholy, inhumane extreme to the other (I’d argue that from a Christian perspective, any definition of “holy” that doesn’t massively overlap with “humane” is fatally flawed, but that’s a topic for another post).

The French kings, starting with Louis XIV, crushed the peasants financially and turned the nobility into pampered lapdogs. The French revolution slaughtered thousands, almost indiscriminately.

The Russian Tsars oppressed the weak and persecuted the Jews. The Communists killed tens of millions, erasing whole villages from the maps and the history books.

Plato and Polybius saw this in ancient Greece. They called it Kyklos, the cycle of oppression and revolution.

And in the video, the same children that were so ground down, so oppressed into banal sameness by that terrible school … devolved into the violent homogeneity of a riot, culminating with burning the school and dragging the hated teacher toward the bonfire to be burned alive.

This is our way as humans. We cast of the shackles of one evil, and run headlong into another. We burn down the palace and slaughter all inside, then cry out for the next strong man who promises order. And for him, we build an even bigger palace.

Things won’t get better just because we kill (or even jail or disgrace) the right people. Building up is harder, but it’s the only thing that works, long-term.

Four Types of Violence, Part Four: Self-Defense

What I’ve said so far is pretty non-controversial.  Nobody, religious or not, really thinks it’s okay to kill someone for the insurance money, or hunt down and kill someone instead of pressing charges at the police station, or forcibly convert someone (at least nominally) to your religion or point of view.

It’s possible to get so caught up in your nation’s patriotism and propaganda that you miss the fact that a war is primarily about conquest (securing national interests, or, to be cynical, “oil”) as opposed to the official line, which says it’s vital to defend us all from harm.

That’s a failure of discernment, and a dangerous one, but it doesn’t mean people who feel that way actually believe wars of conquest are okay.  A few might, but most do not.

The last type of violence, however, gets the juices flowing.  It’s the difference between just war and pacifism, between the Baptists and Anabaptists.

Self-Defense:  Defensive violence sees an attack in progress and steps in to stop it.

  • It could be a person breaking into a house during the middle of the night, when it’s obvious the owners are home.
  • It could be an invasion by another country.
  • It could be a genocide that merits a peacekeeping action by the U.N. or a coalition of nations.
  • It could be a woman accosted on a city street.
  • It could be World War II.

This is where the rubber meets the road.  Do you raise your hand to fight back, or do you stand on principle and allow yourself (or a third party, such as a crime victim or ethnic group facing genocide) to be slaughtered?

It sounds like an easy answer, but the truth is, it’s not.  Jesus talks a lot about peacemakers, about non-aggression, as does the apostle Paul.

And the truth is, just about any war can be justified as a defensive action if the government works hard enough to manipulate public sentiment (or even presents misinformation, such as in the Gulf of Tonkin or U.S.S. Maine incidents).

If “Just War Theory” doesn’t effectively prevent (or at least condemn) any of the many wars the U.S. keeps finding itself in, what it’s good for? 

Four Types of Violence, Part Three: Holy War

Richard and Saladin at the Battle of Arsuf, the Crusades, painting by Gustave Dore, 19th century

Richard and Saladin at the Battle of Arsuf, the Crusades by Gustave Dore, 19th c.

Holy war. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, and perhaps it is. I can see no evidence that conversion by force was ever condoned in any fashion by Jesus or the apostles, ever.

I honestly see no instances of using violence to gain converts even in the Old Testament. God ordered the destruction of some cities, and ordered the conquest of certain areas, but conversion by force? Not that I recall.

In fact, Jesus orders Peter to not even raise a sword to defend Him when the Sanhedrin-led mob comes to arrest Him (“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. – Matthew 26:52, NIV).

At no point do the apostles or early church leaders violently resist persecution.  They skip town sometimes, they are rescued by angels sometimes, and other times, they submit to indignity, injury, and eventually death.

(According to church tradition, the only apostle who wasn’t murdered or executed was St. John the Divine, the writer of the Book of Revelations, and he was exiled to Patmos, essentially imprisoned.  Many notable non-apostles, like Stephen, also died for their beliefs, and they offered no violence in return).

There are, doubtless, many reasons for this.

First, opposing the military might of Rome would require a literal miracle, and Jesus had made it clear that he was not that type of Messiah.

Second, fighting back would have made the Christians and their persecutors seem like warring religious factions, little more than gangs fighting over whether or not some rabbi was divine.  It would have ripped the credibility right out of their message.

Third, for those who were apostles and full-time evangelists, there was only one focus: preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ and leading people through repentance and into true discipleship.

There was no time for marriage and children, no time for personal property beyond travelling necessities, and no time for self-defense.  They were to throw their lives into God’s hands, and spend every bit of energy and time they had into spreading His message.

There is, I believe, another reason. I believe God knew that Christianity would spread, and nations would become majority Christian in time.

Kings and nobles would convert, and bring a new danger into the soul of Christianity: an unholy union with government, and the specter of holy wars, religious persecution by Christians, and inquisitions in which even Christians were not safe from church-sponsored violence.

Had these leaders read and prayed and paid attention (and actually cared), they could have seen that Jesus and the apostles never condoned these sorts of things, and in fact eschewed them.  But they did not: they were dominant rulers, accustomed to enforcing their will through force and fear, and their new-found Christianity did not sink deep enough to change that.

Granted, this has probably been the least controversial of the series. Honestly, though, I’m not sure that it’s because we’ve evolved past it. After all, we’re still a very warlike species, even in the post-industrial nations. Just because we kill with drones and cruise missiles doesn’t mean we’re not still killers.

I choose not to believe that our rejection of holy war comes from not taking our religion seriously enough.  I choose to believe that it comes from actually caring about the examples of Jesus and the Apostles. I choose to believe that it represents progress.

We know that war is not a holy thing. We may still support our secular national government’s wars, but at least we don’t want the Church involved.  And that, to borrow a phrase from Martha Stewart, is a good thing.

–A Note on Context–

I’ve been thinking about violence, justification, and the “kingdom of heaven” a lot lately. I’ve written a lot, too, but nothing I’d be comfortable publishing. But I’ve also been reading some things I wrote previously. I wrote this four-part look at violence back in 2011, and I’ve done only a little editing since.

Think of this as a time capsule as I struggle with the larger implications of the issue.

The four categories are completely of, for, and by me. They are not the product of theologians or biblical historians. They don’t have roots in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. They’re just something I noticed, and felt the need to work out.

Are Pacifists Cowards?

White Flag. Photo by Jan Jacobsen, Creative Commons

White Flag. Photo by Jan Jacobsen, Creative Commons

One argument I’ve heard against pacifism (or total nonviolence) is that it is a disguise for cowardice. And maybe there was a time when this was true.

Maybe, in World War I or World War II, there were people who claimed conscientious objector status on the basis of pacifism who really weren’t opposed to war, but didn’t want to fight. After all, those wars involved widespread conscription, and people tried a lot of things to avoid the draft.

I’ve got two responses to that argument. The first is that you can’t rightly judge actual pacifists by those who claim pacifism just because they’re scared. This should be obvious.

More importantly, we aren’t in World War II anymore.  Nobody is being drafted into the U.S. Military to go and fight the Taliban. In fact, we’re in process of transitioning from our all-volunteer, professional military fighting a war to unmanned drones targeting “militants” via a Presidential kill list.  Nobody’s claiming pacifism to avoid going to war.

I would argue that right now, in America, it takes more courage to be a pacifist than to not be.  Patriotism is a cardinal virtue here in America, and it seems that patriotism almost always gets wrapped up in militarism.

To support America is to support our troops. To support our troops is to support whatever war congress and the President have sent them to. And to support whatever multibillion dollar weapons system congress is trying to fund this week.  If you don’t support the “$154 million dollar per plane” F-35 jet fighter program, you don’t really love America.

Lockheed Martin F-35 Jet Fighter - for $154 million, it should turn into a robot

Never mind whether it’s true or not. Never mind whether our troops might be better supported and loved by being judicious and critical about sending them off to die. Never mind that the Joint Chiefs don’t even want all the weapons systems congress is throwing at them (or rather, at their friends in the defense industry).

It doesn’t matter if it’s true. This is our narrative. Our politicians may squabble over the details, but precious few want to change the basic storyline. It’s not just embraced by the secular culture, but by the majority of Christians. I’ve even heard it preached from the pulpit.

Pacifism flies in the face of this narrative.

Pacifism says “America is not Jerusalem, and it’s certainly not the City of God.”

Pacifists call us to awareness of the dangers of America, how it can easily become Rome, crushing all those who get in its path, abusing its own people, even while proclaiming the great rights granted to it “citizens”.

Pacifists say things the wider culture, including American Christians, don’t want to hear.

That’s not cowardly. Far from it.

Libyan Embassy (Wrestling the Angel of Hate)

Note to the people of Libya

One of the hardest things to do is to forgive those who’ve wronged us.

The only thing harder might be to remember who’s wronged us and who, like us, has been wronged.

For eleven years we’ve been at war with radical Islamists.

For eleven years we’ve struggled to remember that we’re not at war with Islam, with all Muslims, with the Arab world, with the Middle East…

For eleven years we’ve all too often failed.

For eleven years I’ve heard anger in our churches, vengeance in our sanctuaries.

For eleven years way too much of it has come from my mouth.

And when Ambassador Stevens was killed in Libya, it was all to easy to think, even say, things that lumped all Libyans together.  Guilty by association.  Ungrateful for the help in overthrowing Khadafi, infuriated by a b-movie, blah blah blah.

Then I saw this:

15 photos of Benghazi citizens apologizing to Americans

So now I owe them an apology.  For thinking too quickly, for blaming to broadly, for being quick to anger.

And I owe them a debt of gratitude.  Several Libyans died helping to protect and evacuate the embassy.  Their lives were as valuable as any American’s.  Their lives were as valuable as my own.

So, to start on the right track, I’m posting this.  And I’m posting that picture, a handwritten note thanking the Libyan people, and wishing them peace and freedom.  I’ll be Facebooking it and Tweeting it, and I ask you to do the same.

Show your support for all those who love peace.  Write your own note.  Let the killers, the idolaters who worship blood and power, that they don’t get the last word.  Show those who would divide us, who would plunge us into hate, that they will not succeed.  Show the world that Americans and Libyans want peace and freedom.