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Irony of ironies: Honoring King, then entertaining a potential strike on Syria

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Hours after delivering a speech honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., President Obama was on PBS' "NewsHour" talking about a possible military strike in Syria.

The same day America honored the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, remembered mostly for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, America’s first black president, who had just delivered a great speech in honor of King’s dream, appeared on PBS' "NewsHour" to discuss potential military strikes in Syria.

stewart
Rev. Gordon C. Stewart

King was as deeply committed to peace and to nonviolent, nonmilitary solutions to global problems as he was to ending racism. As his analysis of the national, international and human condition continued to develop, he became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, capitalism, and imperialism. He grasped as well as any public figure of his time, and of ours, the insidious institutional power of an unelected, undemocratic web of the economic-military-corporate complex at work behind the scenes of American public life.

President Barack Obama’s speech from the same spot where where King had stood 50 years before at the March on Washington was a potential seminal moment of American history. To view the president’s "NewsHour" interview later in the day regarding Syria was to see a great contradiction to that potential. I couldn’t put together the president’s honoring of King’s dream just hours earlier with his entertainment of military action in Syria. For whatever reason, the media did not seem to notice the incongruity and the irony.

The "NewHour" also featured a conversation among foreign-policy experts about the advisability of “punishing” Syria for crossing the red line of chemical weapons. University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer’s raised the gravest voice of caution: “Stay out militarily.” He also reminded the other two panelists and the viewing audience that the United States is the only nation ever to have dropped the bomb. The world has not forgotten. 

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to national prominence because he issued a clarion call for the dawning of the City of Peace in the midst of the City of Cain, the city of bloodshed. In King’s view you can never get to the City of Peace by means of the methods of the City of Cain: violence, the lex talionis, or worse.

Something else is called for before we act

Ethical decisions, in personal life or in international affairs, are rarely simple. Our hearts go out to the innocent children, women and men who died from chemical weapons in Syria. We want to be our brother’s and sister’s keepers. We want to help. We want to stop it. That sense of compassion is as it should be. All hearts should break over this horror. But something else is called for before we act on the impulses of the compassion.

It is also worth remembering who it was that first asked the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It was Cain, who made the statement to God to put the blame for his own homicide back on the One who held him responsible for the senseless murder of his brother Abel in a fit of anger. “Sin is crouching at your door, and you must master it.” King and others who choose the methods of nonviolent resistance to great tragedies like the one in Syria interpret the instruction to Cain — you must master your anger — as the instruction to master one’s own knee-jerk retaliatory response. Patience is required. Taming the lion that crouches at our own door is a chief task of becoming genuinely human.

For King, Mohandas Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and a host of un-noted, anonymous souls, the way of violence, even in behalf of the good, represents a failure to tame the lion crouching at our door and further entrenches the City of Cain.

Beyond the philosophical-ethical-theological considerations are other facts. The “red line” of chemical weapons is one that was crossed years ago. It was crossed in Vietnam. A trip to the nearest Veterans Hospital is a humbling reminder. It was the United States that used Agent Orange and Napalm in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as part of Operation Ranch Hand. Our hands are not clean. As much as we might like, we do not speak from moral high ground. We have already crossed the red line. The moral finger we point toward Syria points back at us. To unleash even the most minimal, narrowly targeted cruise-missile strike on Syria from a warship from the coast of a tinder-box  in a far off place is like throwing out a boomerang expecting that it will not return to us in retributive violence. As King understood so well, violence begets violence.

Confounding factors

As if that were not enough, the struggle in the Middle East is confounded by another form of political-economic-cultural-religious-military violence: the American corporate presence in the oil fields, arranged by American and Saudi elites (Sunni Muslims), and the expropriation through the United Nations of Bedouin Arab land to create a homeland for the survivors of the holocaust of World War II Germany. The intent, so far as the general public was concerned, was compassion. Provide a safe place, a homeland. But the homeland belonged to someone else when the United Nations expropriated it for the creation of the State of Israel, and the Arab world has never forgotten the way it happened.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” drove popular sentiment to support the creation of Israel. Why the homeland was not carved out of Germany or perhaps France is an interesting question. Or why the United States did not carve out of our vast geography a territory in the United States of America as a safe haven, is a question long since ignored by nations who thought they were taking the moral ground but not forgotten by Palestinians, Shiites, and most of the Middle East.

Those questions aside, Israel today is a sovereign state in the midst of an Arab world that resents its presence, the history of its creation, and the United States as its most faithful ally and supporter.

And behind it all stands a military-industrial-technological-corporate complex that feeds on mistakes like Iraq and Afghanistan, and the question of whether we are our brother’s keeper, responsible to play policeman to the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. never lunched on the food at the lunch counter of the military-industrial-technological-corporate complex. Nor should we. Neither should the President. Neither should Congress.

The Abel Project: We are the World

An alternative to a military response with potential catastrophic consequences for the Middle East and for us is the neglected methodology of nonviolent, passive resistance by which King and Gandhi changed the world.

If we and the rest of the world believe in the City of Peace and wish to redeem the blood of Abel in the City of Cain, let the recording artists of the world — with the full support of the United Nations, the Vatican, the World Council of Churches (Orthodox and Protestant Christians), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and international Jewish organizations representing the spectrum of Judaism — lift the people’s voice so clearly across the world that it cannot be ignored.

Call it “The Abel Project” – named for the figure who was lost to the world whose blood still cries out to God from the ground.

Let there be candlelight vigils of prayer for an end to the way of Cain in Syria. Let the lighted candles around the world make their own statement that we, the people of the world, led by the three warring children of Abraham and Sarah (Jews, Christians, and Muslims), stand for the transformation of the City of Cain into the City of Peace.

The president can contribute to that effort, but he must not attempt do it alone.

Unleashing the potential of a worldwide vigil in the spirit of “We are the World” must rely on the untapped power of the United Nations as a force for peaceful resolution, the original dream that inspired its charter. He must do it not only with our closest allies in the West but with the leaders of nations that resent our history in the Middle East and Southeast Asia who are suspicious of American saber-rattling from the Western presumption of moral high ground. The voice of the world must include the two warring branches of Islam — Sunni and Shiite — whose tensions and hatreds also lie at the center of the conflict in Syria and most of the Middle Eastern Arab States.

If he does, the irony between the Aug. 28, 2013, commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the poor people’s march on Washington and the evening news will resolve itself in a new decision to honor the legacy of the fallen witness to the power of nonviolent resistance and the power of love as the only method and power that ever really change the City of Cain. For the sake of Abel, our slain ancestral brother, let the candles be lit across the world.

The Rev. Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska. He writes “Views from the Edge: Social Commentary with Gordon C. Stewart.”

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Comments (9)

Marvelous article by Rev. Stewart

Attacking Syria makes no sense whether or not you advocate non violence.

Don't hold your breath, Reverand

This is all about Barack Obama saving face.

Well said !!

In "Costs of War", a study carefully ignored by the propaganda machine, at the Brown University site http://news.brown.edu/pressreleases/2013/03/warcosts and also at http://costsofwar.org/, the full extent of deaths as well as economic costs arising from our foreign adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan are reported.

Are we genuinely concerned about the deaths of innocent civilians in the Middle East ? Read the data from this study and see just who is doing the most such killing. It is WE who have been responsible for the vast majority of the killing of innocents in war in our time.

In addition to the 330,000 deaths DIRECTLY attributed to these U.S. wars, the report notes that this does not include indirectly caused deaths, which may total "many hundreds of thousands more." So how many deaths have our conflicts caused, directly AND indirectly ? A million ? More ? We'll never know exactly.

So if we as a nation are genuinely so anguished by the deaths of innocents, let's start by changing OUR OWN policies, right here in the good ole USA. Let's stop killing people in pursuit of our fabricated illusion that we are in control of history, that we are to be the saviors of the innocent. It would benefit the innocent much more if our own policies and actions were the focus of our attention.

Otherwise, let's admit that we're really not all that anguished about all this killing, whether of innocents or not, and despite the orchestrated dissemblance of President Obama. Directing our outrage to external parties just makes us feel better, it is a palliative. The cognitive dissonance that Rev. Stewart remarks upon is a sure sign that the public claims are not made of whole cloth.

Excellent!

Whether or not one is a Christian, Stewart captures well the best reasons for not pursuing a military strike.

A very small number of people

A very small number of people were involved in the decision to use and the use of chemical weapons.

And somehow we will punish those people by...by what?

Bomb unrelated sites because we can't risk the bombing of chemical weapons storage facilities? Bomb the offices and buildings of people not at the top of the chain because we cannot risk the success of the dangerous people in the rebellion? Obviously, the decision was made at he top of the command chain, so we will hurt anyone but the decision makers on the chemical weapons use.

This has the unpleasant tinge of "collective punishment", and as such, is surely morally reprehensible.

Let's be realistic

“To bomb or not to bomb” Syria is a very legitimate question and should definitely be a subject to a vigorous discussion. I personally don’t have a formed opinion yet. But religion should never be a part of that discussion or a basis for political decisions in general. Neither should the compassion, or desire to punish, or the fact that America has used the Bomb before (many people, including myself, believe that it was the right decision that ultimately saved many lives). The decisions must be based on short and long term American political and economic interests and nothing else.

Of course, suggesting a worldwide vigil as a way to fight the violence is, unfortunately, laughable. It never worked and never will. Killing people is what dictators like Assad do for living (literally). Thinking otherwise is a childish naiveté which belongs to kindergarten, not to politics.

Oh, by the way, for those who don’t know, Israel was formed where it was formed because that is where it always had been well before Islam came into existence. And, America at the time modern Israel was created was not its big supporter. Knowing some history is always helpful.

Realistic?

Gordon Stewart's article is filled with options for realistic discussion. Unfortunately M. Gutman has chosen insult rather than discussion. Since the argument for intervention has been presented by the president as a moral one, certainly morality is an appropriate part of the discussion. Yes, given his professional role, Pastor Stewart has included a Genesis story as a means of conveying his position. Religious or not, because the Cain/Abel story (myth) is common parlance to the Abrahamic traditions, it has the advantage of conveying an immediate message for the many who are familiar with it. I'm not sure M. Gutman understood the purpose of that reference in this article. To summarize, I agree that religion should probably not be a basis for decision-making in this situation - or any for our nation, but morality, by the president's definition if nothing else, is.

As for compassion. Isn't that exactly the emotion the president is trying to evoke in arguing that we cannot let a dictator get away with chemical attacks against his own people?

To suggest a non-violent resolution is "laughable" because violence is what dictators do? Strange reasoning. Or because it has never been done before? I hate to think what our world would be like if we never reached out to do something different. Certainly non-violence has worked in many historical situations. We just celebrated one.

Know one's history? Then one knows that Israel was formed in an area it has claimed historically, right where the Palestinians were currently living because they too have a historical claim. To know one's history is to know the complexities. (Maybe we could solve the immigration question by returning to Mexico those parts of our country which we have in the past annexed by force.)

Historical evidence is powerful in supporting the view that violence leads to violence. In other words, there may be better problem-solving approaches. Rushing to violence prevents careful consideration of alternatives

Yes, realistic

I hope my letter was not construed as a full support for the current president’s position. I specifically said that I have not made up my mind even though bombing Syria will make much more sense than bombing Yugoslavia and Libya. But president’s arguments notwithstanding, morality and compassion, as any feelings, should play the least role in politics, especially in international politics. Political decisions must be rational and based on facts and consequences; feelings should be left for families.

I do not know of any cases when non-violence worked in dealing with brutal dictators. In fact, if I remember correctly, that is how this whole situation started in Syria – non-violent demonstrations that were met by violence from Assad. I also wonder what would have happened if Nazi’s violence were not met with violence. Other options? They tried them in Munich.

Now we can get back to history. Both Arabs and Jews lived in what was British Mandate of Palestine at the time the UN partitioned the land between both peoples so both historical claims were satisfied. Jews accepted partition; Arabs did not. In this case, it is not too complicated.

Partition

Jews were happy accept that piece of Palestinian land, and the Palestinians were not happy to lose it. The Arabs still aren't happy as Israel dominates the region and its scarce water with US help. It is a permanent sore spot which plagues US foreign policy.