Thursday, September 5, 2013

Considering Syria

Each weekday morning at Jonah House, the community gathers for morning prayer, reading from the lectionary and sharing reflections.  This morning we found ourselves in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians.  Paul, a spiritual leader of the budding church, is overwhelmed with love for them and offers this effusive prayer: “that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of God… bearing fruit in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God….” The prayer goes on, bursting with life and love; a full paragraph comprised of two heartfelt, spirit-filled sentences of encouragement and exhortation that can hardly be stopped by a period.  Paul indicates that fullness of life requires strength combined with patience; wisdom and understanding combined with action; and, in all things, the tempering, humbling persistence of thanksgiving.  It’s about mind, heart and walk – a fruit-filled life – a prayer that every loving parent offers for their children.

It’s a prayer that I, with foolish faith, pray for the world in which I share life, the country in which I share citizenship and the society in which I share presence.  Over the past couple of weeks, it is a prayer in which I have been disappointed to the point of daily distress.  Syria is on my mind all day, every day.  Syria, and the sickening persistence with which our politicians are pushing for US military intervention.  I confess, with full disclosure, that as a pacifist I find it hard to believe that a violent assault can ever be the source of lasting, peaceful resolution for any conflict.  It seems to me that violence begets violence.  However, that being said, even were there to be such a thing as a “just war” or efficacious military interventions, I am still waiting for evidence that an air strike in Syria could be such a thing.

While it does seem right to respond to devastating deaths that have for sometime been occurring in Syria, I cringe when I hear Kerry suggest that insistence upon an air strike is an act “grounded in facts, informed by conscience, and guided by common sense.”  I cringe now that Obama has substituted the phrase “to act” with what he actually means, “to attack,” as though to not violently assault another nation automatically indicates a resolution to passivity.

A representative of Oxfam America President RaymondOffenheiser was interviewed yesterday by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now.  As a representative of Oxfam, Offenheiser’s primary concern is with internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Syria and refugees seeking safety in neighboring countries, does not see a US military involvement as a source of reprieve to their suffering but rather an action that is likely to spread and intensify it. Oxfam, “recognizes a need for strong and immediate action,” but is “not sure military action is the answer.”  He goes on to say that if you strip away the rhetoric, at the end of the day all the parties agree that the only true solution is a political solution and a military strike will not only widen and prolong the conflict, putting more civilians in danger, but will undermine the trust that would be necessary for a real and lasting solution.

 And frankly, though images of those wounded and dead from the alleged use of chemical weapons was used as the catalyst to incite the US to this very particular action, the good of the Syrian people seems very far from the content of debates at present.  We hear more about “US interest” and Obama’s image than what might alleviate the suffering of Syrians and bring some political resolution to the ongoing civil war, not to mention the underlying regional war (please see the Amy Goodman's interview with Fawaz Gerges for a more comprehensive perspective on the complicated state of affairs in the Middle East).  Even those who oppose a strike are being dismissed as suffering from “war fatigue” allowing the administration to get away without answering questions about the gaping holes in the “evidence” being presented that the Assad regime is responsible, not to mention any indication of how this will in fact effectively help the situation rather than worsen it.

This morning Amy Goodman interviewed Alan Grayson, a Florida state Congressman.  Grayson caught me by surprise, articulately manifesting many of the pressing questions about evidence and efficacy and how, rather than promoting US interest, a strike would in fact do powerful damage.  Despite the encouragement of having these issues brought to light, it hurts to recognize what continues to be left unaddressed. I wish that we would hear more from those who are opposed to US military intervention about Syrian interest.  Though the arguments indicating that it is against US interest are compelling, it does little for those who genuinely desire to aid the Syrians who are suffering (Fawaz Gerges is a better source for this than Grayson). It is astounding to me that anyone would believe an air strike (and almost undoubtedly subsequent “boots on the ground”) would curb the carnage and not expand the loss of life, creating a ripple effect of violence that will not be contained in Syria.

What would happen if all involved, and those of us not explicitly involved, absorbed the reality that “to act” does not necessarily mean “to attack.”  Employing our own weapons, whatever we may call them, also means using “weapons of mass destruction.”  To not violently intervene does not mean to be passive.  I am wondering, what would happen if we acted on the tragedy by mourning the destruction and loss of life in Syria and creating a space to offer healing and to seek to understand and address the insanity rather than simply exacerbating it?

I find myself recalling one of the final scenes from the film Children of Men.  In this story the line between good guys and bad guys becomes realistically blurred.  The government that claims it is maintaining order is manipulating its citizens and abusing refugees.  Many of the rebels that once seemed for “the people” turn against individuals in favor of the movement’s agenda.  By the end, nearly everyone is shooting each other and no one knows why.  What stops the shooting is not the hero picking up a gun and picking off the worst of the worst (actually, the “hero” Clive Owen, never uses a gun).  What stops the shooting, just for a moment, is the crying of a newborn baby in the arms of its terrified mother.  What would happen if our response, if the world’s response, to the crying children of Syria was to pause and lay down arms rather than to pick them up and fire?

Please see below for more recommended reading/viewing:

"On United States Intervention in Syria: Remember a Few Things" by Joshua Brollier,

“What I, a Pacifist, Would Say to Obama About the Crisis in Syria” by Greg Boyd, 

“Tell Congress: Don’t Attack Syria,” Congressman Alan Grayson (a petition and video interview),

"Top Ten Unproven Claims for War Against Syria," Denis Kucinich

Acknowledgements:  Thanks to the Baltimore Sun, CBS nightly news, Democracy Now, and Ted for listening to my rants and laments and helping me clarify my thoughts.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Watching the News

Every night at Jonah House, we watch the evening news, local and national.  This is a practice I have neither participated in nor witnessed since it was my parents sitting in the “family room” and watching stories of war and of weather and of ducks crossing the street, the news anchors sliding from one expression to another to fit the scene superimposed behind them. I would skulk in and out ruefully wishing we could change the channel to Family Matters or Perfect Strangers or put in a movie, for crying out loud! 

Now that I am an adult amongst adults (granted of a wide age spectrum) I find myself obligated to sit and watch and listen.  I find myself surprised by how much I have come to appreciate this tradition; how I join Liz and Ardeth in occasional exclamations that affirm Carol’s commentary; how I am invited to learn and wonder about the world beyond my daily experience.

Ted and I have been here, watching the news two weeks as of tomorrow. Granted, much of the time, during repetitive pieces, I am sitting with my pink highlighter, reading Pregnancy Childbirth and the Newborn. Still, I am attentive enough that almost every one of those fourteen nights I have been moved to tears.  I have a number of triggers that instigate the tears, but the most powerful and consistent is any story that involves children.  Some stories pass with the night, and I cannot recall them even now as I sit and try to conjure them.  Others take hold and follow me into the next day, and the next, and the next. 

Recently I was moved with gratitude and wonder by what could have been another heart-wrenching tragedy.  I would have missed it had I not been watching the news, because after the first few days, I never heard the name of Antoinette Tuff again except amongst our little circle here.  She is the school clerk who managed to disarm what could have been the next devastating school shooting.  Antoinette did not use a single weapon or threat, only the nonviolent power of compassionate presence.  She talked to the mentally ill teenager, talked through her own terror and his, shared her own despair (“I tried to kill myself after my husband left me”) and opened the space for him to speak his through his mouth instead of the AK-47 and explosives he carried.  She convinced him to lay down so when the police came in, they wouldn’t come in shooting.  She never called him a monster or a brute or a “bad guy.”  “I love you,” she said, as he laid down his weapons and his body, “and I’m proud of you for giving yourself up like this.”

My heart swelled with her courage and the hope her action brought, the vision of what is possible.  But anxiety and frustration followed shortly after as the news story quickly shifted to a movement for heightened armed security in schools in response to the recent surges of violence against children.  I believe that if the boy Antoinette addressed had been met instead by a nervous guard with gun drawn, there would not have been a happy ending to this story but more loss and lawsuits, tragedy stacked on tragedy.

There is another story that, however much I wish it would fade like a one-time anomaly, returns to us each and every evening; the civil war in Syria.  Always, with stories of war I feel a sense of angst, anguish and helplessness. But as we are besieged each night with images of children without wounds writhing and gasping in the throes of death, of men and women crying as they cradle their beautiful babies… I don’t have words anymore to say how it feels to watch this from our safe lovely space.  How does one respond to such things?
Last night John Kerry responded in a press conference.  He talked about the grief of watching through a father’s eyes as fathers weep over their lost children.  And how I resonate with his words, feeling both guilt and relief as my own unborn baby demonstrates her life, dancing in the womb!  He talked about the impossibility of ignoring such things and I knew that our daily prayers for the people, and my quietly heavy heart were evidence that this is indeed true.  He said, “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons.”  Indeed, how we cry for world leaders to be held accountable for their actions!  Yet, here I knew that Mr. Kerry’s sentiments were far from mine.  I knew because we had just learned that six U.S. officials had just been surreptitiously exonerated for war crimes in an under-reported court case (see CommonDreams).  I knew because his message was materializing as a rally to arms made from an imagined moral high ground. 

 But what came to my mind with his words never came out of his mouth.  What came to my mind is the question, “how many millions of children have died from U.S. weapons?”  Is a drone strike, or a midnight raid any less heinous a way for innocents to be killed?  Will the civilian lives lost by U.S. airstrikes be less devastating to their families because the weapons were not invisible chemicals but blasting explosives?  Can more killing curb the interior violence and unrest that has surged throughout the country, or will it only expand it?  Has anyone tried to bring healing?  Has anyone offered compassionate presence?

Perhaps they have and failed.  Or perhaps it was a small success that no one heard about.  Such things often go unnoticed, or are not remembered long.  There is seldom a ceremonious honoring of those whose courage does not bring death but life.  Last night, we saw President Obama honor a war hero for exemplary courage in the face of battle.  He was indeed courageous, motivated by love for his companions who he strove to save in the midst of enemy fire.  His willingness to sacrifice himself for his friends was indeed worth honoring.  Yet, it did not keep the enemy from firing or the friend from dying and in a way it seemed as much or more a token for us viewers of the news. It is an attempt to assuage discontent of a public who are daily witnessing endless, ineffective war. 

I wonder, where is the Medal of Honor for Antoinette Tuff?  Where is the honor for someone whose strength is in their vulnerability and openness and willingness to stand face to face with “the enemy” and to say, “I love you”?  Is it too late for such acts to have any effects on a place so ravaged as Syria?  I don’t have an answer to that question, or really to any of those posed except to hope that, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I can say as MLK Jr. once did, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would plant my apple tree.” (A quote Ted had pulled off his tea bag and passed to me as we watched the news last night).