Joseph’s Utterly Unique Vocation

The late philosopher and atheist Jean Paul Sartre one wrote a Christmas play called Bariona. In this play he tries to imagine Joseph in Bethlehem, and writes: “He [Joseph] feels himself slightly out of it. He suffers because he sees how much this woman whom he loves resembles God; how she is already at the side of God. For God has burst like a bomb into the intimacy of this family. Joseph and Mary are separated forever by this explosion of light. And I imagine that all through his life Joseph will be learning to accept this.”

Think of this and ponder it anew. Joseph’s vocation is utterly unique. He is the foster-father of the Son of God. I see in this man a model for making good decisions and for dealing with profound doubts. But the text of Matthew 1:24-25 says: “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” 

Obedience was not easy for this man, even with the appearance of angels and the clarity of the dreams God gave to him. He is a model of faithfulness to us as we meditate on the birth of Jesus during Advent. What is your vocation and how faithfully do you follow your course in life as you love the King?

Living My Way Into the Life of the Trinity

No truth is (perhaps) more complex than that of the Trinity, one God in three persons. But I am persuaded that no truth is more central to living well as a follower of Christ. The Trinity is not a debate, at least for me. It is revealed yet it is a stunning mystery. A professor, playing on an earlier line, once said, “If you deny the Trinity you may loose your soul but if you accept the Trinity (and truly embrace it) you will likely find life and freedom.” So true.

My journey into God has been deeply Trinitarian for decades but much more so in the last twenty-plus years. My first memories of God, as a young child, were a mixture of terror with that of a friendly person who loved me. So far as I remember I always believed in God. But I also believed in hell and believed I might go there. (Massive confusion helps create this fear yet Scripture does, quite plainly, warn us of judgment.) I also believed in Holy God, everywhere present and all-powerful. I think as a child I imagined heaven as a place that I would go where God would allow me to take a “guided tour.” It was quite literal and highly imaginative, as is often the case with children.

So many small children are taught that they should not be naughty but nice. But what is “nice”? Who knows for sure. And what if “nice” is not enough? I remember several children dying in my circle of friends before I reached age sixteen. I was always aware that I too would die. I actually thought about dying almost every day. At times I was terrorized by these thoughts. In fact, one day as a storm rolled across my area I ran into the house and asked my mom, “What happens to me at death?” Sometime later I “understood” that Jesus came to take away my sin and because of His grace and forgiveness He would save me if I trusted him. My mom wisely showed me that following Jesus was not a “simple formula prayer” and over time I “gave my life” to Him (daily) to follow Him wherever He would lead me. I still have the flannel board piece that has the cross mom used to show me “the way” as she explained his death and my hope for forgiveness through Him. Later, I was baptized since I grew up in a Baptist church. That was a powerful moment as I entered into what “felt” like a dying experience to come out feeling like I was “new” (cf. 1 Peter 3:21). My first sense that baptism had some sacramental consequence was that experience at age seven. Strange as it is, I was in a church that opposed this notion but I “felt” otherwise and later would learn why.

But what about the Trinity? It was a mystery, as I said above. But that never stopped me from trying to solve it. I love solving problems. The question is: “What is a mystery?” Many back off once you put it this way. Not me. As I reached my teen years I was puzzled and kept reading. I asked a lot of questions. Very few around me were interested but I was deeply interested. Words like “I and the Father are one” and “I will send you the Spirit” were deeply puzzling yet filled with power for me.

During my freshman year at the University of Alabama I finally heard some serious teaching on the Holy Spirit. (Some of it was most unsatisfactory but at least I began to desire the fulness and power of the Spirit in my life and I saw that this reality would make a huge difference if the Spirit indeed filled me with his grace and power.) I conceived of the Spirit as a “breeze” who enflamed my soul with power to witness and love for God. That’s a start but not a solid place to stay.

Yet deep inside of me the “fear of hell” remained strong. What if I had not really repented as a child? What if I had been deceived? What if my faith was not from God but a delusion? I was searching for the elements of the Christian religion that are gentle and helpful towards removing craven fear and destructive thoughts.

Gerald O’Mahony, SJ, in his most excellent memoir A Way to the Trinity: The Story of a Journey (1988), had a very different experience than my own, growing up in a pre-Vatican II home in Ireland. But he refers to his fear as “that old schizophrenia,” a term I can relate to as a childhood Baptist. The weight of my struggle came down more often than I care to admit on fear rather than grace and forgiveness. For example, I would sit through “invitations” to come to Christ and time and again want to go forward to “be sure” I had done it right. This is pure Pelagianism, one of the ancient heresies of the church, but I had no idea what this meant at the time.

What was missing? I believe it was a healthy view of the Trinity but I will come to that in a later post. For now it was a failure to understand that grace was a deeply personal and very human relationship.

The way of St. Ignatius has helped me in my adult life. In The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola the believer is urged to think for thirty days on God calling me to and for the future. Ignatius introduces the Trinity by showing three persons jointly deciding what to do about the the terrible state of the world. He decided to send His Son into the world as one of us. Once this is grasped the retreatant is urged to contemplate scenes from the early life, public ministry, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. What I began to realize from this practice was that I had a much deeper consciousness of the life of Jesus as a continuous whole. Joined with this I had a deeper and stronger sense of myself as His follower. I could picture Jesus here and there and me with him, following and loving. I was on the way to living in the life of the Trinity but did not know it for some time.

Hearts and Minds Book Notes

One of my good friends is Byron Borger, the owner/manager of Hearts and Minds Books in Pennsylvania. Byron regularly prepares a great review of a wide array of books. I encourage you to read his reviews (which you can get by email) and buy books from him. Yes, you can buy books for a larger discount at Amazon but Byron will help you personally and guide you with a human and thoughtful response about new (and old) books. I know no other resource like Byron Borger if you love Christian books. In a recent review of new books he wrote the following about me and my book:

Costly Love: The Way to True Unity for All the Followers of Jesus, John H. Armstrong (New City Press) $15.95. I will tell you more about this later but I truly wanted to list it here. This is one of the most provocative and thoughtful and thorough studies of the Biblical teaching about love I have yet seen. It is serious and well researched, drawing on writers both ancient and new, from across the theological spectrum. John is a big supporter of our bookish effort, an old Wheaton College grad, a former super-strict Puritan-esque Reformed scholar and revival preacher. I liked him even when he came on a bit too stridently with his overly confident theology. Since those days, John has shifted considerably – in part motivated by studying and taking to heart a profound essay on the rightness of ecumenism by conservative Anglican J. I. Packer — and wrote one of my all-time favorite studies of this topic, Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church. Under the auspices of his ACT3 Network, John has been advocating, preaching, praying, writing, and networking others for more gracious and fruitful inter-denominational conversations. It is rare to find one with such conventionally evangelical theology so robustly engaged in collegial conversations and partnerships with Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, with Pentecostals and the Eastern Orthodox, with Mennonites and Methodists. John knows all kinds of people and meets with everybody, even though it sometimes breaks his heart that others don’t share his enthusiasm for learning to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of denominational affiliation or political/cultural tendencies.

This is one of the most provocative and thoughtful and thorough studies of the Biblical teaching about love I have yet seen.

Such relationships have softened him, so to speak (or toughed him up, since he no longer only hangs out with those like himself.) He has learned to be civil and gracious and recognize the good stuff God is doing in communions and ministries unlike his own.

It is a longer story to share another time but John has come to very deeply understand – he feels it in his bones as much as anyone I know – that for Christian community to develop and for something even approximating Godly unity (of the sort he calls “missional ecumenism”) will take a lot of healing, a lot of honest conversations, a lot of humility, a lot of grace extended. We desperately need to understand, encounter, and manifest God’s love. John 13 couldn’t be clearer about the urgency of Christians loving others – see Francis Schaeffer’s lovely little The Mark of the Christian or Art Lindsley’s Love: The Final Apologetic for starters on this extraordinary truth – but it seems we are ill-equipped to live out that kind of Christian love for one another. And, oddly, those who seem to know the most about the Bible and about theology are often themselves the most stubborn and hurtful when it comes to resisting efforts to tear down the dividing walls.

Surely the answer to this broken situation, this tragic violation of the new commandment of John 13:34, is love. God is love, after all. As Kyle David Bennett so creatively spells out in his book Practices of Love, our spirituality must yield the fruit of love. Out of Armstrong’s own frustrations and eagerness to press towards greater conversations and shared ministry, he set out to study love. It is the essential mark of the Christian disciple, of course, so it is important for any and all of us. But it was especially urgent for him and his new call into ecumenical, missional fidelity. It seems odd that so little of much depth has been written directly on this topic.

And so, Costly Love: The Way to True Unity for All the Followers of Jesus is the fruit of several years of study and several years of writing. John is a studious scholar, and a fine, upbeat writer. This book is – I don’t say this cheaply – a true labor of love.

I had the great privilege of writing an early endorsement of Costly Love, and I hope to describe it for you in greater detail, later. For now, please know of its good back-story, its semi-scholarly tone, its great, great worth. I hope you consider buying this from us – it is published by a fine Roman Catholic publisher, and the beloved Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin wrote the foreword. (It’s not every day that an evangelical like John ends up on a Roman Catholic press, but that, too, is a sign, it seems of how special this book is and what it represents.) This book needs to be better known in our (mostly Protestant) circles and I commend it to you.

There are many solid endorsements of this book from a wide variety of important women and men, theological and church voices. For instance:

“Good books make you think, great books provoke you to change John Armstrong has given us a great book that has the potential to transform churches and leaders. Costly Love presents a vision of life that is biblically faithful and consistently congruent with reality. This is as timely a work on this subject as any I have read. This is surely a book we all need for our divided times.”
Rev. Tyler Johnson, Lead Pastor, Redemption Church, Phoenix, AZ

“Love is the best thing we have – and yet we struggle to describe it, let alone live into it. That’s because love is a cross and an empty tomb; love is knitting the church back together and saving the world. John Armstrong is perfectly placed to write about love – with evangelical zeal, catholic wisdom, and erudition without obscurity.”
Dr. Jason Byassee, Vancouver School of Theology and Duke Divinity School

Byron Borger
Hearts & Minds
Dallastown, PA

A Sleepless Night and a Gentle and Powerful Morning Reminder

In Matthew 19 Jesus welcomes little children to himself, (gently) touches them and prays over them. The disciples, in contrast, seem too stern and busy to feel the is important kingdom work. The story tells us:

13 Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; 14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” 15 And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.

It is easy to rebuke the disciples in this story. But perhaps we have this wrong. Could it be that love made them desire to protect Jesus and seeing he was tired and drained (they had seen multiple miracles of healing, great teaching, etc.). It is likely they were concerned for his well-being. After all, he was now talking about a cross, which puzzled them. I think the tension in his heart and mind would have been evident to men so close to him day-by-day. It would thus be normal to think that at this time little children were a  bit of a bother. William Barclay rightly says, “We must not think of the disciples as rough and hard and stern; we must not condemn them.”
But the real point of the story is Jesus. He was plainly the kind of man that children loved. The famous Scottish writer George MacDonald, one of my favorite souls in the history of the church, said that no person could be a follower of Jesus “if children were afraid to play at their door.” The point he makes is rather basic I think. Jesus does not see any person, man or woman, young or old, as unimportant or not worth his time and interest. No one was a nuisance to him, no one. Doesn’t that encourage you friend? It does me. I laid awake last night and had a restless time. I found my mind racing over many, many faults in my sixty-eight years of life. I felt a deep sense of anguish and loss. I had a long list of ways in which I have failed the Master. I even experienced some condemnation. It was not fun, to say the least.

William Barclay says something about this passage that I needed this morning:

“There is a strange difference between Jesus and many a famous preacher or evangelist. It is often next door to impossible to get into the presence of one of these famous ones at all. They have a kind of retinue and bodyguard which keep the public away lest the great man be wearied and bothered. Jesus was the opposite of that. They way to the presence of Jesus is open to the humblest person and to the youngest child” (The Gospel of Mathew, Volume 2, page 234).

Jesus concluded by saying these children were closer to God than anyone else. Why? The simplicity of the child keeps them near to God. It is a tragedy of age that we so often grow away from God, or feel ourselves unworthy of being close to Jesus. This morning I sought to recall to mind the mercies of God from the earliest years of my life. I am tired after a hard night’s unrest but I am refreshed in knowing he draws near to those who humble themselves like little children and come to him. “Lord, I come!”

How Does Jesus Speak to Our Modern Religious and Social Context?

I am currently reading, rather slowly I confess, through the Gospel of Mark. It is a fast-paced narrative a rooted in oral tradition, something easily forgotten by modern readers. At the beginning of the second century CE this Gospel was affirmed in several texts as the work of Mark. It was also attributed to Peter, who was his companion. Because this writing was based on oral texts it was rooted in stories about Jesus passed around from community to community. But Mark wrote for a definite type of community: Christians of non-Jewish and pagan origin. He desire is to show them the mystery and glory of Jesus. His way of doing this is to relate the words and deeds by which Jesus revealed himself as the “Son of God” to humankind.

Mark’s Gospel does not include an infancy narrative nor does it relate Jesus to Jewish scripture or tradition the way Matthew does. It begins: “This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Boom! Here it is: the good news of Jesus!

The writer then makes a reference to Isaiah 40:3 and speaks briefly of John the Baptist. Then, almost immediately, he introduces us to Jesus and his first disciples.

Today I read Mark 3 in my morning hours. Jesus cures a man with a withered hand in the story we read in the first six verses. The point, however, is not the healing of this man but the issue of the sabbath. Chapter 2 had just ended with this verse (28): “So the Son of Man is master even of the sabbath.” To prove this is true Mark relates this healing story. Mark says that Jesus asked the crowd if “good deeds” can be done on the sabbath? No one would answer. They knew the religious leaders were listening and watching very carefully. Mark then gets to his primary point: “Jesus was angry as he looked around at the people. Yet he felt sorry for them because they were so stubborn” (3:5). The story concludes with the Pharisees leaving in order to “start making plans with Herod’s followers to kill Jesus” (3:6). Mark thus tell us very early in his story that Jesus would likely be killed for his provocative actions and claims to be “Lord of the sabbath.”

The Pharisees considered it lawful to work on the sabbath if it was a question of saving someone in danger. Jesus is pushing this understanding beyond their comfortable norms and saying that for him to not do good is to do evil. To not cure this man is to not love and thus to be indifferent, uncaring, even evil. As I read this I thought of the modern social order of the West. Jesus did not denounce a particular social form or ideology, such as socialism or capitalism. (Frankly, neither one is addressed by Jesus in any obvious way!) What he did denounce was human prejudice, especially the kind of prejudice that prevents us from giving and doing good for those in need. I can expand this to say that he denounced the kind of choices that would prevent the world from becoming a better and more just order. 

People often have the means and capacity to better their condition, if leaders will allow and promote it. The problem is that leaders often refuse to positively help others, or they passively hold back those who need help from outside sources. Thus leaders remain the prisoners of their principles (albeit religious ones) and politics, refusing to practically help others in great need. They debate “sacred” social and political ideals while they miss the multitudes left in great difficulty. They would rather win a political debate than make a human difference.

I personally believe in free markets and community-based expressions of compassion. For me they are both right. (I do not arrive at this position by proof-texting from the Bible though I think we can draw help on these matters from scripture.) I also believe genuine human freedom will allow people to develop their skills, sell what they make and by this transaction earn a fair profit. In turn, this will create jobs and can lift people. If you want proof of this claim go to China or India and see for yourself. But markets without compassion, and the freedom that seeks common solutions that go beyond strict human ideologies, will always be barren. We must learn from Jesus that rules and regulations, as well as our carefully developed ideologies, may actually keep us from serving those who are in the greatest need. This is why, for example, I do not want to see the United States adopt a health care program that denies Medicaid assistance to those who need it. We are talking about real lives and real people here. These people are quite often in real need, just like the man with the paralyzed hand in Mark 3. The “Lord of the sabbath” has freed us to do good, not evil. We are especially free from those religious principles, that are part of our human traditions, which keep us from “doing good to all mankind.”

War: The Most Dreaded Enemy of Liberty

During the course of my lifetime (b. 1949) America has fought many wars. In fact, we have been engaged in foreign struggles and combat for almost the entirety of my lifetime, with the exception of the four years of President Carter’s administration (1977-1981). This simple fact got me to thinking recently about an anniversary of a historic document in American history that is 222 years old tomorrow, April 20.

This statement goes as follows:


Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.

War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.

In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.

The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both.

No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

Those truths are well established. They are read in every page which records the progression from a less arbitrary to a more arbitrary government, or the transition from a popular government to an aristocracy or a monarchy.

It must be evident, then, that in the same degree as the friends of the propositions were jealous of armies, and debts, and prerogative, as dangerous to a republican Constitution, they must have been averse to war, as favorable to armies and debts and prerogative.

War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it.

In war, the public treasuries are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war, the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed; and it is the executive brow they are to encircle.

The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venal love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.

James Madison, April 20, 1795

How Could Tyranny Destroy Our Democracy?

Political scientists and historians are increasingly expressing profound concerns about the future of democracy in the West. I have been asking, as an amateur historian of America, “How and why do democracies die?”

The study of democratic backsliding, though around for a long time, is becoming more urgent as we watch events unfold so rapidly it creates deep concern in many of us. In the mid-2000s, the global spread of democracy, after 200 years of expansion, clearly began to stall. Perhaps it was the Iraq War and the events in the Middle East but however we understand what happened since 9/11 populist movements in the West began to arise and grow in number. This new form of Western populism, joined with a growing passion for nationalism and a seriously distorted form of exceptionalism, are now impacting America on a daily basis. This feels a lot like something we’ve seen before, in other places, but I do not think mosts of us are paying attention.

This new expression of Western populism bears more than a passing resemblance to Latin American populist waves that turned authoritarian very quickly. (Perhaps this is why Pope Francis is so open about his warnings to the West!) One columnist wrote today, “The warning signs for Western democracy are flashing red!” At the risk of being the little boy who cried wolf day-after-day, I profoundly agree with this concern.

Over the weekend I watched Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University, make some bold and fearless connections between the history of the 1930s in Europe and modern American history in 2017. Snyder is the author of a new (readable and small) book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Random House, 2017). In this book professor Snyder lays out twenty simple, short, readable warnings about how we can lose our democracy to tyranny. He says it can happen so fast we may not even realize it when it comes. If we, for example, saw another economic collapse then the likelihood of tyranny is much, much higher. (Start reading your dusty copies of Arendt, Orwell and other similar writers.) Of the twenty lessons Snyder gives here is but one:

Be alert to the use of the words extremism and terrorism. Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary. 

Since 9/11 the constant threat of extremism and terrorism has so gripped our nation that some of the most faithful Christians among us are terrified. They seem focused on this as the gravest danger of all to the church. Not so! The gravest external danger, especially for Christians, is the use of patriotic vocabulary with our Christian vocabulary and then the simple equation of American exceptionalism with the real progress of God’s kingdom. (Read my sentence again, slowly.) Why do I make this argument? Because I have read Dietrich Bonhoeffer for fifty years and he saw this happening in Germany and understood it with remarkable insight. We are NOT Germany but the same forces can arise here and the same patterns can emerge. One key is to see how we speak and debate our current time. This Snyder’s “Lesson Seventeen” above.

I have said again and again I am not deeply partisan about supporting one of our two political parties. I do not think they are as different as most think they are. In fact, the only “wild card” in the last election cycle was Donald Trump. (Who knows what his “real” party interest is since he has no clear ideology?) What I do think is this – people feel voiceless and besieged on many fronts and they want change. They did not carefully consider, since they hardly ever do, what this change would do to them but they wanted change more than leadership and character. At their core they wanted to be protected because they were losing their jobs and/or they feared they would die in a terrorist episode. For Christians they bought the narrative since the 1950s that the pagans were stealing their country from them and they honestly hoped Trump would take it back and thus “Make America Great Again!” (It is highly unlikely that within the U.S. terrorism will be the cause of your death. In America, more people will die this week from opioid abuse than will die in the next year from terrorism!)

Our Founding Fathers tried to protect us from threats they profoundly understood. They knew that tyranny had historically defeated democracy, as far back as ancient Greece. This is why they gave us a constitutional republic. That republic has now lasted longer than any such government in history. Is it’s future guaranteed? The founders knew better than to assume a positive answer. They deeply feared that we would lose the republic when we no longer understood it or saw see how to protect it. I think we face a time when we understand our republic less than at any previous time in history. The continued moral breakdown of our culture is a factor but it is naive too think that this is the singular factor, as many pietistic conservatives think. Snyder is right, “We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.” I earnestly pray: “God in heaven, may it be so.” A nation that will not humble itself and learn will fall from within. In the 1950s I listened to communists tell us “America would fall from within.” I think they understood this danger better than everyday Americans did then or now. Nikita Krushchev once said “We will bury you.” He was wrong. But he also said we would “bury” ourselves. He could be proven right on this front. Will we preserve our way of life politically? The jury is considering the outcome now. It is too soon to tell. May God grant us wisdom to know what is just, good and right. Micah 6:8 somehow seems to apply more than ever.

Pondering the Syrian Context on the Day After Our Nation Launched Fifty Tomahawk Missiles

Late late night I read the first news reports of our president’s authorization of the launch of fifty missiles on Syrian air bases. (He warned the Russians in advance so their soldiers would leave, wanting to avoid a direct conflict with Russia.) It appears this morning that we hit military targets and human casualties will be small, perhaps even none. The reason for this attack was the outrage felt by our nation, and our president, upon seeing the helpless children who had died at the hands of President Assad through the use of chemical weapons. (Of course, Assad is denying he was behind this and blames the rebellion for the use of such weapons.)

I am deeply troubled by these events. Let me explain why.

Is this strike a one-time military action? If not, what is our strategy going forward? If there is “no red line” that Assad can cross to lead us into a “hot war” with him (which Mr. Trump promised for months he would not do) then why did these photos of dead children prompt this response and why now? Is there a policy for follow-up? As I understand the military the development of “war games” scenarios are routine. Military options are always on the table for every president to ponder. So, in all fairness, the president decides that something must be done and the military gives him his options and he seeks the counsel of his advisors and then uses his power to choose one of the options.

Why am I concerned? Assad is an evil man and has killed his own people. He has also used chemical weapons before this week. This civil war was has been ongoing since 2011. During the so-called “Arab Spring” Syrian opposition groups, allied against President Assad, formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and seized control of the area surrounding Aleppo and parts of southern Syria. Over time, several factions split from their original moderate position to pursue an Islamist vision for Syria. In 2015, the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG) joined forces with Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, and some Turkmen groups, to form the Syrian Democratic Forces, while most of the Turkmen groups remained with the FSA. Both Russia and Hezbollah engaged militarily in support of the Syrian government. In 2014, a coalition of NATO countries began launching airstrikes against what is called ISIS or ISIL. Turkey, and others, still lobby for airspace that is free of Syrian planes. President Trump has been focused on forging an alliance with Russia, and others, for the purpose of defeating ISIS inside Syria, at least until yesterday. Time will tell what happens now regarding Assad and his government forces, who were oddly enough thought to be our allies against ISIS. 

International organizations almost universally agree that human rights violations and vast massacres have occurred inside Syria. As a result of this long civil war at least 4.8 millions people have fled Syria, which is the largest such refugee crisis since World War II. Inside of Syria another 6 million people have been displaced from their towns and homes, often destroyed by Assad’s forces. All of this makes Syria the most tragic war in the world since the 1940s. Over the course of this civil war several number of peace initiatives have been tried. In March of this year the United Nations tried again but the fighting against Syrian people by their own president only ramped up again over the last few weeks. Then these brutal photos were seen globally and America acted when our President was sickened by what he saw. 

Isn’t our response a no-brainer, you ask? Well, yes and no. I suggest peacemaking requires further, and more broadly based, attempts to solve the problem before we kill many more people, intended or otherwise. I am not suggesting avoidance of the problem, just the opposite. I am also suggesting that we need context. I am particularly reminded of the strategy that Pope Francis proposed to the government of the U.S. regarding our use of military force:

  1. He urged our government to face hard facts.
  2. He urged only an proportionate use of force if necessary.
  3. He urged us to acknowledged that military response alone cannot succeed.
  4. He urged us to scale up our humanitarian assistance to refugees.
  5. He urged that we accept resettlement where return to Syria is impossible.

It seems this morning that only number two has been seriously attempted by the U.S. government in the last three months. Time will tell if this is really the case.

Before this Syrian Civil War there were 22 million people inside Syria. 2 million of these Syrians were Christians. Syria has been historically very tolerant toward Christians. (By the way, Syria is a historic and important land to Christianity. After all, the famous city of Damascus is in Syria!) Historically Christians and Muslims lived peaceably in Syria for centuries. The truth is that this is not a conflict between Christians and Muslims at all. Syria has long been a repressive state and long denied basic human rights, at least since the modern state was formed in 1947!

Why is Russia involved so deeply in Syria? This is a complicated question but it has to do with Russian political interests in the Middle East as a counterbalance to Israel and the U.S. I have come to believe, based on listening to Christians who live in this region explain this conflict, that it also has to do with the influence of some Christian leaders inside Russia. These leaders have urged Putin to support Assad because they have their own interests in the region. This might not be true but I see many reasons to believe that it is so. This some Christians have complicity added to the number and horror of human deaths inside Syria by playing partisan politics. (This should make us all consider the role Christians have in supporting nationalism under the banner of Christ!)

Around 45% of the Christian population of Syria has fled or died. About a million Christians now remain. Here is a simple observation, again supported by Christians in and near Syria. Our Christian divisions have uniquely hurt our witness and hindered our efforts to work for peace. Ecumenism really does matter. In this instance it has a direct impact on the world around us.

Here is my concern about our actions taken last night: There no easy response to suffering and the use of chemical weapons. Launching missiles will not stop this carnage in itself. (See numbers 1-3 in Pope Francis above.) Unless we follow this action of last night with the other four proposals of Pope Francis we are not going to make a real difference in Syria for lasting peace. Entering this civil war is not appropriate. The president said so for months. So what next? “Pray and work for peace, period.” Urge lawmakers to read the pope’s list and respond accordingly, with balance and actions. If force must be used make sure it is appropriate and well-thought-out (in advance) and make sure there is a more holistic response behind it.

For me personally, pray for the peace of Syria! And work for the rescue and resettlement of those who are fleeing death. Mr. President, please stop hindering the resettlement of Syrian refugees.

I shudder to think we launched missiles at several military sites but that we will do almost nothing more to save the lives of people inside Syria, and fleeing it every day, where we can and should act with compassion and sacrifice. If we do nothing but cheer and then beat our chests, saying “God bless America,” then nothing will really change. “Blessed are the peacemakers.”