Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

O Almighty God, who alone makest the minds of the faithful to be of one will: grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Et in Syria Ego

It's sad to look back at the surge of hope that characterized the first news of the Arab Spring, when the government of Tunisia was overthrown by a real popular revolution, and look where it has come in two  and a half years since. Violence and civil war are not exactly strangers to the Middle East; neither is the persecution of Christians (or the near-silence about it in the American media); and yet, seeing these impulses of liberty and justice transfigured by bloodshed once again is cruelly disheartening. It's tempting to quote, turning the humor into bitterness, "And then winter gave spring and summer a miss and went straight on into autumn."*

And now, it seems, we are preparing for another war. Or to be more precise, we, the people, seem to be left out of the process entirely. The slogan of a 'police action,' that shabby device for avoiding an honest declaration of war while still employing the means and destructiveness of war, will doubtless be put to work once again, so that even our elected representatives in Congress will not be called upon to pretend that they represent anyone or anything in particular; and we find ourselves like children on a roller coaster, looking over into a huge abyss that we know we are about to swoop down into, and probably wishing that we could take back our decision to show off by asking to ride this one.

I don't flatter myself that this blog has national or international clout. But I want to say a few things, clearly and out loud, while there is yet time to do so.

First, there is no case to regard the likely-imminent invasion of Syria as a just war. Being dressed in non-bellicose language and surrounded by legal pedantries won't make it not a war, especially not for the people who will be killed by it. This is not a war being fought in self-defense, and the effects of violence anywhere in the Middle East are incalculable and uncontrollable, making proportionality of force virtually impossible to attain. If you just feel like being in agony, stick your face in a hornets' nest; it's faster and less expensive.**

Second, I cherish the hope that this will wake the churches up a little bit, especially the Catholic Church. I love the Church deeply, and have never regretted my conversion for an instant; but one of the things about American Catholics in particular that upsets me to the point of anger, is our squalid marriage of faith to political allegiance. This is not the special province of traditionalists-qua-conservatives; progressives-qua-liberals are just as guilty; I don't respect the contempt for Church teaching shown by Nancy Pelosi any more than I respect the contempt for Church teaching shown by William F. Buckley. The plain demonstration that the Democratic Party, when push comes to shove, cannot be trusted not to go to war any more than the GOP (which at least has the balls to be brazen about it), may perhaps dispel the idea that the political parties we have in this country are something other than ideologically-tinged opportunists.

Lastly, I rather hope it interests somebody in the American churches that the Syrian Christians themselves don't want Syria invaded. Cardinal Rai, the Maronite Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, told Vatican Radio recently that the presence of Christians in the Middle East has been the chief moderating factor in the Middle East, and that every act of violence jeopardizes their existence. "As always, when there is chaos or war, Muslims in general attack Christians, they use them as scapegoats. I am sorry, but in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood were the ones to attack Coptic churches -- and Copts as well. Unfortunately this is the mentality of certain Muslims: every time there is a situation of chaos, Christians are attacked, without even knowing why." Middle Eastern Christians are one of the moderating influences in the region -- the tradition of dhimma is an ancient one, stemming from the Qur'an itself, and has borne fruit (if imperfectly) of plurality and harmony between the faiths. When the ostensibly Christian West deploys violent tactics, the natural scapegoats are the local Christians, and the Moslems who tolerate and defend them, so that not only do the religious minorities suffer, but even those members of the majority who would defend them are silenced, driven from the country, or killed, like the Christians themselves.

Clearly, what is needed here is more guns.

This is the result of something very simple and obvious, so simple and obvious that we have a difficult time believing it: namely, that war does not lead to peace. Not only do the ends not justify the means, the means are actually part and parcel with the end; it isn't simply that violence isn't noble enough to engender peace, it is that violence naturally breeds violence -- it is a matter of cause and effect. Self-defense can be justified, but let's not delude ourselves that that is what's at stake here. What is at stake is the false belief, which has become endemic in this country, that peace can be achieved by force -- a theory worthy of Looking-Glass Land.

We might, if we had been paying attention, have learned that lesson from the crucifix. Christianity was founded in an act of supreme self-sacrifice, of a deliberate refusal to counter violence with violence or hatred with hatred. Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be? The reason that the Church did not either turn into a political revolt, or wither and die, upon the death of her Master, had to do with more than the mere fact of the Resurrection. That, by itself, would not have dispelled the impulse of revenge. It had to do with the spiritual force of the Passion, the choice of Jesus to be a willing victim, absorbing into Himself the force of violence and answering with compassion.

See, from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

And that same power is available to us. That is the point of the Incarnation: the Divine love that embraces suffering, in order that suffering may by that embrace be ended within the lover, has been not merely shown to humanity but actually made present and possible, "not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God." Trying to use violence to bring suffering to an end is not just wide of the mark; it is an exact reversal of the solution set forth and accepted by God Himself; it is an assent to the theory that It is expedient that one man should die for the people.

Of course, in a way, Caiaphas was right; St John says as much in his Gospel, stating that the High Priest unwittingly prophesied in those words. But the only reason he was right was because Jesus did choose to die for the people; in other words, he was right only because Jesus was the sort of man who would never have valued expediency over life.

*If you don't recognize something as universal as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I do not know what to do with you.

**Sticking one's face in a hornets' nest would probably lead to a trip to the ER, yes. But according to the internet, in which I have total confidence, the average trip to the emergency room costs a little over $1200. This means that if, say, we had not built the nuclear warheads we dropped on Japan sixty years ago, we could have afforded, as a nation, to stick our faces in more than eight million hornets' nests.


  1. What contempt for Church-teaching does Nancy Pelosi show, exactly?

    1. Her active defense of legal abortion would be the main one, against the Church's teaching that all human beings have the right to life from natural conception to natural death -- and, further, that this right is not Divinely revealed (in which case it wouldn't need to be enshrined in law) but that it is a natural right, known to reason, which the state has the duty to recognize. I gather that there are others; but quite honestly I don't know whether that is true, and I don't want to risk slander by repeating hearsay.

      William F. Buckley's dissidence lay in his equally flagrant disregard for Church teaching about social, and specifically economic, justice. The Church has been consistent and explicit on this subject since the Industrial Revolution, and most notably in the encyclical Rerum Novarum of His Holiness Leo XIII, and the encyclicals of later Popes (e.g. Pius XII and Bl. John Paul II) which deliberately revisited and continued its teachings.

  2. Good thoughts, thanks Gabriel. Praying for peace to prevail.

    What would you say to those who argue that it is necessary to intervene in order to prevent further chemical weapons attacks upon innocents (given that the supposed attacks did in fact occur)? I guess what I'm asking is could you see it as reasonable for a more powerful nation to intervene in another nation's affairs on behalf of a severely persecuted minority? That to me has seemed the compelling perspective in favor of intervention...not saying that's the view I've chosen, just saying it's compelling.

    1. A fair question. And it must be admitted that at least some just war theorists regard defending populations who cannot defend themselves as adequate cause to go to war (provided the other conditions for a just war are fulfilled, obviously).

      The catch with this line of argument is, whom exactly are we defending against whom? Syria isn't a united country, either in creed or ethnically; it is, even now, in many ways a relic of the French colonial empire, with somewhat artificial borders. We can defend "the Syrian people," but what does that actually mean? After all, Islamic radicals would profess to be doing the same thing, and when you set them next to al-Assad that claim sounds a lot less like tinfoil hattery than it otherwise would. And who count as the Syrian people? Do the Christians, who have been persistently and publicly crying out to avert an invasion? How about the Alawites, who have been in power for the last several decades but are another religious minority, against whom savage reprisals are likely in the event of al-Assad's fall? What about the Kurds, some of whom would prefer to be part of an independent state of Kurdistan rather than part of Syria?

      Now, we might be able to prevent chemical weapons being used any more, much. For a while. And that does matter. But frankly, it just isn't enough by itself to serve as a casus belli. And this is literally land-war-in-Asia territory that we're talking about here; the effects of any intervention in the Middle East are incalculable, to the point that I at least wonder whether any intervention can even hope to follow the principles of proportionality and a reasonable prospect of success.

      I found this article helpful and informative: