Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Lutheran Seminarian's Thoughts about Syria on the Anniversary of 9/11

As I watched that second plane crash into the South Tower of the World Trade Center twelve years ago as a sophomore in high school, and everything that happen thereafter in the coming days, I certainly felt a sense of horror, confusion and anger, much like everyone else around me. I lived far enough north in Connecticut that I don't remember anyone having directly lost a parent or close relative that day, but the indirect connections were numerous and pretty hard to deal with. It was when first I arrived in church that Sunday (and worked hard to not cause trouble on such a serious day, as I usually did every Sunday), and saw the sanctuary packed like never before that I remember feeling odd but strong sense of optimism. I thought as horrible as the events of 9/11 were, that perhaps such a tragedy could change things, that people in a long term way could come together for something I vaguely thought of as a greater good. Even more importantly, it seemed like the United States had more goodwill from folks in nations around the world than they had since at least the time of the Marshall Plan. Perhaps, I thought, if this chance could be correctly utilized, some really good things could come out of such a tragedy.

Unfortunately, the exact opposite happened. Domestic goodwill was squandered by an administration that told us just as long as we kept buying things, paid attention to a color-coded fear index and sealed our windows with duct tape, we'd probably be fine. The Bush administration quickly overreached with the Patriot Act as well. On the foreign policy front, goodwill towards America was squandered in even a more drastic manner. In Afghanistan, a war that probably needed to be fought was mismanaged. In Iraq, our nation and our allies were lead into battle under a premise build upon lies. A US foreign policy of fear and vengeance, where everything was either black or white, where you were either with us or against quickly dissipated goodwill toward the United States of America. Empathy towards us frequently turned to impassioned hate, or at best, annoyance. An amazing opportunity was quickly squandered.

Now, twelve years later, in my final year of seminary studying to be a Lutheran pastor, I know idealistic notions of world peace or universal progress are rarely met. Could the goodwill following 9/11 have ushered in some new global golden age as I once thought as a young teenager?  Probably not... human sin, or from a secular perspective, human imperfection negates such a possibility. Yet, I also know human progress can be made, that as The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once paraphrased, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." With God's help, things can be bettered in this world, perhaps minutely and unevenly, but they can be bettered, if only we can discern, at least some of the time, how to work together.

So where are we now? How does the lesson of 9/11 and its aftermath apply to the current crisis in Syria? Well, amidst such immense tragedy going on there, amidst the deaths of over 100,000 Syrians, 2 million refugees and countless more internally displaced persons, there is at least some semblance of good news, however meager. The Obama administration has certainly bungled up the US response to Syria crisis. Perhaps most notably, the over-reach of the Western allies in Libya turned away Russia and China away from even the possibility of supporting some sort of early intervention in the UN Security Council. There's definitely been too much loose talk by administration officials following the recent massive use of chemical weapons in Syria as well. That all said, at very least, the Obama administration, as we saw last night, has allowed for nuance, has allowed for the possibility of shades of gray and hasn't inappropriately painted this crisis as some sort of cosmic battle between good and evil, as was done over a decade ago. President Obama's speech last night was widely panned in the press as incoherent, but I strongly disagree with such accusations. Our president was simply portraying a complicated situation as what it is, complicated. Perhaps, at least, there is some good news in the fact that our society has moved past such a black and white of thinking about foreign policy.

Yaman Al Qadri
Even more encouraging has been the immense call for peace amidst the drums of war. More informed and more interconnected than ever before, our nation and our and global community has less to fear, and therefore can react more rationally. Thousands fasted this past Saturday along with Pope Francis, praying for peace. Despite my initial reaction to the contrary, my own heart was moved against a US militarily intervention in Syria once I heard from people of faith on the ground, including Rt. Rev. Munib A. Younan, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land and from folks at a well attended webinar yesterday organized by Presbyterian World Mission. Such technologies and connections were not nearly as strong twelve years ago, and I firmly believe the Spirit is working through such connections. The idea of Russia, a former enemy of the United States, perhaps being able to broker a deal that at least could take chemical weapons out of the Syrian conflict is profoundly good news and perhaps, an answer to many folks' prayers around the world. It's also important to note, because it's not nearly often enough discussed, the role that women, particularly the young Yaman Al Qadri, have bravely taken in working for peace in Syria, also provides the world with great hope.

On this day, as we look back upon 9/11 and all the lessons learned since then, let us continue to pray for peace in Syria. Even if chemical weapons are taken off the battlefield, there's still such immense suffering. Another rarely noted fact is that sexual violence has become commonplace in the conflict, to the point that rape is primary reason families are fleeing Syria. Let us also however, give thanks that our political leaders allow for nuance, for the possibility of partnering with former enemies to lessen the conflict, and for the immense power of the Spirit working throughout the world to bring peace.

God's peace,

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

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