The following ran in the June 4, 2013, edition of the Dallas Morning News Texas Faith blog. Theology professor William Lawrence and political scientist Matthew Wilson provided expertise for this story.
June 7, 2013
By William McKenzie
What about Syria? Why aren’t we hearing many protests from religious leaders in the U.S. about the atrocities that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is bringing down upon his people? As this Reuters report states, 80,000 of his countrymen have been killed since they started protesting his government.
I raise that question because there is a general sense in the country that Americans don’t want to get involved with Syria’s meltdown. Polling data is clear about that.
But shouldn’t people of faith in the U.S. at least be making a cause out of the deaths that are happening there?
After Rwanda, many Americans said we can’t let a massacre like that happen again. Well, a leader is brutalizing his people and there aren’t many howls about it. There may be the occasional statement, but not much more than that.
Is this because of a fear of American power getting out of hand? Is it because we are weary of the Mideast? Is it because we don’t know what to do about the situation? Is it because we don’t want to side with any of the players? Is it because of something else?
I would like to hear your thoughts about this issue. It’s one thing to not get involved militarily in Syria. But do religious leaders and institutions in the U.S. not have some responsibility to speak out against the atrocities, pray for the victims and raise moral questions?
WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
It may seem that human beings have an endless capacity to inflict violence and induce suffering among their sisters and brothers. The twentieth century alone has ample evidence of it on every continent. Names of the ne’er do wells are known on every continent. Pol Pot in Asia. Idi Amin in Africa. Agosto Pinochet in South America. Adolf Hitler in Europe. And, just to be clear, North America has a long list of names from Bull Connor in Alabama to the lynch mobs across the nation’s south.
Voices from pulpits have been notoriously silent about many if not all of those perpertrations. At best, the voices from the pulpits have been late in being heard. Sometimes, the voices of faith have actually been heard in support of those who commit the violence and cause the suffering. Church leaders arose in support of Hitler in Germany, for example. Churches in American states not limited to the South stood with the forces of law and order, speaking against the forces for justice and equality.
The situation in Syria is just one more example where the voices of faith that have not already been silenced have chosen to remain silent. In American churches, Christian people and their pastors tend to be preoccupied with their own immediate concerns. Wounded persons who lie along the side of the road leading to to Jericho are easy to ignore, given the press of our own business.
But this situation is not merely a moral crisis and it should not be made into a military crisis. It actually is a theological crisis.
People of faith must remind themselves and need to be reminded by their religious leaders that attempts by political leaders to retain power, regardless of the cost, will be judged for their evil and will be condemned by history and by the Lord for their wickedness. It is the task of people of faith to testify to the ultimate power of God, to judge and to redeem. When people of faith do that, some of us become martyrs for the cause. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador is just one example of that. But regardless of the threat, people of faith must bear witness to the truth.
I am waiting to hear the first word from the Lord from a Christian pulpit that condemns the power-mad leader of Syria. It seems to be taking a long time. But it took many American preachers a long time to acknowledge that Martin Luther King was a prophet of the Lord. Sometimes, when the witnesses speak, people of faith prefer not to hear. But their prophetic voices will not be silenced, for not even death can still the truth of the Lord’s word....
MATTHEW WILSON, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University
As far as I know, religious leaders are speaking out against the violence in Syria, praying for the victims, and raising moral questions. I know that the Pope has raised the issue on multiple occasions. Perhaps they could do more to call attention to the unfolding tragedy there, and certainly humanitarian relief for Syria could and should be a bigger international priority. In terms of the larger resolution of the conflict, however, I’m not sure that there is much that Western actors, either political or religious, can do.
The Middle East, when it comes to politics, is famously the land of no good alternatives, and that seems clearly true in the case of Syria. The Assad regime is indisputably brutal and authoritarian, but most elements of the rebellion are similarly uninspiring. Credible reports point to atrocities and human rights abuses on both sides. As bad as the dictator may be, most of Syria’s religious minorities (including Christians) seem to feel safer with him in control than with what might come if he were toppled. They look to Egypt as a chilling example of what might happen to religious minorities when an authoritarian but broadly tolerant dictator is toppled by the forces of “democracy.”
When a deplorable situation is unfolding, as it is in Syria, our natural inclination as people of good will is to want to “do something.” Sometimes, however, there is simply very little productive to be done. It is by no means clear that American military or even economic support for the rebels in Syria would advance the cause of human rights in the long run. Our similar involvement in Libya (not to mention Iraq) has produced results that are, to this point at least, mixed and ambiguous at best.
Religious leaders can and should emphasize the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and seek to organize relief efforts, but at this point that’s about all that it would be wise to do....