How Should a Christian Respond to Syria?

This post originally appeared here.

These last few days have been exciting, but not necessarily in a good way. On the one hand, we have had a celebration of Martin Luther King’s legacy, but on the other hand, the dogs of war are snarling again, this time for Syria. Our politicians are simultaneously celebrating one of Christianity’s greatest prophets, while also considering military action abroad (again). Considering this interesting coincidence, I think it can be helpful to consider what Martin Luther King would have thought about the current military actions of the United States.

There is an episode of The Boondocks called “Return of the King“ that actually tackles this exact question. In this episode, instead of being killed, King slips into a coma after being shot, and he wakes up in the year 2000. King learns that not as much has changed as he would have wished, and he becomes greatly disillusioned. There is one part of the episode, however, that is really relevant to our current wars and our inevitable involvement in Syria.

After September 11th and the invasion of Afghanistan, King is invited onto Bill Maher’s old show Politically Incorrect. When asked about the attacks, King responds that, as a Christian, he believes in turning the other cheek. This comment in regards to loving enemies — including Al-Qaeda — gets King a lot of criticism. The American public and media — both “liberal” and “conservative” — deeply criticize and ostracize King for his remarks. Would King actually say something like this? I think he would, and that he actually did, but concerning Vietnam instead of Afghanistan.

In his sermon “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” King makes many statements that are critical of the American war machine, and I think many of these statements were just as valid in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria. One statement is particularly powerful, and I recently shared it on Facebook when I saw people start talking about Syria:

And don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, “You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I’m God.”

During his life, King had a consistently anti-war ethic. Originally, he was not strictly a pacifist, but was against war, but over time, he came to adopt a fully pacifist position. It was this pacifist position that he felt was the most productive and Christian in the long term.

I think that King was right in this matter. Looking at the words attributed to Jesus by the gospel writers, it seems quite obvious that Jesus calls Christians (and humanity in general) to pacifism. However, pacifism should not be confused with what is called “passive-ism.” King was a pacifist; he actively sought peace and justice. The pacifism of King, and I would argue the pacifism of any genuine Christian, should be the same pacifism as described by Eberhard Arnold when he said:

We do not agree with a pacifism that ignores the root causes of war – property and capitalism – and tries to bring about peace in the midst of social injustice.

It is a pacifism that cares for actively seeking peace and justice at all levels of society.

I think King gives us a great response to the growing crisis in Syria, and I think his example is one all Christians should follow. Yes, we should be full of righteous anger for all of the evils that are currently taking place in the Syrian civil war, but we should not respond to that evil by advocating the United States military to practice that same evil against the Syrian people. It is morally inconsistent to condemn the use of weapons by the Syrian government on its citizens, and then turn around and call for the US government to use similar weapons on that same country. As King says, we are too arrogant, especially when we think we have some legitimate, divinely-justified monopoly on violence. As Christians, we should understand that violence is morally wrong, no matter what flags you use to soak up the blood afterwards.

How should a Christian respond to Syria? Nonviolently. But, it should not be the kind of “nonviolence” that lets violence continue unchallenged. It should be the kind of nonviolence that actively seeks peace and justice through alternative, long-term solutions, rather than with bombs.

Comments (6)

  1. Tim B

    The big huge problem with our “pacifism,” and you mention it here, is “passivism.” Kevin, you talk about taking action but end with “How should a Christian respond to Syria? Nonviolently. But, it should not be the kind of “nonviolence” that lets violence continue unchallenged. It should be the kind of nonviolence that actively seeks peace and justice through alternative, long-term solutions, rather than with bombs.”

    Once again this site fails to offer solutions, it is obsessed with finding inequality and placing blame. What, exactly, are “alternative, long-term solutions?”

    I’m with you on finding a non-violent solution to Syria’s ongoing civil war. But notice my word “finding.” This piece doesn’t so much as express interest in finding or exploring anything…at all. We’re busy shooting down others’ ideas without explaining our own.

    The difference between King and today’s liberals is King had a goal and a plan. He was an excellent orator, sure, but he took nonviolence and used it as club to showcase wickedness. So, I ask you, do you have a plan to end the bloodbath or are you just adding your voice to the cacophony of complainers?

  2. KevinD (Post author)

    Personally, Tim B, I do not know how to end the current crisis. I also do not know how to solve world hunger, poverty, or racism. I also do not think it is my job to know, but the job of oppressed people coming up with new solutions to solve those issues. The point of my post was not to offer some infallible solution, but to point out that as Christians, that solution, whatever it is, should be a nonviolent one.

  3. Tim B

    I’m sure the refugees of Syria and those mourning the dead appreciate your concern and lack of solutions.

    How about this…

    How about we buy Assad out? We offer him a beach house and servants in Malibu free of charge. We offer him a tax free existence and life of utter ease. He can take it or not. If not, the UN and much of international community will not acknowledge his regime’s authority. We will crush him monetarily and threaten him with irrelevance should he stay in power.

    (And by “we” I mean allies committed to solving this problem non-violently.)

  4. Morgan Guyton

    Since the days of the British Empire, it has been the white man’s burden to fix every problem everywhere in the world. When will “we” have the humility not to cause more harm because “we” feel the need to have a solution in the face of others’ suffering?

  5. Eric M.

    Great article! I wish somebody would write something that tells me exactly what to think about this or how to approach it, but it looks like we are all struggling through this together.

  6. TimN

    Morgan, thanks for your reminder that these dynamics are as old as empire. In my role with Christian Peacemaker Teams, I keep on getting asked: what is the alternative that you are offering as Christian pacifists?

    The problem is, we’re letting our focus be entirely dictate by the U.S. government and the media that follows whatever they are talking about. Certainly what is happening in Syria is bad, but its been bad for 2 years now. It is unlikely there is a quick, easy solution. Peacemaking, is long, slow work.

    Instead, I’ve been talking to people about CPT’s work supporting the current strike in Colombia. Its barely being covered in the U.S. at all because the small farmers are really frustrated about the way the U.S. free trade agreement with Colombia is dumping cheap grain (subsidized by the U.S. government) in Colombia and making it impossible for them to make a living. You can read of CPT Colombia’s coverage of the strike here: COLOMBIA ANALYSIS: A short primer on the national strike

    Hundreds of thousands of people in Colombia are using nonviolent resistance instead of joining the guerillas. Why don’t we talk about that in our churches and invite people to go on a a CPT delegation and see for themselves? The Colombia team has struggled to find enough people to fill delegations for the last few years because Colombia isn’t talked about as much in the U.S. as it is in other places. What if we worked to change that?

    Nonviolence is in it for the long haul. Violence feeds off crisis and the illusion of quick fixes. Following Jesus calls us to break out of that paradigm.

Comments are closed.