Dear Dr. Jones and Dr. Forbes,
With all respect, your 9 September 2013 letter to members of the Union Community and Friends of the Seminary is a surprisingly tepid statement of discernment regarding the impending decision on a US military strike against Syria.
I say this, well aware that there is great division in the land over whether our President should attack Syria, though public opinion polls shows a very strong majority opposed to such an attack. (Though I’m willing to admit that some significant percentage of those who oppose do so for truly isolationist, self-centered reasons.)
I’m well aware that no choice can be made that will bring near-term relief to the people of Syria and that this is indeed a vexing problem which lacks clear answers. It pushes our problem-solving boasts to the breaking point.
But to say that we are left only with moral fog—and counsel for humble conviction—seems itself to be a kind of isolationist choice (for “moral reflection” and “wrestling honestly”).
What I most object to in your letter is that you appear to assume that the only options for response are to shoot or not to shoot: “Whether we are hawks or doves, interventionists or isolationists, ready to take unilateral action . . . or await UN consent. . . .”
Might it not be possible that a wormwood is at work in the core when the question is limited to “Are the risks greater if we launch missiles, or if we continue to sit on our hands?” (as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asked last week)? As if the only option to escalating the violence is to sit on our hands. As if raining yet more deadly force upon an already lethal conflict is the only alternative to “whimpering and backing down” (again quoting Kristof).
The most convincing voices (including the President’s) arguing for a military option do so largely from the motive of maintaining our nation’s moral credibility. We said we were going to do if Assad crossed the line. Now we have to back it up.
Isn’t it chilling to think that willingness to project lethal power now equals moral authority?
In my opinion we need two things: Firstly, people of faith and conscience clarifying the wider context of this decision. If we attack Syria, it will be the seventh Muslim country attacked by the US in the past decade. We need voices reminding our political leaders and the larger public of the long entanglement by the West in general, and the US in particular, in the Middle East. As it now stands, we’ve got amnesiacs behind the gun sights.
Secondly, we need to lift to the front practical but bold and imaginative political alternatives for robust interventionist strategies which cannot be delivered through the barrel of a gun. And we must be willing to pay at least as high a price as for military solutions.
I’m fully aware that such alternatives may not work. I’m even aware that more Syrians may die, in the immediate future, because we chose not to intervene militarily. But if we, who hold to another Promised future, cannot persevere in the struggle to open up political imagination, to create space for alternatives to bloodletting, who will do this?
(I’ve hinted at some of those alternative strategies in the attached sermon I gave yesterday in our congregation; and a host of other specific recommendation are easily available on the web.)
Former UN General-Secretary Dag Hammarsjköld once wrote, “even a small dent may lead to a rift, and a rift may lead to an opening,” and through that opening “you may break through the wall.”
Are we not ready—at least some of us—to boldly commit to finding the dents, for reasons of (long term) efficacy, to be sure, but not only that, but because that’s the likeness into which we are being made? And can we not say this, resolutely, without chauvinism, because the font of our testimony is that we ourselves are not the Protagonist in this drama?
Let me hasten to thank you both for your untiring labor for the promises and presence we both hold dear, even beyond our disagreements.
Rev. Ken Sehested (UTS MDiv ’78, and proudly so)
Co-pastor, Circle of Mercy Congregation
Sermon by Rev. Ken Sehested, U.T.S. '78. Noli Timere-Do Not Be Afraid (on the impending US attack against Syria): www.bpfna.org
Thank you for this note and for your words about "dents." I believe in dents – its what Union is all about. Your sermon is remarkable. Will you publish it somewhere?
I agree with almost all of your points – and am very clear, myself, that military intervention is not the way to move forward. I have said this publicly and will continue to do so, for all the reasons you list. In the letter, Jim and I were most concerned that the debate not devolve into partisan politics.
Would you be willing for us to post your response to us on the Union webpage? We are trying to stimulate more conversation like this at Union – and your letter is a model of the kind of discussion we hope to foster.