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The Grace of Doing Something in Syria

On Sunday, September 1st, Pope Francis called for a Day of Prayer and Fasting on Saturday, September 7th, for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world. With “utmost firmness,” the pope condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria: “I tell you that those terrible images from recent days are burned into my mind and heart. There is a judgment of God and of history upon our actions which are inescapable!” Francis’s words echo those of Gaudium et spes from the Second Vatican Council in connection with total war: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation” (#80). Any war tactic that intentionally kills and harms civilians is murder and a grave sin, whether done with conventional weapons or weapons of mass destruction—though these latter weapons are inherently indiscriminate and indeed maliciously intended to be used that way in their very design. Catholics, both pacifists and just war proponents, should agree on this point.

Yet, rather than expressing support for military intervention against the Syrian regime by the United States or anyone else, Francis pleaded “for peace to rise up and touch the heart of everyone so that they may lay down their weapons and let themselves be led by the desire for peace.” Indeed, the pope repeated a refrain, “War never again! Never again war!” which, as Michael Peppard has correctly noted, goes back to 1965 when Pope Paul VI uttered these words at the United Nations General Assembly. This does not mean that the Catholic Church is now pacifist (yet).

Indeed, in recent years, especially in view of humanitarian crises such as in Rwanda and Kosovo, the Church has used the language of “legitimate defense” of the innocent as a just cause for forceful intervention. When people suffer at the hands of their government or due to the lack of the ability of their government to protect them, Pope John Paul II claimed that other nations “no longer have a ‘right to indifference’ [and it] seems clear that their duty is to disarm this aggressor if all other means have proven ineffective” (Pope John Paul II, “Principles Underlying a Stance Toward Unjust Aggressors,” Origins 22, no. 34 [28 January 1993]: 587). Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI , in his second World Day of Peace message, devoted attention to “certain recent situations of war” (par. 14), calling on “the international community [to] reaffirm international humanitarian law, and apply it to all present-day situations of armed conflict, including those not currently provided for by international law…” (par.14).  He encouraged the world’s nations to establish “clearer rules” and “norms of conduct” for defending the innocent and limiting “the damage as far as possible,” while he concurrently repeated the refrain that “war always represents a failure for the international community and a grave loss for humanity” (par. 14). What might these “clearer rules” or “norms of conduct” look like? Here Benedict footnoted the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (par. 2307-2317) that lists (in small print) “the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the ‘just war’ doctrine” (par. 2309), and that Benedict regarded as offering “strict and precise criteria” (endnote 7).

As I (here and here) and many other theologians and ethicists have noted over the last several days, although the horrific murders of Syrian civilians, including children, is a just cause for possible military intervention, other criteria of the just war tradition (which also are found in the framework of “the responsibility to protect” or R2P) must also be taken into consideration. To date, most (not all) Catholic theologians and ethicists have expressed serious doubts that a military strike by the US at this time would be consonant with just war jus ad bellum principles such as last resort, legitimate authority, probability of success, right intent, and proportionality. There are also concerns raised about the jus in bello criterion of discrimination and the “collateral damage” that is likely from even “surgical” air strikes, especially if chemical weapons depots are bombed. As I have noted, this is an agonizing case where a just war approach, at this time, given what we know (or don’t know), says “no” to military action.

But this doesn’t mean that we advocate “doing nothing” either. Yes, the present situation seems very much like what H. Richard Niebuhr wrote concerning possible military intervention in the Sino-Japanese conflict in the early 1930s in his famous Christian Century essay, “The Grace of Doing Nothing”: “We are chafing at the bit, we are eager to do something constructive; but there is nothing constructive, it seems, that we can do.” For him, the problem was “that of a choice between various kinds of inactivity rather than of choice between action and inaction.” But I would not assume that non-military or non-forceful practices are necessarily “kinds of inactivity” or “doing nothing.” Indeed, as I suggested in my article in the August 31 issue of The Tablet, we Christians can and should pray. That is not inaction.

The Trappist nuns from Azeir, Syria, have eloquently and prophetically petitioned, “To those who truly have a heart for Syria (for mankind, for truth…) we ask for prayer…abounding, heartfelt, courageous prayer.”  And, writes Peppard, “Like these nuns, Pope Francis embodies prophecy and prayer.” The pope’s call has meant a lot to religious leaders throughout the world, including the Grand Mufti of  Syria, Ahmad Badreddin Hassou, the spiritual leader of Sunni Islam in Syria, who expressed his desire to join with the vigil in Rome. As Peppard writes, “While that joint prayer is not likely to happen, the sentiment was significant. And though prayer does not seem a realistic response for many in positions of power, it is the way being led by Pope Francis.”

Pope Francis adds, “Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace! I ask all the local churches, in addition to fasting, that they gather to pray for this intention.” Here Francis echoes John Paul II, who similarly called for “gestures of peace”: “Gestures of peace spring from the lives of people who foster peace first of all in their own hearts…. Gestures of peace are possible when people appreciate fully the community dimension of their lives, so that they grasp the meaning and consequences of events in their own communities and in the world. Gestures of peace create a tradition and a culture of peace” (“Pacem in Terris: A Permanent Commitment,” America 188, no. 4 [10 February 2003]: 22; italics in original). Gestures of peace, such as the passing of the peace at Mass, are significant.

So, my family and I (and our parish) plan to fast and pray on Saturday.

However, I am also  reminded of something Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, once said, “I felt my legs were praying” (quoted in Darrell J. Fasching, Dell deChant, and David M. Lantigua, Comparative Religious Ethics: A Narrative Approach to Global Ethics, 2nd edition [Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011], p. 223). In other words, prayer is necessary, but I worry that it is not sufficient. Maybe there is grace to do that and more for the sake of the suffering children of Syria.

Calls for dialogue and negotiation alone also seem hollow. Something needs to be done to move the involved parties to talk in the first place—a lesson that Martin Luther King Jr. learned from Gandhi (and Reinhold Niebuhr).

Interestingly, as Peppard observes (I think rightly, though it is too soon to tell for sure), judging “from Pope Francis’s statements and previous writings, he leans away from the ‘just war’ discourse and toward the just peacemaking school of thought—or outright pacifism.” Just peacemaking refers to a paradigm or framework that pacifists and just war theorists in recent years have identified (see, for example, Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War, edited by Glen H. Stassen [Pilgrim 2008]). It includes nonviolent practices that have been shown to be effective, including in very violent conflicts. Over a year ago, Eli McCarthy called for “A Just Peace Response to Syria,” in which he included recommended (among other practices) nonviolent direct action, which includes the practice of protective or interventionist accompaniment (Stassen, Just Peacemaking, pp. 53-54). Witness for Peace did this when thousands of unarmed volunteers placed themselves in harm’s way during the Contra war in Nicaragua during the 1980s. There are serious risks obviously involved for those who participate (as there are for the military in an armed intervention), but any harm to such accompanying human shields would further undermine the cause of either the rebels or the regime.

As I said in my Tablet article, I wish that pacifists and other just peacemakers would do something like this right now as President Obama, Congress, the US public, and the world deliberate about what should be done. This might add “teeth” to their claims that just peacemaking “realistically” endeavors to make just war truly a “last resort.” The primary proponent of just peacemaking, Glen Stassen, has also suggested another possible way to address the problem of Syria’s possession of chemical weapons. McCarthy has written more recently, again in America magazine, on just peacemaking and Syria, too.

As a just war leaning Catholic theological ethicist, I will pray and fast, as Francis asked (and Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Pates; the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has also issued an Action Alert calling on American Catholics to call or write their Congressional Representatives and Senators, asking “them to support U.S. leadership, in collaboration with the international community, for an immediate ceasefire in Syria and serious, inclusive negotiations for peace”), with others here and around the world on Saturday—and I will pray also that such nonviolent just peacemaking alternatives materialize for Syria.

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