In the wake of President Barack Obama’s call for military action in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, several United Methodist groups have responded in opposition to proposed attacks.
Earlier this week the Peace with Justice work area of the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) issued an action alert urging United Methodists across the connection to contact their members of congress to not authorize the military strike and instead support vigorous peace negotiations. Mark Harrison, the Director of the Peace with Justice Program for GBCS, said that this action alert was based on current United Methodist teaching in the 2012 Book of Discipline, in which war is declared to be “…incompatible with Christian teaching…” and states that United Methodists “…reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy…” (2012 UM Book of Discipline ¶165C). Harrison acknowledged that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government is “abhorrent,” but suggested that the choice between bombing and impunity is a false choice. “Only a political solution to the conflict in Syria will end the suffering of its people,” he said.
Mark Tooley, president of The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) and a lifelong United Methodist, was critical of the GBCS action. “GBCS for decades has espoused a strictly pacifist stance that ignores Methodist tradition and most church members,while only selectively citing the Social Principles,” Tooley said. ”Its recent letter on Syria with radical secular groups like Code Pink was embarrassing. Maybe under new leadership GBCS will more seriously engage the ethics of war and peace.”
In a similar action the Board of Church and Society of the North Texas Annual Conference issued a letter to the churches of that annual conference expressing their opposition to the proposed attacks and to call all United Methodists to a special time of prayer about the situation. The board stated that they “unequivocally oppose the use of any military force in Syria.” They wrote:
“We do not believe in the false choice between military strikes and passivity, instead, we believe that there is a third way modeled by Christ that resists violence and evil without resorting to violence. In particular, we believe that more time is needed to pursue alternative, creative responses to the conflict, and to allow the prayers of the world for peace to do their work.”
The Rev. Wes Magruder, board chair, said that the board’s hope in issuing the letter was that it might be read and used in worship on Sunday, September 8, 2013. “We think it’s important for United Methodists to be in prayer for our leaders,” Magruder said. “We’ve been seeing a growing opposition to the attacks in our area,” he said, “and we believe it’s important for our church to make a public witness on the issue.”
The GBCS action alert also refers to an earlier letter sent in late July to President Obama from 24 Christian faith leaders (including United Methodist Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, the Ecumenical Officer of the United Methodist Council of Bishops). This letter urges the President to pursue diplomatic approaches to addressing the Syrian civil war. They wrote:
We urge you to refrain from the provision of military assistance to forces involved in the conflict in Syria. Military involvement will only further escalate an already brutal war and will, in fact, undermine the prospect of negotiations to ensure a just and sustainable future for all Syrians. Rather, the U.S. should call for all parties to cease all military activities in Syria and work urgently to de-escalate the crisis, together with other actors in the region and beyond.
Although critical of the GBCS response, Tooley of The IRD recognizes the difficulty that the United States faces in responding to the Syrian crisis. In a statement to The United Methodist Reporter, Tooley wrote:
Syria has a cruel, lawless regime backed by Shiite jihadists from Iran and Hezbollah and is opposed by an opposition that includes Sunni jihadists aligned with al Qaeda ideology. U.S. intervention at this late point in the 2 year conflict may not be helpful, especially since U.S. officials speak of it only as a signal rather than decisive action. Just War teaching requires clear intent and some prospect for success. Tragically the killing will continue under every likely scenario. Christians need to pray of course, especially for Syria’s churches, and discern how we can live faithfully in a fallen world where conflict is common.
The GBCS action alert can be read at http://umc-gbcs.org/press-releases/peace-with-justice-action-alert-oppose-u.s.-military-attack-on-syria. The North Texas Annual Conference Board of Church and Society letter is available at http://goo.gl/T1JJ05