A few days before Pope Francis’ heartfelt plea for peace in his Sunday Angelus message, President Obama took a break from gearing up for yet another Middle East conflict – audaciously being called a “humanitarian intervention” – to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the iconic March on Washington with these words in tribute to the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement – words that, under other circumstances, might have been as inspiring as the pope’s.
[T]hey had every reason to lash out in anger or resign themselves to a bitter fate.
And yet they chose a different path. In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in with the moral force of nonviolence. Willingly, they went to jail to protest unjust laws, their cells swelling with the sound of freedom songs. A lifetime of indignities had taught them that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us. They had learned through hard experience what Frederick Douglas once taught: that freedom is not given; it must be won through struggle and discipline, persistence and faith.
That was the spirit they brought here that day.
These words would have been inspiring – if Obama demonstrably believed them. But, for all his eloquence, Obama is no Martin Luther King. The obvious difference is that King consistently preached and lived a solid commitment to nonviolence, and by doing so disproved the common myth of the ineffectiveness of that commitment. And I strongly suspect that if King were alive today, he could readily outdo Obama’s lip service to nonviolence with a few choice words of his own on a foreign policy that has prolonged the Bush-era state of continuous undeclared war, drastically expanded the morally perilous drone program, authorized indefinite detentions without charge, and is now on the verge of a purportedly “limited” military strike, which as we should have learned by now is much, much easier said than done.
It’s still hard to tell whether Obama has been playing a Machiavellian game of realpolitik or has simply gotten himself backed against a political wall, or whether his deferral to congress is a responsible way of allowing himself to be held accountable or a foolproof way of shifting blame for whatever subsequently goes wrong in Syria. But maybe for the folks on the ground these questions don’t ultimately matter.
Despite that Assad’s reprehensible use of chemical weapons against civilians has provided the rationale for the proposed strike(s), they are widely reported to be a punitive measure, in which protecting civilians is not really the first concern. Not so for the Church, with its preferential option for the vulnerable – not to mention its historical memory that far outlasts that of the State (at least one roughly a tenth of its age). Just as Pope John Paul II offered an Angelus plea for the hard work of peace on the verge of another US invasion of a much older civilization (which is home to an ancient Church) just a decade ago, Pope Francis is now echoing several of his predecessors in making the same appeal. Closer to home, as it were, the US bishops are following his lead, and encouraging all US Catholics to do the same, in prayer as well as advocacy. And in the following letter that Timothy Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Richard Pates have sent to President Obama, they spell out what the moral force of nonviolence really looks like.
As our nation contemplates military action in Syria, we want to assure you and your Administration of our prayers. We know that the situation in Syria is complex and appreciate the patience and restraint that your Administration has exercised to date. We affirm your decision to invite public dialogue and Congressional review of any possible military action, and want to contribute to that discussion from our perspective as Catholic pastors and teachers.
We join you in your absolute condemnation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. These indiscriminate weapons have no place in the arsenals of the family of nations. With you we mourn for the lives lost and grieve with the families of the deceased. At the same time, we remain profoundly concerned for the more than 100,000 Syrians who have lost their lives, the more than 2 million who have fled the country as refugees, and the more than 4 million within Syria who have been driven from their homes by the violence. Our focus is on the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Syria and on saving lives by ending the conflict, not fueling it.
We have heard the urgent calls of the Successor of Saint Peter, Pope Francis, and our suffering brother bishops of the venerable and ancient Christian communities of the Middle East. As one, they beg the international community not to resort to military intervention in Syria. They have made it clear that a military attack will be counterproductive, will exacerbate an already deadly situation, and will have unintended negative consequences. Their concerns find a strong resonance in American public opinion that questions the wisdom of intervention and in the lack of international consensus.
We make our own the appeal of Pope Francis: “I exhort the international community to make every effort to promote clear proposals for peace in that country without further delay, a peace based on dialogue and negotiation, for the good of the entire Syrian people. May no effort be spared in guaranteeing humanitarian assistance to those wounded by this terrible conflict, in particular those forced to flee and the many refugees in nearby countries.”
The longstanding position of our Conference of Bishops is that the Syrian people urgently need a political solution. We ask the United States to work urgently and tirelessly with other governments to obtain a ceasefire, initiate serious negotiations, provide impartial humanitarian assistance, and encourage efforts to build an inclusive society in Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens, including Christians and other minorities.
Please be assured of our prayers as your Administration faces the complex challenges and humanitarian catastrophe that have engulfed Syria.
Between what we are hearing from our nation’s leaders and our Church’s leaders, American Catholics may be approaching a “choose this day” moment (cf. Joshua 24:15: “choose this day whom you will serve…”). Granted, our loyalty to Christ and his Church does not totally abolish all loyalty to whatever earthly State a Christian is citizen of, but we can only say this of ourselves to the extent that we can say the same of Christians anywhere else, and the latter must be subordinate to the former even in the best of times. When our loyalties come into conflict, which voice will we follow: Rome or Washington?
At the very least, our foremost concern as Christians must be caring for the vulnerable, not strengthening national reputation or punishing an enemy. And we must not equate the call for nonviolent, diplomatic and humanitarian solutions to the crisis with inaction or indifference.
I end by making our bishops’ prayer my own:
God of Compassion, Hear the cries of the people of Syria, Bring healing to those suffering from the violence, Bring comfort to those mourning the dead, Strengthen Syria’s neighbors in their care and welcome for refugees, Convert the hearts of those who have taken up arms, And protect those committed to peace.
God of Hope, Inspire leaders to choose peace over violence and to seek reconciliation with enemies, Inspire the Church around the world with compassion for the people of Syria, And give us hope for a future of peace built on justice for all.
We ask this through Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace and Light of the World, Amen.
Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us.
Saint Marcellus, pray for us.
Saint Martin of Tours, pray for us.
Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, pray for us.
Dorothy Day, Servant of God, pray for us.
Blessed John Paul II, pray for us.