Syrian War & Churches

on September 3, 2013

Several Mainline/old line Protestant agencies have joined with left wing and pacifist groups to sign a politically irrelevant plea to President Obama denouncing “military strikes” on Syria and urging “diplomatic efforts to stop the bloodshed.” The National Council of Churches has issued a slightly more temperate appeal. And the Church of England’s Archbishop of Canterbury’s declaration to Britain’s House of Lords is more serious.

The Mainline/old line letter includes the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the Presbyterian Church (USA), Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Quakers and Brethren, plus secular left wing lobbies like Code Pink, Institute for Policy Studies, and 9-11 truther group Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, among other fringe kooks. Why do even liberal churches lose further credibility by such affiliations? Their letter unsurprisingly rejects military action or arming opposition groups while insisting on diplomacy without admitting that diplomacy so far as failed.

To its credit, the NCC did not endorse this unserious appeal. But its own statement is pacifist, declaring “its conviction that war is always contrary to the will of God,” even though only a few NCC’s member denominations have pacifist traditions. The NCC urges Syrian officials behind the chemical attacks to repent, at least naming the attackers, which the Mainline/old line letter did not. It commended the British premier’s “courage” for heeding his parliament’s rejection of military force, and it urged “restraint” on President Obama, while touting diplomatic and economic pressure on Syria.

In contrast, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby cited Just War teaching and the Syrian war’s impact on Syrian Christians, neither of which were mentioned by the Mainliners or the NCC. He commended “intermediate steps between being in barracks and opening fire.” He suggested any intervention must prevent further chemical warfare, deal with its orchestrators, and avoid furthering the already huge refugee crisis. Welby did not presume to offer detailed policy counsel to his government. Instead he offered cautionary nuance:

“In civil wars, those who are internal to the civil conflict fight for their lives, necessarily. Those who are external have a responsibility, if they get involved at all, to fight for the outcome, and that outcome must be one which improves the chances of long term peace and reconciliation.”

In other words, no easy answers, and there will be further suffering under any available outcome.

Syria’s war pits its murderous Baathist, Alawite dictatorship, backed by Iran and Hezbollah, against a Sunni opposition that includes al Qaeda aligned jihadists. There’s no end in sight. And the best possible outcome, a negotiated departure for the dictator and a coalition regime between regime remnants and relatively moderate oppositionists, improbably requires many needles to be threaded. Supporters of Western intervention hope to empower the non-jihadist opposition. But the outcome is uncertain.

Maybe the Syrian conflict resembles Cambodia in the 1980s, when the West backed military insurgents against the communist Vietnamese installed occupation government while trying to avoid helping the insurgency of the deposed genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.

Churches are right to pray and urge peace. But churches are unserious and betray their calling by advocating that governments be pacifist or insist on utopian solutions. The Archbishop of Canterbury seemed to walk this line, although he occupies a uniquely duel role as church leader and official in his nation’s government because of his nation’s established church.

Whatever church officials say about Syria, they should understand there’s no clear path to quick peace, and the current issue is which direction the war will head. They should also avoid touting meaninglessly abstract policy goals beyond reality and their own vocational expertise. And they should recall that each government, including the United States, has an ordained duty towards protecting the interests of its own people.

  1. Comment by cynthia curran on September 3, 2013 at 11:09 pm

    I’m not a pacifists but there are many on the center and the right that don’t want the us involved in a war in Syria since those that replaced the current regime could be worst.

  2. Comment by John S on September 4, 2013 at 7:54 am

    I will give the UMC credit for consistant pacificism. They also seem to fall into the trap of larger numbers justify a position. They would have been better of taking and supporting a position on its merits rather than saying, “See, all these others agree with us. We must be right!” (See UMC fixation on its own membership numbers) When I was a soldier I would try to find a UMC church to attend at each change of station. It was the rare one that was open and welcoming to the military. I eventually gave up and stuck to the military chapel system.

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