Advice on Syria from Gregory the Great

Advice on Syria from Gregory the Great September 4, 2013
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As I began my morning devotions on Tuesday this week, Syria was on my mind. No surprise, right? The debate about whether to respond militarily to the use of chemical weapons is all over the news right now. Mostly folks are arguing about what actually happened and the larger geo-political questions that a military strike involves, which are important and necessary issues. But here’s the question that was rattling around in my head as I turned to the day’s devotional readings on universalis.com: How does one respond to violence without becoming as guilty as the perpetrators you seek to punish?

The Language of Violence

The temptation when responding to violence is to believe that the only effective response is violence. To do otherwise appears foolhardy. Violence is a form of communication with its own grammar, syntax and lyrical rhythms – perhaps it is the world’s only truly universal language, and an ancient one at that. To think we can respond to the language of violence with a different grammar, let’s say the grammar of nonviolent diplomacy or, heaven forbid, forgiveness, feels as futile as speaking Greek to a snapping alligator. Your only hope is that someone shows up with a loaded gun or a Tarzan-like ability to wrestle the beast into submission. What is the world to do when our only choices are bad ones — either respond in kind or sit on our hands while the alligator feasts? And yet, as morally reprehensible as doing nothing is, we must consider that to stop the alligator attack we risk becoming guilty of violence ourselves, perhaps guilty of the murder of innocent victims. That would be a tragic accident, of course, we only want to kill terrorists. But Assad says that he’s only trying to kill terrorists, that 90% of the opposition fighters are affiliated with Al Qaeda… Holy moral dilemma, Batman!

So I was once again struck by the serendipity of the practice of daily devotional reading when I saw that September 3 was the feast day of Pope St Gregory the Great (540 – 604). I read that St Gregory had his own version of my question in his head as he negotiated with barbarians at the gate of the Roman Empire – literally! Here’s a glimpse of the difficult situations he faced as Pope:

He was elected Pope on 3 September 590, the first monk to be elected to this office… He negotiated treaties with the Lombard tribes who were ravaging northern Italy, and by cultivating good relations with these and other barbarians he was able to keep the Church’s position secure in areas where Roman rule had broken down.

Listening to Gregory                            

Of course, the problem of facing down threats to national security is not a new one. Gregory wrestled mightily with how to be an effective leader without losing his own soul in the process.  Here is an excerpt from one of his sermons that universalis.com excerpted for reflection:

When I lived in a monastic community I was able to keep my tongue from idle topics and to devote my mind almost continually to the discipline of prayer. Since taking on my shoulders the burden of pastoral care, I have been unable to keep steadily recollected because my mind is distracted by many responsibilities.

I am forced to consider questions affecting churches and monasteries and often I must judge the lives and actions of individuals; at one moment I am forced to take part in certain civil affairs, next I must worry over the incursions of barbarians and fear the wolves who menace the flock entrusted to my care; now I must accept political responsibility in order to give support to those who preserve the rule of law; now I must bear patiently the villainies of brigands, and then I must confront them, yet in all charity.

 My mind is sundered and torn to pieces by the many and serious things I have to think about. When I try to concentrate and gather all my intellectual resources for preaching, how can I do justice to the sacred ministry of the word? I am often compelled by the nature of my position to associate with men of the world and sometimes I relax the discipline of my speech. If I preserved the rigorously inflexible mode of utterance that my conscience dictates, I know that the weaker sort of men would recoil from me and that I could never attract them to the goal I desire for them. So I must frequently listen patiently to their aimless chatter. Because I am weak myself I am drawn gradually into idle talk and I find myself saying the kind of thing that I didn’t even care to listen to before.

Speaking a New Dialect

As I read I thought, this isn’t a sermon, it’s a confession. I could feel his longing to return to the purity of the monastery where he could immerse himself in prayer and hide from the world. How easy it must have been to feel good and noble from within the monastery! How sorely he must have disappointed himself when his un-sundered mind was “torn to pieces” by association with “the weaker sort of men” – and women, I have no doubt. With his sermon, Pope Gregory tapped into my secret heart and gave voice to my own desire to just stop reading the news, to allow myself to retreat from facing the turmoil of this no-win decision. Better to stay detached and safely confident in my moral purity than wade into these alligator infested waters.

Yet Gregory accepted his “political responsibility” and was astute enough to know that he had to speak the language of these weaker sorts or he “could never attract them to the goal I desire for them”. He was also confessional enough – and this is what makes him a saint in my book – to admit just how much he risked becoming like his adversaries. “Because I am weak myself I am drawn gradually into idle talk and I find myself saying the kind of thing that I didn’t even care to listen to before.” How much weaker are we than, Gregory, I wonder? What if we become infected not only by idle tongues but the moral blindness of our enemies? Are we even aware of the risks we take when we speak the violent language of those we judge to be deserving of punishment? As we ponder the correct response to the violence in Syria, perhaps we can be guided by Pope St Gregory’s dialect of confessional humility. We cannot nor should we hide from the decision of whether to wrestle this particular alligator, but we must do so fully aware of how easily we can become the beast ourselves.

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