Commentary by Patrick Scriven
Like many Americans, I consume the morning news while I’m eating my breakfast and getting ready for the day. I’ve gotten used to a certain level of drama in both news coverage and presidential tweeting; the sky can only be falling for so many days before you grow a bit numb.
Still, yesterday’s tweet by President Trump threatening that missiles “will be coming” to Syria, was a bit disconcerting even to my news-jaded soul. Subsequent reporting that this tweet caught some of his staff, and our closest allies, off guard didn’t provide any comfort.
On our PNW Facebook page this week (don’t get me started about Mark Zuckerberg), I posted an article from the Lewis Center on electronic giving trends in churches. It brought up a bad memory for a Vietnam vet who had been very active in one of our churches as a youth, and had even considered going to seminary. He shared that when he got to Vietnam he struggled to reconcile killing with the Sixth Commandment (Thou shalt not kill.) finally writing his pastor to ask for help. In response he received “an IBM punch card to complete to give 10% of [his] Army salary.”
I have no words.
As a young man I too struggled with the absolutes of scripture, but I was fortunate that this specific question could largely remain an intellectual exercise. I was fresh out of seminary when 9/11 occurred, but I wasn’t on the front lines anywhere. And while I experienced much of the fear most Americans felt, I didn’t lose any family or personal friends. I’m not trying to answer this question here, but I want to honor that it is complicated and I’d be foolish to do it alone.
Christianity has rich theological perspectives to offer on war and peace, military service and some of the other questions raised by the terrible news out of Syria. Our United Methodist tradition reflects and embraces theological diversity throughout its Social Principles, leaving significant room for faithful disagreement while defining some edges. For example, in a section on Military Service the Social Principles state:
“We honor the witness of pacifists who will not allow us to become complacent about war and violence. We also respect those who support the use of force, but only in extreme situations and only when the need is clear beyond reasonable doubt, and through appropriate international organizations.”
I don’t mention our President’s tweet in this commentary to be divisive but I do hope this moment can be instructive. The world is a complicated, and sometimes terrible, place. The innocent people of Douma – men, women and children – deserve our attention. We shouldn’t be comfortable with their suffering or the use of chemical weapons against them; righteous anger is no sin.
And yet the world also deserves our thoughtfulness to explore all possibilities, and our willingness to do the hard work of building coalitions to stand against those who do what is evil. We are all guilty, from time to time, of the thoughtless (re)action but we need leaders, and we each need to become people, who do not fire off reckless words. This is as true in the Church (maybe more so) as it is in the world of international politics.
To be capable of grace in difficult situations, we need to prepare ourselves. Leaders who can surface nuanced, grounded answers at a time of crisis, or have comfort living with questions, have always done their homework in advance. If we are serious about being peacekeepers, we can start by engaging the work that so many saints have passed down to us as they have wrestled with points of incongruence over many centuries.
United Methodists in the PNW Conference have an upcoming opportunity as the Rev. Dr. Clayton Childers, Conference Relations for the General Board of Church and Society, leads workshops on our Social Principles in two locations this spring (April 14 – Federal Way; May 12 – Spokane Valley). Even if these aren’t options available to you, a study of the Social Principles might be a fantastic way for your local church to begin to think about some of these big issues.
And United Methodists across the Greater Northwest Area have numerous opportunities over the coming months to engage across difference with hearts of peace at Table Talk conversations. I hope you’ll consider attending one.
May we each embrace the role Jesus would have for us as bearers of peace.
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be.
With God as our Father, siblings all are we.
Let us walk with each other, in perfect harmony.
p.s. In a moment of serendipity, this morning the General Board of Church and Society released a Draft of a Revised Version of the Social Principles; here is a link to the press release. So, now you can couple any study your local church might do with the opportunity to offer feedback!
Patrick Scriven serves as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.