A REFLECTION ON THE SYRIAN CRISIS, ONE KINGDOM POSTURE, AND THE CHRISTIAN RESPONSE OF PRAYER

*Here’s a repost that I originally wrote on August 28th, 2013. As you will probably pick up I wrote this right in that moment when we had our warships off the coast of Syria and were about to start bombing Assad directly for “crossing the red line” of using chemical weapons etc. These were the thoughts I had about that then, and within the body of the post I discuss how I think the State relates to the Church and vice versa. I conclude with the thought that Prayer for wisdom is what Christians need to be about, and then acting out of the wisdom that God has given us in Christ (this can now be applied to the Refugee crisis currently underway).

This whole Syria thing is really a big deal to me, as I am sure it is for many of you as well. It reflects a genuine ethical dilemma for the Christian. And for me, things, unfortunately, are not as clear as they seem to be for others. I cannot obamaunclesamhelp, for example, to get the genocide that happened in Rwanda out of my head. I remember watching the movie that depicted it, Hotel Rwanda, and how the United Nations really was unable to provide substantial protection for the women and children being slaughtered all around them by the sharp edge of the machete. There are plenty of people, and Christian people, decrying the usage of military force to intervene in the Syrian crisis (which has been ongoing for 2 years); they are advocating for peace, and non-violent solutions. This is noble, and I do believe it follows the ethic of Christ to advocate for peace. But I still wonder what in the world can be done in order to help these people in Syria, who are being slaughtered, in a genocidal fashion, by their oppressive government? I really don’t know! And I do wonder why Obama, and cronies, at this moment, are all of the sudden doing an about face, and seeking to intervene in Syria with military force (but only in a way, apparently, that is intended to punish Assad, but not actually take him out—this would be like taking part of a cancerous tumor out, but not the whole thing. There must be something more going on than concern for the Syrian people. I mean over 100,000 people have already died (and counting) in Syria; how they died (by what material means), seems unremarkable (i.e. in the sense that whether they died by chemicals or bullets really is not the issue, the issue is, is that they are dead and dying).

And so upon further reflection, as I have been hashing through this on Facebook the last couple of days, and just in my own thinking; I have to wonder what this whole move by Obama is really all about? I mean there is a real potential for this to spark World War 3—Russia, China, and Iran have said as much. And so why would Obama, knowing this, risk all of this (WW3), just to punish Assad? This is really a strange thing …

Having said all of the above, there remains a clear and resounding reality in all of this; genocide is immoral, and it cannot be overlooked. I find it extremely naïve to believe that the United Nations is the answer—Rwanda (among other things) won’t allow me to conclude this. Obama’s plan (to start WW3), to merely “punish” Assad with a few hours of bombs, will actually only exacerbate the problem (and genocide), and not squelch it. This is a dilemma, indeed! Come Jesus!

And so this begs the question (one that I have been wrestling with, as I have noted, as I am sure you have been, over the last few days); how ought the Christian to respond? How ought the Christian think of her and his relationship to the State (whatever State that is for you)? I do believe with my brethren and sistren, that the ethic of Christianity is ‘peace’, how peace comes about is where we have debate (in the penultimate details, not in the ultimate detail … we all agree the ultimate is the consummation of Christ’s coming kingdom). I do not believe Obama’s apparent strategy will create peace, but then neither do I think the UN will either; so a dilemma. This said, I think Christians have a ‘witness’ bearing (if not prophetic) role to play in relation to the State. I follow a constructively conceived Barthian understanding (surprise) of the relation of Church to State, and as such, I see both Church and State in the one kingdom of God in Christ (in the sphere and orientation of His life in Christ for us, all of us!). And as such, using the hypostatic union of Jesus as the analogy, I see the Church and State as still distinct, and yet inseparably related one to the other. And so this has impact upon the way I think the Church should act towards the State. In this specific instance, I wouldn’t expect the State to act like the Church, and I don’t expect the Church to act like the State; and thus, we ought to avoid conflating the two, as if we think the State should make its decisions as if it were the Church, in a special relation to God in Christ. That said, given the distinctiveness of the Church, and its ethic of shalom (peace), realized in Christ, I believe, as the Christian Church (His bride), that we ought to model the eschatological life of God in Christ, which is full of grace and truth. We should picture for them, the State, how we, the Church, are known by love (which is sacrificial, and self-given); we ought to be able to point to an alternative reality from the broken one the State lives out of. How this takes concrete form, though, is hard to say (i.e. through activism, through modeling it somehow in a transparent way, etc.). But I do believe this is how it ought to work. Here is how a former prof of mine from seminary, Paul Metzger, sketches this kind of constructive Barthian understanding of the relation between Church and State, and with this I close:

. . .Thus, as stated above, the church should resist any temptation to attempt to impose its will on the state. Now why is this? The reason is that when the church demands privileges and an audience in the secular sphere it forgets its own vocation and that of the state as well, thereby abandoning its freedom in the process. “Whenever the church has entered the political arena to fight for its claim to be given public recognition, it has always been a church which has failed to understand the special purpose of the state,an impenitent, spiritually unfree church.”

Now if the Church were to demand that the state accept its Word, would not the church in effect displace the state? If so, how could the church continue to serve God and the state in a nonpartisan way? Its word would then be bound, not free. Only as a church remains a spiritual institution will it have secular, political responsibilities, namely, those of exemplifying the ideals of the kingdom to the state and proclaiming God’s Word of the kingdom to the state. However, the reverse is not the case. If the church functions as a secular institution, it will forfeit its responsibilities in a sacred sphere. . . . The church must call on the state to listen to its Word, the Word of the kingdom, since the message of the kingdom concerns the state. But it must not demand that the state listen. The church must not use force, the instrument of the state, imposing its message on its hearers, but must seek to persuade its addressees of the need to receive its message through reasoned argument alone in the event of Christian proclamation, appealing to the state to take to heart its word rather than compelling the state to do so. The church must not demand but discuss, not presume upon but reason, appealing to the state to take its claims to heart, claims not about the centrality of the church, but about the centrality of the kingdom which both church and state are parts. Now if in God’s providential workings the state bestows on the church certain benefits and rights, even taking the church’s message to heart, the church must not come to expect such benefits, rights, and respect as irrevocable, permanent privileges, which must be preserved at all costs, but rather as gifts from God’s hand, gifts which may last but for a season. (Paul Louis Metzger, “The Word of Christ And The World of Culture: Toward a Synthesis Of the Sacred and Secular in the Theology of Karl Barth,”[dissertation form] 225-227 )

I obviously have an inner tension, and conflict going on within me about this whole thing. I am highly concerned for the people in Syria (and for that matter, anywhere were people are living under repressive despotic regimes), and yet there seems to be no real and viable answer; except to wait for Christ. But ‘how’ we wait remains the question. We pray, but as the Lord of hosts said to Joshua:  ‘…“Get up! Why do you lie thus on your face?”‘; so not only do we pray, but we act. But in this instance (of Syria), how, and what? That remains the question for me. Obama is obviously acting, but for some ulterior reason. What that is, I don’t really know; but it obviously is not out of concern for Syria, there is something else. The UN will act by way of its usual bluster, and hemming-and-hawing. There is really, at this moment, one act to be made for the Christian, we must pray for wisdom, and for the Divine intervention of Yahweh in Christ for, in this instance, the people in Syria. This is how we personally acted when I was faced with my cancer (for which there was no real treatment). We implored the LORD, and He acted in a way that only He could. And so I know He can do the same for the people of Syria, and I pray that He will!

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