On faith: Helping your neighbor
I, like many followers of Christ, am struggling with how our nation should respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. President Obama argues, with sound moral reasoning, that we cannot stand by and do nothing in the face of evil. Evil must be confronted. Where the President and years of Christian moral theology part ways is how we best confront evil.
Chemical weapons are new. Evil is not. While followers of Christ, like Paul, did not have to deal with weapons of mass destruction, they did have weapons and mass destruction. While they didn't have to deal with President Bashar al-Assad, they did have tyrants to deal with. The specifics may be different, but the circumstances are the same.
Jesus set the stakes high when he expanded the idea of "neighbor" to include anyone anywhere. A neighbor, according to Jesus, was anyone who was in need. (Luke 10:29-37) We act neighborly when we come to the aid of the oppressed, the hungry, the naked, the stranger, and those in prison. (Matthew 25:31-46) So, while some argue that what is happening in Syria is "none of our business," it seems unlikely Jesus would agree. They are our neighbors and, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
But how are followers of Christ called to respond to evil? Paul argued that one does not defeat evil with evil but to "overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:21) Jesus, himself, called on his followers to not respond to violence with violence. "When you are slapped on the right cheek, turn the other also." (Matthew 5:39)
But let's not confuse "pacifism" with "passivism." We cannot remain passive in the face of evil. Jesus and his followers argue, however, to respond to violence with violence is to add fuel to the fire. It extends the cycle of violence and does not end it.
This is not idealistic. This is practical and realistic. It's about what kind of outcomes we expect. A peace that is created by violence is artificial and can only be maintained by violence. A military strike on military assets, even when pinpointed, is dealing with the symptoms and not the causes of ongoing, systemic violence.
Why do we look to our military prowess to solve our problems? Because that is an institution we've most developed in our society and when you're a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. What do we teach our children? Just recently I saw a parent calm a situation where one child was about to respond violently to another child by saying, "use your words."
That's what Antoinette Tuff, a schoolteacher in Decatur, Ga., did last month. When confronted with an AK-47 wielding student in her school, knowing he could take her life, she talked him down. Using nothing but her words, she disarmed him.
Violence is not creative. It's visceral and it feels like we are doing something. But how often, realistically, does violence make the situation better, rather than worse? I'm not asking this on a broad geopolitical level, but in one's own life, personally, when has the use of violence made a situation better? I'd expect examples of this are few.
As a society we need to be training ourselves to 'use our words' -- to find creative and lasting solutions to violence, to invest in the things that make for peace rather than more war. President Obama rightly described the American people as "war weary." I believe we are weary of war because we have seen its futility.
I do not envy President Obama, the Congress, and those making these difficult decisions. I appreciate that some might dismiss my point of view by saying, "but we live in the real world." To them I would ask, what do we expect to gain from the use of violence? I do not expect any outcome other than more violence. And that is the real world.