A different view on Syria


You are president of the United States: you, not Barack Obama. It is September 2013; Syria is in a civil war with undertones of anarchy that is killing hundreds of people every week while millions flee to safety, becoming refugees in neighboring countries.
You, president of the United States, attempting to uphold some sense of limits on how far the killing in Syria would be allowed to go by a watching world, have declared that the use of poison gas would be too far. It would require intervention. Now there is credible evidence that the government of President Bashar al-Assad has used poison gas.
Here’s what you should do to intervene in a fully Christian manner.
While encouraging the rest of the world to join in, you lead a praying group of a million American Christians and Muslims into Syria carrying medicine, bandages, food of the region and shovels. Those are your “arms.” They declare that you are present among the people as a neighbor in the Gospel sense. You are neither enemy, ally nor outside intervenor. You are a neighbor/friend. Someone who is fully with them in their suffering.
Your authority in the situation comes from your sacrifice; first your willingness and then your actual sacrifice, which will happen because you are entering a vicious cauldron of hostility among people whose culture is very different from yours. You and many of your companions will die. You will become a fellow victim with Syrians. As this sacrifice grows it will affect the spirit of hostility, eventually overcoming it.
You will have brought… what? Peace? Not yet. Only a cessation of hostilities. Peace will come as the people of Syria decide to govern themselves for the common good: the flourishing of all rather than the advantage of some.
How will they do that? They aren’t likely to simply imitate us. Their history and culture is too different. Governing requires choices among different options about how to live together, from which side of the road to drive on to how taxes are levied. Choices in any community, whether involving family or nation, are influenced by the perceived needs of participants and their ability to communicate the reality, the extent, and the urgency of those needs. The perceptions of different participants will be different on these issues.
The people aren’t perfect in virtue. There will be tension over differences. Alliances will form. Differences in power to gain satisfaction will be noticed. People will be encouraged to study the American Federalist Papers as an example of how to achieve a balance amid these tensions. Our example isn’t perfect — we had to go through our own vicious civil war — but we do have a record of political stability. This suggests that our founders knew something about the moral uses of power in a pluralistic world.
That will remain the fundamental challenge in Syria no matter what is done about Assad, his poison gas and the array of factions fighting against him. If all killing there stopped immediately, the 22 million or so people would still be divided into Muslims of Sunni, Shiite and Alawite persuasion, Christians, Druze and Kurds. They would not cease to share a history in which religion has a claim on one’s identity more fully than we Westerners can imagine today.
They would have to figure out for themselves how to relativize those religious differences in order to share and use power wisely.
We would have to admit that we are inadequate guides to their future. After all, it took us centuries to figure it out. The best we can do for them is to help stop their mutual killing today.
And we’re conflicted over how to do that. We really don’t want to die with them.
Frank Wessling

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