There to be Destroyed

Syria’s chemical weapons are on their way out to sea, there to be destroyed.

Near the climax of his State of the Union Address on January 28th, president Obama said, “American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.” (Applause.)

Getting rid of Syria’s poison gas weapons peacefully is a huge accomplishment; Syria had one of the largest stores of poison gas weapons in the world, and those in control of these weapons had demonstrated the will to use them even on their own people. Not to mention that Syria borders Israel as well as Lebanon and could have used that poison gas in devastating ways. Now it is all being eliminated; the world is much safer.

Near the end of August, the United States was intending to bomb Syria because of its use of poison gas against its own rebels, thereby crossing president Obama’s announced “red line.” Congress was resistant.

So on September 2, 2013, I posted a blog entry on the Just Peacemaking website that argued as follows:

We all agree that after US bombing, Syria would still possess this huge supply of illegal, people-killing poison gas. Even if the regime itself would never use it again, some of it could fall into the hands of terrorists.

Here is a constructive alternative: remind Syria that the U.S. has destroyed most of its own supplies of poison gas weapons. The U.S. has experts experienced in how to destroy these weapons safely. Ask Syria to let U.S. experts guide the destruction of Syria’s dangerous supply of poison gas weapons. If they do so, then there will be no retaliatory strike.

I named three realistic Syrian interests that could persuade them to accept the offer:

  • Otherwise, Syria will experience a hurtful punitive US bombing attack.
  • Otherwise, Syria needs to worry that rebels could gain possession of some of the poison gas and use it against the regime.
  • Otherwise, Syria is an international criminal, to be opposed by most all other nations.

This blog entry traveled more rapidly and was read by more people, nationally and internationally, than any I have written to date. Which makes me wonder, was my proposal noticed by someone in the State Department? Likely. That person needs to let people know so that Secretary Kerry gets accurate credit. Most Americans think the initiative was a Russian proposal, but Secretary Kerry’s initiative indeed came first, and Mr. Lavrov affirmed it the following day. Only then does president Obama’s celebration in his State of the Union make sense, crediting American diplomacy.

On the weekend of Sept. 8th, Secretary of State John F. Kerry. traveling in Britain, said that Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, could avoid bombing strikes by agreeing to give up his chemical weapons: “He could turn over every bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.”

But Mr. Kerry added a realistic conclusion: “But he isn’t about to do it, obviously.”

I had concluded my blog entry with a similar realistic conclusion:

Of course the likely outcome probably would be that the regime would decline the offer. Then we would be back to where we are now. The punitive strike would proceed. Nothing would be lost by having made the offer. Something would be gained: the world would see that the U.S. is seeking to produce a constructive outcome.

But on Monday, Sept. 9th, Mr. Lavrov of Russia affirmed Secretary Kerry’s proposal. Officials in Syria embraced the idea, as did Britain, France, the United Nations and even some Republican lawmakers in Washington.

The weapons are now on their way out to sea, there to be destroyed.

Knowing, Being, and Doing the Practices that Make for Peace

Editor’s Note: This column first appeared in Tableaux (Our Episcopate) and is used here with permission.

In Luke 19 Jesus, triumphantly “saddled” on coats atop a beast of burden, looks down from the Mount of Olives and across the valley to the temple mount and the old city of Jerusalem. And he weeps. These people, his people, do not know what would make for peace, and doom is imminent.

Jesus is simply reading the signs of the times, which are dominated by the people’s failure to recognize the time of their episcopate, τῆς ἐπισκοπῆς σου, of their ministerial superintendence over a land on loan from God and over people sustained by the breath of God.

Never were these words more poignant for me than when they were read aloud as I stood in that very place, overlooking that very city with its people ensnared in discord. Nearly 60 of us participated in a travel study course that Glen Stassen and I organized through the office of the Just Peacemaking Initiative at Fuller Seminary.

Olives_1Our sojourn in the land revealed centuries of missing the point. Like the church sitting on the traditional site of Jesus’ burial, where the keys have long been entrusted to a reputable Muslim family because the Christian denominations competing for floor space inside could not share that responsibility peacefully. Or like the church sitting on the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, where the exterior doors have all been lowered to about four feet in height to fortify the church against combatants riding horseback (and, I suppose, princes of peace riding donkeys).

The latter part of our trip was spent in the Galilee region, which is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Standing on the banks of the sea, below the Mount of the Beatitudes, I read aloud its homiletical namesake. This moment serves in my memory as a counter-point to the story from the Mount of Olives.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus valorizes those who, even in their lowly state, recognize their episcopate, their ministerial superintendence that demands nothing less than enemy love, forgiveness, humility and personal repentance before calling others to the mat – that is to say, the practices that make for peace. The mere fact that Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount well before his “triumphal entry” may indicate something Continue reading

Turning up the Heat on World Peace

Editor’s Note: A version of this column first appeared in the SEMI (Turning up the Heat on World Peace) and is used here with permission.

I get hangry. At certain times of day, or in definite periods of bodily neglect, a notable edginess creeps into my temperament. Doing her best to support my commitment to peacemaking, my wife Abigail secretly slips snacks into my briefcase and often keeps something else on standby “just in case.

And hanger is only one physiological possibility for throwing me off balance. Graduate students know these phenomena all too well. For instance, students routinely deprive themselves of sleep, trying to burn the last drops of productivity out of the pre-deadline midnight oil. And how does that play out over the next few days? Dull or slow cognition for a day or two following a stress-filled energy binge, at which point caffeine can scarcely sharpen the edge.

Weather can mess with me too. I believed the fables about wonderful weather year-round in southern California for about one month after Abigail and I moved to Pasadena. By late-August that year, the temperature had climbed so high that LA’s official thermometer broke, and we had to buy our first-ever window air-conditioning unit. (I’m from the Midwest, where central air is ubiquitous.) Before that purchase, it had been so hard to sleep that I could hardly think straight.

Far too regularly, I ignore my body’s basic needs, and rarely if ever does this lead to my benefit. Willing as the spirit may be, my flesh has a perilous degree of executive override authority. Perhaps this is why I struggle with the concept of fasting in the Lenten season. If I don’t really take care of myself throughout the year, giving up something simply does not carry the meaning it should. Chronic abuse of one’s own body can create an environment that is not very conducive to growing the Spirit’s fruit.

Not surprisingly, such problems do not diminish as they scale. Continue reading

Westgate Mall, Just Peacemaking, and al-Shabaab

There is no way to explain a tragedy like the mass murder at Nairobi’s Westgate mall. Executing people in such a manner, for which the militant group al-Shabaab is claiming credit, is unspeakably evil.

That said, some historical context may help us understand a bit better how such evil takes root. And it will also help us engage the just peacemaking practice of acknowledging responsibility in what has happened to Somalia.

The dictator Siad Barre ruled Somalia with an iron hand from 1969 to 1991. The abuse of power in the Barre regime was so great that it cultivated a deep distrust of centralized authority. When his government fell, Somalis turned to Islamic revival in lieu of a centralized government. In the mid 2000s an alternative movement called the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) managed to bring relative peace to war-torn Somalia, reducing weapons and even clamping down on piracy off the coast. The ICU had legitimacy in the eyes of the Somali people, because it was perceived as a grassroots movement that was successful in bringing about some stability.

But the US did not trust the ICU, which included both moderate and radical elements. Continue reading

The Initiator Roundup: September 5, 2013

With all of the back-and-forth this week on the possibility of punitive strikes against Syria, I saw the just peacemaking paradigm put to use many times around the web – and invoked, even if not by name, many more times. We have posted two articles to this end this week, one analyzing the course of the civil conflict in Syria and another suggesting a constructive alternative to punitive strikes for the U.S.

Below you will find a couple of links that detail various positions on the Syrian conflict, but also several articles addressing others of our “areas of focus.” For instance, I read Enuma Okoro’s article thinking about the role of “songs of justice” in one’s formation for a life of peacemaking.

I would like to encourage the reader to engage with my take on whatever articles/issues are on tap here and also to let us know what sources we should be following when we’re missing something important. All of this can be done through the comments field below, via our social media channels (e.g., our Facebook fan page and Twitter feed), or in an email to the editor at


August 28, 2013

Enuma Okoro – “The Women Who Sang Out for Civil Rights
Over on the her.meneutics blog, Okoro describes a key contribution of female voices to the civil rights struggle: singing songs out against injustice – a powerful form of truthtelling. Having read Stacey Floyd-Thomas’ book Mining the Motherlode this week, I appreciated Okoro’s description of “moments” in time but also involvement over time as life’s work. “In our day and age, when young women make the news for singing and performing in vulgar, suggestive, and less than life-giving ways, the anniversary of the march is—among many things—a much needed reminder of the transforming power and legacy that women can have with their voices and with song.”

September 3, 2013

Kristopher Aaron – “Back to school means back to worrying
One of my classmates from McAfee School of Theology calls us to return from our summer break to the struggle for sensible laws that address both gun control and mental illness. Encouraging Christians to get involved, Aaron says, “God covets our prayers, but we must do more than pray. It is time for action. The school year has just started. May there not be more dead children and teachers before we do something.”

Jonathan Merritt – “On Syrian conflict, three Christian perspectives
In this post about Christian attitudes toward a punitive strike against Syria, Merritt curates responses from three Christians of different positions on the merits of war. Just Peacemaking is featured prominently, and David P. Gushee offers some thoughts from that angle: “Just peacemaking theory would suggest that the United States should first test the UN’s own principles by taking a case for rigorous international intervention in Syria before the UN Security Council. Show all the evidence. Call for the UN to live up to its own principles. Draft a strong resolution. Only if such a resolution should fail would the US have a case for going it alone.” (Sojourners also posted a multi-response article entitled “The Ethics of a Syrian Military Intervention: The Experts Respond.”)

September 4, 2013

Patrick Lynch – “This September, Ask a NASA Climate Scientist
Throughout the month of September, experts from NASA will be answering questions about climate change and their observations (e.g. via satellites). So go ask them a question! And look for more information soon regarding an event this fall on the subject of extreme weather featuring a scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA.