On June 26, 2012, I sat on the steps of a destroyed gas chamber and crematorium at Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, once used for the destruction of European Jewish communities, to write a pastoral letter.
Fourteen months ago, I began a deep examination of the ways in which the church, its clergy and its members, opt for silence or blind eyes toward the deep suffering of the world. Sitting on the steps of that gas chamber I named Syria as the most pressing area in need of the world’s attention.
“On the edge of this abyssmal atrocity which turned life into ashes is the church, both complicit and righteous, prophetic and silent. Lest we think that genocidal action is no longer among us, the present massacres in Syria are a clear and present reminder of the slaughter of innocence.” (Full text available here)
In the early hours of August 21, 2013, sarin gas was used in an attack on civilian populations around Damascus resulting in the death of more than 1,400 persons. Atleast 420 children died as a result of this massacre.
The use of chemical warfare against a civilian population has catalyzed diplomatic discussions in the international community and some governments are zealously preparing military retaliation. Our United States government is deep in the heat of legislative preparation and authorization for a military strike against the Assad regime.
So after yesterday’s Belmont convocation, I asked Shane Claiborne over lunch, ‘Given your strong opinions on American militarism, the military industrial complex, having been in American war zones (Baghdad) as an ambassador of peace, what do you say to college students, other individuals, and communities who are looking for practical ways to object or resist America’s headlong attempt at military intervention in Syria?’
Shane gracefully shared the Christian tradition’s long struggle with the use of force, including Jesus’ instructions to Peter to put away his sword after striking off Malchus’ ear. He reminded those of us at lunch how ancient church bishops had to learn to live as Christ followers in Rome (Roman occupied territory), the largest and strongest military force in the world at the time. (The blogosphere is alive and well with commentary on Christianity and military force in Syria). How do we respond to atrocities of violence and massacre without becoming violent perpetrators ourselves?
At the heart of Shane’s teaching time, this is what I heard: As Christ followers, the gospels compel us to question the prevailing values and actions of powers and principalities. The gospels might compel us to object to the use of destructive force in the pursuit of peace.