This is a troublesome and fearful time for our nation and the world. Once again, we are contemplating using our immense military capacity to police the world. We are rightly outraged by President Assad’s use of chemical weapons to kill hundreds of Syrian civilians (including over 400 children) and to create terror among those who oppose his regime. Every person of faith should be morally outraged by the slaughter of the innocent in Syria (which has been going on for over two years), as well as by the 30,000 children around the world who die each day as the result of malnutrition and the preventable diseases of poverty. We understand the moral imperative to address and stop unchecked aggression and evil.
As a nation, and as people of faith, we are tempted by our passion for justice to express rage and anger with our own hand and words. We are tempted to fight terrorism with our own acts of terror. We are tempted to wage war to advance peace. We are tempted to take innocent lives to avenge the taking of innocent lives.
In the midst of our national, and now international, debate about Syria, I heard a CNN interview with Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings. The congressman was asked how he would prepare for voting on a resolution authorizing president Obama to use military action. After indicating he wanted to review the intelligence reports, hear the president’s arguments, consult his constituents, and listen to the congressional debate, Congressman Cummings said he would “seek guidance from God.” I was delighted to hear that from one of our congressional leaders; however, I wished he had identified seeking guidance from God as the first thing he would do to prepare himself for such a crucial vote. For Christians, and all persons of faith, seeking guidance from God is the first order, not an afterthought or a last resort.
As I began to pray about this current crisis, Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome was most helpful to me. Perhaps the only way for American Christians to understand our mission in these days is to recall what it meant to faithfully and courageously witness to faith in Jesus in the heart of the Roman Empire. When Paul passed through the gates of Rome, he found himself in the most powerful empire on earth—an empire under attack by those who resented Rome’s virtues, laws, economic vitality, decadence, and careless power.
In this context, Paul names the marks of the true Christian. Take to heart those hauntingly fresh words:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Rejoice in hope; be patient in suffering; persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peacefully with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Do not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9-21)
These are ancient words, but they could have been written in the past several weeks. These words challenged the prevailing culture of their day, and they continue to be prophetic and counter-cultural in our day. These words pointed to the way of Christ for the people in ancient Rome. I pray they will continue to guide us in our discipleship and witness today.
I want the international ban on the use of chemical weapons to be upheld. I want President Assad held accountable for his horrific actions. I want the slaughter in Syria (and so many other places around the world currently out of sight and out of mind) to stop. But, I thank God that, at the moment, a diplomatic course and solution are being pursued. The agreement between Russia and the United States to secure and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons is a hopeful sign and, perhaps, a precedent-setting course of action. We may have stumbled onto this course, and the underlying motives may be political. Whatever brought us to this place, I believe it is more consistent with the way of Christ: “Do not repay evil for evil.”
I invite you to pray for President Obama, Congress, and the world’s leaders and to urge them to continue to seek a different, more peaceful, but verifiable and just way of resolving this current crisis and relating to the rest of our broken, bleeding planet. Now is the time to seek the guidance of God in Christ Jesus who taught us:
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. (Matthew 5:7-9)
And so I pray:
Save us, God, from the clutches of death;
and bring forth life from our hands.
Stir up the remnants of your goodness in us
so that together we might proclaim,
“Another world is possible–
indeed it is already here in Christ!” Amen.
Bishop Bruce R. Ough (firstname.lastname@example.org) is resident bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Episcopal Area.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church