ONE CONTINUOUS MISTAKE: A Meditation in the Shadow of an Assault on Syria

A Meditation in the Shadow of an Assault on Syria

1 September 2013

James Ishmael Ford
Senior Minister
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island


No man is an island,
Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manner of thine own 

Or of thine friend’s were.

Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.

John Donne

Yesterday morning the president stated he is seeking a vote from our congress authorizing an attack on Syria.

In my circles most are opposed to the attack. The why of opposition, however, ranges, from pure pacifists to people who see America as nothing more than an empire protecting the last tattered shreds of a dying hegemony. Between these two poles individuals seem to stake out their own territory. Our American right has its own spectrum ranging between libertarian isolationists and neo-conservatives embracing the idea of empire as a moral force, with pretty much everywhere along that spectrum those who see an opportunity in the moment to cause damage to the current administration. Again, individuals stake out their own place.

Makes me think of that old Onion piece published when Barack Obama was elected in 2008, with its banner headline screaming “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.”

What I feel is my moral obligation at this time as a parish minister standing within the heart of the community I serve to call us to reflection and hopefully out of that to help us as we each must make decisions about where to stand and what to do. I fear as I do I will disappoint many. That acknowledged, I will be faithful to my vows to you, and I will speak my best, my deepest.

Let me start with an image, a picture. I’ve spoken of this before because it is one of the most moving experiences I’ve had since coming to live in New England. It was the first time I stood before that monument across Beacon street from our soon to be old denominational headquarters commemorating the one hundred seventeen black men and white officers of the Massachusetts 54th, most of whom died in a failed assault on a Confederate stronghold at Fort Wagner just outside of Charleston in the middle of our American Civil War.

Among the survivors, Sergeant William Carney, was one of the first people of color awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Also among the dead was Robert Gould Shaw. While the bodies of the other white officers were returned, the Confederate commander announced of the regiment’s colonel, “We buried him with his niggers.” The bodies of the soldiers had been stripped naked, and then thrown into a ditch as their common grave. Throwing the dead white man with his black soldiers into that ditch the Confederates thought they were adding insult to injury.

They were wrong.

Standing in front of that monument caught my breath. And since, whenever the matter of war and peace arises, I think of that monument and the men it names and the cause for which they fought, killed and then died. Actually, I look at that plaque at the front of our Meeting House here in Providence recounting those from our congregation who threw their lives into the struggle, sixteen of whom died, and feel much the same. I consider these monuments and I know in my bones, marrow and heart, there is a moment where I am not a pacifist.

When I wrote on Facebook that I had to address this issue one friend suggest I preach how war is horrible. Certainly, true, but, far and away, not enough. In fact as I reflect on the great moral poles of war, pacifism and just war theory, I find both positions unsatisfactory.

Just War theories, grounded in an assertion of a right to self-defense, which, particularly thinking of that monument on Beacon Street in Boston I accept as a deep truth, are nonetheless so easily, too easily subverted by nationalist sensibilities. And even at best, the unsheathing of the sword trails a ribbon of blood, a great pooling of unintended consequences. As for pacifism, when moved into the nitty-gritty of real life, in situations like the one we’re forced to face today with that whiff of poison gas hanging in the air, becomes an opting out of the responsibility individuals have toward one another, abandoning one’s family and neighbors for an abstract higher good, one that, to put it brutally, has never existed in reality.

So, here I am.

What is unique, it seems about our humanity is that we can reflect and we can project at least some of the consequences to our actions. We have been thrown up into the world by the world as the eyes and ears and mind of the world. And I believe with that knowing, we have a host of obligations, to ourselves, to our families, to our neighbors, to the world.

Here’s what I know from the bottom of my heart. The individual is precious, beyond calculation. And, at the same time, we don’t exist in isolation. In fact we have no existence outside of relationships. This is a harsh, and at the same time, if we consider it, a beautiful truth. We’re all in this together. Every single blessed one of us on this globe, every one of us. We are connected.

So as a practical matter, what does this mean?

As I continue to look at the shape of our relationships, with the planet, with other forms of life, and particularly how we relate to each other as humans, I find proximity counts. Why is hard to unpack, although I have opinions about it. But, for the moment I find it enough to assert this as a fact on the ground. We have pressing obligations to family and friends that appear to be stronger demands than to people more distantly related. I am deeply aware of my deepest obligations to my spouse and to my neighbors, both in the literal sense of those with whom I live, and in the somewhat more abstract sense of those who form my communities. I’ll do crazy things to take care of my family. I will do somewhat less crazy things for the church.

And by the time we get to the nation state, I find my sense of obligation is real but not so strong as my feelings for those closer. I do feel love for country, particularly the stated ideals upon which we formed our union. I’m deeply stirred by the story of the men of the 54th and feel proud that Colonel Shaw was a co-religionist, and how they fought and died for that as yet unfinished promise by standing up to horrors inflicted in the name of profit and justified by dehumanizing people. I even feel a need to continue that struggle not only for those who suffer but also out of respect for my ancestors in that ancient struggle.

These feelings in their various degree spread out across the globe. Among other things I feel a connection to the suffering in Syria. And while not so strong a feeling as for my neighbors or this country, still, there is an authentic, and deep sense of connection, and obligation.

We’re now watching the dying embers of the Arab Spring. It’s a mess. Democratic dreams have been captured by those who believe in one man one vote one time. In Egypt we see the response to a rising theocracy in a lurching back toward military dictatorship. In Syria the democratic Arab Spring fell into a smoldering revolution now in danger of being dominated by its own theocratic forces. I’m also painfully aware that among the various contending sects in Syria, the dictator Assad’s ruling Alouettes are the most liberal of the religious communities. The whole region is awash in tears and blood, all interconnected and complex. Shadows of the holocaust followed by the horrors of the nakba, dictators and princes, religious and ethnic hatreds. And, oh yes, oil. It seems no one has clean hands, and if we look at our own American hands in all this, they drip oil and blood. Wrong piles upon wrong, sadness upon sadness.

And, in the immediate, in this moment, the whiff of poison gas hangs in the air. Me, I painfully recall 1988 when we didn’t act when another dictator gassed Iraq’s Kurds, perhaps our most natural allies, a lingering shame.

I’m deeply concerned by the lack of a clear outcome from either action or nonaction in the face of those murders of civilian populations. I gather from several sources there’s a reluctance to strike the dictator personally or even to significantly degrade his forces for fear he will be brought down leaving the country to the mercies of the fundamentalists who appear to be the strongest and best prepared among the revolutionary contingents. It is a mess. It is a tangle of horrors.

And, still, the whiff of poison gas hangs in the air. Yes, conventional war leaves so many innocents wounded and maimed and killed, as well. But, the potentialities for horror are in fact so present in the use of chemical warfare that we stand at the edge of something unimaginable, roiling along the ground, a spreading fog of murder.

So, for us, for you and me, what are we to do?

Here’s how I see it.

Our issue, the real deal for us here in this community, is how to act in a sacred manner in this mess of relationships that are our lives. Faced with the complexities of war and peace and never having enough information, but being the eyes and ears of the world, and the mind and heart, too – what do I do? What do we do?

For me the reality is that it is impossible to be right. As the Zen tradition often notes, its all one continuous mistake.

Me, I’ve decided, for the moment, the least evil stance is to not oppose these called for attacks that might degrade the Syrian dictator’s forces, to demonstrate that poison gas must not be reintroduced into modern conflict. Out of respect for the Kurds. Out of respect for those others who’ve been victim to these horrors, to prevent the reintroduction of this terror. To finally, finally draw a line in that one small regard, at last.

One continuous mistake.

And from there, having established the sword is in fact present, to then return to negotiation. It is important for us to pull back from the siren call of a proxy war with Iran. The actions I would push our government to take are three-fold, all interconnected. First, move as quickly as possible away from our national dependence upon oil. Make this a highest priority, eliminating this vulnerability once and for all. Second, push Israel and Palestine toward a genuine peace with two real, viable states standing next to each other. This is a hard fact. Without peace between Israel and Palestine, there will be no peace in the region. While I think there’s plenty of blame to go around, right now it is mainly the Israelis that need to stand up against their own fundamentalists who dream of a greater Israel on the land that must be, if we dream of an end to the conflict, a viable Palestinian state. We need to say that out loud, and we must back this up in our actions. And last, as our president once said, we can walk and chew gum at the same time; push our alleged ally Saudi Arabia to stop supporting salafists and jihadists in Syria. With the jihadists pushed to the back and having demonstrated our willingness to fight, to then seek real negotiations without attachment to any particular solution, something that might actually mitigate the suffering of the people, so long as it is one that can open them to opportunities beyond the cycles of oppression and the tyrannies of ideology.

One continuous mistake.

The call for all of us is to know as much as we can, and to then to speak from that place of interconnection, to nurture an impulse to heal more than to destroy.

And to cultivate a willingness to do what it takes.

One continuous mistake.

And from that place to speak out, to call to the world’s conscience.

To do what it takes.

And, then, to live with the consequences.

Of course.

One continuous mistake.

  • Mark_Hoelter

    Thank you, James. I am honored to be your colleague.

  • JundoCohen

    Thank you James. I have linked to your words for our Sangha members and told them that I must sadly and reluctantly agree. You have given words to my feeling when I was not able. Gassho, Jundo

  • Drbuoux

    Excellent heartfelt analysis, James, and one that calls to me. There will undoubtedly be a raft of post-intervention analysis attributing all kinds self-interested rationales to US action (and some of them may even be right). But those should not dissuade us from acting on our connection to other suffering people. One continuous mistake sums it up. Ken Rivard

  • Willy

    I respectfully agree and disagree. It is important that something be done. It is important that the actors in whatever form intervention takes place be reputable and act in good faith. May I suggest the following criteria to determine the countries that can be said to act in good faith:

    1. They don’t manufacture and/or stockpile chemical weapons. They don’t trade in the well known precursors to chemical weapons.

    2. They don’t have a history of bombing civilian populations with chemical weapons, for example napalm, mutagenic defoliants, or phosphorus.

    3. They don’t have a history of bombing and invading other countries under false pretenses and out right lies.

    4. They don’t torture or cause to be tortured any human beings.

    5. They don’t violate the sovereign territory and airspace of other countries to commit murders.

    6. They don’t act to overthrow democratically elected governments in other countries, replacing them with dictatorships and authoritarian regimes that waste their own people and resources.

    Let us let those countries that fit the above criteria decide what should be done in Syria. Perhaps some international organization can coordinate the response, some organization not under the sway of countries that don’t meet the above criteria.
    Finally, if some country that is not a good faith actor, according to the criteria, above would like to salvage its reputation and restore its moral and ethical standing in the world, perhaps it could, like charity, practice moral and ethical behavior at home, to its own civilians, for a couple of decades. Because, right now, I wouldn’t trust any of them to umpire a little league game.

  • Taigen Leighton

    James, I agree with much of what you say, but strongly, respectfully object to your main point and its folly. Yes, there should be consequences for use of chemical and other horrendous weapons, but then what about consequences for those in the U.S. government who ordered the use of White Phosphorous in Fallujah [Oh yeah, that was in the past], and for U.S. weapons profiteers now manufacturing and distributing chemical weapons?

    And why should we still be locked into a “We are the cops of the world” mentality where the only consequences we can imagine are bombs and drones? Can we imagine no other response?

    Then there are the unforeseen consequences of mindlessly dropping bombs on Syria, likely killing more innocent civilians as “collateral damage,” and inflaming a situation where the main Syrian opponents of Assad are Al Q’aeda.

    Meanwhile Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah, and Israel are all sitting around to see how their proxies will fare as the situation blows up. I am not a knee-jerk pacifist in all situations, but all of the U.S. interventions in the Mideast seem to have exacerbated the grave difficulties there. I hear no argument even remotely that this will have constructive results.

    The U.S. Congress should be debating those potential consequences, not whether or not the Assad govt. used chemical weapons.

    For an informed article on the situation of Syria and chemical weapons by Prof. Juan Cole, see:

    I hope our country can go beyond habitual reactive aggressive use of violence to solve problems, in the world or at home.



    I’m going to amend an earlier comment in which I said, “it seems as if the only sort of [response] that would be perceived as a truly substantive is a military strike.” Another substantive response would be to send significant assistance to the rebels, specifically stating that this is a punishment for the use of poison gas. The problem with this strategy is that it may be hard to find a rebel group that we can unhesitatingly support. But I am beginning to think this is a better approach than missile strikes, with their inevitable civilian casualties. — Chris Schriner

  • pennyroyal

    maybe in a subsequent column you will write about the urge to “punish” those who gassed innocents….
    I’m seeing lots of language about the ‘need to punish’ (with a vengeance) with whom various writers disagree. This is on conservative Christian sites but even Obama used the notion that Assad must be punished by military means.

  • Jeanne Desy

    Thank you, James. This pointed me to my heart and my own behavior.