By Jeff Gill
To take this question on, first, it might be instructive to consider what some other responses might be.
There’s what you could call the “Spartan/Roman” way to deal with what Syria did. If our nation, in the role of Empire, wanted to follow the Sparta & Rome approach, we’d send in a Special Forces team, kill or incapacitate Bashar al-Assad’s guards while keeping him alive, then bring out his family, wife and three children, and suffocate one of the children in front of him, and say “If you use chemical weapons again, we will return and do this to another of your children.” And then leave.
Right. So, unless you watch too many direct-to-video action movies and think they represent a world anyone would want to live in, let’s leave that model aside.
There’s the Techno-Geek worldview, not necessarily compatible with the Christian view, but not assuredly in touch with it, either. You would announce to the Assad regime and to the world “We have made contact with each of the major rebel groups, and have made a secure data connection with them, and are providing them our daily best data on the location of Assad and his top leadership, with satellite imagery of their command locations and guidance on the weak points of their command and control systems.”
Might work, although it still relies on someone else doing our dirty work for us and using the hand sanitizer of technology to keep us clean.
We could look at the Pragmatist model, which is largely what the punditocracy is kicking around these days. America could use what intel we have [koff] to decide among the rebel groups which are a) most in keeping with our values [koff, koff], b) have the most chance of winning, and c) are likely to defer to us in the future if there are policy questions in play regarding Hezbollah, etc. Then we could airdrop, truck through Turkey, or otherwise somehow supply those groups we approve with munitions that improve their odds of defeating Syrian regime forces . . . MANPADs, or even just reliable M-4s and ammo to go with, whatever.
That one uses less hand sanitizer, but still is trying to keep us at one remove from responsibility, which neither practically nor theologically seems to be as much of a veil as Salome wore. Nekkid is as nekkid does.
Then there’s the . . . and I know it will bother some, but it has to be said, at least on the basis of what we’ve had said officially to us: the Obama approach. This one apparently involves firing Tomahawk missiles from beyond the borders of Syria (no boots on the ground, even symbolically), and blowing up strategic assets sufficient to . . . do something. Not sure what, since we have already ruled out blowing up the Presidential Palace (which architecturally, especially if empty, seems to cry out for a bombing), and it’s generally conceded that blowing up the chemical weapons stocks neatly is problematic. But let’s concede that you can disrupt and inconvenience the regime with enough cruise missile impacts to get their attention, and to get them to . . . right, still not clear. Similar to the Pragmatist model, but a bit messier, where we hope to blow things up with minimal loss of life on our account, so as to make it easier for other people (read: rebels) to kill people and take over.
All of which brings us around to the original question: What’s a Christian response to the Syria situation? Is there one? Some would say, and I’ll confess to have leaned in this direction, that you can’t have a nationally Christian, or truly Christian nationalist response or approach to anything. The whole “Christian nation” concept is fraught with perils, mostly to Christian faith itself. If this implication sounds wrong to you, and you’re pretty sure that Christianity benefits from being connected to a national agenda, we can talk more after you’ve read a whole bunch of Kierkegaard. But anyhow.
Our nation, if we’re not to be sucked down the rabbit hole of “Empire” (ask Romulus Augustus how that whole empire project ends up) could benefit, though, from Christians who happen to be Americans talking openly and honestly about what a simply Christian response would be, given our current blessed status of the accident of being born into this set of gifts and resources and responsibilities. This isn’t to say a Christian response requires the USA to be the global police force, but a near parallel sense comes from somewhere at the intersection of Luke 12:48 and Marvel Comics – “With great power comes great responsibility.”
As a Christian who is an American, I want my nation not to choose evil, and not to be casual about the use of our gifts, either. Pres. Obama was appealing to this common sense understanding in his speech the other night, talking to all Americans of whom many are Christian, asking how we can stand by as children die under the use of internationally proscribed weapons. His administration is pushing for using that desire to “do something” as the basis for missile attacks on “selected targets,” but even fairly conservative, “Christian nation” Americans have gotten pretty skeptical about the whole “carefully selected” thing after a decade of drones, effectively used in the war on terror or not. Collateral damage is starting to make peace-lovers of us all.
So as followers of the Prince of Peace, what would we like our Nobel Peace Prize holding Commander-in-Chief to do? “Talk” has often been raised, and I could have put up above a “Diplomacy” model which involves lots of UN commissions and inspectors, high level meetings, and a strategic move towards adding to the sanctions and restrictions on Syria, which is really the model we’ve been living in the last few weeks. That model is either soon to collapse of its own weight, or will with one more use of banned munitions by the Assad forces.
Is a truly Christian geopolitical approach that of going alone, one leader landing on the tarmac and walking into enemy territory (announced or unannounced) and asking to speak to Mr. Assad privately? I infer from what some of my Christian friends and colleagues have said that something like this is what they wish Pres. Obama would do. It has a certain New Testament, Nicodemus by night, atmospherically Christian feel to it . . . and it’s silly. Sorry, but it is. Assad is, I’d strongly suspect, the least of our worries in Syria. He’s a younger son who may not even have originally wanted the job of heir, and is almost certainly desperately trying to figure out how to get his wife and children out of this alive, while knowing the long-term regime figures, none of which we know by name, are effectively holding his family for ransom.
Is there someone else, some other crucial, Zebedee-ish figure for a dramatic face-to-face conversation and conversion opportunity? I doubt it. You’re looking at a thug system that’s thuggishly ruled for decades, and there’s lots of investment down to the light colonel level in maintaining the status quo or end up swinging from lampposts.
As Christians, in a powerful nation, I fear there is no one model we can affirm in dealing with Syria right now. And I can’t imagine what it even might be. Not today. I’m going to keep praying over this one.
But out of this confrontation, I think there is a Christian response that people of faith could start asking our leaders to consider, and that is to be more engaged in justice and development issues on a grassroots, local level all over the world. We’ve been here before, with the Peace Corps and the US Agency for International Development and the Foreign Agricultural Service. We’ve never left this concept entirely behind, and it was George W. Bush who proposed both the Millennium Challenge Corporation and PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. It all reflects a model that calls for an American personal presence as well as a national fiscal commitment to the village and local level overseas, where individuals in countries are seeing and meeting and interacting with actual Americans who really are there to help, and not just to advance geopolitical goals.
In fact, there’s much more of this sort of model at work right now than is generally known, and here I do have to fall back on the usual complaints about the media, especially legacy media, focusing on the international version of “if it bleeds, it leads.” Pastors in pulpits and community leaders in various roles all should do a better job of keeping themselves informed about these programs and the people delivering them, and telling their stories, but it would help if TV and online news sources went out and covered these stories (Peace Corps, USAID, PEPFAR) better and more often, but good people doing good in nondescript places where nothing currently is exploding just doesn’t make compelling visuals . . . or maybe we Christians need to help reframe the discussion about what really is compelling viewing in the first place.
If we could take an interest in both our denominational relief efforts, but also in our national programs (even when it means occasionally speaking well of Republicans!), and get people excited about what people every bit as awesome and amazing as Seal Team Six are doing in tough, challenging situations, could we change the conversation? I think it’s possible, and I do know it’s not really been tried yet, so let’s run it up the flagpole, shall we?
None of this is possible TODAY in Syria. Sadly, sorrowfully, I know that. You can’t infiltrate agricultural aid workers by glider at midnight and make a sudden impact within one news cycle. But how could we, as a nation, have been putting more effort and energy into getting those kinds of presences into Syria over the last fifty years? And in the world right now, where should we be getting into the countryside ahead of another Syria situation that could erupt fifty years from NOW?
We have, indeed, been here before; we looked at what I think comes dangerously close to being a Christian response as a nation to global threats, and we’ve never disavowed it, but we keep pushing it aside in preference to the quick fix, the industrial solution, to the surgical cruise missile strike. There’s a book that’s still quite pertinent, some fifty-odd years old, called “The Ugly American.” The title has become a cliche, but the irony is that the title character is an honorable man with a homely visage, a Midwesterner and his wife who are the real heroes, and the true solution to many of our geopolitical woes. They live near the people, offer solutions, listen to reactions, and work under the “radar” of official activity on behalf of empire and hegemony in Southeast Asia. And they are where they are because they are Christians.
Homer Atkins is the “Ugly American” of the title, and he and Emma are the embodiment of Christian values, and from the point of view of the villagers they served, they embody America. They were based on real people, Otto & Helen Hunerwadel, and I knew their granddaughter, who told me many stories of their service overseas. It was just for a few seasons, but with impacts to last a lifetime.
Maybe it’s time for us to re-read “The Ugly American” in our churches, and for more of us Christians to be one. It would be a beautiful response, and I believe it would be a Christian one.