Monday, April 10, 2017

Proportional Response

I was about the same age as my kids when President Reagan ordered air strikes against Libya.  I remember his national address interrupting whatever I was watching on TV and I was transfixed by the images of F-16s and explosions.  All I knew of war at the time was GI Joe (and how the blue and red lasers never actually killed anyone), but this event defined a 'real' enemy I could now include in my imaginary play.  I remember that as the news continued I would build a fort out of the cushions of a sofa where my American GI Joe soldiers gathered to plan their attack on the La-Z-Boy across the room.  Oh, to be an innocent child again.

Early in the first season of The West Wing, there is an episode called 'Proportional Response' where President Bartlet has to decide on what is an appropriate response to, ironically enough, Syria shooting down an American plane with a friend on board.  While military advisors recommend a nighttime strike against a military target to minimize casualties, the president wants to deliver a stronger message.  His emotions, in fact, drive him to want to "bomb the hell" out of Syria. (I recall a recent presidential candidate who speculated whether bombing that part of the world would make its sand glow in the dark, implying a nuclear response)  It was difficult to rationalize a response that didn't ultimately make any difference, but it was the right thing to do.

I had both experiences in my mind on Thursday when I got a message from work that we had taken military action against Syria.  My wife and I had already talked about how horrifying were the images of the chemical weapon attacks earlier in the week, wondering what could be done.

I'm not sure our proportional response will make any difference.  The politics in that region are complicated and allegiances are so intertwined that it is difficult to do anything without unintentionally angering an ally or provoking an adversary.  I can't say what we did was right or wrong but it makes sense.

From a certain point of view.

A couple of years ago, I was taking a class on Christ and Culture.  As we were talking about other global movements of Christianity, we turned to the subject of war.  In my head and in my speech I declare allegiance to a heavenly kingdom over an above any earthly rule.  But in practice...?  Once a year when we take up a special collection for world missions, I can conceptualize that foreigners and strangers are brothers and sisters in Christ.  But in my heart...?  When I realized that our national enemies may be brothers or sisters in Christ, that from an eternal perspective I have more in common with the casualties of war than the physical neighbor whose politics align with my own, my worldview was rocked to its core.  My perspective of war, geopolitics, and patriotism are forever changed.

Which makes Syria a conundrum.  Yes, the chemical attacks are gruesome and inexcusable.  And I fundamentally oppose authoritarianism because it always creates an oppressed class.  But like I said, the politics of that region is complicated, and Russia's involvement only muddies those waters.

Why does Russia care?  The obvious answer is oil, so there is an existing economic link.  Russia also has military bases there so there is a military link.  From our western perspective, we might say it's just an example of one bad guy teaming up with another so there may be a common-cause link.  But they're only bad guys from our point of view.  Like I said, it's complicated.  What has been under-reported since the Syrian civil war began is role of the Syrian Orthodox Church in all of this.  You see, the Syrian church has close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.  So there is actually a religious link too.

What does that have to do with Bashar Al Assad, chemical weapons, and the US?  Believe it or not, the Syrian church actually enjoyed some relative freedom and protection under President Assad, which obviously would not be the case under ISIS and would be unlikely under the rule of any of the Syrian rebel groups.  So if you were a Christian in Syria, you would be grateful for Russia's involvement and would be praying that the US keeps their nose out of your business.  You would long for a return to the status quo.

So then, what do we do?  Even if we have different denominational stripes, we have to be sympathetic to the Christians suffering in the Middle East but at the same time we have to humbly recognize that we don't have all the answers.  Our proportional response must be to pray with the fervor of explosive weapons.  Pray for peace.  Pray for those suffering, Christian or not.  Pray for unification against the radicalization that ISIS represents.  Pray agains the patriotic jingoism that we are tempted to fall into.  That is the only possible proportional response.

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