What I – a Pacifist – Would say to Obama About the Crisis In Syria
Over the last week many of you have written ReKnew asking me to weigh in on the crisis in Syria. Does being a pacifist mean that I am opposed to America violently intervening to keep Assad from using chemical weapons against his own people? And if so, what would I say if Obama asked for my opinion on how America should respond to this crisis?
The first thing I’ll say is that I don’t believe that being a kingdom pacifist (viz. on who swears off violence out of obedience to Jesus) means that one must embrace the conviction that governments are supposed to embrace pacifism. Many people assume this, and I’ve found that the implausibility of this position is one of the main reasons some people reject pacifism. After giving talks about the kingdom call to unconditional non-violence, I’ve frequently received responses like: “Are you telling me our government should just love the terrorists and ‘turn the other cheek’?” Actually, I’m not saying this. I don’t believe Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching on the need for disciples to adopt an enemy-loving, non-violent lifestyle was ever intended to serve as a mandate for how governments are supposed to respond to evil.
To the contrary, in Romans 12 and 13, Paul explicitly contrasts the call of disciples to swear off violence as they love and serve enemies with the way God uses governments. He tells disciples to “bless those who persecute you” (12:14), to never “repay anyone evil for evil” (v.17), and to never “take revenge (ekdikeō).” Instead, we are to “leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘Vengeance’ (ekdikēsis) is mine says the Lord’ (v.19).” Rather than retaliating, disciple must rather feed our enemy when they’re hungry and give them something to drink when they’re thirsty, thereby overcoming evil with good rather than allowing evil to overcome good (vss.20-21). Immediately following this Paul says that God “establishes” or “files” (tassō) all governments as he sees fit (13:1), which is why their “rulers do not bear the sword for no reason” (vs. 4). God uses these sword-wielding authorities “to bring punishment” or “vengeance” (ekdikos ) on the wrongdoer” (vs.4).
The important point for us to see is that Paul forbids disciples to ever engage in the very activity he says God uses governments to accomplish – namely, taking vengeance (ekdikēsis). We are to leave “all vengeance to God,” in other words, and one of the ways God takes “vengeance” is by using sword-wielding governments. This doesn’t mean that God wants governments to be violent. It just means that, since the governments of this fallen world are going to be violent, God is willing to get involved in them by “ordering” (tassō) their violence to bring about as much good as possible. And the good he works to bring about is keeping evil in check by punishing wrongdoers.
I believe this teaching implies that there are “sword-wielding” offices in government that disciples simply can’t hold. But I think it’s a complete misunderstanding to think that kingdom pacifism entails that disciples should try to get their government to adopt a pacifist position. This is treating the government as if it were the church!
So what do I think America should do in response to the Syrian crisis? The most important thing I would say in response to this question is this: whatever my opinion on this matter might be, I couldn’t consider it a distinctly kingdom opinion. Being a citizen of the peaceable kingdom of God does not give us any special insight into how and when the sword-wielding governments of this world should and should not use the sword. These governments operate by an entirely different set of rules than the kingdom we belong to and are called to advance. They defend their self-interest, while we die to ours. They are focused on doing what is practical while we are concerned only with being faithful. And they trust the power of force, while our only confidence is in the power of self-sacrificial love.
In this light, it’s apparent that pledging our allegiance to the non-violent Messiah may make us less “street smart” about the “right” use of the sword, but it certainly doesn’t give us any advantage on this matter. This is one of the reasons I think that disciples who think they are engaging in a kingdom activity when they publically protest wars are misguided. While followers of Jesus may have opinions about what our government, or any other government, should do in response to the Syrian (or any other) crisis, we must remember that there is nothing uniquely kingdom about this opinion.
So, with that proviso, what would I say if Obama called me up on the phone and solicited my opinion about how the US should respond to the Syrian crisis? (Of course, if he read the first part of this blog and understood what I said, I’d probably be the last person he’d solicit advice from – and I wouldn’t blame him!) Since our government has (almost) always been committed to the just-war principle that violence should be used only as a last resort, I’d first press him on the question of whether or not we are absolutely certain Assad is guilty of having engaged in the atrocity he is being accused of. I’d remind him of the enormous price the US and others paid because the US acted on “false intelligence” when we decided to bomb Iraq. If our information were indeed certain, I would encourage Obama to take the time to bring other countries on board so the US doesn’t have to act alone. Yes, slowing down poses the risk that Assad may kill more innocent people, but isn’t this risk outweighed by the many more innocent lives that will be lost if we once again act incautiously?
Moreover, I’d encourage Obama to seriously take a careful look at what the long-term fallout of a violent intervention will be. While violence always looks like a solution in the short run, it turns out to only lead to an escalation of violence in the long run. How will a unilateral US intervention on another largely Arab country harden more Muslims against the US and be used to recruit more terrorists in the future? I’d encourage him to seriously consider just how little (if anything) has been accomplished in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 10 years, and at such an enormous price. And if the Assad regime collapses, are we reasonably sure the regime that replaces him will be any better?
Finally, if Obama solicited my advice, I’d inquire if all other avenues of resolving this crisis have really been exhausted. Have we exhausted all attempts to achieve a diplomatic solution with Assad? Have we exhausted all attempts to dialogue with him and/or with his allies? I know the media is now painting this leader out to be a Hitler-like madman who can’t be reasoned with (and his mustache doesn’t help this image), but it wasn’t long ago when this western educated leader was a considered a reasonable, and even humble, ally of the US. What happened? Are we to believe that this former dentist just lost his mind and soul? Does he have a legitimate grievance with the US that we might be able to rectify? Is there anything we can do to open the door to dialogue and move toward a non-violent resolution of this conflict.
And if Obama answered “yes” to all these questions, I’d ask him if he’d allow me to ask one further, slightly more personal, question: “Brother Obama, as a professing follower of Jesus, how do you reconcile your position as Commander in Chief with your allegiance to Christ?”
I’d end by promising to pray for him – and Assad – and the US – and the Syrian people. For at the end of the day, I have far more confidence that prayers like this will accomplish more in the long run than bombing ever will.