Crisis in Syria and the U.S: An Op-Ed by Len Bjorkman

The 2 ½ year-old civil war in Syria and the U.S. involvement in it, especially now with the current escalation, has personal dimensions for me and my participation in the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF). Sixty years ago this month I went to Tripoli, Lebanon, as a short-term missionary teacher. Among my students were Syrians; over the years Judy and I have visited Syria quite a few times, primarily on mission trips with a focus on the Christians and their relationships. The most recent visit was in October 2008, as part of a consultation near Damascus with Presbyterians from Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. As a member of PPF for almost 40 years, our commitment to nonviolence has both empowered and challenged me in relation to the Middle East and here at home. Here are some of my thoughts at this critical juncture.

PPF can join the numerous faith-based groups and others calling for non-military action in this escalating conflict in. For us as Presbyterians, we especially call attention to the August 30 statements by the General Assembly Stated Clerk and the Office of Public Witness. The clerk’s statement begins by “calling upon U.S. and world leaders to refrain from military action.” It takes the well-known Biblical verse,

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

and expresses concern and grief in view of the persistent killing and reiterates the Church’s position:

We are deeply concerned about events in Syria. We grieve for our brothers and sisters who have suffered so deeply for so long. We yearn for an end to the bloodshed and renew our call for a cease-fire and a mediated process involving all parties to provide new choices for all Syrians.

It then proceeds with imperatives that this time demands. Read the full statement here.

The Action Alert from the Office of Public Witness, boldly headlined, Oppose Military Action in Syria! begins by calling for action and setting the current focus on chemical weapons in a broad context:

As tensions rise due to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, urge the President, the Secretary of State, and members of Congress not to take military action in Syria.…

While the use of chemical weapons should be unequivocally condemned, regardless of who perpetrated the attack, it is also the case that many states have helped fuel the armed conflict in Syria by sending weapons to the region.  Instead of exacerbating the conflict with military strikes, the United States should seek an international agreement on an arms embargo and back dialogue that alone can end the horrific violence.

The full alert is here. (I highly recommend that all seekers of justice and peace sign up for the regular alerts from the OPW.)

Background on the situation in Syria and a variety of ways to help are found at the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance site.

 

While our concern is for all who are caught up in the mayhem, both those who perpetuate it and those who are the victims, it is indeed very sad and agonizing to know how this has been affecting the Christians there. Our partner church is the National Evangelical (Presbyterian) Synod of Syria and Lebanon; they have suffered greatly through bombings of their church buildings, loss of members, and serious interruptions of their activities. A report at the end of May takes me back to places and people: [We have] 20 congregations in Syria. Early after the first year one major Presbyterian church (Homs) [was] attacked as well as the school and old people’s home related to it. The church cannot be used yet; the school works with loss of 50% of its students and the old people’s home continued to function and has become also home for the congregation and the pastor and his family. Soon after that our other major church in Aleppo [was] attacked and both congregations [are] all now displaced.

The Synod has a plan to conduct a major relief program, with help from, among others, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, via this account. We pray that this will be possible. US military action would surely impose an additional burden on such restorative efforts.

This current crisis has brought us again into what we we’re sort of being told is a “crisis dealt with only by redemptive violence.” The attack with chemical weapons in a more egregious manner than previously used has moved the civil war from one where the deaths of 100,000 people are considered to be regrettable conventional war, to an unacceptable level that has gone beyond international norms and therefore crossed the line. We are being told that to deal with such atrocious behavior, violence must be employed to a degree sufficient to restrict the chaos and allow the possibility of new regenerative opportunities, unrealizable without it.

One of our most outstanding mentors, the late Walter Wink of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, whose trilogy on “The Powers” has informed and challenged many of us, goes into considerable detail about the nature of the “myth of redemptive violence” in his 1992 third volume, Engaging the Powers – Discernment and Resistance in a World on Domination. Beginning with ancient Mesopotamian myths and continuing down to modern cartoon characters and western movies and video games and the national security state, he discusses how prevalent is the view that, as one comic-character said, “Violence is golden when it’s used to put evil down.”

I’m very thankful to be among those in PPF who knew him and discussed the challenges that the commitment to nonviolence compels us to accept and the ambiguities we live with. The insights of his thought, that ranges from encountering the forces within ourselves that need to be dealt with, to the vaunted supremacy of any economic system or nation state, prompts us to be mindful of the many current complexities related to Syria. These involve at least the following -- the many parties both indigenous to Syria and from other countries, the rivalries for power and control among them with competing visions for the future, the vulnerability of Syrian Christians and other minorities, the impact of refugees who have fled to surrounding countries, the alliances and rivalries among the several major powers in the Middle East and several international powers, how military actions invariably involve unwished-for consequences, the condemnation of the use in Syria of chemical weapons by countries that manufacture and store such weapons, the role of the United Nations with its laudable Security-Council goals and its checkered history of implementing them, the U.S. efforts to support both those who endeavored to be nonviolent and more recently those who are part of the armed struggle, the increased presence of U.S. forces, or the various Church efforts to provide humanitarian relief and the negative impact of military escalation.

For us PPFers, it’s always almost too much of a challenge, as Walter Wink points out, to realize what Jesus intended when he commanded, “Love your enemies.”

Dare we think that weighing in on the debate that now faces the Congress and the nation and urging no military action is in keeping with his command? I consider that joining in the statement by the Stated Clerk and taking the action offered by the Office of Public Witness is part of our effort to follow Jesus. 

 

Len Bjorkman is Moderator Emeritus of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. Send an email to your U.S. representatives asking them to oppose military action in Syria here.