As I write, the President and Congress are discussing how to respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Not surprisingly, the blogosphere is full of strong opinions: that we must respond to the wanton abuse of citizens with chemical weapons, that bombing Syria would be a huge mistake, that force is the only solution, that force is never the solution, and on and on.
Here’s my best assessment: there is no good solution. I am certainly no expert on the political situation anywhere in the world, and certainly not Syria. But I get a sense of things from articles I read, and, frankly, the news is not good. As far as I can tell, no one in this fight is the hero, the virtuous protagonist who is bound to win in the end. We Americans love a narrative that echoes our national story of the little guy overcoming the superpower and establishing democracy to flourish for the ages. But whether or not that narrative is justified for the US, it certainly doesn’t look like it’s a tale that’s going to play out in Syria. People are being slaughtered. The suffering is immense. It’s hard to imagine that bombing anyone is going to help, but equally hard to just stand back and tell the world that there is now carte blanche to spray people with poison gas.
I would love to tell you what is right, what I think we should do, what we should all take to the streets and the airwaves and cyberspace to promote. Unfortunately, I have no idea. Here’s what I know. Life is full of untenable positions. As a minister you are called on to support people who have to decide whether to undertake medical procedures that will undermine the quality of their life even as they extend it. You counsel people who are trapped in unhappy marriages who know that leaving would be devastating for their children. You are there for people who are looking at providing years of round-the-clock care for a parent or spouse or child who is slowly failing, who want to give everything to their ailing loved one, but still yearn for a life of their own.
It feels a lot better when you can fix things, when righteousness prevails and happiness reigns. But that happens a lot less often than the stories and the movies would have us believe. All too often, there is no good answer, and whatever the conclusion, there is suffering as well as joy. What you learn as a minister is that while you may never have the stunning piece of wisdom that will set a suffering person on the way to happiness, you can listen. You can be prayerfully present, offering your witness to what they are going through. You can hope that in the conversation something will emerge that is clearer or more creative than what the person walked in the room with.
That’s all I’m able to advocate for at the moment – that there be as much listening as possible. As much prayerful presence as possible. As broad a conversation as possible. I hope that the conversation goes far beyond the president and congress, that it includes the UN, that Syria’s neighbors who are being flooded with refugees have a chance to speak. I hope that out of the listening there will arise some greater clarity, some greater creativity, than anything that we have yet seen.
I know that hope is not justified, that there is little that we have seen from anyone in the situation, including the US, that would lead one to expect something better than bombing. So, if nothing else, perhaps those of us who are without decision-making power, who have no control, can manage to be a model of that listening and that creative possibility. It’s not a solution, but it’s the best answer I know.