On August 21, the deadly nerve gas sarin was released east of Damascus, killing hundreds of people. Ten days later, President Obama said in a televised speech that the US had a moral responsibility to respond forcefully in Syria but he would not do so until Congress voted on the use of military force. Last week, he laid out a detailed case for a limited strike against Syria to punish it for its deadly use of chemical weapons.
Russia had always blocked any censorship by the United Nations and supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But last week, Russia made a proposal that international monitors would take over and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. If this goes ahead, strikes against Syria will no longer be necessary. Obama said it was the threat of military action that made the diplomacy happen.
Now the UN Security Council is arguing over a draft resolution to hold Syria to its agreement to identify all chemical weapons held by the government for destruction.
The latest polls show that the majority of Americans are against any strikes in Syria.
What do Adventists believe? Historically, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is pacifist, and believes in noncombatancy. In 1867, a General Conference resolution stated: “Engaging in war is a direct violation of the teachings of our Saviour.”
When young American men were subject to the draft during the World War II and the Vietnam War, Adventists were able to request that they not carry weapons; many became medics.
But have others fought for our freedom so that we don't have to? And do we have a responsibility to protect people in other parts of the world who are vulnerable?
The question of humanitarian intervention is not a black and white one. The general consensus from an American perspective (though not necessarily of Adventist churchmembers) is that the war to stop Hitler (and liberate the concentration camps) was a necessary one; the US involvement in the Vietnam conflict was a waste; the intervention in Kosovo saved lives (although an official church statement on Kosovo in 1999 said: “The Church rejects the use of violence as a method for conflict resolution, be it ethnic cleansing or bombing.”); the lack of intervention in Rwanda was a mistake, leading to genocide and almost a million dead; and the war in Iraq was based on a false premise and wasted lives.
Should Adventists stand with those who oppose possible strikes on Syria, and be true to our pacifist roots?
Or do Adventists have a moral imperative to be on the side of intervention, if it keeps innocent people from dying from chemical weapons attacks? Do we have blood on our hands if we stand back and watch innocent people die when we can stop it?
Is it wrong, or is it right, for the worldwide Adventist church to officially take a stand on Syria, and similar situations?
Should individual members take a stand, even if the church does not?
The Spectrum blog asked a few Adventist academics around the country to weigh in on the situation in Syria.
Douglas Morgan, Professor of History at Washington Adventist University, said:
As I understand it, following Christ means both renunciation of violence and peacemaking activity to heal the suffering of a violence-torn world. For that reason I think President Obama is right in saying that we cannot turn a blind eye to the horrific use of chemical weapons in Syria. The same would go for Israel's use of white phosphorus in Gaza, and the "collateral damage" – large numbers of civilian casualties – of US drone attacks.
I believe that as Adventists we should sustain and develop our pacifist heritage by addressing such instances in which the powers of this world overstep their bounds, with brutal consequences. We do not expect the nations to give up their instruments of coercion, but our work of peacemaking as Christ's representatives should include calling them to live up to their own highest ideals. The question I have about President Obama's approach is not necessarily the use of force, but the American and presidential unilateralism involved. Let us encourage sustained and vigorous international efforts against not only against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but all other manifestations of the demonic militarism that afflicts our world.
It seems to me that Adventists as individuals and groups should speak out on such issues in the name of their faith, though I don't believe seeking a denominational statement is generally a very promising or even desirable approach. The Adventist Peace Fellowship leaders, for example, endorsed a letter to President Obama drafted by the Friends Committee.
Chris Blake, Associate Professor of English and Communication at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, said:
Primarily our energies and priorities as a church should be on the Syrian refugees – more than two million – and providing assistance and comfort to them. The country of Jordan is particularly overwhelmed.
As far as an approach toward the turmoil in Syria, the church needs to follow its own official statement "A Seventh-day Adventist Call for Peace," voted April 18, 2002. Here is a key portion of that statement:
"'While it is inevitable that nations and people will try to defend themselves in a military way to violence and terror – which sometimes results in short-term success – lasting answers to deep problems of division in society cannot be achieved by using violent means. From both a Christian and practical perspective, any lasting peace involves at least four ingredients: dialogue, justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation."
Whenever the Adventist Church is involved in those four pillars of peacemaking we are being faithful to our God.
See more Seventh-day Adventist Church statements about peace and conflict gathered by the Adventist Peace Fellowship.
A recent article from the Council on Foreign Relations outlines the dilemma of humanitarian intervention and recent debate on Syria and Libya.
A recent book, Humanitarian Intervention: A History, co-edited by David Trim, director of Archives, Statistics and Research at the GC, examines responses to oppression, persecution and mass atrocities from the late sixteenth century to the end of the twentieth century.
Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, has written A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, a fascinating read about American policy and military intervention in genocide and atrocities.
Photo: Mourners after the chemical weapons attack. From The Guardian.