The CNN headline today reads, “Obama Gets Key Support for Syria Strike: House Leaders Back Obama.” I wonder if this is a good thing or not – the one place our political leaders can apparently come together in non-partisan co-operation is in the use of our military power. Please understand, I am not asking that with a sarcastic tone at all. I truly am wondering if this is a good thing or not. Let me explain.
Before I was ever “Pastor Mark,” which is what my present congregation calls me, I was Sergeant Poindexter, United States Marine Corps. I served in the armed forces from 1980-86, which was fortunately a time of relative peace in our nation’s history. I never had to serve in combat or even travel overseas and for that I am grateful. But I was trained to fight in defense of our country by one of the oldest and most elite fighting forces in the world. And if called upon in those days to go to battle, I would have gone. And during that time, I honestly did not give much thought to the relationship between military service and the Christian faith. I was 17 when I enlisted and the concepts of pacifism and just-war theory were not even part of my vocabulary. I would imagine such is the case for most young people who join as enlisted personnel today.
As I grew older and found myself being further and further immersed in the Christian faith and more and more intrigued with the life and teachings of Jesus, as my understanding of faith grew in a way that helped me to understand that God’s love is for all people and that God’s pleasure is not just found in the American idea, when I was confronted with Jesus’ words that his followers should be different than others and love even their enemies, when I learned of Gandhi’s and Dr. King’s non-violent revolutions, I began to question whether or not war could ever be justified. Could a follower of Jesus ever say “Yes, our nation going to war is the right thing to do in this situation?” Or in the instance of Syria, “Yes, it is the right thing for our nation to fire cruise missiles into that country as punishment for what that government did to its own people with chemical weapons.”
In the face of this changing understanding, I did something that might seem like a small matter to most people but to me it was huge. I had removed from my arms the tattoos that I had gotten while I was in the Marine Corps. It wasn’t because I was no longer proud of my service to our country. I was then and still am. And it was definitely not because I have moral opposition to tattoos. It was because the tattoos were of very violent images that I no longer wanted on my body as I grew deeper in my faith. I wanted more and more to be a person who worked for peace and understanding and reconciliation and the images on my arms were not of that, so I had them removed. (And yes it hurt much more to remove them than to have them put on.) Though this was a huge step for me, the matter of war and faith has still not been completely resolved in my mind.
I recently read a sermon by Ralph Sockman which is included in the anthology Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching. He is in the same volume that carries sermons by Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Martin Niemoller, George Buttrick, Paul Scherer and Reinhold Neibuhr – the theological heavyweights of the 20th century. Sockman stood with impressive company. In a sermon titled “The Eternal and the Timely,” which was preached during the early days of WWII, Sockman said:
Take, for instance, the most tense issue of our times, that of the Christian’s relation to war. No threat of war, no outrages on the part of hostile peoples can repeal Christ’s rule to love. If the individual feels that his motive of love can be expressed most effectively by helping to kill that some more may be saved, if he can conscientiously participate in the killing process without hating the persons attacked, if he is convinced that love has no alternative means of working its will, then for him it is his “Christian duty” to join the war. On the other hand, if the individual feels that to speak of “killing in love” is a mockery: that Christ’s absolute to love applies to the methods as well as the aims, since the means eventually determines the ends; that war wreaks more havoc to love than do the evils it seeks to remove; then for him his “Christian course” is to hold aloof from war. Each is thus testing his motives by the ethical absolute of love and each must respect the right of the other to differ in love. We must make allowance for the limitations of our own judgment, for even the best of us, like Paul, see the “through a glass darkly.”
The reason I quoted Sockman is because I find myself standing in the middle of this matter and the glass through which I look is very dark indeed. I know that I don’t share the opinion of those who say “It is their war. It is their country. Let them fight it out. We have no business getting involved.” When 1,500 people are gassed to death, many of them women and children, I don’t think I can reasonably say “There is no moral obligation on our part to do anything.” I am reminded of 20th century Germany when the systematic murder of Jewish people under the Nazi’s began nearly eight years before our country got involved. Indications are that much of the world knew what was happening, but chose not to act and millions of innocent lives were lost. Whatever else my faith calls me to, I don’t believe it ever calls me to neutrality in the midst of innocent death. Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel, once said, “One right I would never grant anyone is the right to be indifferent.”
So neutrality is not an option for me. But is violent action the only other option? Is that the only “language” that will be understood? Would diplomacy and sanctions and words of moral judgment upon such behavior produce any results? Is our potential response because of a real desire to protect life or because we want to show that America can come in with its power anywhere and anytime it wants to?
I told you, I was wondering. If you expected me to make a pronouncement about what is right or wrong on this matter, you were expecting too much from me today. What I can offer is this, we should be aware that any decision made about how to respond to the Syrian situation has moral consequences which will certainly cause the loss of life. In the face of that reality, maybe the question to ask is what approach would lead most quickly to the end of the war in Syria. Also, though I will always have deep respect for those who choose to serve our country, I grieve for the young lives that will be lost, most not fully grasping the reason for which they are fighting. I have come to realize that beyond all the reasons for war, there is this truth . . . “It is most often the young who fight and die the battles chosen by old men who don’t want to give up their power and privilege.”
Finally, I will be a person who prays for and works for peace and reconciliation whenever and wherever I can. Beginning in my own relationships and extending out as far as my reach will allow. For I do believe the ethical absolute is to love . . . even when we don’t always know how.
I’ve spent this article wondering about an important matter. One on which I know there are a variety of opinions. I invite you to wonder with me and let us reason together about how best to be a people of love and reconciliation in our broken and suffering world.