by Berry Friesen
The April 6 US attack on Syria brings to the surface a hardy perennial: hand-wringing over what Jesus-followers should say about such military attacks.
The hand-wringing occurs because (a) Jesus taught us to love our enemies, a stance incompatible with deliberately killing them; and (b) Jesus taught us to love our neighbors, which surely includes protecting the innocent from terror and aggression. Doing both at once is a steep challenge.
Those loyal to the power of the state are prone to ignore the first teaching and emphasize the second. Thus, with regard to Syria, the mainstream media present us with innocent and defenseless women and children being victimized by President Bashar al-Assad, a brutal and violent oppressor who uses poison gas to kill and intimidate. The presentation is designed to justify the use of violence to protect the innocent.
Jesus-followers can do better than that.
For example, on April 7, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)—the international NGO that represents US Mennonites, Amish and Brethren in Christ congregations—issued a public call urging its supporters to oppose US military action against Syria. After noting the civilian deaths on April 4 from “a chemical weapons attack” and the US airstrikes on Syria April 6—“an act of war without debate or approval by the US Congress or UN Security Council”—MCC conveyed the opposition of its Syrian partners to
“the use of violence from all sides in the conflict, including chemical weapons, airstrikes and the bombardment of villages – events that have all taken place this week. Rather than fueling the flames of war, they urge support instead for a robust process of dialogue and diplomacy to address the root causes of the conflict.”
Notice how the short MCC statement implicitly honors both of Jesus’ teachings. Notice also how it includes relevant facts, including a couple that reflect poorly on the US.
Yet the statement seems a bit perfunctory for a war that has entered its seventh year. Its call for an end to the violence and a negotiated settlement is rather conventional; I can’t imagine a US official or military officer being offended by such a call, nor any editor of a mainstream newspaper.
Evil is running amok in Syria; nearly 500,000 have been killed, six million people have become refugees, another six million have been internally displaced. Why does this carnage continue? People of faith must have something to say about this. How do we do this?
First, we must clarify what’s going on in Syria.
- President Assad is defending his country against outside invaders led by al-Qaeda and ISIS. These terrorist groups have been supported in Syria by money, arms, training and intelligence from the US and its allies. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been especially important sources of support for these groups; the US provides technical expertise and also plays a coordinating role.
- In Idlib province where the April 6th chemical incident occurred, al-Qaeda is in control. Most of the on-the-ground information reported in the Western media about the deaths on April 6 has been provided by individuals and groups working with al-Qaeda.
- During the long Syria war, investigative teams of the United Nations have documented chemical weapons use by al-Qaeda, by ISIS and by the Syrian government. Responsibility for the largest such attack—the August, 2013 attack in Ghouta—remains unclear.
- Russia is militarily present in Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government; thus, its presence conforms to international law. The US has no legal basis for military involvement in Syria; its presence in Syria is a violation of international law.
Second, we must summon the courage to identify parties to the Syrian war that apparently want this horror to continue. I refer to “courage” here because accurately describing the agony of Syria will be viewed by some as a breach of loyalty to our tribe. This breach can bring consequences: loss of reputation, marginalization, even exclusion.
Tulsi Gabbard, the Democrat congresswoman and former US Army officer from Hawaii, is a vivid example. For going to Syria late last year and visiting President Assad, expressing skepticism about al-Qaeda-sourced reports that are published by Western media, and calling for an independent investigation of the April 6th chemical event, Gabbard has been denounced by leading members of her party. She is likely to face a challenge in the next Democratic primary. Her constituents may decide to throw her out of office.
But Gabbard has refused to back down. She even has introduced legislation (H.R. 608) prohibiting US support for al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria. Think about it: Gabbard says it is necessary to make it illegal for the US government to do what you and I would be thrown in jail for doing: supporting the evil of terrorism.
Raised by a Christian father, Gabbard now practices the Hindu faith. Yet she provides an example of what we Jesus-followers must find the courage to do as we speak in public settings about war: grapple with the evil that explains the apparent intractability of war.
Yes, this means casting blame. And of course, the standard response is that casting blame will get us nowhere.
Actually, however, that’s not true. Blame has already been cast a million times through Western media reports stigmatizing President Assad and his administration’s attempts to defend their country against foreign mercenaries and terrorists. This pattern of media blame-casting is a powerful force that has indeed got us somewhere: six-plus years of war, justified by a false moral imperative to remove President Assad from office.
So yes, we must do more than oppose war and the re-arming of the combatants. We must do more than call for a negotiated settlement. We also must identify the presence of evil pushing war ever onward. And we must oppose this evil, even if it gets us in trouble with our tribe.
Berry Friesen lives in Lancaster, PA and is part of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite congregation in that city. A version of this essay was previously published at his blog, www.bible-and-empire.net