At the Vatican, peace in Syria gets a chance

Pope Francis reached out to gays, saying he won’t judge priests for their sexual orientation in a news conference Monday. … Continued

Pope Francis reached out to gays, saying he won’t judge priests for their sexual orientation in a news conference Monday. (AP)

Over the past few days, Pope Francis has made it abundantly clear where he and the Catholic Church stand on possible military intervention in Syria.

Through prayer vigils, speeches, letters and the rest, Pope Francis has made the words of his predecessor Pope Paul VI his own: “War never again! never again war!”

Though this time it is being presented with new vigor, Francis’s call for peace is nothing new in the Christian tradition.

Peace, in fact, was the primary purpose of Christ’s ministry on Earth. Our faith teaches us that Jesus Christ came to be the compassion of God, reconciling humanity to himself and to each other.

St. Paul puts it well in his letter to the Ephesians: the greatest gift that Christ gives us is “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.”

But we must careful as we seek to understand Francis’s call for peace.

His call for peace shouldn’t be confused with some kind of laissez-faire pacifism, which does nothing in response to the to suffering of Syrian people. To the contrary, the peace Francis and the church are calling for presupposes human intervention in the face of evil. For 1,500 years, the church has repeated the teaching of Saint Augustine of Hippo on this issue: there is no true peace without justice. Francis himself repeated this truth at last Saturday’s prayer vigil.

Let’s be clear here: to do nothing in the face of the evil is unacceptable. The words of Secretary State John Kerry should ring in our ears: “[t]he indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable.”

He’s right: it is inexcusable, and the pope and the church believe that the world must respond.

But Pope Francis believes we must respond creatively and is asking us to reconsider the way we approach this horror:

“Is it possible to change direction? Can we get out of this spiral of sorrow and death? Can we learn once again to walk and live in the ways of peace?”

Critics argue that this approach is worthless in the face of continued violence. They believe that the church’s response of fasting and prayer will do nothing to alter the situation in Syria.

That’s nonsense. Throughout world history, there has been examples of religious prophets using creative, non-violent tactics to overcome injustice and evil.

Within the past century, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and John Paul II have shown us that good people can win a war without raising a hand.

Jesus Christ himself taught us how to overcome evil without violence. Jesus teaches again and again in the parables how to outsmart those who wish us and our society ill will.

And with the recent shift towards a diplomatic approach in Syria, I can’t help but wonder if the church’s global prayer and fasting hasn’t done something to shift history.

But let’s not be naive: authentic peace isn’t easy. It is not a gift for those who do nothing, and it must never be confused for pacifism or quietism. Experience tells us that authentic peace is reserved for societies who work for justice.

As we discern the correct worldwide response to the evil in Syria, the church is asking leaders to respond, but to respond in a new way.

If diplomatic progress continues and we can somehow manage to navigate this situation without perpetuating more violence, then we will know the angel Gabriel was right: “nothing is impossible with God.”

Christopher Hale, a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, is the co-founder of Millennial. He helped lead national Catholic outreach for President Obama’s re-election campaign. You can follow him on Twitter @chrisjollyhale.

Christopher Hale
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