Ten years ago following John Paul II’s condemnation of the invasion of Iraq, I penned an email to my friends and family. I explained that the pope was not speaking “ex cathedra”, but rather, he was making a personal statement. As such, it was not infallible, and Catholics were, therefore, not bound to accept his statement as an official teaching of the church. Moreover, I argued that the pope was wrong, and I cited numerous examples from history when popes erred on political stances.
My email, which still is in my sent box, was riddled with the standard pre-war jargon. It was not a preemptive war, I wrote, but a defensive war against a constant aggressor in Saddam Hussein. We could not appease him, like the great powers did with Hitler in the 1930s. The credibility of the United States and the United Nations demanded action.
I even cited a section of the Catechism: “Peace is not merely the absence of war… Peace cannot be attained on earth without safeguarding the goods of persons, free communication among men, respect for the dignity of persons.” Thus I maintained, peace could only be achieved in Iraq, if we went to war.
I was wrong. In retrospect, I do not believe the war was justified. From a historical perspective, it was far longer and more costly (in innocent human lives) than anyone anticipated. The current state, 10 years later, is on the brink of collapse, and the whole region is in turmoil.
If there is one bright spot for me in this sad episode, it is that I learned a great lesson. In 2003, I was a cocky, know-it-all 23-year-old, and without consideration, I dismissed the opinion of one of the most brilliant and holiest individuals of our time. Additionally, I believed in our political leaders (WMDs and all) over the wisdom of the church. Today, I am far more cautious.
It seems like déjà vu. Another president, ironically a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, is pushing for war in the Mideast. On the other end, a new pope is calling for dialogue and prayer. I do not know what the best approach is to the bloody civil war in Syria, but this time, I am more inclined toward prayers over missiles.
Many people have laid out the case against the war. The prospects of a positive outcome are slim as the rebels are backed by al-Qaeda, and the chemical weapons (as well as American weapons) would likely fall into the hands of terrorists. Even with a victory, a post-Assad regime would mean the elimination of ancient Christian communities and other minorities as well, through mass killings and a forced exodus. In short, the violence and tension would only increase after the regime fell.
Additionally, the United States does not have a longterm plan. Bush argued, with oversimplified logic, that America should topple dictators and bring democracy to the Middle East. It was a plan, a bad one, but people could rally around and fight for the cause of freedom. As I understand our current position, our strategy is not to get involved in Syria’s direct future, but only to supply weapons and launch missile strikes. It does not seem sensible to provide more weapons and missiles to a region that already has too many, and then, just leave.
The Iraq war has left me with a bad taste for war and politics in general. So, what should we do with Syria? The pope has suggested prayer and fasting. To many, he must appear naïve.
At the time of Jesus, many in the Jewish community wanted a messiah to lead a military revolution against the Roman Empire. Instead of a warmonger, they got a prayermonger. On the crucifix, the symbol of our faith, he offered a prayer of forgiveness for his Roman tormentors, not a call for revenge.
In the early church, Christians faced a long and brutal persecution from the same Roman Empire. They did not launch an armed resistance, but like Jesus, they prayed for them. In the end, God rewarded their persistence in prayer.
Sadly over time, the church drifted away from the message of prayer instead of war, but in the last two centuries, stripped of her power, armies, and state, she has rediscovered it. In the world of realpolitik, recent popes would have been bad politicians, and even worse generals. That’s okay, because they have been good Christians.
In the future, military action may be justified, and I’ll support our nation. In the interim, I will follow the call of the pope to fast and pray (especially this Saturday) for Syria. Sorry Obama, this time I stand with the church.
(My conscience is troubled by the fact that we are not doing enough for the people of Syria, and perhaps, the missile strikes will help them. My position against the strikes, however, is confirmed by the numerous westerners and western religious living in Syria that have asked Obama not to expand the American war effort)