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Asking a Different Question

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Last night in his second national address on the global response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, President Obama asserted: “If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons. . . . As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them.”

Still, instead of calling for a quick vote to approve the military strikes he continues to assert are appropriate—a vote that could well go against the President, if pundits are to be believed—Obama called for a pause for diplomacy, with the possibility of a Russia-brokered negotiated turnover of all chemical weapons obviating the need for a military response. It was originally an off-hand proposal by Secretary of State Kerry that became a possible “third way” to avoid both the potentially dire consequences of non-response and the equally sobering prospect of yet another war with the US as aggressor. As the President notes, “It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed. . . . But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force. . . .”

As expected, this potential avenger-interruptus scenario has upset many who see it as the US surrendering the position of leader, of “fixer,” of Punisher-in-Chief of the global community. Ironically, some of these same voices were just a day before opposing military action, but the threat of losing dominant status in the global pecking order appears to be even less palatable. Ironically, in many ways, this is precisely what the religious community has been calling for from the beginning: a return to negotiations with international efforts directed to prevention rather than punishment or threat.

This hoped-for turnabout reveals one of the fallacies that has driven much of the debate inside and outside of the church . . . that our only options were intervention (military action) or isolationist non-intervention (as Senator Rand Paul put it, that we should not attack because there is not “a compelling case that American interests are at risk.”)

Indeed, before the weapons surrender option was on the table, much of the debate in religious circles since the August chemical attack has centered on the Just War Doctrine and whether a military response is justifiable under that doctrine (see for instance http://www.religionnews.com/2013/08/29/the-ethics-of-a-syrian-military-intervention-the-experts-respond/). It seems fair to say that the majority of scholars agree that a military strike cannot be justified under that doctrine. But is that a debate that has relevance for anyone outside of the church when Just War was left in tatters with the invasion of Iraq a decade ago? Are we even asking the right questions when we debate the appropriateness of US military action?

In concentrating on “strike” or “permit” as the only perceived options, the powers that be assume that as the global military superpower, the US has (1) the power and responsibility to essentially unilaterally prevent inhuman acts being committed against a people by their government and (2) that the only two options are ‘let them get away with it‘ or ‘hurt or kill them so they know if they do it again, we’ll kill them.‘

When we recall that the answer to Cain’s question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” was the Divine “What have you done?” we are reminded that the answer the question was clearly, “yes.” Thus, isolation from others, ignoring the plight of our fellow human beings, is not, or should not be, within our values. But does it necessarily follow that “keeping our brothers” means only the military actions which are being contemplated? Can we be interventionists without being militarist?

Certainly we can sympathize with those who seek to rehearse the frustrated stanzas of Psalm 94: “O Lord, you God of vengeance, you God of vengeance, shine forth! Rise up, O judge of the earth; give to the proud what they deserve! (Psalm 94:1-2) But we encounter only further frustration when we remember that in that Psalm, the one who will act, who will “wipe out their wickedness” is not USA, but Yahweh. Id, vs. 20-23.

Holy Wisdom does remind us “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven. . . . A time for war and a time for peace.” But have we, both in American culture and in the church, failed to recognize that those two options are the last of the 28 noted by the Teacher? Why aren’t we asking if it is “a time to kill [or] a time to heal; a time to break down [or] a time to build up”, answers that seem much more obvious?

What if the right first question is “What have we done?” and the next is not “How can we use our power to fix it?” but, instead “How is this an opportunity to heal; how is this a time where our power and influence can be directed for building people up?” Perhaps the diplomatic solution under debate provides just the opportunity for us to reframe the conversation, and the political debate, in this direction.

Rev. Michael D. Kirby
Pastor, Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church
Chicago

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